1959′s ‘Beat Girl’ has enough high hair and dated teenage slang to enjoy purely for camp, but underneath all the eye makeup is a somber reflection on post-WWII malaise. ‘Beat Girl’ opens with an already-tenuous home situation completely breaking down when distant, wealthy dad brings home hot new Parisian wife Nicole to meet his daughter, Jennifer. Jennifer’s already estranged from her father, rebelling and hanging with the beatnik scene down at her art school’s local coffee house instead of swizzling drinks with dad’s upper-crust clients. Young wife Nicole tries her best to bridge the gap – she impresses Jennifer’s friends with her knowledge of jazz and responds to Jennifer’s cruel comments with kindness, but Jennifer only resents her intrusion. When a woman from the strip club across the street comes into the coffee house and greets Nicole like an old friend, Jennifer investigates further and gets tangled up with the club’s classy sleazeball owner, played with perfect oiliness by a young Christopher Lee. Nicole and Jennifer circle each other, drawn more tightly into a tangled web of blackmail. Through a last-act burst of violence, Jennifer’s tough-girl act falls apart and her family finally comes together. In between there’s plenty of teenage kicks – games of chicken, hot rods, and lots of spazztastic dancing:
The unique charm of ‘Beat Girl’ is seeing America’s Beat Generation layered over English culture. The film was released in 1959 in England, 1960 in America, and shows English youth embracing the Beats’ detachedness, their rejection of ‘proper’ social markers like money, a steady job, and all signs of traditional Englishness. There’s a panicked edge to showing the teen’s beatnik ways, as if warning viewers hanging out at coffee shops could lead to NOT DRINKING (as when a musician tosses his friend’s bottle away declaring ‘drinking’s for squares’) and NOT FIGHTING (when a group of toughs destroys the friends’ jalopy, the owner says ‘If you wanna fight, JOIN THE ARMY’ before walking away). Horror! What could be less English than NOT DRINKING (NOT EVEN TEA! Just coffee)! That would’ve been a great tag line for the movie’s poster: They WON’T DRINK! They WON’T FIGHT! THEY’LL DANCE! (The actual posters were far more misleading and lurid, but more on that in a bit).
There’s a reason for the teens’ embracing of Beat culture beyond getting to use ridiculous slang at every opportunity – these were the children who survived the Blitz. The film’s most telling scene takes place at a ‘cave stomp’, held in a club’s sub-basement. Bored with the music, Jennifer’s friends move away from the action and talk about where they are, not a cave but a fallout shelter. The space reminds one lanky musician of his childhood ‘playground’: “When [the bombing] was over I played on the bomb sites. Down in the cellars amongst the rats. This here’s a home away from home for me.” Another describes seeing his mother killed right next to him; his father, abroad with the army as General, only came home after, decorated in medals. These teens’ entire childhoods were running for shelters, nightly bombings, houses suddenly destroyed in the middle of quiet neighborhoods. After the war, the older generation coped by immediately settling back into pre-war ways, keeping a ‘stiff upper lip’, almost pretending nothing happened to avoid facing the war’s horrors. Now, on the brink of becoming adults themselves, the teens want a severe break. It’s no wonder Jennifer declares with venom she hates everything about adults’ lives, that she rejects it utterly and that she and her friends are ‘free’. Breaking from society may ostracize them, but they’re ‘free’ from what they see as the root cause of the war.
Of course, that’s not how the film was marketed.
NOR IS IT AT ALL ABOUT BECOMING A STRIPPER. You’d walk into this film thinking you were about to watch ‘Striptease’ and you’d get a war of wills between two young women…wait, that’s also what ‘Striptease’ was about…you get what I mean.
And who could resist the lurid fearmongering of ‘THIS COULD BE YOUR TEENAGE DAUGHTER!’. Why the emphasis is on ‘TEENAGE’ and not ‘YOUR’ I’m unsure – perhaps this is all socially acceptable behavior for 20-somethings and 10-year-olds. Also, the lady on all three posters appears in the movie for a grand total of 5 minutes.
You can watch the entire movie on YouTube here. In the words of the youths, it’s ”great, dad, great! Straight from the fridge!” “I’m WAYYYY out!”