Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Hayley Mills Breaks Through to Stardom at Tiger Bay

One of the most enjoyable and touching dramas of its period, J. Lee Thompson’s Tiger Bay mixes elements of the burgeoning “kitchen sink” British dramas and an exciting chase adventure. Anchored by a truly remarkable debut by 13-year-old Hayley Mills, the 1959 film traces the exploits of tomboy Gillie Evans, whose curious, mischievous nature finds her abetting a young seafarer, Bronislav, who is on-the-run from the law. Adeptly visualizing the John Hawkesworth and Shelley Smith screenplay (from a short story by Noel Calef), Thompson does a fantastic job moving the story along while showcasing Mills and a host of fine performers to their best advantage and, as he would demonstrate post-Bay with hits such as The Guns of Navarone and Cape Fear, utilizes his second-to-none ability to slowly build suspense towards a powerful climax. Eric Cross’ evocative black and white cinematography immeasurably assists Thompson in setting the proper rural tone for the film, as his vivid camerawork fully brings to life the Cardiff and Wales locales, beautifully capturing a specific time and place.

Hayley Mills’ compelling, naturalistic work as Gillie completely captivates the viewer from first scene to last. Thompson visited John Mills prior to filming, and upon meeting Mills’ strikingly individual daughter decided to change the lead from a young boy to a girl. Thompson’s intuition paid off as, although untried as an actor prior to Bay, Hayley Mills effortlessly holds the screen in one of the best film debuts and child performances ever, displaying an innate understanding of the demanding role and how to illustrate Gillie’s every conflicting mood in an unforced manner (Thompson makes excellent use of close-ups to showcase Mills’ guileless approach in front of the camera). Sustaining a relaxed, beguiling performance style as she admirably reacts to her costars in a focused, believable fashion, Mills’ full investment in the character and each scenes draws the audience into Gillie’s plight quickly, then keeps viewers attentive as she faces a series of misadventures in and around the title location.

As Gillie, Mills can also be counted among the greatest liars in movies, never telegraphing to the audience she’s lying, or doing cute gestures or pauses to emphasize the fibbing; as Gillie, she simply and calmly lies, offering a masterclass in how to effectively be deceitful onscreen. Mills is especially gifted in this area during a couple cat-and-mouse interrogation scenes with her father, portraying Graham, the sly police superintendent intent on capturing Bronislav, but hindered in his efforts by Gillie’s misrepresentation of key facts. Hayley Mills does an expert job in appearing nonplussed as Gillie casually keeps denying any association with Bronislav, to the increasing frustration of Graham. For her original, outstanding efforts, Mills won the BAFTA award for Most Promising Newcomer to Film, a special award at the Berlin Film Festival and, significantly, the attention of Walt Disney who, after getting a look at the precocious teen in Bay offered her Pollyanna, leading to the last juvenile Oscar given to her, major stardom and a long tenure with the Disney Studios.

 In his first English-language film, the handsome, magnetic Horst Buchholz was at the outset of an impressive run of classics, following Bay with The Magnificent Seven, Fanny and One, Two, Three in 1960 and 1961. His youthful energy and earnest, sympathetic work allows him to create an irresistible figure in Bronislav, resulting in audiences being right with the anti-hero as he frantically attempts to uphold his freedom throughout the movie. In delineating the film’s central relationship, Buchholz maintains a beautiful chemistry with Mills, conveying a protective big-brother demeanor as their alliance deepens, along with a playfulness which provides some lighter moments amid the general tension befitting the storyline, while Laurie Johnson’s lush recurring theme music helps underscore the touching nature of this atypical relationship. There’s a wonderful scene early on wherein Gillie sings a choir solo to Bronislav in a lovely manner and, smiling, he responses “You’ve got a terrible voice” when it’s clear he’s very moved by her song, and Gillie grins right back at him, then proceeds to talk to him in an open, innocent manner, thereby displaying her trustworthy nature as their friendship is established. In addition to more endearing moments, Buchholz also aids the film’s dramatic essence by adeptly suggesting the conflict Bronislav faces in possibly ridding himself of the young charge who is making it more difficult for him to gain his freedom, with the audience wondering at times if Bronislav is capable of maintaining the loyalty Gillie clearly holds towards him. 

John Mills is properly intense and determined as Graham, becoming disarmingly fiercer as he narrows his search for Bronislav, while Meg Jenkins does nice work as Gillie’s first preoccupied, then progressively more concerned aunt. Yvonne Mitchell, one of British films’ top leading ladies of the era, scores strongly in her brief role as Bronislav’s mistress, Anya, conveying in a few moments both her attraction to the wayward lover who’s drawn to the sea, and the guilt and anger she holds towards him as she seeks out a more stable life for herself. Lastly, as in his most famous work in Dial M for Murder, Anthony Dawson does an effortless job in suggesting a jittery, unreliable nature at every moment as Anya’s new lover, Barclay, and it’s great fun to watch the lanky, sweaty suspect apprehensively interact with Graham as the case develops. In a couple of probing scenes, a viewer gets the impression that, even if Barclay is innocent of the crime central to the story then surely, based on Dawson’s slick interpretation, he must have done something in his past to justify a conviction.

A success upon release, the film gained, in addition to accolades for its young star, nominations for Best British Film and Best Film from Any Source by the British Academy. However, over the years Bay has been eclipsed by Hayley Mills’ higher-profile Disney output, specifically 1961’s smash hit The Parent Trap, which single-handedly made Mills a baby boomer icon. Attending a TCM Film Festival screening of Trap with a packed audience several years ago, with Mills in attendance for an interview prior to the screening, the crowd eagerly awaited Mills onscreen once more singing “Let’s Get Together” as Trap’s calculating twins, but reacted in lukewarm fashion when Bay clips were included as part of a Mills tribute TCM presented, as if most didn’t recognize the film, and while one viewer found it curious Mills was being justly celebrated at a class event as the key child star of her era, with only a passing acknowledgement given to her best role and performance. Fortunately, a subsequent screening a year or two later of Bay at the New Beverly Cienma revival house demonstrated plenty of film aficionados did exist to appreciate the merits of Bay, as the movie was warmly received by a large audience fully invested in Gillie’s adventures, from her early encounters with Bronislav until their moving final scenes together, based on the strong efforts of Thompson and a first-rate cast and crew. As for the film’s leading lady, outside of her more renowned successes, Hayley Mills is assured her place as one of the most gifted child actors in movies based on her singular, memorable work as Bay’s bold, contemplative heroine.


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