Adventures of Jane

I have a friend who is a huge, HUGE World War II history buff. My Dad is similarly fascinated with that conflict, so between the two of them, I have picked up a certain smattering of interest in the terrible events of 1939-45. Not much, but enough to get highly annoyed at my fellow countrymen who only remember we ever had a war during international sporting matches to reinforce their own xenophobia. Enough to be able to tell the difference between a Spitfire mk I and, um, other types of Spitfire. Enough to know that the snazzy B3-style flying jacket I recently acquired is of the sort worn by B-17 bomber crews, and is somewhat inaccurate because it has two pockets instead of the correct one. Enough to come off as an enormous nerd, in fact, without the swathes of useful, in-depth information that makes being known as an enormous nerd worthwhile. I do though like to think I cut quite a dash in the sort of clothing once worn by the crew of the Memphis Belle. Speaking of which (see what I did there), if you go to the Imperial War Musem Duxford, you’ll see a B-17 named Sally B. This is the last airworthy B-17 in Europe and, in fact, starred in the 1989 movie Memphis Belle as the titular aircraft. Today she still has the rather demure nose art of that famous plane on one side, and her own sexy naked lady (the original Sally B, we assume) on the other.

And it is with a cry of “Good God man, even for you that is a spectacularly tenuously connected introduction!” that we come to the subject of this review. Sort of. Because I suppose what got me putting the two together in my head is how a few parts of the Second World War were quite sexy. Dad was a lot less furtive about his aircraft books than his porn stash, which meant I wasted plenty of time as a kid poring over pictures of American bombers for the amateur renderings of naked ladies on the front. Us Brits too added a certain amount of smutty pictures to the noses of our planes, but after the war most of these were painted over at the behest of the miserable bastards in the Ministry of Defense. Which is a shame, not just because one can never have too many smutty pictures, but because many were of the lady who stars (and is the main character in) today’s film; Britain’s greatest wartime pin-up; Jane.

Jane was the creation of cartoonist Norman Pett, a strip that ran in the Daily Mirror newspaper starting in 1932. Initially the comic detailed the rather tame antics of a young well-to-do lady and her dog. The model (since Pett always drew from life) was his wife Mary. As time went on, the strips became racier and Mary withdrew her services, though this was more likely because she was pushing on a bit rather than any moral outrage. Pett then used a number of models to base Jane’s increasingly undressed figure on, but his favourite soon became a pretty blonde with the unlikely name of Chrystabel Leighton-Porter. Chrystabel was a dancer and life model when Pett discovered her, and such was Chrystabel’s resemblance to the character that she soon became known as ‘the’ Jane. This was certainly helped by promoters of the revues in which she was appearing adding taglines to their playbills like ‘Featuring Jane out of the Mirror!’

And why wouldn’t they, because Jane’s wholesome-yet-racy adventures were a sensation. The forces in particular loved her, to the extent that when troops couldn’t get sufficient strips sent to them by family back home, the War Office reprinted them in publications distributed to soldiers on the front lines. At one point the Mirror tried to drop the strip, because of concerns about Pett’s reliability. The outcry was huge, and the publishers quickly had Pett create a message from Jane to say jokingly that she hadn’t appeared because she couldn’t go out due to having mislaid her underwear. The Mirror offices were immediately inundated with letters containing panties, so that Jane might return forthwith.

Jane’s success is probably most due to the experiences of her creator, Norman Pett. He’d served in World War I and had been left with two things; a set of lungs ruined by a gas attack, and an understanding of the mind of the common soldier. Jane was designed as the squaddie’s perpetual girlfriend; young, loyal, pretty, always willing to help the war effort and, inevitably, falling out of her clothes in the process. At one point a lengthy plot in the strip involved Jane possibly getting married. Again the paper was inundated with letters from young men pleading for this not to happen – and a few from women demanding Jane be married off so they stood a chance with the boys! The real-life Jane (as everyone now referred to the former Chrystabel)’s husband, a Typhoon pilot who saw action on D-Day, was kept a closely-guarded secret. Coincidentally – and presumably as an extra morale-boost as the troops began the big push into occupied territory – the day after D-day was the first time Jane appeared in the strip actually naked.

