Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957) is in many ways a ground-breaking film for British cinema in the 1950s. It deals with themes which prefigure the New Wave movement of the following decade, which made big stars out of the likes of Albert Finney, Richard Harris and Tom Courtenay among others; yet unlike the majority of these it is set in London rather than the North or Midlands, and features women as characters who, ultimately, prove strong and acquire self-knowledge. Leading lady Yvonne Mitchell, who plays the central character Amy Preston, won a Silver Bear for Best Actress at the 7th Berlin International Film Festival in the same year, although she never went on to become a major star; nevertheless her performance was accomplished and ahead of its time in many ways.
J. Lee Thompson, who directed, had a string of “kitchen sink” dramas in the fifties, which broadly coincided with similar developments in the theatre, notably John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger which premiered at the Royal Court in 1956. These included The Yellow Balloon (1953), The Weak and the Wicked (1954) and 1956′s Yield to the Night which starred Diana Dors as a murderer awaiting death by hanging, and generally agreed to be based on the real life story of Ruth Ellis. Thompson later went on to enjoy success in Hollywood, but this clutch of films is interesting in the way in which they feature female characters prominently.
The basic storyline of Woman in a Dressing Gown is as old as the hills: a long married couple, woman confined to the home whilst the man is out in the world, glamorous young female work colleague; and the inevitable happens. “Jimbo” Preston (Anthony Quayle), Amy’s husband, falls for the young and available Georgie Harlow (Sylvia Sims) with whom he shares an office at the timber merchants where they both work. We can surely guess how this will all end.
From the start of the film, which pans in from a view of London strangely bereft of cars to the newish post-war council estate where the Prestons live with their teenage son Brian (Anthony Ray), we are quickly acquainted with the chaos which engulfs Amy and those in her wake. Dressed in the eponymous dressing gown, she flits from one thing to another; rescuing burnt toast, misplacing the tea caddy, and serving up an overdone and shrivelled fried egg. Stacks of unironed clothes are piled everywhere, whilst the radio blares out dance music at a volume which makes it difficult for anyone in the flat to think clearly, let alone converse.
Amy is, however, a trier and we are under no illusion that her motives are anything other than well intentioned. She bustles into the bedroom with a tray on which her less than appetising breakfast is balanced precariously, only to find that Jim is already up and about. He and Brian meet in the bathroom, and a close and loving relationship is evident between father and son. When she presses Jimbo as to why he is up and about so early on a Sunday, he reminds her that he has to work “again” as a consignment of timber is due in which requires checking. Amy hasn’t listened to him. Amy’s constant stream of chatter makes it difficult for her to listen to anyone. Jim mitigates her evident disappointment that they will be unable to go out together; something to which she had been looking forward – with a promise that they will go to the pub that evening and that she should have her “best bib and tucker” on for the occasion.
Jim, we soon discover, is most definitely not headed for work but to the basement flat of his lover Georgie, where he spends an idyllic Sunday and even manages to carve the roast dinner between bouts of lovemaking during which both parties remain fully clothed. The symbolism of domestic settings in Woman in a Dressing Gown is powerful: Georgie’s flat is neat, ordered quiet and uncluttered compared to the chaos of Jim’s family home. The imagery, however, has a darker side. The basement setting of Georgie’s flat mirrors the subterfuge and hidden nature of their relationship, whilst his own flat is above ground in a block. When Jimbo leaves home in the morning it is in bright sunshine; whilst he and Georgie are engaged in their furtive assignation, the rain buckets down outside, as it does frequently when they are together. Before leaving to return home, Jim is told in no uncertain terms by Georgie that he must tell his wife about their relationship, that he must leave her for him. Jim’s dilemma is that, besotted as he is with Georgie and flattered by her attention, he clearly still retains strong feelings for Amy which go beyond mere habit. However, he promises to do so.
Amy suspects nothing. In many ways she is a complete innocent. She seems vaguely aware that her frantic bustling in the house achieves nothing, but whenever challenged, jokingly or otherwise, by Jim or Brian, she laughs it off and reiterates how she has been up and busy since seven o’clock. When Jim tells her in the pub that Sunday evening that he has something important to tell her, her attention is held only for a split second before being distracted by the arrival of neighbours Hilda and Harold. Jimbo fails to tell Amy his news and incurs Georgie’s wrath the next day at work. She fails to meet up with him for lunch, and then informs him she has been offered a job elsewhere and that she is minded to take it. After work, she becomes even angrier and it is evident that we are witnessing an ongoing cycle of events: they have clearly been here before, but this time Georgie puts her foot down firmly. She and Jim are reconciled, but on the clear understanding that this is his last chance to tell Amy, although, when they repair to the pub after this confrontation, she informs Jim, or Preston as she calls him, that she would not have had the heart to take the other job and thereby leave him.
