Early Women Filmmakers: The Career of Muriel Box

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This post was written for the Early Women Filmmakers Blogathon, hosted by Movies Silently and sponsored by Flicker Alley’s Early Women Filmmakers boxed set, available May 9! Be sure to check out the host blog for more great articles about women filmmakers, and the Blu/DVD set for a chance to discover their work.

While some of film’s strongest and most interesting roles for women came to the screen in the early to mid-20th century, behind-the-camera opportunities for women in the era of classic film were few and far between. The names of many of Hollywood’s pioneering women are now well-known by film buffs: Mary Pickford, Dorothy Arzner, Ida Lupino. These women busted through glass ceilings and broke new ground. While they didn’t always get the respect they deserved in the time that they were passionately working, their films are sought out and often admired by today’s viewers.

And then there are names like Muriel Box. I forgive you if your first thought upon reading this name is, “Who?” I personally had never heard of her until 2013, when I discovered her work as screenwriter through the 1948 film Easy Money. It was the fantastic 1947 thriller Dear Murderer that really got me interested in her work. Devotees of the Academy Awards may also recognize her as an Original Screenplay winner for the 1945 film The Seventh Veil.

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A screenshot from a TMP favorite, 1947’s Dear Murderer, co-written by Muriel Box (Screen capture by Lindsey for TMP)

Often co-writing with her husband Sydney* (as was the case with all three of the above-mentioned pictures), Muriel would also go on to direct nearly twenty films.

*Sydney was surrounded by strong, talented women. His sister, Betty Box, became a very successful producer, helping to cement Dirk Bogarde’s star status with Doctor in the House.

Before any of her success, Muriel was just a girl with a dream. Born in 1905, she developed a passion for the arts at a young age, according to her biography on BFI Screenonline. After failing to find stardom as an actress or dancer, Muriel remained dedicated to the arts and took low-level positions (such as “continuity girl”) in the British film industry.

In 1935, she married the writer Sydney Box, and the two encouraged one another’s talents. Before bringing those talents to the movie business through Sydney’s production company Verity Films, the pair collaborated on nearly forty stage plays.

It was through Verity Films that Muriel took her first turn as director, going behind the camera on the 1941 documentary short The English Inn.

For the next several years, Muriel would focus on screenwriting before making her directorial feature film debut with 1949’s The Lost People, co-directed with Bernard Knowles.

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Muriel behind the camera! (Image via The Telegraph)

Bit by the directing bug, she would helm 14 more films (one short and 13 features) before retiring from the movie business in 1964.* Many of these directorial efforts were films that she co-wrote herself. She was a woman of many talents, and seemed never to sell herself short, continuing to write throughout most of her directorial career.

*BFI’s biography states that after leaving the film industry, Muriel wrote novels and set up her own successful feminist publishing house, Femina Books!

Taking advantage of independent production opportunities rather than relying on traditional channels, many of Muriel’s directorial opportunities were through Sydney Box’s London Independent Producers.

The following is a list of all of the films Muriel Box directed. I have noted those she wrote or co-wrote herself, as well as those written by fellow woman screenwriters.

  • The English Inn (1941)
  • The Lost People (1949)
    • Play and screenplay written by Bridget Boland
  • Mr. Lord Says No (1952)
    • Co-written by Muriel with Sydney Box
  • Both Sides of the Law (1953)
    • Co-written by Muriel with Sydney Box
  • A Prince for Cynthia (Short, 1953)
  • The Beachcomber (1954)
  • Cash on Delivery (1954)
  • Simon and Laura (1955)
  • Eyewitness (1956)
    • Original screenplay written by Janet Green
  • A Novel Affair (1957)
    • Co-written by Muriel with Sydney Box
  • The Truth About Women (1957)
    • Co-written by Muriel with Sydney Box
  • Subway in the Sky (1959)
  • This Other Eden (1959)
    • Screenplay written by actress/writer Blanaid Irvine with Patrick Kirwan
  • Too Young to Love (1960)
    • Co-written by Muriel with Sydney Box
    • Based on a play by Elsa Shelley
  • The Piper’s Tune (1962)
  • Rattle of a Simple Man (1964)

Talented as she may have been, and though she was able to build a decent-sized filmography, Muriel Box’s career illustrates an enormous problem that is all too common among early women filmmakers: Her films are nowhere near accessible.

A search of Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Video, Warner Archive Instant, and FilmStruck reveals that in the US, the only readily available streaming title from Muriel’s filmography is The Seventh Veil, that Oscar-winning co-write with Sydney. (As of publishing time, it can be watched on FilmStruck’s Criterion Channel or rented on Amazon.) Amazon offers third-party-peddled DVD copies of Simon and Laura and Eyewitness on DVD, and The Beachcomber can be found in the Donald Sinden Collection, but the majority of the films Muriel directed are only available on VHS or imported formats.

