The Beauty Jungle: Saturation Without Depth

by Professor Sarah Street (PI).

Colour was used for a number of affective purposes in films covered by the Eastmancolor project’s timeline. As Richard Farmer’s blog post of 18 January 2018 notes, colour’s increasing ubiquity in advertising attracted a multitude of arresting designs, from vibrant newspaper supplements and TV commercials to Lulu’s amazing ‘Happy Shoes’ (not to mention those red socks). Reports published by marketing professionals such as Eric P. Danger confirmed the opinion that one of the period’s defining features was colour’s appeal to younger consumers (1968). As the number of feature films shot in colour increased, so did the desire to document the contemporary world. Indeed, one of the pleasures of watching the films is spotting posters advertising familiar products typified by their iconic brand colours as well as seeing those that didn’t survive: both cases are fascinating visual records of the past.

Although advertising is most often seen simply in the background, it can also be the subject of social critique in a number of films such as in the opening sequence of Some People (1962), the film discussed in a previous blog post (5 April 2018). Director Clive Donner’s background in advertising perhaps made him particularly sensitive to its power to bombard the senses. One of advertising’s key modes of direct address to consumers was through juxtaposing bold colour primaries. Although posters and other promotional forms were often striking for their chromatic richness, one senses Donner’s ambivalence about their exploitative nature. Using a montage of close-ups, the sequence is a catalogue of materialist temptations, from televisions and jewels to shiny new motorcycles easily acquired on hire purchase.

The Beauty Jungle (1964 – shown on TALKING PICTURES at 9pm on 13 September 2018) adopts a similarly moral approach. Directed by Val Guest who according to Robert Murphy was ‘idiosyncratic enough to qualify as an auteur’ (1997: 260), the film is one of an intriguing cycle of early 1960s films including Hell is a City (1960), Jigsaw (1962) and 80,000 Suspects (1963). These were black and white films, but Guest also directed The Day the Earth Caught Fire in 1961 which included tinted sequences. For The Beauty Jungle he worked with cinematographer Arthur Grant whose colour films around that time include Son of Robin Hood (George Sherman, 1958), Passport to China (Michael Carreras, 1960), The Terror of the Tongs (Anthony Bushell, 1961), The Curse of the Warewolf (Terence Fisher, 1961), The Pirates of Blood River (John Gilling, 1962), Night Creatures (Peter Graham Scott, 1962) and The Phantom of the Opera (Terence Fisher, 1962). These films adopted an eclectic approach to genre  conventions which were exploited through colour. They demonstrate how directors like Guest were feeling their way with the creative opportunities colour presented; for some subjects both drama and affective pleasures were positively enhanced by it.

The Beauty Jungle, described in its poster as exposing ‘the inside story of the beauty racket’, showed how beauty contestants were part of a wider commercial network to advertise a range of products aimed at female consumers including jewels, clothes, make-up and hair products. Films and film stars were historically connected with ‘tie-in’ promotions, and The Beauty Jungle is an observant commentary on how similar strategies operated in the pageant business. The film charts the experiences of Shirley Freeman (Janette Scott), a typist from Bristol, who wins a succession of beauty contests culminating in ‘Miss Rose of England’, a title that leads to her taking part in ‘Miss Globe’, a competition held on the Côte d’Azur. This is an example of the institutional and cultural ‘stranglehold’ of such conceptions of Britishness and white femininity, as explored recently by Melanie Williams (2017: 194-205). Shirley’s desire to escape her ‘ordinary’ life at home (where she is seen wearing beige clothes to match this description) doing a ‘treadmill’ job, makes her susceptible to being persuaded by two men who work on a local newspaper to compete in beauty contests. They spot her while she is on holiday in Weston-super-Mare where she wins her first competition and one of them, Dan Mackenzie (Ian Hendry), subsequently becomes her manager. The film then follows her success while at the same time critiques ‘the beauty jungle’ as a competitive, exploitative and morally compromising world. Colour underscores the film’s depiction of the various chapters in Shirley’s story, from shots at the beginning of Weston-super-Mare; her posing for publicity photographs at Bristol’s Suspension Bridge, and then when she is announced (by Sid James in a cameo role) as the winner of a local contest.

The film presents Shirley’s attitude towards her new profession as precisely that, as a ‘trade’ that can be learned with instruction from a more experienced contestant who offers her practical recommendations on how to thrive, such as maximizing income by linking up with another successful contestant to split winnings. Although this theme is not particularly developed, the film arguably provides some insight into the complex, even tortuous routes to independence experienced by women in the 1960s. Even if the world of the beauty contests is presented as less than desirable, if played carefully it enables some of the women to access a wider range of choices although not, it seems, in the case of Shirley. At the same time, evocative scenes of the colourful fairground and seaside locations where the contests take place open them up to multiple sensory impact. Looking at them now they are a complex mixture of anachronism, nostalgia and surprise. Like many films of the period the location shooting provides fascinating glimpses of places (Weston-super-Mare, Bristol and the Riviera) that may or may not have changed over time. For more on this, see the REEL STREETS documentation on The Beauty Jungle – then and now:

http://www.reelstreets.com/films/beauty-jungle-the/

The film contains several noteworthy colour effects. At the beginning it shows a ‘crazy house’ funfair ride (funfairs are often used creatively in films for the display of vibrant colour effects) with the image bathed in suffused red light. Another interesting effect is an apparently seamless transition from colour to black and white when in a single shot the camera tracks past a line of contestants. As the camera slowly zooms out we see that Shirley’s mother and sister are watching the ‘Miss Rose of England’ contest on their black and white television, thus producing a transition from colour to black and white. This contrasting effect quite graphically brings out the vividness of the colourful world of the contests, with the women often wearing brightly-coloured costumes in seaside locations that are made familiar by their gaudy trappings, fireworks and fairground rides. Colour adopts a dual function: to evoke the intense chromaticity of the locales and situations depicted in the film while suggesting that these are ‘surface qualities’ associated with emptiness; saturation without moral depth, as it were. This evokes a familiar criticism of colour as artifice, as articulated by a range of critics. Yet as these images show, when compared, the colour and black and white images present a stark contrast that is clearly intended to present colour as superior for this particular subject-matter. The zoom emphasizes the film’s more complete expanse with the television’s image appearing to be small and (literally) boxed-in. This shot also underscores Shirley’s own ‘live’ experience of the contest in comparison with her mother and sister’s more parochial, local existence watching the television at home. Shirley’s father, who doesn’t approve of her new career, is not watching.

The scenes on the Riviera also provide opportunities for location shooting that foreground chromatic exoticism for exteriors and interiors. As we have seen in other colour films from the period, Eastmancolor provided opportunities for a greater incidence of location shooting as films became less studio-bound. Colour gave exteriors an additional affective register, especially concerning places like Weston-super-Mare and Bristol that some audiences would recognize as part of their own lived experience.

Despite having a rich colour palette the film presents a negative image of ‘the beauty jungle’. Shirley soon learns how to survive, although like many films of the period, including Nothing but the Best (Clive Donner, 1963), she pays a price for being ambitious. Although she cannot be described as being ruthless like Jimmy Brewster (Alan Bates) in Nothing but the Best, she is seen morphing into a commodity, as advertising fodder for the cosmetics industry. Although not made explicit, the idea is alluded to on several occasions that the contestants are selling their bodies while also highlighting their exploitation. In one scene her manager has gathered a group of businessmen in a room who are shown a large rotating display of Shirley photographed in ordinary clothes and then in a bathing costume. When she walks into the room she is announced as ‘the real thing’, with the implication that she has become reduced to a succession of surface imagery; a publicity vehicle whose sole purpose is to sell commodities. At the end of the film, when Shirley has come second in the ‘Miss Globe’ competition following her failed attempt to influence one of the judges, she becomes a judge herself for local competitions. We see her confidently beginning her role until she sees that one of the contestants before her is her sister. This scene occasions an extraordinary montage of shots to convey her shock as she is faced, as it were, with an image of herself a short time ago before her fame and moral compromise. Her expression changes dramatically to horror as she recognizes and rejects the dangers of ‘the beauty jungle’, but leaves it with an uncertain future.

In this way films relished and celebrated the rich colours associated with advertising, commerce and consumerism while at the same time suggested concomitant dangers of moral corruption. By aligning saturated colour with the advertising world associated with its repetitive usage, the film asks the audience not to trust it, to be wary of being seduced by a glamourous surface with unknown depths and dangers. Advertising remains a key theme for the project. As many of the films document, obtrusively or less so, it is a profoundly chromatic, cultural and commercial phenomenon that can be explored from a variety of perspectives and for which the description ‘beauty jungle’ may well be apt.

References

Eric P. Danger, Using Colour to Sell (London: Gower Press, 1968).

Robert Murphy (ed.), The British Cinema Book (London: British Film Institute, 1997).

Melanie Williams, Female Stars of British Cinema: The Women in Question (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017).

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