By Ray Young
It first struck me when I was about eight or nine years old: cleavage. It happened at a mid-1960s Saturday matinee double feature, Curse of Frankenstein
(1957) plus Horror of Dracula
(1958) — the poster screamed “Frankenstein spills it! Dracula drinks it!” — Technicolor productions from Britain’s Hammer Films. I went expecting monsters, and got a heaping eyeful of heaving bosoms. Hammer spared no expense when it came to pushing up the sizeable assets of its actresses, and on that afternoon the eye zeroed in on Hazel Court and Valerie Gaunt, two fleshy icons of one’s hot buttered youth.
This is Boomer nostalgia, and Marcus Hearn’s Hammer Glamour
is a glowing tribute to a bygone era. Profusely illustrated, the hefty new volume celebrates fifty of the studios’ famous (Ursula Andress, Raquel Welch), not-as-famous (Barbara Shelley, Victoria Vetri), cult favorites (Martine Beswicke, Caroline Munro), and nearly everyone in between. “The legacy [of Hammer glamour] is hundreds of photographs,” the author explains. “They evoke a distant and naïve era when sex really was safe, and the time to be glamorous was always.”
Indeed, the book’s remarkable assortment of images is matched by the presentation. Printed and varnished on heavy stock, the black-and-white and color reproduction is beyond reproach, a superb job credited to C&C Offset in China. That’s my years in printing and publishing taking notice; I still get jazzed over such stuff. The production quality underlines the publisher’s commitment to, and faith in, Hearn’s work.
Which is… what? Film history? Titillating cheesecake? An overview of fashion and couture? Well, yes on all counts. The author gives rundowns of movie plots and production anecdotes, tactfully avoiding detailed criticisms of individual films. (Hammer produced a lot of dross.) Through movie stills and a generous supply of posed publicity portraits (which are dazzling), he stays focused on the era, its styles and the type of women Hammer put on the screen. Many of them were cast from the same mold: robust, alluring, statuesque, too exotic to be the girl next door. Unless the girl next door happened to be a Penthouse
Above: Susan Denberg, circa 1967. After a meteoric rise to fame, she fell from sight, and rumors of her suicide circulated for years. She’s reportedly alive and well, living out of the public eye in her native Austria.
Below left: Martine Beswicke in Prehistoric Women
(1967), which she cheerfully (and accurately) describes as “one of the worst films ever made.” Right: The lovely Julie Ege, who had the distinction of starring in Hammer’s only dinosaur film void of dinosaurs (!), Creatures the World Forgot
(1971). Ms. Ege sadly died of cancer in 2008 at the age of 65. Click images to see portraits.
Virtually unheard of in America before Curse of Frankenstein
, Hammer became synonymous with horror by the ‘60s, and established lucrative distribution deals with Warners, Columbia, Universal-International and 20th Century Fox in the States. It was Fox who orchestrated one of the great publicity gambits of the decade, selling Hammer’s One Million Years BC
(1966) on a picture of Raquel Welch in a fur bikini. Her poster would be tacked onto garage walls and boys’ bedrooms from coast to coast, and the movie earned a fortune.
I was there, my mother joining me to see if it measured up to the Hal Roach original, where beefy Victor Mature battled giant lizards. “He’s no Victor,” she sighed of Hammer’s head caveman, John Richardson. On that we agreed: Richardson lacked Victor’s flabby muscles and greasy hair. But on that day the world went to see Raquel — it’s the only time Ray Harryhausen’s special effects were upstaged by an actor — her lithe, voluptuous physique, carefree demeanor and expertly dyed blonde tresses concealing the fact that she already had two children and was on her second marriage.
stirs these excursions down Memory Lane, correcting common fallacies en route, and considers yesterday’s screen goddess as everyday people. Raquel and Ursula Andress aside, most aren’t living the Hollywood dream; the author finds them as ordinary citizens, beyond fame and fortune. In Hammer’s Dracula Has Risen From the Grave
(1968) and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed
(1969), Veronica Carlson struck me as one of the most beautiful women in the world. (Her photo on the book’s back cover confirms it.) But in the ‘70s she dropped out of sight. Hearn discovers her happily married in Hilton Head, South Carolina, and douses the fire of my adolescent longing with this sobering vision of an apron and feather duster: “My life now is fabulous,” he quotes her, “but just occasionally when I’m cleaning the house I look back on my Hammer films and wish that I had carried on.” You and me both, honey.