Jane’s adventures continued in the postwar period, though the strip’s popularity waned in the after the end of WWII. With the troops back home, the surrogate girlfriend who helped fight the Hun was no longer required. Pett stopped drawing the strip (and Chrystabel stopped modeling for it) in 1948, though other artists carried it on until 1959, and Chrystabel continued to appear in stage productions based around the Jane persona. In 1949 she starred in today’s review subject, a low-budget B-movie from the small outfit Eros Films. Chrystabel was less than happy with the results and her husband Arthur later described it as “bloody dreadful.” One wonders why the company decided to make a film of a character whose popularity was fading, but one reason may be a film from a year earlier.

In 1948 another low-rent outfit, the snappily-named Production Facilities (Film), released a short programmer entitled Penny and the Pownall Case. The company was actually owned by the Rank Organisation, who used it to produce cheap B-pictures as a training ground for their technicians. Those who did a good job had a chance of being called back for work on bigger pictures. One such graduate was a certain Terence Fisher, who went on to great acclaim with his work for Hammer. Anyway, Penny and the Pownall Case is little more than Jane with the serial number filed off. It starred Peggy Evans as the titular character, a model for a popular newspaper strip drawn by none other than Venerated Horror Film Icon Christopher Lee in his first feature film appearance. Penny gets embroiled in a scheme by some dirty foreigners to steal British secrets (or something; I’ve only seen it once and blotted most of it out), much as Jane might have done a few years previously. Penny and the Pownall Case is largely crap, possibly because it cast British bombshell (and Christopher Lee’s fellow Rank Charm School graduate) Diana Dors as the heroine’s dowdy best friend instead of in the leading role. Apart from Dors and Lee there’s very little reason to recall it at all. Lee, with typical tact and enthusiasm recalled his opinion of the premier thusly; “I wish that a crevice might have opened up in the stalls that I might have toppled into it.” Incidentally, It was through Production Facilities (Film) that Lee and Fisher worked together for the first time on Song For Tomorrow (also 1948) leading to their eventual legendary work at Hammer.

Anyway, Penny and the Pownall Case was so low-budget that it probably turned a profit, so maybe that’s what prompted the chaps at Eros Films to hire the ‘real’ Jane for a big screen appearance. Maybe? Probably? Yes, well, you try finding box office numbers for lost unlamented old British second features. So the movie opens with some footage of Jane modelling for Norman Pett at his actual home studio. She’s billed only as ‘Jane’ even though the movie – like the stage shows – had no official connection to the Daily Mirror, who had copyright. I guess the paper figured any publicity was good publicity, though this opinion may have been reconsidered after seeing this movie. Though it’s interesting to see Jane and Pett at work, there’s one major departure from the truth. Jane is posing while clad in a fairly demure swimsuit. In fact Chrystabel’s experience as a life model proved useful because even though Jane never appeared fully nude in the strips, Pett insisted on sketching his models entirely naked. For which all right-thinking men must take a moment to pause, and tug our forelocks in respect to this remarkable gentleman.

Anyway, we’re quickly off into what we must, for the sake of absolute accuracy, call the plot, which starts with Jane just finishing one of her variety shows. From a historical point of view it’s a shame they didn’t capture any of the performance itself, though perhaps not from an entertainment point of view since I gather the shows weren’t that great. I did wonder briefly if the act could have possibly made the flick any worse, and then my brain sprained at the idea. Anyway, Jane quickly heads backstage where an old gentleman, claiming to be have a fan, gives her a diamond bracelet as a token of his esteem.

Jane is soon off down to the coastal resort of Brighton to meet an old friend, Tom (Michael Hogarth), who is some sort of official or agent. Jane’s down there to judge a beauty contest, but mainly because that’s where the cheapjack studios were located. Tom is tracking a gang of jewel thieves who are operating in Brighton, in fact Jane’s already met one of them, a spiv-type who I think was called Cleaver (Ian Colin). You see, on arriving in Brighton, Jane trapped her skirt in the train door, losing it in a ‘comedic’ bit of business. This is one of the movie’s few nods to the cartoon strip, where such things happened all the time. Well, without the painfully obvious staging anyway, what with Chrystabel visibly waiting for her cue before walking away from the door. Anyway, Cleaver gallantly gives Jane his coat, because this was back in 1949 when train doors, once closed, could never be opened again to remove, say, a trapped skirt.

