Saturday, 15 September 2018

Reflections on ... The Beauty Jungle (1964)

“From the Boardwalk... to Monte Carlo Villas... the inside story of the men behind the beauty racket!”
Recently watched: The Beauty Jungle (1964), a fabulously seedy and tawdry long-forgotten British melodrama. Filmed in garish colour, it’s a sensational exposé into the exploitative and degrading secret world of the beauty contest con. 

Janette Scott stars as naïve young typist Shirley. On a seaside holiday with her girlfriends in Weston-Super-Mare, Shirley is “discovered” by hustling, hard-bitten local reporter-on-the-make Dan (Ian Hendry). Taking more than a professional interest in the leggy beauty and eager for some column inches, Dan encourages her to enter a small-time boardwalk beauty competition. From there, Shirley becomes addicted to the glamour, artifice and attention and Dan (now her manager) falls helplessly in love with her. 

Courtesy of campy hairdresser Lucius (an outrageous old-school gay stereotype), Shirley goes from demure brunette to Jayne Mansfield-esque platinum blonde sex goddess with a cotton candy bouffant ‘do. Abandoning her disapproving family, priggish but dependable fiancé and job in the typing pool in Bristol, Shirley plunges headlong into the mad whirl of beauty pageants, graduating from local contests like Cardiff's Brigitte Bardot and Pontypool's Crumpet Quest to glitzy big-scale national competitions like the Rose of England Beauty Pageant and finally the pinnacle – the Miss Globe contest in Cannes! Just how ruthless the corrupt dog-eat-dog realm of beauty pageants is comes as a nasty shock to poor disillusioned Shirley and The Beauty Jungle builds to a devastating climax! 

Like many movies of its vintage, The Beauty Jungle promises more tantalizing sexploitation thrills than it can possibly deliver. The film is tame by contemporary standards (it frequently resembles an early Carry On movie. Note that Sid James gets fourth billing on some posters but in fact he makes only a fleeting cameo appearance, playing himself) but evokes a nicely sleazy atmosphere. The print screened on TV was evocatively faded, scratched and grainy - as if viewed through a retro Instagram filter! The rise-and-fall show biz cautionary tale theme (whereby the heroine learns she should never have left her home town in the first place) is certainly overly-familiar. Completely overlooked today, Janette Scott was a popular leading lady of the time – and the daughter of national treasure / character actress Thora Hird! Scott retired from films by 1966 when she married jazz crooner Mel Tormé.  Her performance - a bit hesitant, a bit remote and detached - is beguiling in the Kim Novak acting style. The film is almost stolen from her, though, by Edmund Purdom as slick, perma-smiling lounge lizard movie star Rex Carrick - who has a dark secret! I was totally unfamiliar with this handsome, dimpled British actor who was briefly a promising “golden boy” leading man at MGM in the mid-fifties (he co-starred with Lana Turner in The Prodigal in 1955!). Purdom’s reputation for being difficult, scandals (he had an affair with Tyrone Powers wife!) plus a series of box office flops curtailed his Hollywood stint and he spent the rest of his career making European cheapies (like this one!). The Beauty Jungle is such a great lurid pulp-y title (invoking the 1955 Jayne Mansfield crime drama Female Jungle), but when the film was released for the American exploitation / grindhouse circuit it was re-titled to the far more innocuous Contest Girl!

Saturday, 8 September 2018

Reflections on ... Viva Las Vegas (1964)

From the Facebook event page:

Elvis Presley died on 16 August 1977. In theory, Lobotomy Room should have organized a 40th anniversary tribute last year – but it totally slipped our minds until it was too late! Instead – ever perverse – we’re commemorating the 41st anniversary of The King’s death at the August film club on 15 August with a screening of Viva Las Vegas (1964)! 

