Recently, we subjected ourselves to a screening of an obscure Bob Hope comedy, one of his many 1960s fizzlers, and were confronted with the sight of an iconic Bond girl portraying the decorous love interest of a man more than three decades her senior. She was awfully attractive, though, and it has led to a tribute here in The Underworld. Today, we salute the career of Shirley Eaton.
Born with that very name in Edgeware, Middlesex, England on January 12th, 1937, she was the child of a prosperous furniture store owner and his wife. An early interest in dramatics (and dance) led her to attendance at the Aida Foster Theatre School. By age twelve, she was already working on the stage. At age fourteen, she was cast on a biweekly British sitcom called Parent-Craft (1951) opposite no less than Robert Morley and James Fox.
In the wake of that experience, she pursued bit roles in a variety of English-made films, an early one of note being Doctor in the House (1954) in which she portrayed an amorous young girl whose blatant pursuit of med student Dirk Bogarde sent him packing to an apartment with three male roomies. (She's shown here in cheesecake publicity for the movie alongside burly muscleman Reg Park.) Also, in 1954, she worked as a stand-in/stunt double for Janet Leigh who was filming Prince Valiant in England.
Eaton also won featured roles in comedies like The Love Match (1955), regarding two young men desperate to speed home in time to catch a football match, and the musical Charley Moon, all about a music hall performer breaking into the big time. A singer herself, she took part in songs and skits in various variety stage shows as well.
She was part of the Rank Organization of film-making and as such joined other starlets of the studio (including Belinda Lee, Mary Ure, June Thorburn and Maureen Swanson) in being presented to Queen Elizabeth II in 1956 at a special movie performance.
Then Sailor Beware! (later retitled Panic in the Parlour, 1956) cast her as the newly-engaged daughter of a hen-pecking battle axe mother, who comes close to scaring off the fiance! That same year came the comedic hit Three Men in a Boat, with Laurence Harvey and a sizable cast of notable British names such as David Tomlinson, Jill Ireland, Martita Hunt and Adrienne Corri.
In 1957, she was reunited with Dirk Bogarde in the substantial hit comedy Doctor at Large as an attractive nurse. This was actually third in a series that began with the earlier Doctor in the House, though Eaton was now playing a completely different character. Also in 1957, Eaton worked with Tom Drake in Date with Disaster, a crime drama, and Your Past is Showing, a comedy concerning blackmail which starred Peter Sellers and Terry-Thomas.
The year 1957 was notable, too, for it was the year Eaton married her husband, builder Colin Rowe. This, her only marriage, would last until his death close to forty years later and yield the couple two sons.
1958 marked the debut of Carry on Sergeant, another comedy that led to a lengthy series of sequels. The movies almost invariably began with “Carry On” and lasted until 1992 (!), though the phrase itself had been cribbed from a 1957 comedy called Carry On Admiral, which was unrelated to the subsequent movies.
This habit of appearing as the curvaceous beauty amongst a sea of goofy comedians continued with Further Up the Creek (1958) and a second "Carry On" movie, Carry On Nurse (1959.) These comedies were balanced with a co-starring role in the thriller In the Wake of a Stranger, about an innocent sailor being framed for murder. Eaton gave birth to the first of her two sons (Grant and Jason) in 1959.
Her career, however, was still going strong with 1960 bringing the middling comic-fantasy Life is a Circus as well as Carry on Constable, her third and final installment of the popular series. There were four films released in 1961 that featured her. A Weekend with Lulu, about a young couple's romantic trip being spoiled by the company of her mother, the RAF-set comedy Nearly a Nasty Accident, the marketing industry comedy Dentist on the Job and the killer-on-the-loose mystery spoof What a Carve Up!
All of these movies focused in on Eaton's considerable physical charms. The 5'7” stautesque blonde was often shown in either tight skirts, bikini bathing suits, towels or some other form of light dress, something the posters for these movies exploited in order to get folks in the door.
In 1962, Eaton was invited to guest star in the inaugural episode of a new TV series about the exploits of a British spy. The Saint was played by Roger Moore and Eaton would return to the show two more times (in different parts) following this one. The color photo shown here is from a black & white episode of the series.
An unusual project came along in 1963 called The Girl Hunters. In it, Mickey Spillane, the author who penned so many Mike Hammer mystery novels, played his own character of Mickey Spillane! Not only did the non-actor win the leading role, but the whole movie was filmed in England, yet the story took place in America! Thus, Eaton and several other English performers were called upon to affect American accents, few to any convincing degree.
