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Hammer Glamour

Review by: 
Blackgloves
Author: 
Marcus Hearn
Genre: 
Horror
Publication Date: 
2009
Publisher: 
Titan Books
Bottom Line: 
5

‘INTRODUCING THE MOST BEAUTIFUL GIRLS IN THE WORLD!’ screams the headline to a 1965 illustrated brochure produced by Hammer Films Productions. The brochure newly announces pre-production on the company’s latest proposed crowd-pleaser: a sweaty dinosaur epic entitled “One Million Years BC”. Hammer’s celebrated poster artist at the time, Tom Chantrell, has illustrated this forthcoming colour extravaganza with a typically lurid drawing depicting a number of leggy, half-naked young women in various decidedly un-Neolithic glamour puss poses!
 
By the mid-sixties, this was all part of the company’s long-established method for scaring up backers who might offer financial support for films that, often, were not even as yet written, let alone actually committed to celluloid.  But, as Marcus Hearn -- archive consultant to the present-day incarnation of Hammer Films, and co-author (with Alan Bates) of  “The Hammer Story” -- ably establishes among the one-hundred-and-sixty, glossy large-format (290mm x 240mm) pages of his latest coffee table-bound hardback book: “Hammer Glamour” (an authorised tribute to Hammer’s female stars) -- this process had a history of development that started back in the company’s earliest days, with imported ‘bad girl’ talent such as  Barbara Payton (“Four Sided Triangle” 1953) or Eva Bartok (Spaceways” 1953), and home-grown ‘cheesecake’ totty like Vera Miles (“Quatermass 2” 1957).
 
Hearn’s introductory pages, liberally adorned -- as is the rest of this lavish (and quite beautifully produced) book published by Titan Books -- with a variety of photographs (many previously unpublished), publicity stills, screen shots and formal portraits from Hammer’s voluminous archives, as well as the private collections of some of the interviewees from within its shiny pages, give us a unique perspective on the history of this important Company; how its fortunes were, too a large and usually unrecognised extent, just as surely built on the finely-tuned publicity machine that enmeshed its many female stars, as they were by the hype surrounding the talent of world famous actors like Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.
 
It also -- almost incidentally -- gives us a revealing overview of how women came to be represented in film throughout the history of the company. Hearn’s title, “Hammer Glamour”, comes from Hammer’s many internally produced corporate Christmas cards, which, every year featured the company’s latest discovery caught in an alluring onset pose (the one reproduced here features tragic starlet, Susan Denberg). From its earliest days, Hammer Films came to rely on several established templates to which its female stars were expected to conform and mould their public personas around; ideals of femininity which were partly decided by the nature of the material itself (the audience-thrilling mixture of sex, blood and Horror) and partly by the various routes by which the company went about casting its female talent in the first place. This resulted in a catalogue of films gilded, in the main, with a host of scintillating -- as Hearn so succinctly puts it in his introduction -- ‘continental sex kittens, Hollywood film stars, and provincial English girls.’
 

But this is hardly some dry, dusty, feminist academic analysis of women in the British cinema, though.  After a scene-setting eight-page introduction  illustrated with  stills and publicity grabs from the company’s mid-sixties heyday, when contracted  Hollywood actress Ursula  Andress (already a huge name after her iconic appearance in the first James Bond movie, “Dr. No”) was made the centre of a massive marketing campaign for Hammer’s adaptation of H. Rider Haggard’s mystical adventure story, “She”; and  newcomer Raquel Welch  became the face around which Tom Chantrell’s  aforementioned publicity brochure for “One Million Years BC” was based  -- the book is divided into fifty portraits of  Hammer Films’ most revered, and sometimes most unjustly overlooked, female stars, along with an eight page appendix consisting of smaller capsule assessments of  some of the company’s  supporting female artists, often actresses who are not often today associated with the studio, such as Billie Whitelaw (“Hell is a City” 1960 )  or Liz Fraser (“Watch it Sailor!” 1961).
 
The fifty profiles that make up the main substance of this book are arranged in alphabetical order, placing Andress and Welch at either end. The layout sees each actress get at least one full-page picture portrait -- most are in colour but a few are in monochrome -- which have been derived from either movie stills, studio photo shoots or else are makeshift glamour shots photographed on the back lot of Bray studios, often snatched between filming sessions. Everyone included also gets a minimum of one page of biographical text run alongside their portrait on the facing page (Hearn’s text, a light but informative rundown of the highlights of each actress's film career, followed by a description of their most memorable scene in a Hammer film, and concluding with a short biographical sketch of their life since that time). We learn during the course of Hearn’s interviews with the likes of Barbara Ewing (“Dracula Has Risen From the Grave” 1968) and Vera Miles, that Hammer employed its own staff photographers who would often snatch a quick glamour shot to promote the film they were, at that moment, still in the process of making, the actresses being expected to provide their own onset 'glamour-kit' for this express purpose! Thus, many of these entries also feature amusing back lot photos such as the shot of Veronica Carlson sharing a carton of milk with Peter Cushing on the set of “Frankenstein Must be Destroyed” 1969 -- each posing with a smile, straw in mouth, on either side of the frame.
 