Tom takes Jane for dinner at their hotel, where Cleaver is also staying. Thankfully there are a few moments to recover from the hi-jinks of the previous scene, because we’re about to be tied to the tracks of the Hilarity Express and nobody’s going to save us. Because here comes… the Restaurant Scene. Yes, Tom and Jane sit down for their meal, and are served by the hotel manager. He’s played by Stanelli, a popular band leader, jazz musician radio performer and comedian of the day. And on the strength of this performance at least, he’s the Antichrist of Comedy. Oh boy, is this scene awful, just everything unfunny about the British music hall distilled into what can only have been a few minutes, but felt like years. “Do you have cow’s feet?” asks Jane. “No madam, but these shoes are rather tight,” comes the reply, with all the poise and timing of a dead badger. The filmmakers don’t actually provide a percussion sting or a wah-wah trombone – no, they save those for a drunk (future Carry On regular Peter Butterworth) passing out in Jane’s room by mistake. The one tiny crumb of plot in this whole tortured sequence it Tom pointing out Jane’s bracelet is fake.

Perhaps thinking we’ve suffered enough, the film now switches to the beauty pageant footage. And more beauty pageant footage. And yet still more beauty pageant footage. But eventually a winner has to be declared, and it’s Ruby (Sonya O’Shea), who knows Cleaver. That caddish fellow has his eyes on Jane though, and convinces her to come out on his boat. It ‘breaks down,’ leaving the occupants to be rescued by a cross-channel ferry. It’s a set-up though; Cleaver and his associate place a real, stolen diamond in Jane’s Bracelet, the idea being it’ll be able to get through customs that way. Ah, the Customs Scene… is it too late to go back to the Restaurant Scene? I’d tell you about the Italian and his suitcase shenanigans, but I’d have to remember it first, and I don’t want to slash my wrists again today.

It seems the plot-padding ratio is slipping too far in favour of the former, so we are now treated to a montage of Jane shopping. It’s dull, but nobody is trying to be funny so I welcomed it with open arms. It also supplies Jane with some ladies’ undergarments to show Ruby, who spots the bracelet. With no idea that it now contains the stolen gem, Jane gives it to Ruby, just in time to get kidnapped (along with her constant companion, the dachshund Fritz) by Cleaver and his gang. Jane refuses to tell where the bracelet is, so there’s some driving, and searching, and what was probably supposed to be a fist fight between Tom and a hoodlum. So while Jane is sending Fritz off with a message for Tom, the old guy from the beginning (who, in a baffling twist, is also in the gang I think) takes the bracelet from Ruby at gunpoint. Meanwhile Tom is found unconscious by a comedy chambermaid, which means… oh Hell… the comedy hotel manager is back. I hate you, movie.

And thus there’s some more driving, and, um, a chase, and I think the gang gets captured, or something. I may have actually died briefly during the end of the movie, which had by that time turned a running time of less than 70 minutes into an ordeal I simply couldn’t withstand. I guess I should have known; when the husband of the star (in her only movie) suggests it’s a pile of shit, you know you’re in for trouble.

And sadly it’s not just the threadbare production, the lousy supporting cast and the apparent desire to tie comedy’s hands behind its back and kick the shit out of it. I ended up feeling quite sorry for poor Jane, or rather Chrystabel. Throughout the war years, she insisted on giving her age as 21, even though that date had passed some years before she began to model for Pett. Always pretty rather than beautiful, by the time of the movie Chrystabel was already slipping into ‘handsome.’ Since the sexy antics of the cartoon strip were largely prohibited by what was socially acceptable in a movie from 1949, all Chrystabel had to fall back on was her acting. Which is a problem, because even among this cast of barely-remembered has-beens and never-were’s, she’s awful. Come back, Penny and the Pownall Case. At least you had Christopher Lee looking oddly skinny (even for Christopher Lee) and Diana Dors being vampy and beautiful.

So Jane’s film career stalled with one movie, at least until the flurry of Jane nostalgia in the 1980s. There was a short-lived BBC TV series starring Dempsey & Makepeace‘s Glynis Barber in the title role, and a movie, Jane and the Lost City, starring somebody called Kirsten Hughes. Chrystabel apparently thought this last attempt was even worse than her film, which presumably means it’s buried in a lead-lined underground bunker somewhere, far away from the eyes of unsuspecting humans. Much as I wish this one had been.