Girly (1970)

31 Oct

It's like "Mary Poppins" on meth, really.

Girly,” originally released with the overwrought title of “Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly,” tanked when it was first released. No surprise there. It’s a very British exercise in silliness and dark humor, and it’s difficult to categorize. It’s not a straight-out comedy, but it’s too light to be horror. There’s a heavy touch of satire, but a heaping helping of madness as well. Whatever it is, “Girly” does have a distinct sort of charm.

Sonny (Howard Trevor) and Girly (Vanessa Howard) are continually tasked with finding new playmates to bring home to meet Mummy (Ursula Howells) and win she and Nanny’s (Pat Heywood) approval. They meet their friends in all sorts of places, sometimes at the zoo, but most often sleeping early in the morning on a park bench. That’s how they meet Soldier, the first young man they take home. Sonny and Girly, though in their twenties, are outfitted as British schoolchildren. Sonny looks ridiculous and Girly looks, well, let’s say how she looks plays a large part in all the new male friends’ willingness to go home with them. Mummy and Nanny are quite taken with Sonny and Girly, blessing their hearts, their darling little hearts, and joining in their games, their darling little games in an intricate sort of long-form role-play that has utterly taken over the foursome’s lives. They’ve long since abandoned sanity, and they’re of the class that can shrug it off as eccentricity.

Alas, it does not go well for poor Soldier. He refuses to play the game, and in a shockingly literal interpretation of a childhood rhyme, has his head chopped off. Mummy sends Girly and Sonny to bed — they share a room outfitted with giant cradle-type beds, naturally — and plots her next move. The following day, she sends the children out looking for a new playmate, this time telling them not to bring home anyone from the park. They meet a gigolo and his date stumbling out of a party late one night, and, intrigued by Girly, the man drags his date to a playground to join in Sonny and Girly’s childish fun. When the date is “accidentally” pushed from the top of the slide, the man suddenly needs sanctuary, and he comes New Friend (Michael Bryant).

Poor New Friend never makes it out of a state of "WTF?" for very long. Each time he thinks he's on board with the craziness, it gets ramped up on him.

New Friend learns early on that the first rule in his new household is to play the game, and so he does… or rather, his own version of it. While on the surface, he’s adhering to the strange rules regarding indoor time and outdoor time, who can eat bread with a meal and who can’t, and how long he can stay up after his bath, New Friend has initiated a more adult game of his own. Using his job-related skills, he wins Mummy to his side… then Girly … and then Nanny. However, none of this escapes Sonny’s watchful eye. Sonny wants to punish New Friend and “send him to the angels,” and New Friend realizes all too late just how deadly serious the game really is.

Tension and suspense are nonexistent in this film; it’s quite up front from the beginning about the absolute insanity of Mummy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly, leaving little room for plot twists. Better pacing could have combatted that problem; we already know the game is for keeps by the time New Friend comes on the scene, but the build of the reveal of that fact for him is mishandled and seems almost like an afterthought when it should have created a nice bit of suspense.

The endless madcap antics of Sonny and Girly become irritating after not very long. “Girly” is a ridiculously loud film, with the siblings more often than not screaming at someone about something. The intent is to underline their childishness, and it does add to that effect. Unfortunately, it also tires out the audience. In the rare instances where the “children” aren’t yowling about something, Nanny is more likely than not taking an ax to some interior wall. The film is not overly long — just over 100 minutes — but the relentless noise makes it feel much longer.

I chide the film's over-the-top silliness a bit, but there are some choice laugh-out-loud bits. There's a fantastic visual irony maintained throughout.

Of course, this could all be exactly what director Freddie Francis (the cinematographer of “The Innocents“) had in mind. The film seems to comment on the breakdown of the traditional family and the relative chaos of the era, represented perhaps by the unending squalling inside the household. Without a true, healthy family, the twisted individuals in “Girly” have been forced to resort to this game to fill that void. Without a strong head of household (dad, husband), the game has descended into chaos, violence and immorality. It’s possible to draw this conclusion from this film if you really want to dig that deep. The components are there, albeit nearly buried under silliness.

The more compelling, perhaps less intentional subtext comes in the form of the fascinating title character. Girly, styled as a pre-adolescent but in her early twenties, is the sole attraction for most of the playmates she and Sonny bring home. There’s a chilling sequence early in the film where she and Sonny are teasing each other, and, because of their actual ages and her sexualized get-up, they approach that certain line of discomfort. Thankfully, the filmmakers don’t explore that avenue any further; Sonny is portrayed as very much the innocent. Girly, however, is learning she is powerful, and the resulting political struggle between she and Mumsy is an intriguing parallel to the importance modern society places upon youth. By the film’s end, Mumsy has grudgingly recognized Girly as an equal, but Girly seems to realize she’s the one with the upper hand.

This is a truly bizarre movie, and I feel like if the filmmakers had set the bar a little higher and gone for a little more horror and social commentary and a little less slapstick and cheesecake, it’d be a cult classic. As it is, “Girly” is too broadly played to stand out as anything other than deeply odd. Two-and-a-half stars out of four.

Girly“: Rated R. Originally titled “Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly.” Starring Michael Bryant, Ursula Howells, Pat Heywood, Howard Trevor, Vanessa Howard, Robert Swann and Imogen Hassell. Directed by Freddie Francis. Screenplay by Brian Comport from the play “Happy Family” by Maisie Mosco. Cinematography by David Muir. Original music by Bernard Ebbinghouse.

***

In case you think I’m exaggerating about how really and truly peculiar this movie is, I looked up the trailer for it. Be warned that watching the trailer is pretty much like seeing the whole movie — it gives absolutely everything away — but if you’re curious, check it out.

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