The movie retains a cult fascination and has some interesting sequences (and, again, Eaton's body was featured in the ads as well as the film itself), but in the end was a little too odd to be taken completely seriously. (She also had to be kissed in a most unappealing way by the author/”actor” during their love scenes!)
In 1964, Eaton would work on the film that catapulted her into the public consciousness and made her body an instantly recognizable commodity, though she only appears in the finished product for less than seven minutes! The film was Goldfinger, starring Sean Connery as James Bond, and Eaton was cast as Jill Masterson, a memorably ill-fated “Bond Girl.”
The whirly-whip hairdo Eaton sports in the publicity photo above was wisely discarded in the movie itself in favor of a more seductive, over-one-eye look. Eaton played a curvy, beautiful stunner who works for gold-obsessed crime czar Gert Frobe, yet cannot resist the allure of Connery.
She pays for her indiscretions by being painted from head to toe and left to “suffocate to death” from its effects, according to the script. For this process, Eaton had to endure the considerable torment of being painted almost entirely in gold paint.
This was only part of the agony, though. It was the endless soaking and scrubbing to remove it afterwards that really caused discomfort. For her trouble, Eaton was granted the cover of Life magazine and became an international sensation, her photo popping up everywhere the blockbuster film was mentioned and, for decades afterward, serving as an iconic image for the long-running film franchise.
Shirley Ann Field had been approached for the role but declined it. Eaton had no such reser-vations, knowing that the burgeoning series was at or near its glory and with no issues at all regarding the showing off of her considerable body (and this is after having given birth twice!)
Thanks to Goldfinger, Eaton was now a sex symbol known all over the place and was, to many, an “overnight sensation” though she'd been steadily working in the British film and television industry for well over a decade.
Next up was an adventure tale called Rhino! (1964), directed by prolific animal-oriented filmmaker Ivan Tors. (This was filmed after her work on Goldfinger, but released before it.) She was the leading lady to Harry Guardino and Robert Culp as a South African district nurse who assists a zoologist trying to prevent endangered species from being hunted and killed for sport and profit.
She was able to capitalize on her newfound notoriety with top-billing (for the first time) in a movie called The Naked Brigade (1965.) In it, she portrayed a British girl who finds herself on the island of Crete during the German invasion of WWII. She joins resistance fighters including Ken Scott (who, from the looks of the movie's posters, was more naked than she was!)
Her next project is the one I happened to have seen her in first! As a tyke, I caught the 1965 version of Agatha Christie's 'Ten Little Indians' on TV and was instantly captivated by the opening credit sequence in which east cast member is shown along with his or her name. (Longtime readers here know of my obsession with this practice.)
Cast as the film's leading lady opposite hunky Hugh O'Brian, she continued a mid-'60s trend for her of working with darkly-handsome, hairy-chested leading men. She, O'Brian and a chalet full of other guests are at the hands of a murderer who is picking them all off one-by-one, causing all of them to distrust each other for fear of being offed.
One of her fellow houseguests was played by Dennis Price, marking their fourth film together (one of which had been the slightly similar, albeit comedic, What a Carve Up! a few years before.) The producer of this version, Harry Alan Towers, proceeded to remake it two more times after this, though few, if any, people feel that he improved on it either time.
Having worked for Ivan Tors in Rhino!, Eaton was approached to join a group of other performers he'd helped make famous for the water-based adventure Around the World Under the Sea (1966.) Lloyd Bridges of Sea Hunt and Brian Kelly of Flipper, both Tors-produced series, joined Keenan Wynn and David McCallum for the colorful adventure flick. There are worse ways to make a living than hanging out in swimwear with Bridges and Kelly!
As was often the case, Eaton has a bikini scene along with an underwater swimming showcase. Kelly was yet another hunky, hirsute costar.
Now Bob Hope came calling with a role for Eaton in his latest comic romp. Eight on the Lam (1967) cast him as the widowed father of seven children who are watched over by zany babysitter Phyllis Diller. As luck would have it, he is romantically involved with his youngest son's teacher, the stunning Shirley Eaton.
Hope is incorrectly suspected of embezzle-ment from the bank at which he works and the contrived plot soon has him and his seven urchins becoming the octet referred to by the title. Eaton avails herself as an aide/child wrangler until he can prove that he's innocent.
