Obituary: Betty Box
Monday 18 January 1999
In the decade 1953-63 the pair made nearly 20 films, and among the actors whose careers Box promoted were Dirk Bogarde and Donald Sinden. Producers, who have to watch costs among other responsibilities, are not always the most popular members of the profession, but Box was held in high esteem in the industry. "Betty Box was such a nice woman, very well organised," said the actor Maurice Denham, adding, "I never saw Ralph or her angry or worried," while Dirk Bogarde commented, "Betty Box and Ralph Thomas knew just what the public at that point wanted. We were just coming out of the doldrums of post-war austerity and audiences wanted to laugh, to be `taken out of themselves'."
Box was part of a film dynasty. Her older brother Sidney was a noted writer-producer and his wife the writer-director Muriel Box, while Betty married one of Sidney's writers, Peter Rogers, who went on to become producer of the Carry On series. Born in Beckenham, Kent, in 1920, she started her career in 1942 by joining the film company her brother had formed in 1939 to produce training and propaganda films for the British government during the Second World War, and she worked there on more than 200 short films.
"I was the dogsbody who made the tea and fetched the rushes from the station, went to the laboratories, and eventually learned how to do the budgets, and I suppose, in three years from '42 to '45, I did about ten years' hard work," Box told the author Brian McFarlane in 1989. With the war's end, she continued as her brother's assistant on two feature films he produced, The Seventh Veil (1945) and The Years Between (1946).
The former was an enormous hit, and the mogul J. Arthur Rank then asked Sidney Box to take control of Gainsborough Pictures, which had two studios. While Sidney ran the Shepherds Bush unit, he put Betty in charge of production at Islington, which Betty called "the poor man's studio", adding:
Shepherds Bush had five stages and every facility you could want . . . but Islington had only two stages, one on top of the other, very small . . . But we managed; we made our films on time. It was my job to ensure that the studio was
always working, that the technicians and the craftsmen got paid every week, and that I had a film ready to go the day I finished the previous one.
Box had gained her first experience as a producer on The Upturned Glass (1947), which had been started by her brother prior to his being offered Gainsborough. Box took over as co-producer with the film's star, James Mason, who later said, "She sailed with her tide and became the most sensible and hardworking producer in the British industry".
Box's first film as sole producer was a gripping "perfect crime" thriller, Dear Murderer (1947), scripted by Muriel and Sydney Box and Peter Rogers. "It was not an easy one to do," said Box. "Eric Portman was one of the best actors I ever worked with, but he and Jack Warner did not get on very well together." The following year Box produced two hit comedies, Miranda, the story of a mermaid who is brought to land and takes to the sophisticated high life, and Here Come the Huggetts, starring Jack Warner and Kathleen Harrison as parents of a family first introduced in Sydney Box's production Holiday Camp (1947). Betty produced two more films featuring the family, Vote for Huggett (1948) and The Huggetts Abroad (1949).
She first worked with Dirk Bogarde on So Long At The Fair (1950), co- starring Jean Simmons, Box's last Gainsborough picture. Rank's operations had been moved to Pinewood, where Box spent the rest of her career, though she began to make more use of locations. She recounted later how she had noticed a French film unit shooting while she was in a restaurant in Cannes:
I thought, "This is what I've missed in shooting film. I've always been stuck in a studio." From then on my aim was to shoot as much film as I could outside, because I reckoned you got so much more screen value for the same amount of money. So from then I made between 30 and 40 films at Pinewood studios and most of them were made abroad.
The Clouded Yellow (1950) was Box's first film to be directed by Ralph Thomas. Box had first met him when, just out of the Army, the former editor had made the trailer for Miranda.
I didn't see him again until he did the trailer for So Long at the Fair, and again I found him artistically very helpful. When I came to make my first independent film, which was The Clouded Yellow, I teamed up with him to direct it. By that time, he had directed a couple of films for my brother . . . eventually we formed our own little company together and that's why it says A Betty Box-Ralph Thomas Production on all our films.
Thomas later recalled, "Betty mortgaged her house to keep The Clouded Yellow afloat until the financial problems in our business sorted themselves out. It was a brave thing for her to do and she didn't tell me until the picture was finished." One of their films together, A Day to Remember (1953), starred Donald Sinden, who later said, "I worked more for Betty than for any other single producer. In those days, the producer and director were part of a team and they tended to cast jointly."
Sinden was one of the four medical trainees whose escapades form the basis of Doctor in the House (1954), the Box-Thomas team's biggest success of all, the potential of which had been spotted by Betty Box when she bought Richard Gordon's book to read on a train journey. Advised that it was primarily a string of anecdotes, she replied, "I think I know how to do it. I take my four students through the three or four years of their training as medical students and make that the story."
The day she started shooting, she was asked to cut down her budget because the Rank board were worried about doing a hospital film, and Box cut the film's cost from pounds 100,000 to pounds 97,000. "In six weeks at the Odeon Leicester Square it more or less paid for itself." For the role of the irascible surgeon Sir Lancelot Spratt, Box wanted Robert Morley, but the budget would not meet his asking price, so the bearded actor James Robertson Justice was given the role of his lifetime.
Dirk Bogarde credited Box with playing a major part in his career:
I did four or five of those Doctor films and Betty in particular fought for me to be in them, although the studio didn't want me. . . Betty and Ralph had seen me in a couple of plays and realised I could play comedy. The studio believed I could only play spivs and Cockneys, but Betty and Ralph put me in tweeds and let me speak in my own voice.
Bogarde also starred for Box in A Tale of Two Cities (1958), a box-office disappointment, and The Wind Cannot Read (1958), filmed in Delhi and co- scripted by David Lean. One of Box's major hits was the moving melodrama Conspiracy of Hearts (1960), about Catholic nuns in Italy saving Jewish children during the war, which was also very successful in America, though Box had to fight to get it made:
They said, "It's religion, it's nuns, it's wartime, who wants to know? Tell you what, make us another Doctor and you can do it!" And the interesting thing was that that year in the UK the three top box-office films were the Doctor film (Doctor in Love), Conspiracy of Hearts and a Carry On (Constable).
The following year Box courted controversy with the cynical tale of a political opportunist, No Love for Johnnie. Ralph Thomas, commenting on the film's lack of commercial success, stated:
People were not very interested in the politics of the day. The film was very heavily censored because at that time they didn't believe that `love in the afternoon' by an MP who should have been voting in the House was possible. It's happened rather a lot since!
Later Box productions included the James Bond pastiche Hot Enough for June (1963) starring Bogarde, the Bulldog Drummond adventure Deadlier Than the Male (1966)), and a final Doctor film, Doctor in Trouble (1970). Betty Box remained modest about her achievements, stressing that her role was primarily to ensure that films came in on time and under budget. In 1958 she was appointed OBE but was too busy to collect it. "I just told them to put it in the post," she said later.
Betty Evelyn Box, film producer: born Beckenham, Kent 25 September 1920; OBE 1958; married 1949 Peter Rogers; died 15 January 1999.
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