19 May 2013

Happy birthday, Sabrina!

Today, voluptuous British Sabrina (1936) has her 77th birthday. The blonde pinup and cabaret star was the British answer to Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield, and a rival to Diana Dors. With a 42½ inch bust and a 17 inch waist, her nickname became Britain's finest hourglass. Although she made just a few films, she was one of the most photographed celebrities of her day. Was she just a dumb, talent-free blonde or a promotional genius?

British postcard by D. Constance Ltd., London, no. 64. Licence holder for U.K. & Colonies for Ufa. Photo: Hoffmann / Ufa.

Remarkable Chest Expansion
Sabrina was born Norma Ann Sykes in Stockport, England in 1936. Her parents were Annie Sykes-Haslam, a seamstress, and Walter Sykes, who worked in Mechanical Engineering. From 1940 till 1949, she attended St George's School in Cheshire, where she won several medals for swimming. Her family moved to Blackpool in 1949, where she acquired a strong Lancashire accent. As a teenager, Norma Ann contracted polio for four years, and was hospitalized for two years. A doctor prescribed a rugged series of exercises to develop her muscles. Each day, she spent hours swimming in a heated pool and performing bodybuilding feats. Her remarkable chest expansion is by some sources seen as the result of these workouts. At 16, she went modelling in London to show off her new physique. Two TV producer Bill Ward was looking for a girl for the Beauty Spot feature in Arthur Askey's TV series Before Your Very Eyes. Sabrina's photograph was sent in by her agent, Bill Watts, along with 23 others. Ward decided his search was over. In the TV show she was a gimmick: a dumb blonde with an impossibly-proportioned figure. In his biography Before Your Very Eyes, Askey later recounted: “We held auditions for a suitable dumb-cluck and found one in Norma Sykes. She had a lovely face and figure, but could not act, sing, dance, or even walk properly, although she had come to London to try her luck as a model. I asked her what she was doing and she told me she was making artificial jewellery, as her broken nails bore witness. Anyway, she was exactly what we wanted.” Till then, Before Your Very Eyes had been only moderately well received by critics and public alike. The introduction of the completely dumb voluptuous blonde with her tight fitting dresses was a big success in the show and Sabrina even outshone Askey himself. Fleet Street reporters and interviewers flocked to the studio. ‘British TV's first sex-symbol’, now named Sabrina, took acting, singing, dancing and elocution lessons with the money she earned. So when the TV contract stopped, she presented a polished cabaret act. She caused a scandal when an old nude picture turned up on the five of spades in a deck of playing cards. Photographer Russell Gay had made a series of nude pictures of her when she was 16, alone and hungry. American actor Steve Cochran later claimed that Sabrina had welcomed the exposure: "She saw her chance for a terrific piece of Marilyn Monroe kind of publicity and grabbed it." In fact, the photos had started her in show business. Glamour photographer Alex Sterling had seen the pictures and he summoned her to his studio. The resultant work was viewed in such men's magazines as Blighty and Spick & Span.

British postcard in the Greetings series. Photo: Douglas Burn.

British postcard in the Greetings series. Photo: Philip Gotlop Photographs Ltd.

