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"The most sickening exhibition of brutality, perversion, sex and sadism ever to be shown on a cinema screen," wrote the Monthly Film Bulletin. "Hardly more than a piece of calculated nastiness," wrote the British Film Institute's esteemed Sight and Sound. Sunday Pictorial called it "a piece of nauseating muck." Daily Mirror declared it "as fragrant as a cesspool." The reviewer for the Sunday Times recommended a new rating be minted especially for the occasion: "D for disgusting." Daily Express called it a "wicked disgrace to the British film industry." Star said it is "one of the most undesirable pictures ever turned out by a British studio." The Guardian put it most succinctly: No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1948) was "thoroughly un-British."
Critics don't bother getting this lathered up over something nobody's going to see, and when critics do get themselves this lathered up it only encourages people to go see what all the fuss is about. When Members of Parliament took to the House of Commons to decry the film as a threat to public morals demanding immediate government action, the only measurable consequence of their hysteria was to make the film a blockbuster sensation. The filmmakers could not have orchestrated the panic any better had they tried. Producer George Minter recognized the value in having a film that hit every nerve of every possible censor. "I don't think I overlooked anything," chuckled Minter.
Call it beginner's luck. Minter was a newcomer to the film business, and had stumbled into making an outstandingly profitable creation. Not that his achievement came without pain, mind you. But to understand the controversy that No Orchids provoked among the various censors, it is necessary to backtrack a little.
The novel No Orchids for Miss Blandish first appeared in bookstores in 1939. Its author was James Hadley Chase (born Ren Raymond), a crime novelist sometimes seen as England's answer to Raymond Chandler. The cover blurb promised "the toughest novel you'll ever read," which actually manages to undersell it. The story involves a young socialite who witnesses the murder of her boyfriend, is kidnapped by a criminal gang and held for ransom, then kept drugged and imprisoned by a savage monster whose protracted sexual attacks leave her a mindless vegetable. What makes Chase's novel such rough going is not just its horrific content, but the matter-of-fact tone with which it is told. Chase ambles through his catalog of nightmares as if this sort of thing happens every day.
George Orwell (1984) was so incensed by the book's bleakness he felt compelled to write an essay for Horizon magazine loudly condemning No Orchids. "Sordid and brutal," he seethed. Orwell's mind boggled at the fact that in just a few years, this nasty little thing had sold a half million copies. Here were ordinary, right-thinking citizens of the British Empire, waging a war on Hitler's Germany and enduring the Blitz. Yet living daily through a real-life amoral hell, these seemingly sane people were choosing to spend their leisure time with cheap sensationalism. As far as Orwell was concerned, the book signaled the advance of Fascist ideals into Britain.
Them's fightin' words. They are also, it must be said, misguided ones. Orwell made the mistake of many moralists who found themselves unable to distinguish between a book that describes amorality, and one that endorses it. By way of illustrating the distinction, consider William Faulkner's Sanctuary from 1931. In broad outlines, Faulkner's novel tells the same story--so similar, in fact, Chase found himself dodging accusations of having stolen Faulkner's plot. Sanctuary differs in some important details, but perhaps the most important of these is that it features scattered moments of human empathy and idealistic altruism. Where Faulkner depicts the terrifying lynching of an innocent man, Chase offers up no one you could identify as innocent; where Faulkner celebrates a brave lawyer working on behalf of his conscience, Chase offers no one brave, none with a conscience. Chase took Faulkner's book and stripped away its humanity. Faulkner's book is a literary classic, and Orwell would not have attacked it. Although Chase's book is no more horrifying, it lacks an obvious point of identification within the novel to stand in for the author's viewpoint.
Orwell's complaints notwithstanding, British readers ate the book up. By 1942, a stage version opened in London starring Linden Travers as Miss Blandish and Robert Newton as her sociopathic tormentor, Slim Grisson. Movie producer Sydney Box licensed movie rights, and in 1944 prepared to film a version of the play. The British Board of Film Classification rejected the script, concluding that what was acceptable on the London stage was not acceptable on movie screens.
The main point of contention had to do with the portrayal of Slim. The theatrical script followed the book in presenting Slim as a mentally challenged and sexually immature monster. This could not be approved, said the BBFC, and so Box looked to Faulkner's Sanctuary for a solution. More precisely, he looked to how Hollywood adapted Sanctuary into the 1933 thriller The Story of Temple Drake. Faulkner's villain had some of the same inhuman attributes as Chase's character of Slim, yet when he was personified for Temple Drake, the character was given a certain seductive charm. As played by Jack La Rue, he was dangerous without being utterly loathsome.
Changes were made to the script. Instead of Slim keeping Miss Blandish as a drugged zombie, the film would find the girl actively falling in love with her captor, siding with him willingly. Not only would this placate the censors, but made the characters into juicier parts for actors to play.