The main bulk of the book, as you would expect, is taken up with the extraordinary photographic reproductions accompanying Hearn's respectful biographies of each actress. The photos are a well-chosen mixture of conventional Hollywood-style glamour shots (the polished sheen of Andress, and that career-launching, legs akimbo pose of Raquel Welch in her fur bikini); the innocent, quaintly old-fashioned head-and-shoulders portraits of  the likes of Veronica Carlson (“Dracula Has Risen from the Grave” 1968, “Frankenstein Must be Destroyed” 1969); or the often irreverent back lot shots of -- among others -- Hammer’s stills man, Tom Edwards. While the company gained most of its box office success  mining the associated sparkle of their under-contract but often less-than-willing Hollywood actresses, trading on the polished sheen provided by the likes of professional stills photographer Pierre Loigi, it was the more informal work, often snatched in a hurry while the then lesser-known actresses in the Hammer roster relaxed between takes, which now seems charged with the most inherent personality and character, and which best illustrate the Hammer aesthetic. Ironically, it is Edwards’ shots that sometimes reveal the living person behind the obscuring glamorous image, and, in passing, adds yet another retrospective layer of mystique to the Hammer brand. Hearn’s chapter on the beautiful Barbara Shelley (a veteran of eight Hammer films including “The Gorgon” 1964 and “Dracula Prince of Darkness” 1966), for instance,  includes a full-page (and rather conventional) glamour image of the actress, bedecked in a fur drape and little else, but it is Tom Edwards’ lovely informal portrait of Shelly on the set of  “Quatermass and the Pit” 1967 (included inside the book, but also reproduced on the back-cover beneath the sultry Madeline Smith dust jacket) which seems to offer the most insight into the sparkling personality within, enhancing the beauty of the image all the more.
 
Barbara Shelley, being such an iconic name in the Hammer cannon, and having appeared in eight films for the company (more than anyone else featured in these pages), not unreasonably is allotted more space than some of the other figures here. She gets four pages, two of which are devoted to the aforementioned full-colour portraits, which also include some black-and-white behind-the-scenes snaps of the actress with Andrew Keir on the set of “Dracula Prince of Darkness” (1966) and other stills shot for “The Gorgon” (1964) and “Rasputin the Mad Monk” (1966) respectively. A few stars equally as iconic as Shelley, though, such as Hazel Court, are allotted only one page of biographical text, Court having appeared in only two films for the company and only one of those today considered important or memorable (the classic “The Curse of Frankenstein” 1957). This is not a hard and fast pattern: some actresses have made only a few films but have nevertheless become so iconic in those roles that they are deemed worth covering in more detail, thus expanding their coverage; or some, like Valerie Leon who appeared in only the so-so “Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb” (1971) have simply captured the public imagination for some ineffable reason since. (Leon‘s full-body portrait, blown up to a full page here, appears to reveal more of the actress's lower anatomy than may actually have been intended!) But just one film appearance has sometimes been enough to permanently cement a lifelong association between an actress and the Hammer brand.
 
In the case of the stunning Jacqueline Pearce, she made only two films for Hammer (“The Plague of the Zombies” 1966 and “The Reptile” 1966), but both are now considered among the very best the company ever released, and their reputation is in no small way attributed to the performance of this most unusual-looking, but unforgettably striking, feline beauty.  Pearce has, unlike many actresses equally as adored as she, since continued in a very successful acting career, and has overcome life-threatening health problems to become as well-known for roles outside the Hammer cannon, such as her memorable recurring stint as Servalan in four series of “Blake’s 7”. Two of the back lot snaps here, illustrate perfectly why she has captured the imagination of generations of Hammer horror fans: one, a photo snatched during  the shooting of “The Reptile” sees her at her exotic finest, dressed  in her character’s costume: a purple sari designed by Rosemary Burrows; the other, a shot by an unnamed photographer of the actress outside Bray studios in 1965, dressed in her own clothes, strikes an equally alluring prospect -- vulnerability and intrigue caught in the dark eyes gazing out of the shot seem to draw upon the viewer’s attention just as a magnet gathers iron filings.
 
Pearce’s career started, much like the careers of many of the British actresses found within these pages, with a brief stint at RADA, followed by some minor theatre work. For many of the names making their way in the industry during the sixties, this was usually followed by a smattering of little-remembered supporting roles in British TV series of the day (usually “The Saint”, “Danger Man” or “The Avengers”) before discovery via either Hammer producer Michael Carreras or the ever-vigilant-for-totty producers of the flourishing James Bond franchise. There were always a fair few beauties to be discovered and catapulted to fame via the pages of “Titbits” or “Parade” magazine though, going right back to the time of Vera Day in the fifties. After Raquel Welch made the tousled blonde model look de rigour, a troupe of similar continental glamour models, plucked from the sticky pages of “Playboy and “Penthouse”, quickly followed her into the limelight, with token appearances in second-bill prehistoric fare like “The Creatures the World Forgot” (1971) and “Slave Girls” (1968), or pseudo-historical adventure stories such as “The Vengeance of She” or “Viking Queen”  -- the bankable 'model cum actress' such as Norway’s Julie Ege, or the  Italian-born Victoria Vetri, came to be seen as a familiar and reliable promotional tool, rather than a respected performer.
 
