Ringin’ Around the Rosie with Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny, and Girly (1969)

I’m part of a group of friends who have been dazzling one another with movies for decades now. We’re all cinephiles and we have similar tastes in films, yet each of us has our own individual slant on flicks. We like to get together and watch movies, each of us taking turns at being the one to pick the titles. When you make a selection for viewing among this group, you’re of course hoping to show the others movies they haven’t yet seen. Beyond that, you just want your choices to be films that will be enjoyable and memorable. Sometimes you go for cinematic fare that’s just straight-up good, sometimes you shoot for weird and good, other times your aim is at so-bad-it’s-good camp. Just give them something that will engage them on some level during the watching and give all of us things to talk about after, and you’ve scored a winner.

I think I can say I have a fairly high success rate in picking films that work for this group. But there has been the occasional misstep. I once cleared a room with a showing of a moody early Wim Wenders title, and another time left everyone feeling deranged after presenting the bent 1973 drama The Baby. Another “mistake” on my part was when I offered the group Girly aka Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny, and Girly (it went under the longer title upon its 1969 theatrical release and was shortened to the one-word name for the 2010 DVD issue – I’m going to use the shorter title from here on in). The problem was timing and setting.  This was during a beach vacation and maybe that isn’t the most ideal backdrop for a viewing of a twisted British horror/dark comedy film. But our annual beach weeks are generally the only time all of us are together these days, I had just recently happened on to Girly and was knocked out by it, and I couldn’t wait for my friends to see it. And it’s not like the idea of me championing weird movies was a new idea to this set of people.

Some things about the film: The director is Freddie Francis, an award-winning cinematographer (Room at the Top, The Elephant Man, Dune, etc.) who at the time longed for full creative control over a motion picture. So Girly became his baby, and what a birth! Based on a play by Maisie Mosco and adapted for film by Brian Comport, the more-than-offbeat story centers around the four titular characters of the original movie name. As one might be able to guess, they are a mother, her two children, and the family’s nanny. The four coexist in a castle-like English home, surrounded by lots of acreage. They strive to be a “good” family. Mumsy (Ursula Howells) and Nanny (Pat Heywood) knit together while the “children” (it’s unclear how old the brother and sister are meant to be in the movie, but they look like late teenagers) Sonny (Howard Trevor) and Girly (Vanessa Howard) are out playing, they all take meals together and always use good manners at the table, they play fun games as a family and sing nursery rhymes as a group, they observe certain family rituals that are enjoyable to them and that hold their joint life together . . .

We’re not exactly sure how old the kids are.

But just being around one another isn’t quite enough to keep the quartet entertained. They like to have “friends” around. The friends are adult men and they are found and brought home by Sonny and Girly when they’re off on their various outings about town. The guys are usually lured to the house by the prospect of spending time with the pretty and teasingly flirtatious Girly. But when they get to the home, they find that it isn’t going to be all about having some amorous fun with an attractive young woman. Oh, no. Things for the houseguests aren’t all bad, though. I mean, you get fed and you get put up in a luxurious bedroom. Having to wear the silly school uniform Sonny and Girly often sport could be seen as a small price to pay for room and board at no charge. And even being forced to play games like Cowboys and Indians, Ring Around the Rosie, and “Store,” as ridiculous as it might make a grown man feel to partake in these activities . . . well, I mean, there could be worse ways to spend your days, right? Right?

"Walk under our arms…or else!"

The guys usually catch on pretty quickly that they’re being dragged through some bizarre trial that’s a kind of sport for the gruesome foursome from the house, and they come to know they’re not about to get some alone time with Girly. And when they reach these disturbing and disappointing conclusions, they figure it’s about time to escape this warped household. Or to at least put up a grumble about what’s happening to them there and refuse to partake in the games. And that’s where they err. Because, as one of the character states early into the story, “Every good family needs rules.” And rules are especially sacrosanct to Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny, and Girly. Two of the house rules are: Friends must always play the games, and Friends must never try to leave. When friends break these rules, friends must be punished. And punishment at this house generally means being “sent off to the angels.” And when the family needs to send a bad friend off to the angels, things like hatchets come in handy.

But what happens if Sonny and Girly bring home a friend who finally makes the foursome meet their collective match? Someone who, rather than railing against or trying to flee from their crazy little world, seeks to get deep inside of it, and inside the heads (and pants) of the inhabitants? This is what occurs when the man who becomes “Friend in Two” (meaning household room #2) is brought to the sick estate. Sonny and Girly are out and about when they see a couple come out of a party. The guy’s drunk and has clearly been flirting with some women at the fest, and his uptight ladyfriend, who has the keys to the car, wants them to go home. Sonny and Girly get in the middle of the arguing lovers’ spat, take the two off to a playground where they gallivant on swings and slides in the wee hours. And then Sonny and Girly get fed up with the woman, who never wanted to come to the park and who isn’t sport enough to want to play in the games there. So, she has an “accident” off the slide and goes off to the angels, and the man goes home with Sonny and Girly and becomes “Friend in Two,” the newest guest at the manor. After being subjected to some of the hosts’ demented games, much of it aimed at demoralizing him while giving the family giggles, he decides to get clever. And that’s when things become very interesting.

I’ve made a huge mistake.

Girly is a twisted watch for sure. But for those with tastes such that they can enjoy fare like it, it also offers countless laughs, not to mention a ton of suspense and head-shaking wonder. Try to imagine Harold and Maude and a Hammer horror film getting mixed up together, and you’ll have an idea of the kind of entertainment is on hand via this strange movie. Critics were none too thrilled with the film when it came out, and even less amused were decency-protecting groups who found the story immoral on a couple different counts. It’s said that Girly’s lack of popular and critical success was a major factor in Howard’s decision to retire from her acting career a few years later. But Girly is now a cult favorite and to my mind it’s a classic of bent cinema. The script is spot-on and so is the acting. You bust a gut laughing at the same time that you wonder and worry about what these entertainingly insane people are going to say or do next.  It may have been a little too weird a flick to show to a group of people who had spent the day on the beach and just wanted to be entertained in some way; but, hey, we all certainly had plenty to talk about after it ended. But no, I didn’t try to get my friends to play Ring Around the Rosie on the beach the next day.


Brian Greene's short stories, personal essays, and writings on books, music, and film have appeared in more than 20 different publications since 2008. His articles on crime fiction have also been published by Crime Time, Paperback Parade, Noir Originals, and Mulholland Books. Brian lives in Durham, NC with his wife Abby, their daughters Violet and Melody, their cat Rita Lee, and too many books. Follow Brian on Twitter @brianjoebrain.

See all posts by Brian Greene for Criminal Element.

Comments

  1. Silodweller

    I watched this film about a week ago and I have to say I really enjoyed it. It is twisted and dark and completely enjoyable. Thanks for a great review.

  2. Brian Greene

    Silodweller: It’s great to hear you enjoyed both the article and the movie. Thanks for saying so!

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