Monday, 20 March 2017

Beware of miss-selling… The Smashing Bird I Used to Know (1969)

By golly, this one’s a bit odd. It’s more than a little conflicted: a film in search of the right tone with its twin titles telling you everything you need to know about the ragged line it walks between sexploitation and a lighter/darker drama: in the US it was called School for Unclaimed Girls.

Neither title is accurate with the first referring to a phrase used by the unfortunate father of the lead character, his daughter who, inadvertently, causes him to be crushed on a merry-go-round when just a child. She grows up fatherless and always blaming herself for her “smashing” Dad’s death whilst her mother – seemingly oblivious to her torment – seeks out a replacement.

Renée Asherson
The mother is played by Renée Asherson an actress who enjoyed a long and fascinating career, from Powell and Pressburger’s genius The Small Back Room to The Day the Earth Caught Fire and onto TV like Tenko and beyond. An excellent actor throughout and one I had never previously joined all of the dots with!

The father was played by David Lodge, a mainstay of sixties cinema with many comedy roles, here he makes a prototypical father with his likability making us question how we feel about his accidental killer. His grown-up daughter Nicki is played by a little-known actress – at least now – called Madeleine Hinde who looks like she stopped performing to start a family in the late seventies. Here she gets to have Dennis Waterman for a boyfriend and Maureen Lipman as a would-be girlfriend (yes, I know…).

Funfairs before health and safety...
 Directed by Robert Hartford-Davis, School for Unclaimed Smashing Birds (as it could be called…) also features a host of go-go bad girls including a fifteen-year old Lesley-Anne Down in her first screen role.

After a psychedelic nightmare flashing back to the death of her father,  we join Nicki (Hind) as a rather mature-looking schoolgirl (she was 20 at the time) caught in the middle of that desperate relationship between her mother Anna (Asherson) and the viewable-from-space nastiness of Harry Spenton (Mower in second gear… you won’t cut much grass like that mate). Harry wants to use Nicki’s trust fund to invest in a beautiful laundrette and Anna agrees little realising that the Seventies’ revolution in white goods will soon turn their dreams to powder – Daz or Omo probably.

Nicki waits for her mother and step-git
Nicki’s only escape from her repressed life is going for drives with her almost-boyfriend Peter (a youthful Dennis Waterman), he picks her up from school and they imagine a life free of parental compromise and bad memories…

Sadly, Harry is more than a one-dimensional bad guy and he also has designs on Nicki’s lovely slim figure, makes his move in their kitchen with all the subtlety of a period disc-jockey. In spite of her emotionally vulnerable state Nicki is no pushover and slaps her assailant before being forced to knife him in clear self-defence.

Kitchen sink drama
Cut away from the incident – no resolution is shown - and Nicki is to be found at a reform school for… not so much unclaimed girls but badly-judged ones. Whilst Nicki is in for presumably attempted murder, Susan (Janina Faye) is merely pregnant whilst others have stories of the mildly sordid to impart.

Naturally enough given we have women in prison there are a couple of lovers, Jane (Michele Cook) and the joint’s alpha female Sarah (Maureen Lipman, also the film’s alpha actress as it turns out). Sarah is maybe getting a little bored of her pretty friend and casts longing looks at the new arrival.

Michele Cook and Maureen Lipman
Nicki is shown in consultation with Dr Sands (Faith Brook) who is just determined to get to the bottom of her neurosis even though Mother Anna is still clueless as to the impact her husband’s death had on their daughter.

But at least Nicki begins to open up to Sarah although not to the extent the latter would like. Still it’s enough to drive her now-ex into a rage and she attacks Nicki provoking a massed pillow fight that may or may not be a reference to Jean Vigo’s Zero de Conduite… It’s more like a scene from a Leslie Nielsen comedy as suddenly a topless woman appears amidst the mayhem as if to show how "adult" the film is.

Fight, fight, fight!
Sarah exacts revenge on her girlfriend in the showers by getting the gang to beat on her whilst her eyes are no doubt clouded by steam. Nicki tries to help but is angrily rejected by the weeping girl. Gosh, it’s tough inside.

Anyways, Nicki doesn’t blame Sarah and soon they’re cosying up and telling each other’s life stories. They agree to escape because… well because.

The escape committee
In the confusion of their prison break Sarah gets nabbed but Nicki gets away. She makes her way to Peter who is working at an antiques shop run by his uptight pal Geoffrey (Basil Brush’s sidekick Derek Fowlds).  Briefly hope flickers as it’s agreed she can help out in the shop and gets dressed up in fab gear by their friend Amanda (Valerie Van Ost). This is too much for Geoff who, enraged by miss-judged passion makes a play for Nicki only to be fought off by Peter… it’s her fault for turning him on apparently… how times have changed.

So, literally too sexy for the antiques store, Nicki must move one… she drives off with Peter in his cool Triumph and they talk about her making a clean breast of it all and starting afresh; the future beckons… No spoilers.

Young Dennis at the wheel
Dusty verdict: Never less than interesting if occasionally frustrating, this film has some smashing performances, notably from Maureen Lipman, Renée Asherson and Faith Brook. Ultimately though it’s neither here nor there as either serious social commentary or sexploitation – the publicity promises “a perfumed zoo for teenage she-cats” - even though it’s far closer to the former.

Typically, just before Geoffrey’s sexual assault, he’s discussing antiques with a young couple one of whom is played by the boundlessly-quirky Sheila Steafel. She’s great but it all contributes to that uneven tone.

It's about freedom... probably
Smashing Bird is still well worth watching though and now available on DVD from Network: you can purchase either direct or from Amazon.

Lesley-Anne Down on the right...

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