The Pleasure Garden is a 38-minute black and white film made in London in 1952 and released the following year. Set in an overgrown garden dotted with classical statuary, it pits the forces of life, love and light against the dark, dreary and draconian. I caught this gently surreal curio on DVD recently and after reading up on the story behind it, I became so overwhelmed by its manifold oddities that, as I often do when I’m overwhelmed, I made a list.
1. The setting is actually the ruins of the Crystal Palace in South London. Once the palace itself burnt down in 1936, the landscaped garden was left to run wild and it was the venue for rock festivals throughout the 1970s.
2. For a film made in 1952 (this was when rationing was still in place, remember), The Pleasure Garden is extremely radical. It is overwhelmingly on the side of free expression, sexual exploration and personal liberation. It even presents the highly topical issue of same-sex marriage: two near-naked men are seen lining up to have their union solemnised, flummoxing John Le Mesurier, the embodiment of conservatism and officialdom, as he searches the statute books for a precedent.
3. The film’s creator, James Broughton, was only a part-time filmmaker, identifying primarily as a poet. And despite the deeply English sensibilities evident in The Pleasure Garden, Broughton was American.
4. It features Lindsay Anderson, better known as a film director (If…, O Lucky Man, etc).
5. It is one of the first films to star Hattie Jacques (at the time married to John Le Mesurier), later to find fame in the Carry On films, often as a busty matron puzzled by Kenneth Williams’ resistance to her advances.
6. Hattie Jacques. Dressed as a fairy. Dancing.
7. The forces of good and evil, as Broughton sees them, are conveniently colour-coded in light and dark, the latter dressed like undertakers. The dramatic climax is a literal tug-of-war between the two camps.
8. The Pleasure Garden won the Prix de Fantasie Poetique in Cannes in 1954, Broughton receiving the award from the hands of Jean Cocteau.
9. It features an actor (at the time, James Broughton’s lover) called Kermit Sheets.
10. Kermit Sheets is not an assumed name.
For all of its strangeness and bravery, I wish I could say I liked The Pleasure Garden more. Unfortunately I have a low whimsy threshold (I would rather eat glass than watch Amélie again) and if you took the whimsy out of The Pleasure Garden you’d be left with an empty film canister. Bustling busywork, sledgehammer satire, scampering in the long grass accompanied by antic woodwinds… it’s just not my thing. I would have happily passed it on for you to make your own judgment, however The Pleasure Garden isn’t available online; hopefully the following screen shots will give you some idea:
It struck me that what Broughton actually created was a filmic fête galante. Boucher and other French Rococo artists placed their courting couples amid antique sculptures in idealised gardens, using classical imagery as a cover for modern ideas. So too does Broughton, aligning his dangerously unorthodox message with acceptably pre-Christian imagery. One of his later films is entitled The Gardener of Eden, a good description of Broughton himself, animated as he was by a prelapsarian celebration of joy and freedom. It was a state of mind that refused to accept the bibilical account of original sin leading to the introduction of shame, but rather saw shame itself as the sin.
Broughton, who died on this day in 1999, had an intriguing career which climaxed in The Bed, a 1968 cult film which depicted everything that might happen in or around the titular piece of furniture. He is the subject of a forthcoming documentary, Big Joy, and as is customary in these troubled times for independent films, there is a trailer available before the film is fully financed. Along with interviewees like George Kuchar, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Armistead Maupin, there are a few seconds of The Pleasure Garden: