British 60s cinema
British 60s cinema

THE BEAUTY JUNGLE (1964)

The Beauty Jungle (known as Contest Girl in the States, which unfortunately misses the sense of unsavoury competition which the original title conveys) is one of those films which have, many years later, been dubbed 'afluent society' films, of which perhaps the best known is Live Now, Pay Later.  Like that film, Ian Hendry stars, this time alongside Janette Scott in an old-fashioned tale of rags to riches, shot in rather unattractive colour and directed by Val Guest, who turned his hand to almost every genre going over a period of 20 or so years; his last few films had included crime thrillers (Jigsaw, Hell is a City), pop films (Expresso Bongo), 'social problem' films (80,000 Suspects) and apocalyptic science fiction (The Day the Earth Caught Fire).  Scott plays Shirley Freeman, picked up out by lecherous man-on-the-make Don Mackenzie (Hendry) and his endlessly cynical, sidekick photogrpaher Walter (Ronald Fraser) to go forward at a local beauty contest, wtih Mackenzie, at the start of the film a local reporter, hoping to get some column inches out of Shirley. 

Not like Sid to be fed up looking at pretty women...

On holiday in Weston-Super-Mare, Shirley takes part in the seaside resort's rather tawdry beatuy contest, hosted by the endlessly effervescent Tommy Trinder, who bascially plays himself, although a sudden downpour rather dampens (sorry!) the occasion, and in any case Shirley doesn't win anyway.  Don is not gong to let a little setback like that bother him, and persists in harassing Shirley - nowadays he could be arrested as a stalker - despite her protestations that it was a one-off and she isn't interested in any further contests.  However she gets quite a reaction when she returns to work as a typist in Bristol on the Monday, not all of it good; this scene features Norman Bird and Kay Walsh as Shirley's parents, Janina Faye as her admiring younger sister, David Weston as her disgruntled fiance, and, not to be forgotten, some scenes of Bristol, where I spent 4 years as a student in the 1980s, all of the locations can be seen at www.reelstreets.com:

Partly to spite her father and fiance, whom she soon splits up with, and partly egged on by the endlessly persistent Don, who has more than business intentions towards Shirley, she decides to continue entering contests, becoming a blonde in the process.  She remains unworldy however, and is unaware that she is up against professionals, and in a competition at Butlins holiday camp (set in the Butlins at Minehead, with a very bored Sid James appearing in a wordless cameo) she finishes third behind two women - Jean Watson (Jacquelines Jones) and Barbara Lawton (Jackie White) who provide her with tips such as wearing the highest heels possible.  She still kids herself that she hasn't got the contest bug though, and when Barbara says to Jean "What's the matter with her?" the reply comes back "Nothing a couple of sashes won't fix."

 

Don uses this angle in his newspaper piece - 'Professional beauties challenged by local girl' - and the attendant publicity brings unintended consequences, including a breaking off of her engagement and an ultimatum from her father:  "If you want to tart yourself up and display your body for money you can leave my house!"  She enters, and wins, a few local competitions - including 'Cardiff's Brigitte Bardot' and the wonderfully-named 'Pontypool's Crumpet Quest' before the big one - the Miss Rose of England area finals, with a first prize of £300 and a weekend in Monte Carlo:

In Monte Carlo they start rubbing shoulders with the great and the good, meeting film star Rex Carrick (Edmund Purdom) and the svengali-like Roger Armand (Jean Claudio, both seen left) although I found it difficult to tell the difference between the two, especially as they always seem to wear the same outfits, like a 60s version of Jedward.  This is where the film starts to become a little tedious for me, simply because I have never liked 'travelogue' films, which the 50s and 60s seemed to do in abundance, I suppose to combat the onset of television.  Monsieur Armand drops hints that his company has 'an interest' in Rose of England, and also Miss Globe, but of course denies any impropriety.

 

Back in England, Shirley moves to London as the push to stardom continues, aided by the extraordinarily camp Lucius (Peter Ashmore), and wtih Rex Carrick back in London Don tries to play tactics, setting Shirley up with a dinner date with Carrick and then letting him down, in a misguided attempt to gain publicity.  Despite being coached by Lionel Blair, and also despite being up against Margaret Nolan as another would-be Rose of England, Shirley wins, voted for by the distinguished panel including Stirling Moss, Joe Brown and the Duchess of Bedford, in a clip which reminded me very much of that Benny Hill skit on Juke Box Jury.  Well, by the magic of youtube, you can be the judge on that, although I should also add that I particularly like the way that all the judges pretend to be writing something and to be interrupted by Rex, apart from Stirling Moss who looks as though he is checking his watch and has to be off somewhere else:  

Victory, and onwards to the Miss Globe competition in Cannes, where she shares a room with the incredibly confident Miss Peru (Aliza Gur, who was actually an Israeli born to German parents!), but innocence is starting to fade quickly as Shirley becomes aware of manouverings behind the scenes, rather like a FIFA vote to host the next World Cup, but watching the film again has made me realise that in fact it is not so much that she is lost in a bad world of unscrupulous men, but equally that she herself is more than capable of manipulating others to achieve her ends, as in this key scene, where first of all Armand reveals his 'diplomacy', as he puts it, and then Shirley blatantly tries to influence Rex, one of the judges of Miss Globe, by trying to seduce him, but gets a surprise: 

I haven't worked out from the above scene whether Rex is gay, or just isn't interested in "those damp, tufted parts of the human body", as Stephen Fry memorably put it on Desert Island Discs once.  Don of course is keen to exploit the commercial possibiliites now that Shirely is Miss Rose of England, and even Shirley's father is caught up in the whirlwind, avidly cutting out clippings of Shirley for a scrapbook, whilst her sister emulates her poses and her ex-fiance, with his new girlfriend, looks wistfully at her poster.

 

Does she win?  Well, as this is an 'unsung' film, I won't reveal that part of the film, but whether she does or not, she's still Miss Rose of England for a year, and the film ends with her returning to Weston-Super-Mare to judge the next year's regional finalists, only to get a nasty shock when she sees who one of the contestants is...

 

The film is available on DVD for £5.99 from play.com, maybe even cheaper elsewhere.  I'm not going to pretend it's a great film, but I think it's a good one, and certainly underrated in my opinion compared to another 'modern woman' film, Darling, which I must admit I can't stand.  It certainly shows the range of British film making at this time, and it's another good role for Hendry, who was on the verge of big time stardom at this point, but it never quite happened.

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© Paul Thompson