Monday, April 21, 2008

Hazel Court: Hammer’s head girl

Hazel Court, star of The Curse of Frankenstein, has died at the age of eighty-two, just a week before the publication of her autobiography.

Court was the original Hammer Horror girl, first in a long line of screaming damsels menaced by the many unspeakable horrors of the English gothic tradition.
The popular image of a Hammer starlet is of the 1970’s variety, blonde and pneumatic, recruited as often as not from Playboy magazine. Court, by contrast, was of the first generation, product of a time when the studio favoured slightly older and more classical actresses, statuesque rather than blatantly pulchritudinous, often red-headed, and in at least three cases called Yvonne.
Court's importance to the Hammer story is basically symbolic. In terms of longevity and number of films, Barbara Shelley (who somewhat resembled Court and according to Christopher Lee possessed “a bass baritone quite rare for a woman”) is a more central figure in the studio’s history, as well as a comparably gifted actress who transformed a number of pretty watery roles. But it was Court who got there first, as Elizabeth in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), the first true Hammer gothic.
She only appeared once more for the studio, but scored another first: becoming, in 1959’s The Man Who Could Cheat Death, the first Hammer lead actress to appear nude. (But only in export prints, in a sequence now lost. For many Hammer fans, these few seconds of film are worth a hundred London After Midnights, though a still from it does appear in Court's autobiography.) But she confirmed her genre reputation with subsequent appearances in Hammer carbon Dr Blood’s Coffin and three AIP Poe films for Roger Corman: The Premature Burial, The Raven and The Masque of the Red Death, the latter as a somewhat tragic villainess rather than screaming heroine (below).
Her qualities were felt more keenly in her absence. As the sixties brought worldwide success for Hammer, a more international and overt glamour element was sought, and the refined English model typified by Court and Shelley gave way to younger and blonder variations; it coincided with the move away from Bray studios and was an equally regrettable loss to the Hammer formula. These were the days of Raquel Welch modelling mankind's first bikini and Susan Denberg, Playboy’s Miss August ’66, in Frankenstein Created Woman (the clumsy title legacy of a brief period when it was touted as a vehicle for Bardot – a good indicator of the direction in which Hammer was moving).
The best of this middle batch is clearly Veronica Carlson (left), who debuted in 1968’s Dracula Has Risen From The Grave and followed it with two Frankensteins and Tyburn’s Hammer-alike The Ghoul.
The bottom fell out of Hammer shortly after they were awarded the Queen’s Award to Industry in ’68, and as the films themselves became more desperately exploitative in the studio’s drive to regain lost favour at the box-office, so did the central casting. The archetypal Hammer queen from this (perhaps any) era is, I suppose, Ingrid Pitt, though she too only appeared in two films for the company (in one of which she is dubbed) and made her name crucially as villainess rather than heroine; off-screen she was something of a loose wire to say the least.
Standing out amongst this final catch are the winsome Madeline Smith, who specialised in young and naïve victims, and Caroline Munro (left), the only actress signed to a Hammer contract and an enduring genre presence well into the eighties.
But I must also put in a word for Valerie Leon (left), Amazonian support in Carry On films and similar, whose one and only Hammer performance was also her one and only lead, in Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb. It shouldn’t have worked out but it does: Leon is beautiful but in a very weird way, and her strange, penetrating face, which her comedy roles played down, Hammer played up. As a result, she gives a genuinely spooky performance, looks amazing, and even her fairly wooden delivery adds to the trance-like characterisation.
The rest were typified by the likes of Yutte Stensgaard (Danish crumpet in Lust For a Vampire), Victoria Vetri (Playboy centrefold turned Hammer cavewoman), or Madeleine and Mary Collinson (Playboy’s nude twins, Hammer’s Twins of Evil, left). These stars, often spotted by eagle-eyed Hammer boss Sir James Carreras (“I can’t describe it, but I know it when I see it”) in newspapers and advert-hoardings, were put into films like The Vampire Lovers and Dracula AD 1972 ( “The Count is Back... with an eye for London's hotpants” ran the advertising) to take advantage of a newly liberalised British Board of Film Censors. Far from pornography, these films seem rather charmingly short-trousered today, with big-breasted Scandinavians tumbling out of their nightgowns in solemn re-enactment of the fantasies ten-year old schoolboys had when they were supposed to be doing geometry.
Though she certainly shares with later custodians of the Hammer tiara what the Times obituary describes as a “panoramic cleavage”, Court’s was a poised and elegant screen presence, her beautiful red hair, green eyes and translucent skin seeming almost unreal in the harsh Eastmancolor palette. (She seems even more other-worldy in Dr Blood’s Coffin, which casts her not in Victorian costume but as a 1960’s nurse in a Cornish village.)
Her voice, too, is unusual; she purrs rather than talks, and it almost sounds as though there is a foreign accent being submerged beneath the cut-glass vowels, though she was in fact from Birmingham. Rewatching The Curse of Frankenstein, as I assume we have all just done, it is clear that she, more perhaps than any other Hammer female lead, has real star quality as well as being a quite exceptional beauty; you can easily imagine her sparring with Margaret Lockwood in a Gainsborough melodrama, or even in women’s pictures in Hollywood.
But Curse rescued her from a career that was fast going nowhere. She had been around since the mid-forties without ever quite making an impression; like the equally striking Barbara Steele she had been signed to a Rank contract and then more or less ignored.
By the mid-fifties she was most often to be found on television or in those cheap second-feature thrillers that took the place of the original quota-quickies.
The most notorious of these is 1954’s Devil Girl From Mars (1954), wonderful on-the-cheap British sci-fi, with Hazel as one of a group of earthlings trapped in a pub by a black leather-clad Martian dominatrix out to recruit men as breeding stock. (The Times, reporting her death, claimed Court herself played the Devil Girl: alas, she did not, but I understand the wishful thinking.) Incidentally, the film - like Behind The Headlines (1956), one of her very last before Hammer - paired her with Adrienne Corri, another striking redhead whose time was still to come.
After Hammer, she was suddenly the hottest thing in British films. A contemporaneous issue of Picturegoer put her on the cover, and in an article titled “Our cover girl shines among the ghouls” noted: “Hers will be the most widely screened British face in America this year”, and that the film itself was “tipped to be shown in more US cinemas than any British film ever.”
Well, the predicted superstardom never came, and it is a great pity that the main fruit of her success – a part in the American tv series Dick and the Duchess – kept her away from British movies at a time when she should have been consolidating her success. As it was the series ended after a year, and she returned to a movie business that had moved on in her absence. Apart from the Cormans and Dr Blood’s, almost all of her subsequent credits were in tv.
But she remains, for me, the best as well as the first Hammer heroine, and it is sad indeed to contemplate how good she would have been as Mina in Dracula, or Isobel in The Mummy, or in any of Barbara Shelley’s roles.
Watching Curse again, I was struck as I always am by the confidence and ease of it: there is no sense whatsoever that the studio realised they were doing anything radical or far-reaching in its influence. It is, in fact, a rather underrated film, one that it is fashionable to write-off as far more important for what it began than for what it is. I’ve never found it so: certainly I feel it is equal to Dracula, its immediate follow-up and a masterpiece acknowledged by all. Hazel Court, in incredible real Victorian costumes that seem nonetheless tailor-made for her, is a huge contributor to its success, and to that crucial aura of class Hammer were able to give what was in truth a very cheap film. Like Cushing, similarly far more than Hammer could have reasonably expected, she bestows elegance on all she brushes past.