"She [Laura Henderson] was like a mother to us all. She was always round the dressing rooms looking after our welfare and had a good relationship with the cast. Van Damm was equally as caring and took a great deal of interest in his dancers and provided strict chaperons."
--Doris Barry, original Windmill Girl (quoted in Goldsmith).
In 1932, wealthy widow Laura Henderson purchased and renovated the Windmill Theater. Its non-stop musical review, Revudeville, made it a crowd-pleaser, but its success diminished as other theaters copied the format. In attempt to maintain her club’s popularity, Henderson introduced nudity, of the sort permitted in contemporary Parisian nightclubs.
England’s rigid censorship prohibited nude dancing, so the Windmill show featured clothed performers and musical reviews, but included artistic tableaux which featured nude models. It proved a hit, especially as England headed to war.
As the theater's stage and audience were set below ground level, it continued to operate during the Blitz, and the company often slept there. The club remained popular in more-or-less its original form until 1964. After that, the nature of the live entertainment changed.
Mrs. Henderson Presents, released in 2005, tells the story of the Windmill’s origins and the glory days of Revudeville. It depicts real people and times, though the film acknowledges that it is "inspired by a true story." It’s an entertaining mixture of comedy and drama, but no docudrama.
Some spoilers follow.
The film focuses on Dame Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins as Henderson and the club’s manager, Vivian Van Damm. They give, of course, excellent performances. Henderson throws herself into things, determined to enjoy the remainder of her life. She takes impromptu trips to France and unsettles the stuffy Lord Chamberlain by using the word "pussy." She and Van Damm bicker lovingly. Much of the film has a light touch. As World War II progresses, more serious aspects emerge.
Henderson gives some frankly questionable advice, based on her limited experience of her girls' lives and her feelings for the soldiers. I do not know how accurate the resulting drama is; reportedly, the dancers rarely met their public. It’s a plausible story, however, and shows us another side to the titular character’s mix of naiveté and exuberance. Initially charming, her character risks becoming tiresome until the conflict permits us to see some depth.
Later still, Henderson tells the tale of why she wanted such a club to exist. We know from the start—- as other characters do not—- that she has mourned her only son, who died in World War I when barely out of his teens. Much later, she decided to clean up his room, and she found a French postcard. She decided that no young man should die without the opportunity to, at least, observe an actual nude woman.
The film’s drama contrasts nicely with more spectacular moments. These include realistic recreations of the Blitz. It works, though the compositing is obvious at times. Of course, the film also shows us the Windmill’s famous tableaux.
Some prove inspirational, while others are merely silly. One contains uncomfortable racial elements, entirely typical of the era. Most seem innocent and far removed from the pole and lap dance-offering strip clubs of more recent times. The performers also have attractive but realistic bodies. I wish the film had been a bigger success, if only to influence current movie trends. These young women are refreshing and more interesting to see than the artificial surgical sculptures that populate most Hollywood films.
Middle-aged Hoskins, too, gets a brief, full-frontal moment. It’s in context and shouldn't be too much reality for most viewers.
Mrs. Henderson Presents is not without its flaws. Van Damme’s wife appears in order to force—- awkwardly-— a conflict, and then we never see her again. Other bits of plot development come and go too easily and with too little thought. Still, the film succeeds more often than it falters.
I first heard about the Windmill from a Canadian veteran of the Second World War. Along with accounts of combat and hardship, he recalls fondly visiting the club while on leave in England. The movie strikes the same tone as his tale. Mrs. Henderson Presents depicts a light, imperfectly bright moment in a dark time.
Directed by Stephen Frears
Written by Martin Sherman and David and Kathy Rose
Judi Dench...Laura Henderson
Bob Hoskins...Vivian Van Damm
Thelma Barlow...Lady Conway
Christopher Guest...Lord Cromer
Viven Goldsmith. "Windmill: Always Nude But Never Rude." The Telegraph. November 24, 2005. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/arts/main.jhtml?xml=/arts/2005/11/24/bfwind24.xml
"Memories of the Windmill." Devoted: A William Young fansite. http://www.williamyoung.biz/mrshenderson/mhp_memories.htm