‘The Lady is a Square’ (1959) is Anna Neagle’s final film, made just before she retired from the screen in favour of the stage. Although not one of the greats, this film is certainly a pleasant way to fill 90 minutes. Neagle is supported by a host of familiar faces including Wilfred Hyde-White, Frankie Vaughn, Janette Scott and Antony Newley. All give a solid performance of an engaging storyline.
I found the story of particular resonance because of a book that I had just finished reading. That is David Kynaston’s “Modernity Britain – Opening the box 1957 -1959.” This exceptionally readable history book describes how Britain had begun to shake off austerity and lay the foundations of a country that we would recognise today. ‘The Lady is a Square’ could also, in a much more simplistic way, tell us something about this transitional period. Although Kynaston’s work is more rigorous and far-reaching, contemporary film is like a message in a bottle sent to us from that period of history itself.
The note inside this bottle would tell us that this is the point when talent began to take precedence over name. Neagle plays Mrs Baring, the “old money”; she has taken over the running of her late husband’s orchestra and knows all the right names. She and her daughter (Janette Scott) live in a fashionable townhouse and have servants. However, it soon becomes apparent that this is a financial façade. The bills are unpaid and it transpires that the overdraft is big. Her world is on the brink of collapse.
Of course it is Frankie Vaughn who saves her, after becoming smitten with her daughter. He is a fledgling rock singer, and when his career takes off it is his money that bails out the Barings and the orchestra. It is only when Neagle joins in with the “kids” on the dancefloor that you know her future has been secured. She couldn’t beat them so she joined them.
This has to be a reflection of the general feeling of the time. Old money was out of fashion. The rich were being taxed to oblivion (there is a direct reference to this in the film). If they were to keep up their lifestyles then they had to join the modern world and diversify their act. The old guard were losing influence. People were beginning to take notice of rock stars, film stars and entrepreneurs, who were a great deal more interesting to look at and to listen to. Cliff was in the Hit Parade and The Beatles were on their way. This film gives us a snapshot of this actually happening.