Let’s face it: ALL Elvis Presley films are terrible - but Viva Las Vegas is easily the least worst! It’s filmed in glorious lurid Technicolour, features some sensational musical numbers and is set in glittering, neon-lit “old Vegas” in its kitsch atomic-era prime. (Trust me: Las Vegas does NOT look like this anymore!). Best of all, Viva Las Vegas co-stars Presley’s greatest leading lady – definitive sex kitten-gone-berserk, that red-headed vixen Ann-Margret! 

Lobotomy Room Goes to the Movies is the FREE monthly film club downstairs at Fontaine’s bar devoted to Bad Movies We Love (our motto: Bad Movies for Bad People), specializing in the kitsch, the cult and the camp! Doors to the basement Bamboo Lounge open at 8 pm. Film starts at 8:30 pm prompt. We can accommodate thirty people maximum on film nights. Arrive early to grab a seat and order a drink! There will be a special Elvis-themed peanut butter-and-banana cocktail on the night!

Yes, Elvis’ cinematic oeuvre is notoriously bad but this one is the best by a long shot. Viva Las Vegas was Elvis' most commercially successful film, it looks spectacular (it's got that luxe better-than-life, candy-coloured Technicolour look of the era.  Ann-Margret’s shade of orange-y pink strawberry blonde hair, for example, exists nowhere in nature), memorable songs (plus some undeniably mediocre ones) and it offers a glorious glimpse of what glittering Las Vegas looked like in the early 1960s. (Pretty much every casino glimpsed here has been razed long ago. Their neon signs are probably preserved in Vegas' neon graveyard). 

Most significantly, there is genuine smoldering chemistry between Elvis and his definitive leading lady Ann-Margret, who more than matches him for charisma, sensuality and wanton shake appeal. (His second greatest leading lady would be white-lipsticked pop siren Nancy Sinatra in Speedway (1968) four years later. Having said that, I’ve never seen Wild in the Country (1961) which intriguingly partners Elvis with pouty and perverse nymphette Tuesday Weld).

Elvis and Ann-Margret famously had a romantic relationship during the making of Viva Las Vegas. This has always put Ann-Margret in a tricky position: you get the impression she yearns to openly discuss their romance (and perhaps claim she was the great love of his life), but Elvis was engaged to Priscilla Beaulieu at the time, making Ann-Margret "the other woman" in this triangle. (Elvis and Priscilla would marry in 1967.  Elvis would apparently confess he regretted never marrying Ann-Margret. I wonder how that made Priscilla feel?). At the very least, Viva Las Vegas initiated a 14-year friendship that lasted until the end of Elvis' life. He would send Ann-Margret an elaborate guitar-shaped floral arrangement every time she opened a new show in Vegas for the rest of his life. Ann-Margret was also reportedly the only Hollywood co-star to attend Elvis’ funeral in 1977.

The plot of Viva Las Vegas feels perfunctory, an afterthought, something that could have been scrawled on the back of a cocktail napkin. Narrative strands are introduced and dropped. Elvis Presley is Lucky Jackson and Ann-Margret is Rusty Martin. (Those names!). It begins as a romantic triangle with Lucky and his suave rival Count Elmo Mancini (Cesare Denova) vying for the affections of pert swimming instructor Rusty. This is quickly forgotten: in an Elvis Presley film, there’s never any real doubt over who will get the girl and the Count seems to just shrug good naturedly in defeat. Rusty and Lucky’s first date montage is sublimely kitsch. It encompasses multiple costume changes, a helicopter ride over the Hoover dam, doing wildly dangerous death wish motorcycle stunts (Ann-Margret climbs atop her moving bike to do the Watusi!), having an inexplicable faux Western shoot-out and water-skiing (I cherish the ultra-fake rear projection behind them during the water-skiing segment!). Aspiring race car driver Lucky, though, urgently needs money to buy a new engine for his car, so he can compete in the upcoming Grand Prix Race. He hopes to win it by entering the hotel’s talent contest. (He’s been working as a waiter at the same hotel where Rusty gives swimming lessons. I forgot to mention that). But Rusty has entered it too, so they’re competing directly against each other, which in theory should threaten their burgeoning romance! SPOILER ALERT: Lucky wins and Rusty comes in second – but it doesn’t really impact their relationship in any meaningful way. (In the talent competition Elvis belts the glorious title tune surrounded by showgirls and Ann-Margret performs the jaw-droppingly camp “Appreciation” burlesque in white fur backed by male dancers. This is meant to be a lowly amateur talent contest for hotel employees, but their musical numbers are lavish, huge-budget extravaganzas!). The finale ramps-up the suspense by focusing on Lucky racing in the Las Vegas Grand Prix.  Gee – do you think Elvis will win?