Publicity Stunts
Sabrina made her film debut as Trixie in the adventure film Stock Car (Wolf Rilla, 1955). Despite the elocution lessons, Sabrina’s voice was dubbed with a harsh cockney accent. Ronevickers at IMDb: “Another in the long line of films distributed by Butchers Film Services, who specialised in British B-Movies. Stock Car is not without a certain period charm and, along with other similar efforts such as Wall of Death and Mystery Junction, it does pass away a pleasant enough hour or so.” By then, Sabrina had become a phenomenon. Millions of Brits, who watched The Goon Show on television, wet themselves whenever Spike Milligan slipped another reference to Sabrina past the BBC censors. The new star made personal appearances at £100 a time, lent her name to advertisers' products, and was on the front cover of English, French, German, Italian and American magazines. She had a cafe, boats, frocks and cocktails named after her. Sabrina debuted in variety: in French Capers at venues including Palace Theatre (Leicester), Chiswick Empire (London) and Palace Theatre (Chelsea). She also appeared with Arthur Askey in the comic Western Ramsbottom Rides Again (John Baxter, 1956). At The Encyclopaedis Sabrina, Mark the ‘SabrinaMaster’ writes: “She was a model, TV hostess, actor, singer, stage performer - and had no talent. Even she admitted that. Why then, was the Western world and the bearded president of Cuba so keen to see her that - at one time - 10,000 people in Perth caused an airport terminal to collapse?” She loved publicity stunts. The media reported how Sabrina's dress was torn off by a mob in Birkenhead in 1956. They reported about her dates with Steve Cochran, Prince Christian of Hanover and Harold Rothschild of the London banking tribe. In 1957, her 42,5 inch (39 or 41 inch according to other sources) bust was insured for £100,000 (£125,000 according to some sources). That year she made her best known film, Blue Murder at St. Trinian's (Frank Launder, 1957) with Terry-Thomas and Alastair Sim. Sabrina played one of the sexy school girls in the second film of the film series about the anarchic boarding school girls, based on the cartoons by Ronald Searle. For more than a year, she was one of the stars of the West End revue Pleasures of Paris. She also appeared in the sitcom series Living It Up (1957-1958), a TV version of the popular radio series Band Waggon with Arthur Askey. She signed a lucrative contract for TV appearances in the United States and engagements in Las Vegas, Hollywood, and New York night clubs. After that, she toured through Europe and Australia, where she starred again in Pleasures of Paris. She did a cameo in the British comedy Make Mine a Million (Lance Comfort, 1959), but Hollywood ignored her. So she toured on around the world.

Jayne Mansfield
Jayne Mansfield. German postcard by Friedrich W. Sander-Verlag, Minden-Westf./Kolibri-Verlag, no. 2161. Photo: Neubach / Constantin. Publicity still for Einer frisst den Andern/Dog Eat Dog (1964, Gustav Gavrin).

Jayne Mansfield
Jayne Mansfield. German postcard by Friedrich W. Sander-Verlag, Minden-Westf./Kolibri-Verlag, no. 2054. Photo: Neubach / Constantin. Publicity still for Einer frisst den Andern/Dog Eat Dog (1964, Gustav Gavrin).

The Death of Jayne Mansfield.
During the 1960s, Sabrina worked often in the US, but also performed in Australia, South America, South Africa and Great Britain. In 1960 she made a controversial visit to Cuba where she 'consorted' with its new revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro. She toured with her cabaret show , in the revue Playgirls (1961) and with the theatrical plays Pyjama Game (1965-1966), Loving Couch (1966) with Virginia Mayo, and Rattle of a Simple Man (1966). Sabrina also made a few B-movies. The first was Satan in High Heels (Jerald Intrator, 1962), which was not a success. She played a belly-dancer in the horror film House of the Black Death (Harold Daniels, Jerry Warren, 1965) with Lon Chaney jr. and John Carradine. On TV she appeared in a double episode of Tarzan (1967) featuring Ron Ely. Tragic circumstances lead to her role in the horror slasher The Ice House (Stuart E. McGowan, 1969). Jayne Mansfield had already signed to star in the film as the go-go dancing victim 'Venus De Marco'. Filming was slated to begin in July in Mexico, but Mansfield was killed in a car crash near New Orleans on 29 June 1967. Sabrina took over, but the result was disastrous. In 1967, the 31 year old Sabrina married Dr Harold Ludwig Melsheimer, a wealthy Hollywood surgeon. They settled down in Encino. Sabrina was seen in one more film, the Western The Phantom Gunslinger (Albert Zugsmith, 1970) starring Troy Donahue. Then she quitted show business and eased back into an opulent married life. She only appeared in 1974 on British TV in This is Your Life to celebrate Arthur Askey. It was her last public appearance. In 1977 she divorced Harold Melsheimer. At his incredible tribute site The Encyclopaedis Sabrina, Mark writes that Sabrina lives fairly well (with leg and back problems) in North Hollywood, US. Happy birthday, Sabrina!

Scene from Before Your Very Eyes (1956) with Arthur Askey. Source: Nylonnet (YouTube).

Scene from Stock Car (1955). Source: Nylonnet (YouTube).

Short naughty Goodnight with Sabrina. Source: Nylonnet (YouTube).

Trailer Satan in High Heels (1962). Source: CinemaTerrorDotCom (YouTube).

Sources: Mark (The Encyclopaedis Sabrina), AllMovie, Wikipedia, and IMDb.

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