I’m on the mend after my second bout of flu this winter. The flu is tiresome. Sleeping all day and slurping soup isn’t so bad, except it feels like a waste of time. I’m past that now, in the middle of the delightful stage where my skin hurts and I don’t have any energy or ability to focus, but I’m also bored and restless. (This post took a long time to write…) It’s the perfect time to revisit my favorite movies, especially the cheerfully smutty flick Mrs. Henderson Presents.
I really can’t believe I never reviewed this movie! It’s completely delightful, based on true events at the Windmill Theatre in the 30’s and 40’s. Mrs. Henderson is an eccentric aristocratic lady (played by Judi Dench) who finds herself lacking direction in life after her husband’s death. One of her friends suggests that an upside of widowhood is no one can stop you buying things. Mrs. Henderson takes this to heart and buys a theatre, engaging the managerial services of Mr. Van Dan. He’s not terribly impressed by her “eccentric lady” act and the interplay between their strong, occasionally clashing characters never fails to amuse me.
At first, the Windmill achieves great success by performing vaudeville-revue style shows back-to-back all day long, which had not been tried in England before. They called it “Revuedeville.” All the other theatres in West End quickly copied their formula, and the Windmill fell in popularity. In a bid to one-up the other theatres, Mrs. Henderson proposes they “lose the clothes.” The clothes are (of course) a big part of the draw for me in this movie. I love all the vintage activewear on display in rehearsals and offstage.
But it’s the lack of clothes that eventually sets the shows at the Windmill apart from the other revues on West End. Of course, nude shows were common on the Continent at the time but it simply wasn’t “done” in England. Luckily, Mrs. Henderson knows the Lord Chancellor, the man who has authority to allow such shenanigans. I chuckle every time I see the scene where she persuades the very stuffy old Lord Chancellor to allow her to feature live nudes at the Windmill. She butters him up with a gourmet picnic lunch in the park, but he’s still squeamish about “the foliage,” “the somewhat sordid topic of the pudendum,” or “the midlands.” It’s most satisfying to watch His Lordship squirm.
It’s not only naked girls, the song and dance scenes set my toes tapping, and I love the very 1930’s set designs based on photos of the actual sets at the Windmill. Then suddenly, the Blitz comes to London and the girls spend their days working for the war effort and performing at night to keep up morale as their audience morphs from students and civilians to soldiers. Many of the performers and workers at The Windmill moved into the theatre during the Blitz; because it was below street level and somewhat safe during the bombing.
The cast is eminently watchable, the writing is good, the sets are lavish- and Judi Dench is indisputably the star of Mrs. Henderson Presents. I love her portrayal of this interesting woman, it’s a fantastic story of an older woman who refuses to surrender her joie de vivre. This movie may not be everyone’s cup of tea- there’s lots of nudity, but it’s always treated with dignity or humor, never exploitative or salacious. I’m a fan, very few movies tend to make me laugh outright (especially upon repeat viewings). I would not call this a serious film, but it’s a very entertaining movie.
Have you seen Mrs. Henderson Presents?
Now if I could just get myself off the couch…