Twentieth Century Fox has recently started releasing some vintage classic films from its Fox Cinema Archives. Staircase, a little-seen film from 1969 starring Rex Harrison and Richard Burton as a pair of aging hairdressers, comes to DVD for the first time.
Based on Charles Dyer’s Broadway play about a middle-aged gay couple living in London, Staircase was directed by Stanley Donen (On the Town, Singin’ in the Rain, Funny Face, Charade, Bedazzled) and featured a musical score by Dudley Moore (10, Arthur). Staircase is a glimpse into the lives of long-term companions Charlie (Harrison) and Harry (Burton). The two work together as hairdressers in Harry’s East End barbershop. The movie was actually filmed in Paris, so stars Harrison and Burton (and Burton’s wife Elizabeth Taylor, who was nearby filming The Only Game in Town) could avoid British tax laws.
Charlie and Harry live upstairs above the barbershop, in a rather grim and grimy-looking flat which also houses Harry’s aging and ailing mother (Cathleen Nesbitt). As the film progresses, the audience learns about the flamboyant Charlie’s former forays into acting, his daughter from a brief, prveious marriage, and his fears about his upcoming trial, where he must answer charges of trying to proposition a police officer. Harry is the more staid and steady of the two. He feels both love and duty towards his mother, but also trapped, and tries to mother-hen both her and Charlie, sometimes with unhappy results. The set design provides little clues to each man’s character, with paired bathrobes hanging on pegs side-by-side – one a flashy silk with an Asian design, the other with drab dull stripes. It’s not too difficult to guess whose is whose.
The film wasn’t well-received when it was released, as critics and audiences alike seemed to react poorly to Harrison’s and Burton’s performances. They may have been expecting a more sprightly, campy farce, along the lines of La Cage Aux Folles (or its American version, The Birdcage). Donen does open the film with a short drag number, performed by Michael Rogers and Royston Starr. Advertising for the film contained the taglines “Whoops!” and “Can this marriage last?” Staircase, although it has some funny moments, is a more heart-felt attempt to portray a long-term relationship – and explore loneliness and why some people may (or may not) stay together.
Harrison gives the more broad performance of the two, with campy mannerisms. His chararcter also has the habit of peppering his speech with British slang and funny phrases:
“Oh, blood, bowels, and bestiality.”
“God save us all and Oscar Wilde.”
“I beg yours, I beg yours, rub-a-dub.” (Rub-a-dub is rhyming slang for a pub, public house).
Staircase is letterboxed, with an aspect ratio of 1.33:1, and a running time of 98 minutes. Subtitles are available, but unfortunately no other extras are included on the disc.
Burton, who could seem hammy in many of his best-known films roles, is quite restrained here. Harry is full of emotion which is constantly simmering just below the surface. He is quite touching while he is caring for his mother, and both strong and ridiculous as the barber who wears a turban made of bandages over his head for most of the film to conceal his shame at his baldness. The two stars bicker and insult each other constantly during the course of the film, sometimes quite cruelly. The audience may not end up liking Charlie and Harry very much, but they also won’t want to look away.