Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Smashing Time (movie, 1967) review

Smashing Time is a 1967/early 1968 movie about Swinging London starring Rita Tushingham (who kind of personifies Swinging London) and Lynn Redgrave.

I'd heard of it because it was said to feature the quintessential psychedelic band, Tomorrow, under the nom de film of The Snarks. Oddly, it sort of does and yet it doesn't. It's available in full on YouTube at the link below.

It's a Babes in the Woods movie, featuring literal babes (though they were chicks, of course, in those days) out of their natural element and abroad in London, having taken a train down from Unspecifiedsville in the North of England. Since the characters' names and some of the place names are taken from Alice in Wonderland, it's likely that they were intended to be down the rabbit hole more than lost in the metaphorical woods.  Brenda is a shy, clever girl and Yvonne is a big, brassy woman who treats her mousy sidekick like dirt. Their savings are stolen on the first day, and Brenda has to wash dishes to pay for their breakfast. The gig leads to a massive, prolonged ketchup, soap, liquid manure and various-pigments-in-restaurant-squirty-bottles fight, after which she's sacked. Yvonne gets a job as a club hostess, and is taken home by Ian Carmichael playing to type as a caddish drunk toff. Brenda, who was working at the club in a cat costume ("just a pussy" as she puts it) sabotages his "pad" so he's unable to complete the seduction, and the scene ends in ceiling-collapsing, out-of-control-bubble-bath and laxative-laced brandy slapstick, after which both are fired.

Yvonne gets a job dressing as an 18th century lady of loose morals and dispensing whipped cream in a hip cream pie shop. Unsurprisingly, this engagement ends in a massive cream pie fight and Yvonne loses the job. Brenda gets a job in a trendy boutique called Too Much (get it?), annoys the titled toff owner by actually charging for the items instead of just serving her Hooray Henry and Sloane Ranger friends whatever they want. ("If one insists one's pals buy something every time they visit, one's pals simply won't come any more.") She loses the job when her ladyship goes to Greece on a whim, having tired of the trendy London scene.

Yvonne has been caught on camera by a hotshot photographer (Michael York doing a great David Bailey parody) and publicized as a sort of anti-IT Girl who gets fashion wrong. But when he meets Brenda, the photographer falls for her, setting up discord between the two. Yvonne wins ten thousand pounds on the You Can't Help Laughing TV program and uses it to buy stardom from an A&R Man, played by Jeremy Lloyd as yet another toff on the fashion scene. She records a hit single and becomes so snobby even the worm Brenda turns and leaves her for the photographer, who assists her ascent to Supermodel status a la Twiggy.

Yvonne's stardom isn't enough for her so she plans the biggest party ever in the rotating restaurant atop the Post Office Tower. Everybody who is anybody comes to the party, but it falls apart in a relatively paint-splash-free slapstick scene following which Brenda and Yvonne rekindle their friendship, find their return ticket and head back Oop t'North where they belong.

This would be a relatively typical cash-in on Carnaby Street fashions for its time (but with added interminable slapstick) except for one thing. It's written by George Melly (for it is he*). Melly, a lifelong denizen of Swinging London, before, during and after the actual swinging took place, has a keen eye for hypocrisy and cynicism among the movers and shakers. And he did, after all, write Revolt Into Style, one of the must-have books on the 20th Century Youth Phenomenon.

I don't know how much of the incisive criticism of psychedelia and pop art fashion came from director Desmond Davis and how much from Melly, but I'd estimate the majority came from the latter. Some touches are so acerbic they don't belong in the same universe as a cream pie fight.

The TV program You Can't Help Laughing is based on Candid Camera (Punk'd for old folks). In this episode the host is demolishing people's houses while they are out, capturing their dismay on camera, inviting them to laugh at how they've been pranked, then offering them some money. Brenda is appalled; Yvonne can't help laughing, particularly when it's her digs that's knocked down and she gets a check. The film captures the cruelty in this type of reality television very well.

When Yvonne records her pop single, the studio filled with the type of session men John Paul Jones once referred to as "pipe and slippers", her voice is weak and weedy and the instruments (including sitar and woodwind) are badly arranged and all over the place in terms of loudness. It's a disaster. Jeremy Lloyd asks if she wants to hear it. She does; he pushes the rewind button, then play: and a perfectly mixed pop record comes out of the studio speakers, showcasing her voice, which now has the maturity and strength of a sixties belter. It's still a dire record - deliberately so, I'm sure - but it's polished. Sample lyric: "I'm a fool but I'm young. I can't do a thing but I'm young. I can't sing but I'm young." It becomes a hit.

There's a short but accurate skewering of ancient TV youth-pandering program Juke Box Jury called Hi Fi Court in which the empty-headed Yvonne, herself only famous as the singer of a dreadful vacuous pop hit, witters negatively about an entrant pop song for a good sixty seconds without saying anything of note.

Other great moments include Brenda's ads for Direct Action perfume, accompanied by documentary shots of riots, the gasometer-chic of her other model shots, the dandy trolling down Grudge Street** who gets cream pie stains on his bona togs and batts, and literally shoots himself, the advice to Yvonne that "You have to spend conspicuously or you don't score", and of course, the amazing skull-bearing death robots in the art gallery near the beginning that managed to satirize everything about fashion, art, sixties, gallery owners, toffs, and pretension with only a minimal amount of spray-paint slapstick.

OK, but what about the Tomorrow, hey? The psychedelic band that had a hit with My White Bicycle and then missed spectacularly by releasing its album six months too late to catch the wave, in 1968? The one with Steve Howe of Yes in it and famous being-in-bands-person John "Twink" Alder?

It's odd. They are in it - the members crop up in several places in the movie. It looks like they were intended to be Yvonne's backing band, but presumably that scene was cut. None of their music appears in the film. A compilation of their scenes appears below.

User Karl Hughes on IMDB described this movie as not so much dated as a time capsule of a prior era, and I think that's a fair description. If you can stand about 20 minutes of pie and ketchup fights, you'll imbibe as much social commentary as you do in Godard's One Plus One; and that is a film that has too few pie fights to be a contender, in my opinion.

*"Geo. Melly, for it is he," is a Private Eye joke phrase. For that matter, in Private Eye, Queen Elizabeth and her sister Princess Margaret are known as Brenda and Yvonne.

**Presumably supposed to be long-term hip Goodge Street.

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