This lack of accessibility is, of course, upsetting as a fan. I’ve seen Eyewitness and several of the films Muriel wrote, but the chances of me being able to watch her complete filmography are slim to none. Additionally, wider availability of films by Muriel and other filmmakers like her would promote the role of women in film history, and offer inspiration to today’s aspiring female filmmakers. Flicker Alley’s Early Women Filmmakers set, while not including any of Muriel’s films in particular, is very much a step in the right direction toward preserving the legacies and work of these women.

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Directed by Muriel Box, 1956’s Eyewintess was also written by a woman, British screenwriter/playwright Janet Green. (Image via impawards.com)

And where you preserve one woman filmmaker’s legacy, you are often preserving the work (and consequently, the perspectives) of many. Totaled up, including Muriel’s own writing contributions, exactly half of her films (8 of the 16) were written or co-written by women. In Muriel’s case, this was not likely a coincidence; an article from The Guardian describes Muriel as a “passionate feminist,” as evidenced by her films, their content, and her publishing company.

Similar to the career of Ida Lupino, Muriel’s creative output (both written and directorial) often dealt with controversial themes and and varied female characters. For example, 1953’s Both Sides of the Law (also known as Street Corner) portrays the experience of woman police officers in London. Too Young to Love explores the issues of sexually transmitted infections and abortion in teenage relationships.

Screenwriter, director, novelist, publisher, collaborator: Muriel Box had a varied, fascinating career. While her directorial filmography is somewhat difficult to explore, I highly recommend watching Eyewitness (1956) if you can find it on DVD, as well as her easier-to-find screenwriting credits, especially Dear Murderer (1947).

 

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14 thoughts on “Early Women Filmmakers: The Career of Muriel Box

  1. Thanks so much for joining in! There are so many amazing women who seem to get lost in the shuffle of history (not helped by the fact that their films are comparatively unavailable) and I appreciate you sharing Box’s career with us.

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    • I’m always excited to research a classic film I’ve watched, to learn it was written by a woman. The fact that Dorothy not only had a successful writing career but directed and started a publishing house gives me such an immense respect for her. She really forged her own path and seems to have helped others along the way, too. I discovered her by chance and am happy to be able to spread the word about her! Thanks again for hosting this fantastic blogathon!

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  2. I admit it: I saw Muriel Box’s name and thought, “Who?” I’m glad there’s no judgement on your website, Lindsey. ;)

    Hers is an impressive filmography, and it really is a shame so few of her films are available. Hollywood seems to be coming around to the idea of hiring more women directors, now we need them to see the value of honouring those in its own history.

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    • I would love to see that happen. If only I knew how/had the money to make it happen myself, haha. The release of this new Flicker Alley set is a good sign, though. I hope other DVD distributors and those who own the rights to the films will follow suit!

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  3. I’ve heard of Muriel Box (it’s the kind of name that sticks in your mind), but I didn’t realize she had directed so many films, not to mention writing even more than that. If I ever come across any of her work (maybe on TCM, if not on disc or streaming), I’ll be sure to check it out. Thanks for writing about her!

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  4. Whoa, whoa, whoa! I loved the review, and reading about a prolific and interesting filmmaker I’d never heard of before, but…did you just call a script supervisor a ‘low-level position’? The outrage! But hey, I’ll forgive you this time! ;-)

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    • I wasn’t shading the position of script supervisor! With a title like “continuity girl,” you’ve gotta admit, she likely wasn’t treated with as much respect as she should’ve been. Whenever “girl” is used to refer to a grown woman (in this case, a grown woman saving the asses of the production’s higher-ups by preventing/fixing their mistakes), there tends to be a devaluation going on. She wouldn’t have been seen as being in a position of prestige on her UK film sets, despite the importance of her work.

      And hey, it IS a lower-level position than her career heights as director! Haha

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      • Well, as long as you put it that way, yes, I agree! I think it’s funny when I watch old films, and see ‘continuity girl’ in the credits…why was there never a ‘continuity boy’? Maybe after the first male worked the position, they changed the title to script supervisor. And trust me, at times I wasn’t treated with much respect, either!

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        • I read that was the case in the U.K. (where Muriel lived/worked) — male script supervisors were virtually unheard of until the ’50s/’60s, at which point the title became “script supervisor” — for them, at least! In many cases, “continuity girl” was still used to describe women as the role became less female-dominated.

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  5. That was a nice survey of Muriel Box’s career. I had heard of her as a writer but didn’t know she was a director, too. “Similar to the career of Ida Lupino, Muriel’s creative output (both written and directorial) often dealt with controversial themes…” And controversial themes were Dorothy Davenport’s way into directing as well. I suppose controversy was easier to sell. Good essay.

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