As the sixties faded into the seventies, and Hammer was forced more often to pep up its ailing Gothic formula with more and more splashes of full-frontal nudity, the “Playboy” route became ever more tempting for the company's producers. Ingrid Pitt’s untamed and unashamed sexuality became the latest template to which aspiring actresses had to try and accommodate themselves: the infamous Collinson Twins (“The Twins of Evil” 1971) seem to have been perfectly happy to embrace their brief flirtation with the film industry, happily baring all in one, simultaneously dark and frivolous, late-entry in the Hammer cannon, and then quietly skipping back to their successful modelling careers, never having taken the whole thing all that seriously in the first place; others, such as the tragic Polish-born starlet, Susan Denberg (“Frankenstein Created Woman” 1967) seem to have struggled vainly with the lifestyle of a sought-after model-turned actress. Hearn’s cautionary tale at least reveals that rumours of the actress's suicide are, in fact, completely untrue, but her descent into a life of drug addiction and mental illness with long stretches spent in a succession of psychiatric clinics and hospitals for nervous disorders where she would sometimes have to undergo painful electro-convulsive therapy, reads like an unsparing chapter from a Sylvia Plath novel. A telling publicity still from 1968 shows a fresh-faced young woman wearing a clinging oil-slick of skin-tight PVC as she curls her body nonchalantly across a Harley Davidson motorcycle. It’s a still from the 1969 cult film “Girl on A Motorcycle”, a film for which Denberg was originally cast (director Jack Cardiff having described her as being perfect for the part) until she had to be replaced by the unknown Marianne Faithful, because a serious drug overdose made Denberg unfit to commence filming.
 
But as the seventies progressed, more and more it wasn’t just “Playboy” models who were expected to bare all. Although from the earliest days of the company’s success, actresses such as Hazel Court were encouraged to strip in fleeting topless shots for the more liberal overseas markets, in later years the average jobbing actress would find it almost impossible to prosper  in the British film industry without going nude at some point in her career. The route to a successful film career now seemed to be best exemplified by the likes of newcomers Linda Hayden or Madeline Smith: if you were lucky, you might be the comedy crumpet in the “Carry On” or “Confessions” series, perhaps you might even get cast in a successful advertising campaign (Valerie Leon’s stint in the  Hai Karate aftershave adverts), but the Hammer films of that era would almost invariably require you to lower your blouse at some point. Again, different actresses seem to have reacted to this is a variety of ways, as both the photographs from the era and Marcus Hearn’s interviews and biographical sketches reveal.
 
Yutte Stensgaard  worked tirelessly to forge a serious acting career, but could manage little more than a handful of unremarkable films, one of which is the wholly feeble “Lust For A Vampire” 1971. Hearn quotes the Danish actress from a newspaper interview, and the resigned, world-weary tone is all too evident: ‘all the British films … have nude scenes, no matter if it’s a discussion play, a spy movie or a war film … sooner or later I’ll probably have to jump on the bandwagon.’  A full page publicity still from “Lust For A Vampire” does, though, just about sum up Hammer Films’ sensibilities from the era, even if the film itself is pretty poor: Stensgaard is pictured as the vampire queen Carmilla -- blood cascading in bloated fountains across her naked breasts! On the other hand, Madeline Smith seems to have been quite adjusted to the exploitive hoops she was expected to jump through, and it is Madeline Smith’s image on the dust jacket that grabs  your attention rather tenaciously as soon as you pick up the book (another still inside the book from the same photo-shoot is even more attention grabbing!). Smith is not the only actress to relate how she was persuaded into dropping all her clothes for the camera by the assurance that her naked performance would be seen only in the Japanese or Swedish versions. Of course, in reality there were no such alternate versions!
 
This glossy hardback volume will be a joy to behold to all fetishists of the Hammer name. Lovingly produced and thoroughly respectful of its subjects’ contributions to one of the greatest success stories in British film, the book has been put together both as a celebration and as a lightly written examination of an unrepeatable time in the industry, and of the female artists who made it all possible. It's a photographic document of a lush glamour aesthetic from a bygone era, and of its eventual descent into light exploitation; a document which mirrors fairly accurately the company's own desperation as its shop-worn formula gradually began to wane with audiences and  critics alike; and a cronicle of that desperation which eventually sees the innocence of fifties starlet Vera Day's cheesecake bikini shots gradually devolve, in the last ever Hammer Horror film to be produced (“To the Devil … a Daughter” 1976) into a seedy full frontal nude scene featuring a fifteen-year-old Nastassja Kinski. It’s a tale told across almost thirty years, in hundreds of fantastic photographs and in the lives of many of Europe's greatest female stars: some of them now departed, but many still going strong, and still happy to be reminded of glamorous days gone by.

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