It may sound surprising now, but in pop culture terms, Ann-Margret was a hotter property in ‘63 than Elvis himself. Viva Las Vegas was only her fourth film and there was a buzz of excitement over this incendiary emergent starlet (whose image then was a hybrid of "female Elvis" and "new Marilyn Monroe"). Elvis himself had made his film debut in 1956 and already had a slew of forgettable movies under his belt (Viva Las Vegas was already his 15th film. To give an indication of how fast Elvis was cranking ‘em out at the time, in the same year as Viva Las Vegas Elvis also released two more films: Kissin’ Cousins and Roustabout).

Elvis' corrupt manager Colonel Parker was keenly aware of Ann-Margret's "threat" to his client's primacy and resented director George Sidney including so many adoring, lingering close-ups of the female lead. (It didn’t help that Sidney had directed Ann-Margret in her triumphant breakthrough role in Bye, Bye Birdie the year before). Parker wanted to ensure Elvis was the centre of attention! This was meant to be an Elvis Presley film, not an Ann-Margret one! As Penny Stallings writes in her 1978 book Flesh and Fantasy: “Elvis Presley, for instance, was absolutely crazy for Ann-Margret while they were making Viva Las Vegas together till one of the film’s assistant directors became so smitten with the lady himself that he ended up virtually cutting Elvis out of the movie. Elvis eventually warmed up to his co-star again once the Colonel had the lovesick assistant canned.” Elvis may have been in love with Ann-Margret, but business is business and reportedly some of her screen time wound-up on the cutting room floor to restore balance. An example: we see Elvis croon the ballad “Today, Tomorrow and Forever” alone. That was originally meant to be a duet between them.

/ Above: the talent contest /

Some unexpectedly sexist moments in Viva Las Vegas: Rusty is introduced shapely legs first, rising to a brazen crotch and ass shot of Ann-Margret mincing past in tiny white hotpants. It’s a moment as lecherous as anything out of a Russ Meyer sexploitation film! (She’s taken her car into the garage where Lucky works. Her first line in the film is, “Excuse me. Can you check my motor? It’s whistling”). And for no good reason, Rusty’s whole demeanour changes mid-way through the film. When Lucky first pursues her, she’s sassy, smart and independent (in “The Lady Loves Me” duet, she pushes him in the swimming pool – guitar and all - for making advances!). Towards the end, with the big race impending, out of nowhere Rusty turns into a silly nuisance getting in the men’s way, the red-headed equivalent of the dumb blonde stereotype. Character consistency and development is not a priority in an Elvis film!