Above left: Edina Ronay in Prehistoric Women
. Daughter of food critic Egon Ronay, mother of actress Shebah Ronay, Edina went on to become a popular fashion designer in London. Right: Janette Scott in a publicity photo from The Old Dark House
(1962). After marrying Mel Tormé in 1966, she retired to Beverly Hills “to produce babies instead of films.”
Below: Ingrid Pitt and Madeline Smith in The Vampire Lovers
(1970). “My nightie had to be pulled down to my waist and I had to run around with no top,” Smith told Marcus Hearn. “One of the producers…told us that those scenes were for the Japanese version and that they wouldn’t be seen [in England]. Of course I later realized that there was no Japanese version, and that this was something he told us so he could get his way.” Tee hee!
Click images to see portraits.
Of the fun and enlightening tidbits Hearn serves up, I never knew Olinka Berova, ‘She’ of the rather terrible Vengeance of She
(1968), was once married to Warners head honcho John Calley. Nor did I know that the one and only Carita was paid a measly five grand for starring as The Viking Queen
(1967). Groomed to inherit the Ursula/Raquel throne, the Finnish beauty made a blip on the radar for what the author regards as “one of the daftest films Hammer ever made.” (She was second-billed to Don Murray, who pocketed $75k.) It’s one of the few Hammers I haven’t seen, and the author piques my curiosity:
“The result of [director Don] Chaffey’s labors was compromised by a script that clumsily crossed
Romeo and Juliet with the legend of Boadicea. Uneven in its casting and production values,
The Viking Queen is both endearingly old fashioned and surprisingly sadistic. The film veers unpredictably from high adventure to Hammer horror, especially in the scene where [Carita’s character] is stripped topless, bound and flogged by sadistic Romans. The brutality and insinuations of sexual violence, not to mention the ‘wet t-shirt’ clinch between Carita and Don Murray, are wholly at odds with the first part of the film’s Robin Hood spirit.”
Hearn relates the obligatory rags-to-riches-to-rags stories, such as Bond girl Eunice Gayson getting busted for shoplifting fifteen years after her turn in Hammer’s Revenge of Frankenstein
(1958). There’s the sketchy life of concentration camp survivor and serial bride Eva Bartok: a decade before appearing in the company’s Spaceways
(1953) she married a Nazi, presumably to avoid execution, only to find the union a “series of brutal rapes worse than death.” Working with limited space, Hearn furnishes what info he can on Susan Denberg, Playboy
’s Miss August, 1966, and star of Frankenstein Created Woman
(1967), whose fractured career and fragile mental state (which some blamed on “that Polanski crowd”) suggest a modern day Frances Farmer ripe for proper biography.
By the late ‘70s, “the reign of Hammer glamour as the company’s most valuable marketing tool was over,” Hearn writes, “a victim of political correctness and demystifying over exposure.” In a zeitgeist chockablock with sex and skin, in everything from Last Tango in Paris
(1972) to scads of raunchy teen comedies, Hammer’s dabbling with naked lesbian vampires seemed zany and outmoded — though Ingrid Pitt looked smashing in Vampire Lovers
(1970) and Countess Dracula
(1971). Just as they supplanted Universal as the reigning nightmare factory in the ‘50s, Hammer stepped aside for a vanguard categorically void of glamour in the ‘80s, exemplified by Friday the 13th
and its ilk. Majestic and provocative, Hammer Glamour
illustrates that loss and reminds us that we’ll never see those days again.
Copyright © 2009 by Ray Young