It was at this point that Box received a promotion to the head of production for Gainsborough Films, a subsidiary of the Rank Organization. He was now one of the most powerful men in British film, but he was also now deeply embedded in an institution known for high morals. Chase's lurid story would have no place there. Box surrendered the project to a new up-and-coming aspirant, George Minter. In turn, he hired as director St. John Legh Clowes, an itinerant maker of 1930s era quota quickies, whose past works are so obscure that most sources concluded wrongly that No Orchids was his first--and only--film (he died shortly after its making).
Clowes planned to bolster the film's faux-American setting by casting some conspicuous American leads. George Raft had tentatively agreed to take the role of Slim, contingent on Jane Russell being cast as Miss Blandish. Russell was under exclusive contract to Howard Hughes, who refused to let the star of The Outlaw (1943) take any outside gigs. Without Russell, Clowes also lost Raft. In their places he cast two actors whose prior experience made them obvious choices. Linden Travers had already played Miss Blandish in the stage version, which made for both excellent preparation and effective publicity. Opposite her was Jack La Rue as Slim. In an ironic coincidence, back in 1933 the producers of The Story of Temple Drake had wanted George Raft for their lead villain, lost him, and cast La Rue in his place. Fifteen years later, La Rue was hired to all but reprise his role!
When Minter and Clowes submitted their finished film to the BBFC in 1948, they were putting it before an institution in turmoil. The leadership of the BBFC was in flux, and disorganization was rampant. The distracted board members felt that even though the movie was full of unpleasant aspects, those unpleasantries had all been described in the script, and they had approved the script. It passed without debate or calls for any cuts. The BBFC approval was not the final word on the matter, though. Local districts had their own censors, each of which started to demand their own cuts, while the press excoriated the BBFC for its permissiveness.
Much of the controversy was grandstanding on the part of people who had not even seen the movie they so vociferously decried. Underneath that ran another undercurrent--one of fear that British culture was becoming Americanized. The postwar era marked the peak of British movie-going. The cinema was a culturally respected and industrially prosperous locus of public life. But British theaters were more often than not going to be showing Hollywood imports--and British films were more often than not unable to find significant distribution abroad. The competition from America was fierce. As a consequence, many British filmmakers inevitably turned to copying American genres in an effort to find the same audience. Just as inevitably, a cadre of critics were ready to ruthlessly indict those filmmakers who diluted British culture by so doing. Even aside from the questions of its sex and violence, the fact that No Orchids for Miss Blandish presented itself as an American crime film was enough to ruffle the feathers of many British cinemaphiles.
LIFE gave a three-page spread to the debate, under the headline "London Can't Take It." With all the publicity about the film's salacious content, censors in the US geared up to confront the import. Richard Gordon had just set up shop as an importer of British films, and No Orchids was to be the first film he would distribute in America. Hearing that Customs had plans to confiscate the film upon its arrival, Gordon cleverly re-routed it to arrive by slow boat at a New Orleans port, away from publicity and official attention. He was still obliged to make significant cuts to the picture to get it into American theaters, but at least it was not moldering in a Customs warehouse (Gordon has since seen to it that the picture has been restored to its original uncut length, thank you very much).
As was the case in England, coverage of the controversy amounted to free publicity. When No Orchids premiered in a Times Square movie house, more than two years after it had been made, it did so to sellout crowds. Gordon's distribution career was off to a promising start. Back in England, Minter was set to become a prestigious movie producer. Clowes passed away suddenly, but his film lived on as one of the most notorious of its era. Over the years most of James Hadley Chase's crime novels have been filmed, and multiple remakes of No Orchids have been mounted around the world including Robert Aldrich's 1971 version entitled The Grissom Gang, but none with quite the same raw energy as the original.
Producers: St. John L. Clowes
Director: St. John L. Clowes
Screenplay: St. John L. Clowes (writer); James Hadley Chase (novel)
Cinematography: Gerald Gibbs
Art Direction: Harry Moore
Music: George Melachrino
Film Editing: Manuel del Campo
Cast: Jack La Rue (Slim Grisson), Hugh McDermott (Dave Fenner), Linden Travers (Miss Blandish), Walter Crisham (Eddie Schultz), MacDonald Parke (Doc), Danny Green (Flyn), Lilly Molnar (Ma Grisson), Charles Goldner (Louis--Headwaiter), Zo Gail (Margo), Leslie Bradley (Ted Bailey).
by David Kalat
James Chapman, "Sordidness, corruption and violence almost unrelieved: critics, censors and the post-war British crime film," Contemporary British History Vol. 22 No. 2, 2008
James Hadley Chase, No Orchids for Miss Blandish
William Faulkner, Sanctuary
Richard Gordon, interviewed by Tom Weaver, No Orchids for Miss Blandish DVD
Richard Gordon and Richard Nielson, interviewed by Joel Blumberg, No Orchids for Miss BlandishDVD
Brian M. Stableford, Yesterday's Bestsellers: A journey through literary history