TThere are few characters in British film history as intriguing as Wendy Toye. Born in east London in 1917, she was a showbiz prodigy, first appearing on stage at the age of three at the Royal Albert Hall. Later she was a dancer, choreographer and director, working in stage and screen and responsible for some of the most beguiling and chilling flights of fancy in British cinema – as well as some popular comedies. All of this at a time when women were rarely entrusted with the director’s chair. “Back then I liked being forgotten that my films were made by a woman,” she said in 1990. “I think today I would think very differently.”
For a remarkably long time, Toye had a knack for meeting the right people at the right time and in the right place. It helped that she had such an amazing talent. At the age of nine she choreographed her first ballet at the Palladium in London. She took part in the rehearsals of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, later joined the Markova-Dolin Ballet Company as a soloist and was taken under the wing of Dame Ninette de Valois. She soon became a prolific choreographer for the stage, achieving so much at such a young age that dance critic Caryl Brahms has dubbed her, among other things, “the great young grandmother of the dance routine.”
In addition to directing for the stage, Toye was drawn to the film business. She made her film debut as a dancer in Anthony Asquith’s Dance, Pretty Lady (1931) and also began working as a choreographer for cinema, becoming increasingly fascinated with the workings of the sound stage. When she was working on the 1936 opera film Pagliacci, director Karl Grune was so preoccupied with the technical requirements of a color sequence that he asked Toye to stage the actors for him. In her words: “Then he put the cameras on it”. It was film director Wendy Toye’s silent debut.
It wasn’t just that Toye had a gift for filmmaking, but that her background in dance and comedy gave her a unique approach to the craft. It was in Diaghilev’s studio that she had first met Jean Cocteau, whose surrealism was a prolific influence on her work and who, in 1953, headed a jury that awarded Toye a Palme d’Or for her first short film, The Stranger, Leaving No Ticket.
Cocteau astutely called her dark film puzzle a masterpiece. This unique film is now available on one of two new Blu-rays from Toyes Filmwerk. It’s a “composed film,” much like Powell and Pressburger’s Tales of Hoffman, or perhaps you could say a choreographed film, shot with a metronome to fit a pre-recorded soundtrack. A strange man comes to a small town claiming to be Napoleon, and his behavior grows outrageously eccentric until his deadly secret is uncovered. Picturegoer magazine commended Toye for directing the film “with such precision that it hits the entertainment mark[ing] new life for the featurette film”.
Toye’s special talents are evident in the newly released and newly restored features on the discs. A thriller, The Teckman Mystery (1954), has a Hitchcockian climax at the Tower of London that can only be described as masterfully choreographed, and the maritime comedy We Joined The Navy (1962) teems with intricately directed slapstick and dance sequences – and revelations Toye being an excellent mockery for male bragging rights. However, her work in short form is by far her best. Keep an eye out for her contribution to the suitcase horror Three Cases of Murder (1955), in which a museum employee is drawn into a Gothic painting with dire consequences.
On the new CDs you can enjoy her two collaborations with Ronald Searle, much happier fare. Her celebratory short On the Twelfth Day… (1955) – the first of her two Searle collaborations – is an offbeat dance fantasy in which Toye plays the young woman , whose lover showers her with extravagant gifts. Sugar-sweet Edwardian nostalgia collapses into chaos as the young woman’s home is overrun by a plethora of birds, let alone hopping lords and drumming drummers. The King’s Breakfast, based on the poem by AA Milne, was supported by the Butter Board but eventually premiered in Cannes. The search for something to spread on a royal slice of bread turns into a half-hour banquet of uproarious slapstick, dance and pantomime, complete with pantomime sets and costumes.
Toye, who died in 2010, admitted she wished she’d done more films, but her taste for fantasy was a little out of step with the fashion of the time. Maybe now is the right time to catch up with that whirlwind of a woman.