"It's all going on somewhere, darling. All you've got to do is find it."
VCI Entertainment include "The Girl-Getters" (also known by its original title, "The System") in their "Best of British Classics" series. That designation may be more than a bit of hyperbole (at least you can't disagree with the "British" part), but the film is not without merit, as we shall see.
Made by Kenneth Shipman Productions and released in 1964, "The Girl-Getters" boasts a ton of talent. Michael Winner directed it, the man who not only made "The Jokers," "I'll Never Forget What's'isname," and "Scorpio" but would go on to make some more-dubious but highly profitable films like "Death Wish," "The Mechanic," and "The Sentinel." Stanley Black composed the music, he who also scored "The Monkey's Paw," "Jack the Ripper," "Lillie Marlene," and "Valentino." And, best of all, Nicolas Roeg was the director of photography, the man who went into directing and did such fine work as "Walkabout," "Don't Look Now," and "The Man Who Fell to Earth." They and a handful of good actors like Oliver Reed, Jane Merrow, David Hemmings, and Harry Andrews, plus a few tunes of the day like the movie's theme, "The System," that opens the film and sung by the Searchers, "Heart Full of Tears" by the Marauders, and "Rocking Berry Stomp" by the Rocking Berries combine to keep the movie heading in the right direction.
"The Girl-Getters" pretty much introduces us to an age, a time in the mid Sixties when the whole world was in change. We had here the decade of the Kennedy and King assassinations, the escalation of the Vietnam war, the growing awareness of and fights against racial discrimination, the looming sexual and drug revolutions, the rise of the hippie movement, the psychedelic epoch, the changing mores and ethics in world politics and behavior; you name it , the times they were a-changin'.
In the case of "The Girl-Getters," the theme involves the historical conflict between love and sex, a conflict every man and woman has faced at one time or another since the beginning of time. Although we would see this conflict reflected better in movies like "Alfie" and "Blow-up" a couple of years after "The Girl-Getters," we have to remember which one came first. In a way, then, "The Girl-Getters" was something of a trendsetter in its depiction of social and cultural styles in the Sixties.
Oliver Reed stars in and practically carries the show as a young man named Tinker, the leader of a group of young men who descend on a small English seaside village each tourist season to pick up a little money and pick up a lot of girls. Tinker has worked out an elaborate scheme, a system, a "sport of the season," for their advancing their sexual conquests, and apparently it's been working well for them for several years. Tinker himself is a part-time photographer and full-time womanizer.
A remarkably youthful-looking David Hemmings plays a newcomer to the system, a young fellow Tinker introduces to the group and their activities. Barbara Ferris plays Suzy, one of Tinker's old friends, who pursues her own pleasures each season, this year a rich older man. Julia Foster plays Lorna, a sweet young innocent, one of Tinker's typical conquests. And Harry Andrews plays Larsey, Tinker's pompous boss in the photography shop.
Anyway, all is going well for Tinker until he meets Nicola (Jane Merrow), a beautiful young model and the daughter of the rich guy being charmed by Tinker's friend Suzy. The thing is, Nicola is more than a match for Tinker. Indeed, she is the first person able to turn the tables on Tinker, as he actually falls for her, something he swore he would never do with any woman. She begins their friendship by practically daring him to seduce her.
The movie is a straight romantic drama, with thoughtful insights on the nature of love and sex, but it is not without its humorous moments, either. Tinker's and his friends' opinions of the middle-aged men who flock to the beaches each year, the "grockles" they call them, are amusing. And the first night the boys arrive in town, they attend a "La Dolce Vita" type party, where all the young, hip swingers hang out.
Tinker is full of self-confidence and excels at "flip" talk. But it's not enough. The viewer can see that he and his buddies are empty people leading empty lives, with no serious relationships. They treat women with contempt until they succumb themselves to the inevitable clutches of pure love. "We're all happy, aren't we? I thought you knew that," Nicola sarcastically tells Tinker.
The story runs out of steam somewhere at the midway point, establishing its messages and then repeating them in a second half we can easily predict. Yet "The Girl-Getters" is continually fascinating in its various plot turns, predictable or not, with, as I say, Reed at the center of attention. OK, he looks older than the twenty-three he tells Nicola he is (Reed was actually about twenty-seven when he made the movie, but Reed always appeared older); nevertheless, it's a small quibble.
The main thing is watching how the film depicts a climate of change in the world, from the staid, conservative decade of the Fifties to the more open, more liberal decades of the Sixties and Seventies. Never mind that the pendulum would swing back to conservatism in the Eighties and Nineties. Here, we see that "England swings like a pendulum do," as Roger Miller sang it. But swinging isn't everything, as Tinker finds out.
Trivia: The British Board of Film Censors certified the film for viewing "when no child under 16 is present." What's more, the filmmakers wanted Julie Christie for the role of Nicola, but she was unavailable.
VCI engineers digitally restored the film in 2010, presenting it in a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen ratio. They cleaned the print of almost all age spots, deterioration, grit, noise, scratches, specks, fades, and the like. They did, however, leave in enough inherent fine grain to remind us of the natural film-like quality of the image. It's true the image still isn't top-notch, remaining somewhat soft, with black levels that could have been deeper, definition a bit more pronounced, and a herky-jerky motion in places that probably resulted from converting the European frame rates to U.S. specs. Yet, overall, the restoration has done a remarkable job in bringing the PQ up to speed and making it not at all unpleasant to watch.
While I have no objections to the movie's picture quality, I did find the Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural sound disagreeable. It often displays a nasal, hollow characteristic, with rough, sometimes harsh overtones. One has to accept that mono sound is not going to compete against today's multichannel soundtracks with their strong dynamics and wide frequency ranges; still, we should expect a smoother response than what we hear in "The Girl-Getters," which seems as though the sound man recorded the location work in an echo chamber.
Twelve scene selections is about it. Sure, we also get a few VCI trailers and promos at start-up and English as the only spoken language, but there aren't even any subtitles. The folks at VCI Entertainment have some great old films in their catalogue, and they issue a ton of them every month, but, understandably, they don't always include many bonus items to accompany them. Part of it is a matter of nothing being available; another part, no doubt, is the matter of cost effectiveness.
"The Girl-Getters" could have easily slipped into camp, especially viewing it today and looking at it as something of a historical document. But thanks largely to Oliver Reed's engaging portrait of a man only just coming to understand himself and the nature of the world, the movie holds up as more than a snapshot of an era but as a serious philosophical query. And like all good philosophies, this one doesn't draw any hard and fast conclusions.