Mad Men and Mod Women

For those desiring to add some spice to their Yuletide screening schedules, one need look no further than the 1963 British comedy THE WILD AFFAIR, now on DVD-R from the Warner Archive Collection.

It’s England two seconds away from becoming Swinging London (in fact, the transformation seems to unspool as the movie does, in the course of its one-day time frame), thus important in culture-shock terms.  But THE WILD AFFAIR ain’t just for Sixties freaks; it’s a vastly entertaining romp, certainly deserving a spot in the black-and-white happening A Hard Day’s Night/Georgy Girl universe (both of which it preceded).

As Christmas approaches, gorgeous Marjorie Lee, played beautifully by radiant Nancy Kwan (admittedly, my decades-long main interest in wanting to see this flick), is facing an important day in her life. It’s her last day on the job at a groovy cosmetics house, as she’s off to be married to her dependable fiancé (Donald Churchill), who, in tune with middle class tradition, doesn’t want wifey to work.  It’s also the day of her company’s annual office Christmas party, essentially a Bacchanalian orgy with cheese.

The party is the main focus of the movie, and, from the time Marjorie arrives at “work,” it’s a non-stop fusion of watusi-ing bodies, drinking, panting and de-panting. This doesn’t make it any easier for Lee, who is having serious second thoughts about her future.

Marjorie’s basic problem is that she likes her job and the prospect of a career, to say nothing of her easily conjured-up power over men…and is concerned if secure suburban living is worth the sacrifice. Her queries to coworkers aren’t much help, as they’re busy canoodling or conspiring toward mistletoe-manuevered cushion-pushin’ (or licking the rejection wounds of same).  The women can’t be bothered, being either jealous of Marjorie’s appearance or having romantic problems of their own; while the males are all too willing to console the troubled lass, preferably in a room of the nearest crash pad.

Not that she’s some, innocent wide-eyed fool; au contraire, Marjorie’s snarky, lip-biting delight at the naughty shenanigans comprise much of the movie’s woo-hoo factor. Frankly, one wonders how different the company is when they’re NOT having a Christmas party, chiefly after we’re introduced to the agency’s lecherous head, Terry-Thomas, sans mustache and inhibitions (and hilariously discussing holiday plans with his wife over the phone whilst plotting a diddling excursion with his latest anxious squeeze).  Aside from T-T, Brit fans will be additionally delighted by early appearances from Franks Finlay and Thornton.

Lee’s fiancé, who seems like an okay guy, is nonetheless sort of a dullard. That said, he’s astute enough to be concerned over the coital possibilities of his betrothed’s office soiree. His attempts to seek her out and drag her back to suburbia are stymied by Marjorie’s being whisked away by an amorous client (Jimmy Logan) to a posh hotel bistro (presumably with private quarters for non-gastric desserts). An immediate glimpse at Lee’s debauched workplace slams home the fact that he’s so way out of her league that he couldn’t reach it with fireman’s ladder.

THE WILD AFFAIR was a Nancy Kwan vehicle produced by Seven Arts Pictures, who had signed her to a contract after her astounding celluloid debut in 1960’s The World of Suzie Wong. It should have been a phenomenal ride, as Kwan, half Chinese/half British, could seamlessly slip into any role, exotic or Anglo. That they really only gave her one chance at the former (Tamahine) and rarely mined her extraordinary acting abilities the rest of the time is a bona fide mismanagement head-shaker (in THE WILD AFFAIR, Kwan plays Anglo with a vengeance, her parents being the white-bread Paul Curran and silent screen/early talkie expat Bessie Love).

Kwan’s talent as an actress, especially a cinema actress, are underrated, to say the least. She has that rare thesp quality to convey thought on the screen. There’s no spoken dialog or stream-of-consciousness audio during key moments of AFFAIR, yet one instantly gleans what’s going on behind that sensational face and Sassoon bob (Kwan also gets an opportunity to explore Marjorie’s dark, sexual side in the form of her alter ego, Sandra, who offers hip in-the-mirror love advice).

THE WILD AFFAIR was directed and cowritten by another underrated professional, John Krish, who adapted the screenplay with scribe William Sansom (author of the source-work novel, The Last Hours of Sandra Lee). Krish is genuinely gifted in setting up the many comic (and occasionally poignant) set pieces with a cool savvy style and panache; always looking for the unusual, Krish would later direct (in 1968) a screen version of Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall of a Birdwatcher.

Of great assist to Krish in achieving the look of AFFAIR is the monochrome photography of the excellent d.p. Arthur Ibbetson (ditto the jazzy soundtrack is by Martin Slavin). Of course, when it comes to looks, Kwan IS the prime force behind THE WILD AFFAIR, sensuously twisting and boogalooing through the picture in the aforementioned Vidal Sassoon “do” (“the vampire look,” as acid-tongued Victor Spinetti dubs it) and in frocks by Mary Quant (“nice dress you nearly got on,” quips a cleaning lady), the first time both fashion trend setters ever had their creations unveiled upon the big screen. Kwan’s tossing off one-liners is perfectly balanced with some uncharacteristic physical comedy and a couple of double-takes worthy of Jimmy Finlayson.

Bizarrely enough, no one knew what to do with THE WILD AFFAIR. It was the only one of Kwan’s Seven Arts pics not to be partnered with a major distributor; ironically, it’s the best movie she ever did for them. AFFAIR languished on the shelf for three years before getting a scant U.S. grindhouse/drive-in release, generally paired with Intimacy, a sleazy drama about pornography and sexual blackmail, vindicated by a surprisingly decent cast (Jack Ging, Joan Blackman, Barry Sullivan). Insult to injury, the holiday tie-in was totally ignored, as the studio opened the flick in late May. It fared a bit better in the UK, only sitting around for two years before being sent out on a double-bill with the slightly more respectable The Pleasure Girls, costarring Francesca Annis, Ian McShane, Suzanna Leigh and Klaus Kinski.

THE WILD AFFAIR remains a rollicking time capsule whose retro charm is nostalgically enhanced by the ensuing half century since its inauspicious debut. The Warner Archive transfer is super (as they used to say across the pond), but with a pinch of kitchen-sink grit, utilizing a presentable 35MM widescreen transfer that sporadically glistens like the vinyl of its many gyrating go-go boots (and many there are!).  The occasional surface scratches are not a big deal, particularly considering the obscurity of the title.

While I have nothing against trotting out the December standards (Holiday Inn, White Christmas, The Bishop’s Wife, etc), there is a daring niche for those who yearn (to quote the Pythons) for something completely different.  Somewhere between It’s a Wonderful Life and Night Train Murders is a deck-the-halls alcove for the likes of THE WILD AFFAIR.  Short of being Santa suit-roasted in a snug chimney mishap, it doesn’t get more warm and fuzzy than having Nancy Kwan giving you a come-hither wink. I guarantee you’ll be winking back.

THE WILD AFFAIR.  Black-and-white.  Widescreen [1.66:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; mono audio.  The Warner Archive Collection.  CAT # 12947553; UPC # 888574143756.  SRP: $21.99.

Available exclusively through the Warner Archive Collection: