Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Secrets of a Windmill Girl (1966, Arnold Louis Miller)

It does not seem to matter how many times I say I'm going to move away from studying sexploitation films, I still seem to end up back here. I was approached a few months ago and asked to contribute a chapter proposal for a journal, or book (I'm not sure) on "X" rated 1960s British cinema, which is of course right up my street. I quickly wrote something, submitted it and promptly forgot all about it, to the point where three months later when I was contacted to say my proposal had been accepted I had no memory whatsoever of submitting one.

So here I am now, attempting to gather my thoughts on Secrets of a Windmill Girl, another "classic" of the 1960s sexploitation scene. Luckily the film has been released on DVD by Screenbound, formerly Odeon Entertainment, on a double-bill with Naked as Nature Intended (1961, George Harrison Marks), a film I have absolutely no intention of writing about (beyond the brief mention it already has in my thesis). It was made for Compton Films by the directing team of Arnold Louis Miller and Stanley Long. Long was the cinematographer on all their projects, and together they had already made the "Mondo" films London in the Raw (1964) and  Primitive London (1965) for Compton. It was when shooting sequences for the latter that Stanley Long attended rehearsals for the final revue at the Windmill Theatre. This footage was not used in Primitive London, but would go on to become central to Secrets of a Windmill Girl

Since the death of producer Vivian Van Damme in 1960, who had been putting on Follies Bergère -style shows since the 1930s, the Windmill had been in decline and closed its doors in 1964. Under the watchful eye of the Lord Chamberlain, theatre censorship meant that nudity was allowed on a public stage, as long as there was no movement, the logic being that we had naked statues in public and they were fine. The Windmill, being a theatre rather than a strip club, had to follow these rules very strictly, but the 1960s saw the rise of the striptease show, as well as "stag" films on 8mm film, which meant that the Windmill's 'Revuedeville' was becoming increasingly old-fashioned in modern-day Soho. The theatre was sold to the men behind Compton, Michael Klinger and Tony Tenser, who converted it into a cinema, which it had originally been until Mrs Henderson turned it into a theatre in 1931. The Windmill had gone full circle.

Klinger and Tenser decided to immortalise the theatre and the Windmill girls and commissioned Miller and Long to make what was in effect their first full-length feature film (they had made the nudist odyssey Take Off Your Clothes and Live three years earlier, but that was basically an hour-length travelogue with no sync sound). It is an odd, cheap-looking film in which the inexperience of the director is matched only by the inexperience of the cast.

A then-unknown Pauline Collins plays Pat, who with her childhood friend Linda (April Wilding, daughter of Lord Harry Pilkington) audition successfully for the Windmill, having ambitions to make it big in the West End. Stage manager Mike (played by Martin Jarvis!) has a soft spot for Linda, who is portrayed as the sensible, shy one, whereas Pat is gregarious and up for anything, which ultimately leads to affairs, psychedelic parties and gang rape. This goes by without a second glance, as her ultimate fate is to become a stripper performing in clubs and stag parties in front of horribly sleazy men who should be at home with their wives. The film actually starts with Pat getting into a sports car carrying balloons with an unknown man, both of whom are clearly drunk. They race around town before crashing headlong into a wall, killing them instantly. Linda, who is now a successful singer, is visited by Inspector Thomas (veteran film and TV actor Derek Bond) in her dressing room, where he breaks the news and asks her to identify the body.

The next day he visits her at home and she begins to tell him the whole sorry story about Pat. The bulk of the film is then made up of scenes from their lives with Linda's well-spoken voiceover. If she is really supposed to be telling all this to the Inspector, she is giving him detail which is totally irrelevant to his investigation. Indeed it is never made clear exactly why he needs to know the story of Pat's life, when surely he needs to spend more time working out why the driver was drunk and how they crashed. Nevertheless we are supposed to believe that he is sitting in Linda's flat listening to her entire life story. This is the source of much unintentional hilarity, such as when we see them as young schoolgirls and Pat, always trouble, encourages Linda to skip school. It is some of the funniest child acting I have seen in a long time, and the little girl playing Pat actually looks towards the camera at the end of her lines as if seeking approval from the director before she walks away. Later in the film Linda seems to think it is necessary to tell Inspector Thomas all about the other Windmill Girls, beginning with how they get up in the morning and travel to work. She even at one point says "Some travelled long distances every day, like Eileen here, who lived way out in Rochester, Kent." That use of the word "here" makes it sound as if she is sitting with the Inspector in her flat showing him all this on her home projector. Or perhaps Arnold Louis Miller is deliberately creating some Brechtian alienation, drawing attention to the artificial construction of the film, mirroring the artificiality of the Windmill shows themselves. Perhaps. 

The bulk of the film is made up of dance and cabaret performances on the Windmill stage itself. What is odd is that we frequently see Pat and Linda in the dressing room, getting ready to go on, or standing in the wings, but they never come out on to the stage itself. They never once perform in any of the dances, and often the costumes they are getting into are totally different to those the actual women are wearing once we see the dance sequences. This is because Stanley Long had shot those sequences more than a year earlier, but no attempt is made to match them together, and surely it would not have been too difficult to shoot some extra dance scenes. There are also several scenes featuring the several of the girls going through a new dance routine with their male choreographer, but this dance is never performed on stage in the film. The Windmill is famous for its comedians as well as the girls. Many well-known comics such as Tony Hancock and Peter Sellers got their first breaks by telling jokes between dance routines, but the comedy acts that Stanley Long shot for this are dreary. It is no wonder that when looking back on their time there comedians often comment that the men in the audience would just look at their newspapers instead of listening to the jokes. 

The first time we finally see Pat on stage is when she has given up on her West End dreams and become a stripper. She stands in front of a baying crowd who eventually start booing and slow-clapping because she loses her nerve and begins telling them that she's really an actress. In her final scene she is standing on top of a table in a pub in her underwear, and she berates the men, asking them if they would like it if it was their wives up there, before finally screaming and collapsing to her knees as if having a breakdown. And suddenly the closing credits roll, over footage of the fan dance, which by this point we have seen about six times.

So there are many threads and plot points that are left unfulfilled at the end. One would reasonably expect the film to end where it began, with the crash, except this time we would know how Pat ended up in that car. After all, wasn't that why Inspector Thomas had sat through this extended trip down memory lane? But no, we do not even return to the flat at the end for Linda or the Inspector to get a final moralistic word about the dangers of drugs, partying and stripping. And did Linda ever get together with Mike, who has spent most of the film staring at her longingly? We will never know. The film just ends, like they ran out of film or money, either of which is possible I suppose.

Secrets of a Windmill Girl, DVD frame, Screenbound 2011
Another drawn-out sequence of the film discusses the extra activities that were required of the Windmill girls, who were by this point world famous. They would often be used for promotional stunts such as this one above, where they are dressed as sexy cowboys as they ride atop a stagecoach through suburban London. This is just the kind of promotional stunt that could have been cooked up by Klinger and Tenser themselves, who would often use dancing girls at their film premieres or to drum up free publicity.

Secrets of a Windmill Girl, DVD frame, Screenbound 2011
A particularly low point for Pat comes when she visits an agent to get work as as a dancer. He tells her that what he really needs are strippers and encourages her to take her clothes off so he can "check your figure." She's a little on the thin side but he approves nonetheless and gets her work. Whilst this is going on his wife bursts in, straight from a Carry On film. This is one of the few deliberate moments of comedy in Secrets of a Windmill Girl, but is somewhat jarring given that we are supposed to be sympathising with Pat's declining fortunes. As an aside here, I am convinced that they dressed this set with photos from the Compton office. I think that the girl on the wall on the top right of this image is actually Annette Whitely, who had starred in The Yellow Teddybears and The Black Torment for Compton by this point, and who I'm sure would have been mortified to know that she was used in this scene. I can't be sure, but it is an interesting detail if it's true.

Press cutting, Scottish Daily Express, 18 March 1966
When Pat arrives at her first stripping job she finds she is sharing a dressing room with a former rival from The Windmill. This soon descends into a full-on catfight, images of which were used to promote the film. When I purchased most of what remained of the Compton office archive a few years ago amongst the ephemera were a collection of press clippings collected by General Press Cutting Association Ltd of Chancery Lane. It was this collection that prompted me to offer a chapter on the film, and I intend to write at length on the use of clippings by film distributors, and the insight it gives now on the promotion of the film.

Press cutting, Daily Express, 13 April 1966
This image features former Windmill girl Deirdre O'Dea alongside Rey Anton on a platform high up at the top of the theatre. Deirdre had appeared in the film, and Rey wrote and performs the song "Hold It, Babe" with his band The Pro Form during a party scene in a venue that looks like a cave. Given the fickle nature of the pop world, and according to the clipping, Rey is also a scaffolder and he is working on the conversion currently underway.

Press cutting, Evening Standard, 21 Dec 1965
This image was advance publicity for Secrets of a Windmill Girl, and features (left to right): Janet Hall, Wendy Cotellee, Jill Rose, Frances Pidgeon, Aimi MacDonald and Nita Howard, who are described as actresses who will be playing Windmill Girls in a new film titled "The Windmill Girls Story."

I have the feeling that even by the time it came out, Secrets of a Windmill Girl must have seemed dated. It feels like it would have been more contemporary with films like Beat Girl (1959, Edmond T. Greville, UK: Renown Pictures), Expresso Bongo (1960, Val Guest, UK: Val Guest Productions) or even Compton's other 'fallen woman' film That Kind of Girl (1963, Gerry O'Hara, UK: Tekli Film Productions). The 1960s was changing rapidly, and it was only one year away from the 'Summer of Love.' Secrets of a Windmill Girl, brief flashes of nudity aside, is naive and quaint, depicting the lives of young people in the mid-sixties as filtered through the contradictory viewpoint of middle-aged men, who both gaze with desire at these sexualised women whilst simultaneously comdemning them for choosing that lifestyle.

The Windmill has had mixed fortunes over the fifty years since this film was released. Currently covered in scaffolding, it can be seen here in images I took a month ago on a visit to Soho. It is now a "gentlemen's club" with table dancing, a far cry from the classier entertainment depicted in Secrets of a Windmill Girl, where audiences of both men and women enjoyed the highly stylised and choreographed performances of the "Revuedeville," even if they were not aware of the secrets those Windmill girls kept hidden.

Finally, I recently made a video about what Soho looked like around ten years later. It features a couple of shots of The Windmill, by then a sex cinema. See if you can spot it.

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