Amy has had one of her periodic, if unsuccessful, attempts to pull herself together. Ironically, the next scene finds her talking to Hilda, who is bemoaning the actions of her husband Harold, and asserting that all men are selfish. “Not Jimbo”, replies Amy. with an innocence tugs at the heartstrings of we who know better. “He may be all sorts of things, but he isn’t selfish.” So she makes a big effort, in her own terms, to have his tea ready for him when he returns home. The ubiquitous frying pan works overtime as she cooks him plaice and chips but of course it is burned: her new method of making crispy chips has made them very crispy indeed. She pours Jim a glass of beer she has bought specially but manages to overflow most of most of it in an effusion of froth. Initially Jim laughs resignedly and it is plain that he still feels a great of affection for his wife. However, the combination of the wistful Tchaikovsky music from the radio and the piles of unironed clothes tip him over the edge and he loses his cool big time.
“Either finish the damned ironing or put it away,” he rails, adding that just once it would be nice to come back to a tidy home. It seems that this is the only way that Jim can tell Amy that he wants a divorce, and eventually he does. Once the words are out a bizarre kind of calm descends upon the flat. We begin to view Amy is a new light: she exhibits a kind of self-knowledge, an awareness of her faults and sloppiness that has been there all along. She guesses with whom Jimbo is having an affair. She muses on how one reads about this kind of thing without ever guessing it could happen to you. Yet in the midst of this self-knowledge, there remains an equal amount of naivety; whilst fully aware of the situation, she immediately begins to chatter and to come up with simplistic solutions and assertions. “It’ll all be all right, I know it will.” Once again, the undone ironing and the domestic clutter becomes a metaphor for the failed marriage.
In the middle of their awkward discussion, Brian and his girlfriend arrive home and both parents put on a show of normality as the teenagers dance to some “really groovy” traditional jazz. For Amy, it is all too much, and she faints in the kitchen as the kettle whistles and the scene becomes blurry. Jim puts her to bed, and, before retiring himself, arranges the covers and fusses over her. In the morning, Amy awakes early and reciprocates these gestures to a sleeping Jim, before finishing the ironing, cleaning the flat, and preparing flawless bacon and eggs for the family. If only the place is clean, surely Jim will want to stay. Her desperation is plain as she follows him out of the house onto the communal landing and pleads with him loudly, desperate for reassurance. Later in the day she forms a plan and telephones Jim at work, insisting that he brings Georgie home with him that night in order that they can discuss things in a civilised fashion.
The next part of the film contains such an inevitably tragic sequence of events that is genuinely difficult to watch with dispassion. Amy plans to win Jim back. She borrows money from Brian, pawns her wedding ring, has her hair done and buys a half-bottle of whisky. The hand of fate does not take long to intervene: she leaves the off licence just as a torrential downpour drenches her. She returns home and tries on her best “special” dress, only to rip it beyond repair. Hilda comes in and persuades her all men are worthless and that they should drink the whisky themselves. Amy is quickly drunk. She still attempts to lay the table, but one of its leaves crashes to the ground along with plates and cutlery. Amy collapses. Brian arrives home and panics at the sight of his mother in this state. Jim and Georgie arrive at the same time, and he rushes to Amy’s side. Her attempts to impress Jim and Georgie have failed miserably. Jim tells her this doesn’t matter, but “It matters to me!!” Amy shouts back, finally finding her own voice.
A big showdown then occurs: Brian finds out what’s going on and snubs Georgie and is slapped by his father, before leaving the flat. Amy tells Georgie some home truths about Jim, and asks her why she couldn’t have left him alone and fallen for someone else. Georgie asserts that she had no control over her feelings. Brian tells his father “Don’t ever hit me again, Dad.” Once Amy’s voice is found, it becomes stronger. She knows that Georgie is the instigator of all this and that Jim would not have the gumption to act on his own initiative. She asserts that she has lived in his shadow too long, that she is fed up with putting him first at her own expense and that she can now function without him. She can get a job. She can exist as an independent person. To their assertion that Jim will leave on the forthcoming weekend, she retorts that he must go now. She will cope, and rejects his offers of a financial settlement. She helps him pack his suitcase although he is in such a flustered hurry to depart that he leaves it behind.
Amy watches the lovers leave through the window of the flat, before closing the curtains and shutting out the world. She and Brian are ensconced in the flat on their own. As she attempts to carry the suitcase across the room and place it outside the flat, it spills open and spews forth its contents on the floor, powerfully symbolising the detritus of their marriage. “He’ll be back for it,” she tells Brian. And he soon is. As he has asserted all along, “it would be different if Amy was a bad person.” Of course, she isn’t. Jim abandons Georgie in the street in a tearful parting and returns home to Amy. Their reconciliation is almost wordless, unspoken as they both replace Jim’s belongings in their rightful place. Brian brews a pot of tea and Jim goes through his notes for a speech he is due to deliver. Normality is restored.
This is, however, no cynical or cosy ending, nor is it a recuperative affirmation of societal norms. It is a powerful and believable tale of real people and real, repressed emotions played out in a bleak and very British landscape. The film would scarcely work in colour, for it is set in a monochrome world of torrential rain and a bleak emotional landscape. Yet the female characters are strong in a bizarre kind of way: Georgie is not presented as a harpy, but as a modern woman who expresses her feelings openly, albeit to her detriment; whilst Amy is, for all her faults, aware of whom she is and what her failings are. In the final analysis the Preston family is reunited through love, not duty. The potential for change is shown, and the eponymous dressing gown discarded. “I shall miss it,” says Jim, but I doubt if he really will.