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May 17, 2016

Beat Girl - Restored and Revisited

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Edmond T. Greville - 1959
BFI Flipside Blu-ray/DVD two disc set

A while back, I had read that another home video company would be offering a complete version of Beat Girl "soon". As it turned out, it was the British Film Institute to the rescue. The version of Beat Girl many of us know is the lousy VHS tape, or the even worse DVD, where the scenes in the strip club appear to have been edited by someone handling a dull meat cleaver. The BFI set offers not only the restored film as seen in UK theaters in 1960, but two additional versions as well. While I wrote about Beat Girl about ten years ago, seeing the restored film has brought up questions and connections that didn't occur to me previously.

For those who are unfamiliar, the plot concerns a young woman who goes to art school by day, and hangs out with other "beat" kids at night, and coffee houses in between. Her father has returned from three months away with his new, twenty-four year old, French wife. The girl discovers that her step-mother use to be a stripper and sometimes relied on the kindness of strangers, as it were. As some kind of act of revenge, the girl declares herself to be emancipated, visits the worse strip joint in London to join the ranks of the ecdysiasts, until fate steps in.

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The screenplay began life as Striptease Girl until the censors demanded a few changes. Writer Dail Ambler began life as Betty Mabel Lilian Williams, gaining fame for her hard-boiled pulp fiction. At age 40, Ambler probably knew more about the habitu├ęs of Soho, than the emerging youth culture of the late Fifties. There is virtually nothing about a musical Ambler wrote, Take Me Over, from 1963, featuring the 1920s style band, The Temperance Seven. With many of the former restrictions gone, Night after Night after Night (1969), directed by schlockmeister Lindsay Shonteff, with a Jack the Ripper killer and more strippers would seem to offer pure, unbridled Ambler, with her last filmed screenplay. Even with revisions, Beat Girl was rated X, meaning that only those 16 and older could see the film in the UK. For those unfamiliar with the then British rating system, X was given out to films that were not pornographic. Jules and Jim was originally rated X, presumably for presenting a menage a trois. So the question is raised regarding the intended audience, when the fans of rising rock star, Adam Faith, are shut out. The X rating was for glimpses of bare breast in the strip club, a very erotic dance by the Haitian exotic performer, Pascaline, and the kids playing chicken with their heads on a railroad track while a train charges towards them. Reportedly, there was a queue for British X rated films forcing a delayed release while later films with Faith, Peter McEnery and Shirley Anne Field hit theaters first.

There is something going on between France and England that I can't get a handle on, and it's not just in the plot. Director Edmond T. Greville was a Frenchman who made several British films. British Gillian Hills, in the title role, made a career for herself as a French ye-ye singer.

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In the interview with Hills included here, Greville is described as appearing to be lost. Greville was 53 at the time he made Beat Girl, and far from the guy who began his career assisting Abel Gance, Rene Clair and E. A. Dupont in the silent era. My own inclination is that producer George Willoughby may have contributed significantly behind the scenes. While Greville was a veteran nearly at the end of his career, Willoughby showed a knack identifying promising talent - Clive Donner and Ted Kotcheff early on with Nothing but the Best and Wake in Fright. Willoughby also produced a couple of films directed by Terence Young. The first, Valley of the Eagles from 1951 had a tall actor, Christopher Lee, in a supporting role. Young will always be associated with James Bond, which invokes music by John Barry. Barry got the music scoring gig, his first, due to his work with Adam Faith, then on the brink of stardom. The title theme, featuring the distinctive guitar of Vic Flick may be familiar to some as sampled in Fatboy Slim's "Rockafeller Skank" back in 1998.

While George Willoughby didn't get a youngish director, he did the next best thing by getting cinematographer Walter Lassally his first mainstream British feature credit. Lassally was the cinematographer of the most famous films from the "Free Cinema" movement. The way the camera roams around in the basement nightclub while the kids dance recalls Lassally's work for Tony Richardson and Karel Reisz's "Momma Don't Allow". Lassally, who specialized in on location filming, shot one scene in the Chislehurst Caves, illuminated by candles, as well as some shots on the streets of Soho. The dance scene, done first under the credits, and repeated with different footage later, is remarkable in that it does not appear to have been formally choreographed. Hills and Oliver Reed dance together and apart, the camera wanders over to Peter McEnery and Shirley Anne Fields moving in and out of the frame. Hills loved the opportunity to dance without inhibition. I would have loved an in-depth interview or better, a commentary track by Lassally, but he discusses filming Beat Girl briefly online.

Hills also talks about how she related to the feelings of anger expressed by her character, Jennifer. Fifteen at the time of production, Hills' mother was on the set, forcing the need for a double to be filmed in a scene when Jennifer does an impromptu strip tease in front of her friends. I get the sense that Hills' appearance in Blow-Up, nude with Jane Birkin in that film's most notorious scene served as a declaration of personal freedom for the young actress.

What Beat Girl gets right is the sense of otherness felt by the kids. The slang might not be accurate, but Dail Ambler understood that pride in having a language and culture that separated the younger generation from their parents. Even so, it's dad David Farrar, who probably felt after working with Michael Powell that Beat Girl was a steep step down, who gets the best line. Busting in on Jennifer's late night party in a family home with all the charm of a mausoleum, Farrar smashes a record against the wall, and tosses Adam Faith's guitar to the door. Letting the youngsters know what's up, Farrar yells, "Go on. Get out of it, you jiving, driveling scum!".

The release version works best because it spends the least time on the square dad and his "Frenchie" young wife. Oliver Reed and Shirley Anne Field were both 21 at the time of filming, and just a couple years older than Peter McEnery and Adam Faith, age appropriate casting. Faith's rockabilly song, "Made You", was a hit in the UK. The generous BFI set also includes a couple of very short British films from the Fifties, the kind available very specialized collectors sixty years ago, from a time when the suggestion of nudity was enough to cause excitement for some viewers. And if that wasn't enough, the BFI also included a spooky short starring two guys who would later play Dracula, Christopher Lee and Ferdy Mayne. For myself, patience has been more than rewarded.

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The screen grabs are from the DVD, which like the Blu-ray, is not region locked.

Posted by peter at May 17, 2016 01:04 PM