If you’re a classic film fan, chances are you’ve at least heard of Hayley Mills and her work with the Disney organization during the 1960s. I will admit that while I remember watching The Parent Trap and Pollyanna early in my youth, I’ve always been weak on her films made outside of Hollywood. This month, to honor the release of Mills’ memoir, we’ll be spotlighting her work every Monday. First and foremost, it seemed like her screen debut, Tiger Bay, was the best place to start!
Tiger Bay follows the story of a young girl who finds herself bonded to a sailor (Horst Buchholz) as he tries to evade the police after murdering his fiancee. Along the way, they must hide from her family, a persistent police inspector (John Mills), and the prying eyes of the locals. J. Lee Thompson directs the movie from a script by John Hawkesworth.
Tiger Bay is perhaps most memorable as Hayley Mills’ screen debut in the role Gillie, the young lead. The actress was just thirteen years old at the time of the film’s release, the success of which resulted in her eventual move to the Walt Disney Company.
We all know there’s tremendous variety in the performances of child actors. Some are amazing… Others are… Just kids. Tiger Bay is a perfect debut for Mills who emerges out of the gate fully formed as the performer audiences would come to love in movies like The Parent Trap and Pollyanna.
As a character, Gillie is a perfect fit for the young girl. Mills feels completely and utterly natural in the role. She talks in interviews about taking to acting like a “duck to water” and it shows on screen with beautiful clarity. There’s an honesty in her performance which shines through on screen making Tiger Bay the gem it is.
Coming in 1959, Tiger Bay rides the crest of the British New Wave, a film movement also emerging during the tail end of the 1950s. These works emphasize a sense of gritty realism in the visuals and the narrative. These movies typically brought an awareness of the social status quo, showing real, working class neighborhoods and the struggles of the people within them. These movies are gritty and real. There is no escapism here.
While Tiger Bay isn’t often cited as a work of this movement, it most certainly shows a number of the common traits of The British New Wave, particularly the ‘Angry Young Man’ films.
The script pulls no punches about Gillie’s life in this sea side, industrial community and there’s a very real sense she’s been forgotten by the system. The same is true of Korchinsky (Buchholz), the ‘Angry Young Man’ of the narrative. These two are trapped in a rough world and they only have each other to lean on.
Buchholz brings a sense of humanity and sensitivity to Korchinsky, a character who could be a real animal. He does shoot his fiancee and he does kidnap Gillie. This isn’t a spoiler. In the hands of another actor, the narrative could strike a completely different tone, one of tension, or even of fear. However, as Korchinsky and Gillie bond throughout the narrative, the result is incredibly sweet. These two are outcasts who just don’t fit in and this is at the root of their bond.
Horst Buchholz made his name in the German film industry where he’d worked steadily since the early 1950s. Just one year after Tiger Bay’s release, he would make his Hollywood debut in the 1960 classic, The Magnificent Seven. Many will also recognize him from his work in movies like Fanny and One, Two, Three.
Meanwhile, the presence and casting of Mills’ father John also contributes to making Tiger Bay the intimate, special film it is. While John Mills doesn’t have quite as much narrative lifting as his daughter and Buchholz, he’s very much a grounding force, not just for the narrative, but also Hayley. The scenes the two share tap into a sense of emotionality which is aided by their personal relationship. His feelings, his disappointment and his struggles in dealing with this young girl shine through. At the same time, she presents a comfortable and ambitious performance in his presence. Every scene they share is special. The deep nature of their bond shines through and makes both of them better every time the camera rolls.
Tiger Bay is a bit of a deep cut of British cinema which I found an enjoyable and eye-opening experience. If you’re at all a fan of Hayley Mills’ work in the Disney organization, make sure you check this little picture out. Tiger Bay is a work of love showing the depth and power of the British New Wave. There’s a lot to love in this one.
Tiger Bay is available to stream on The Criterion Channel.
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