Really, I hadn’t re-visited Viva Las Vegas for many years before scheduling it for the Lobotomy Room cinema club in August and it’s much better than I remembered. In fact, it’s 85-minutes of escapist bliss! If you haven’t watched Elvis onscreen in a while, it’s a revelation what a good, relaxed and self-mocking comedic performer he can be given the chance. A particular highlight is when Elvis sings the Ray Charles rhythm-and-blues song' "What'd I Say?" in a nightclub where the dance floor is a giant roulette wheel. (It’s been noted that in this sequence Elvis plays an electric guitar which isn’t plugged-in). Elvis and Ann-Margret frolic wearing coordinated pale creamy lemon-yellow outfits (a suit and cocktail dress, respectively) and look so incomparably gorgeous together they single handedly give heteronormativity a good name. With her manic energy, Ann-Margret devours the screen! In particular, she attacks her musical numbers. Witness the unforgettably sexy spectacle of tigress Ann-Margret cavorting in complete abandon in nothing but a tight sweater and black leotard at her dance class. (This bit anticipates her freak-outs in Ken Russell's Tommy (1975)). It was interesting gauging the audiences’ reactions afterwards. Maybe it was the after-effects of Fontaine’s potent peanut butter-and-banana cocktails, but I think everyone left with a crush on Ann-Margret. The film vividly captures her when she just may have been the prettiest girl in the world. In fact, maybe Viva Las Vegas is an Ann-Margret film after all!

Further reading:

I saw Ann-Margret perform at The Stardust Casino in 2005 - one of the kitschiest, campiest experiences of my life! It was like a fever dream! She was 64 at the time and still every inch a sex kitten. She sang two Elvis songs: "A Little Less Conversation" and - yes! - "Viva Las Vegas." (She also sang Shania Twain's "Man I Feel Like a Woman" while go-go dancing around a Harley Davidson). Read the full scene report here.

In 2016 we screened the truly wild Ann-Margret juvenile delinquent b-movie Kitten with a Whip (1964). Read about it here.

I recently spoke my brains to To Do List website about Lobotomy Room, the cinema club - and my determination to return a bit of raunch and "adult situations" to London nightlife! Read it here.

Dates for your social calendar:

International supermodel. Warhol Superstar. Moon Goddess. Velvet Underground chanteuse. Heroin-ravaged punk diva. Possessor of the most haunting wraith cheekbones of the 20th century. The eternally enigmatic Nico (née Christa Päffgen) was all of these and more! 2018 represents a double anniversary for the inscrutable Marlene Dietrich of Punk: she was born 80 years ago (16 October 1938) and died 30 years ago (18 July 1988). On Wednesday 19 September the Lobotomy Room film club pays tribute to the doomed femme fatale’s memory with a screening of the 1995 documentary Nico Icon

Hosted by Graham Russell, Lobotomy Room Goes to the Movies is the FREE monthly film club downstairs at Fontaine’s bar in Dalston devoted to Bad Movies We Love (our motto: Bad Movies for Bad People), specializing in the kitsch, the cult and the queer! Doors to the basement Bamboo Lounge open at 8 pm. Film starts at 8:30 pm prompt. We can accommodate thirty people maximum on film nights. Arrive early to grab a seat and order a drink! NOTE: this screening is looking full already! Details.

Revel in sleaze, voodoo and rock’n’roll - when incredibly strange dance party Lobotomy Room returns to the basement Bamboo Lounge of Dalston’s most unique nite spot Fontaine’s! Friday 28 September!

Lobotomy Room! Where sin lives! A punkabilly booze party! Sensual and depraved! A spectacle of decadence! A Mondo Trasho evening of Beat, Beat Beatsville Beatnik Rock’n’Roll! Bad Music for Bad People! Rockabilly Psychosis! Wailing Rhythm and Blues! Twisted Tittyshakers! Punk cretin hops! White Trash Rockers! Kitsch! Exotica! Curiosities and Other Weird Shit! Think John Waters soundtracks, or Songs the Cramps Taught Us, hosted by Graham Russell. Expect desperate stabs from the jukebox jungle! Savage rhythms to make you writhe and rock! Vintage erotica projected on the big screen all night for your adult viewing pleasure! 

One FREE signature Lobotomy Room cocktail for the first twenty entrants! 

Admission: gratuit - that’s French for FREE!

Lobotomy Room: Faster. Further. Filthier.

It’s sleazy. It’s grubby. It’s trashy - you’ll love it!

A tawdry good time guaranteed!