(1968) Directed by Roy Ward Baker; Written by Jimmy Sangster; Based on the stage play by Bill MacIlwraith; Starring: Bette Davis, Sheila Hancock, Jack Hedley, James Cossins, Christian Roberts and Elaine Taylor; Available on DVD
“I’ve never met a more professional person, but she was the most demanding person off the set.” – Jimmy Sangster on working with Bette Davis (from The Anniversary DVD commentary)
Free association time: when you hear “Hammer Films,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Okay, what’s the second thing? If you didn’t just repeat “horror” you win a kewpie doll.* While horror became Hammer’s bread and butter throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s, the little production company’s filmography has always been incredibly diverse, including swashbucklers, dramas, mysteries, sci-fi, comedies and more. A while back, I reviewed The Nanny, a slow-burn thriller starring Bette Davis that kept you guessing until the end. Three years later, Davis was again courted by Hammer to work on the black comedy, The Anniversary, where there’s no ambiguity about whom the antagonist is.
* Please allow up to 8-10 years for shipping and handling.
Former production manager turned screenwriter Jimmy Sangster had more than a decade’s experience writing screenplays for Hammer, including 1965’s The Nanny. At Hammer’s behest Sangster reluctantly* assumed the dual role of screenwriter and producer for The Anniversary. It was a troubled production from the start, with friction between original director Alvin Rakoff and Davis. Irritated with his prescribed methods of blocking, Davis ordered him fired** a week into filming. Although the film was now behind schedule and over budget, things went much better with veteran director Roy Ward Baker, whom Davis had met several years ago. Fresh off the directing job of Quatermass and the Pit (one of my personal favorites), Baker was forced to re-shoot Rackoff’s previously filmed scenes, instead of picking up where he left off. Although Davis had a reputation for being difficult behind the scenes, Baker commented she was always punctual, and remained professional when working with the other actors.
* Sangster’s wife wasn’t enamored with the prospect of her husband collaborating with Davis once more, threatening to leave if “that woman” came into the country again. She promptly made good on the promise. (ibid)
** According to Sangster, he was told by Fox executives that, “It’s not a Hammer Film. It’s not a Fox film. It’s a Bette Davis Film. She wants a director change? You change the director.” (ibid)
Based on Bill MacIlwraith’s stage play, The Anniversary lambastes dysfunctional family traditions, as three brothers gather to celebrate their parents’ anniversary. Although their father has been deceased for several years, their mother insists on the annual ritual of celebrating the date. In the opening scenes, the family members brace for the inevitable storm, as they and their significant others are subjected to a litany of verbal abuse by their dear mother. The eldest Taggart son, Henry (James Cossins), is a momma’s boy, still living at home and trying to live up to her expectations as the perfect son, albeit with an unfortunate fondness for women’s undergarments. He’s obedient to a fault, and ready to step in to assist her at a moment’s notice. Middle son, Terry (Jack Hedley) plans to emigrate to Canada with his wife Karen (Sheila Hancock) and their five children, where they can live an ocean away from his domineering mother. The youngest, Tom (Christian Roberts), is the family playboy who brings home a different fiancée every year. This time might be different, as his intended, Shirley (Elaine Taylor), isn’t about to go down without a fight.
Davis appeared to be enjoying every minute of screen time as the caustic, one-eyed matriarch, Mrs. Taggart,* who might be Hammer’s most awful monster. Armed only with her caustic wit and a forked tongue, she relies on mind games and well-timed insults to ensure her progeny remain wrapped around her little finger. I think the term “sadistic glee” was penned to describe Mrs. Taggart, who wields emotional blackmail like a trained assassin. She locates each individual’s weak spot, and proceeds to mount an individualized attack with surgical precision. It’s unsurprising that Davis has the lion’s share of the film’s terrific lines, but she does just as well conveying disdain and annoyance with a simple gesture or raised eyebrow. While everyone else avoids confrontations, she thrives off of making everyone uncomfortable in order to preserve her version of family unity. And just when we think she’s had her comeuppance at the film’s climax, we realize the redoubtable Mrs. Taggart has more than a few tricks left up her sleeve.
* Davis supplied her own colorful wardrobe, including custom-made eyepatches.
Despite being based on a stage play, Roy Ward Baker keeps the film’s pace brisk, without letting things get too stagey. Aside from the verbal gymnastics, Baker finds ways to avoid being too static, and not restrict the action to one set. The Anniversary featured all the right ingredients – swift direction, snappy dialogue and stellar performances (especially by Davis), but it wasn’t a critical or box office success at the time. The Anniversary is a grossly underappreciated gem in Hammer’s illustrious crown, long overdue for re-evaluation by film fans and Hammer-philes alike.