Her role is almost sheer decoration, but she delivers that much in full. There's something about the incredible skin tone that was present in these mid-'60s movies. She's just radiant. There is also the odd distinction here in that she, a Bond Girl, has a moment alongside Jill St. John, who would in time be a Bond Girl as well thanks to Diamonds Are Forever (1972.)
Harry Alan Towers soon came calling again, this time in order to cast Eaton as the exotic villainess in his movie The Million Eyes of Su-Muru (1967.) For the first time in her career, she went with dark brunette locks, lending her a sinister air not unlike Barbara Steele. Her costars were Frankie Avalon (!), George Nader, Klaus Kinski and, from Ten Little Indians, Wilfred Hyde-White.
As the the title character, she is the leader of an all-female army who intend to replace all the male world leaders with representatives of their own and thus dominate the entire world.
After years of playing bouncy blondes and curvaceous sexpots (when not just downright window dressing), Eaton relished the chance to portray an evil, sadistic bad girl. Nader continued the unintentional (?) string of handsome, dark and hairy-chested male costars.
An outtake from this movie was used by producer Towers, without her permission, as a “cameo” in the 1968 film The Blood of Fu Manchu. In that, she is referred to as “Black Widow” though she had no willing participation in the Jess Franco-directed film, which starred Christopher Lee as the title figure.
Nevertheless, she made another movie, her last, for Towers, which was a sequel to Su-Muru. The Girl from Rio (aka, Rio 70,1969) had her back and bent on world domination again, this time in Rio de Janeiro. Her primary antagonist in this one was George Sanders (though she's seen here with the film's leading man Richard Wyler.)
Just prior, in 1968, she'd made one final TV appearance on The Saint with Roger Moore (who was still a couple of years before his casting as James Bond in Live and Let Die, 1973.)
Now thirty-two, with a husband and two small boys and a career that ranged from middling to unsatisfying in the wake of all the James Bond hoopla, Eaton began to crave life as a homebody with her family. A famous quote, given by her later, was “A career is a career, but you're a mother until you die.”
Without fanfare or regret, Shirley Eaton walked away from acting and all its complications, considerations, congratulations and celebrations. She raised her sons and was a wife to her (beloved and only) husband until he passed away from cancer in 1994. During that time and since, she explored her creative side through artwork, poetry, photography and sculpting, among other things, occasionally appearing on retrospective specials having to do with the “Doctor,” Carry On” and “Bond” franchises she has been a part of.
She attended the premiere of Skyfall (2012) wearing (what else?) gold. In 2014, Goldfinger marked its 50th anniversary and she was immediately invited to attend a special event in London to commemorate it. Now seventy-eight, there is precious little change in the silhouette of her legendary figure half a century later. Unlike countless other stars and starlets, she has also allowed her face to age without the extensive cosmetic surgery that has blanketed most of the entertainment industry.
This appearance was not without controversy, however, for it was reported that Eaton provided a certain amount of difficulty regarding the invitation of another person, one Nikki van der Zyl, a talented voice actress who had overlaid the speaking voice of Ursula Andress in Dr. No (1962) and, as it turns out, Eaton's in Goldfinger. Eaton's own speaking voice had been deemed “too Cockney” and van der Zyl, who was the invisible voice of many Bond girls and many other females over the course of the series, was enlisted to redo it.
Goldfinger's villainous Gert Frobe was also re-voiced almost entirely due to his heavy accent, but no one seemed to care much about that! It might be a more sensitive subject due to the fact that the original performer spoke English and not a foreign tongue as so many others in this situation did. (I've never noticed anything at all unpleasant about Eaton's voice and have trouble understanding what the fuss was, but maybe perceptions and/or class differences were different in 1964.) I always prefer to hear an actor or actress's “real” voice whenever possible, but there is no question that van der Zyl did an excellent job with all those voices over the years. She was the guest and honoree at a separate Berlin tribute a few days later.
Having spent some years in the south of France (where she retained a friendship with Roger Moore), she now enjoys her art and her five grandkids back in England. She also enjoys periodic appearances at nostalgia events and wrote an autobiography in 1999 detailing her life and her career in the movies as well as another book full of poetry. Though her career was cut short by her own choosing, we always enjoy seeing her in any project that comes before us. Here's to a real golden girl!