Two movies about artists were shown on free screens recently, released a year apart in 1960 and 1961, The Rebel, with Tony Hancock, and The World of Suzie Wong with Nancy Kwan and William Holden. Both are interesting for their attitudes to what being an artist meant or still means. Holden in TWOSW plays Robert Lomax, an architect trying to make a living as an painter instead, who sets up a studio in in a Hong Kong brothel, where he paints his prostitute muse – Kwan’s Mei Ling while wearing a white shirt and a tie!
Hancock in The Rebel, trying to make the jump from television to big screen success plays another wannabee artist trying to escape something, his own personality perhaps, in a film that mocks himself as much as it tries to mock modern art.
The films are only a year apart, but Lomax, painting in a brothel dressed as an accountant, couldn’t be further away from Tony’s (Hancock’s) desperate bohemianism. The joke is supposed to be that Tony’s work is terrible and modern art is fake, and it is his disillusioned artist friend Paul (Paul Massie) that is revealed as the genius. But today, you might think Tony’s work is not without a certain loose charm, despite himself. Paul’s conventional paintings resemble in many ways Lomax’s occasionally glimpsed competent portraits, where taking up as an artist is the same as changing to any (literally) white collar job.
TWOSW makes barely any attempt at social commentary, and the setup of freer thinking artist revealing the degradation of Hong Kong bar life is not pursued. It descends rapidly into a depressingly less likely love story, made worse by the sidestepping of virtually all of the issues it could have raised. Also depressing is Tony’s acceptance that his work is rubbish, just when his furious reinvention of himself seems to have entirely and believably succeeded.
Bizarrely the only thing left now that appears artistically radical today, is Lomax’s shirt and tie painting gear. The idea of dressing to paint in more than practical protection would seem absurd to most now.
Will I be wearing a tie to create art? I have. And I will.