Golden Anniversaries: Films of 1970 is an online Cinema St. Louis event examining 14 films that are celebrating their 50th anniversary. Every Monday at 7:30 p.m. from Aug. 10-Oct. 26, CSL is hosting a livestream discussion of a film that originally premiered in 1970.
A discussion of Russ Meyer’s feature Beyond the Valley of the Dolls will take place Monday, Sept. 21, at 7:30 p.m. Charles Taylor — former film critic for Salon and author of Opening Wednesday at a Theater of Drive-In Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American ’70s — will provide introductory remarks and lead the discussion, facilitated by CSL executive director Cliff Froehlich.
As a supplement to the discussion, The Lens offers two pieces: an essay on Beyond the Valley of the Dolls by regular contributor Joshua Ray and a Russ Meyer Top 10 by We Are Movie Geeks editor (and major Meyer enthusiast) Tom Stockman.
A Russ Meyer Top 10
By Tom Stockman
For I am Superwoman, and you have spurned her!
Russell “Russ” Albion Meyer (aka “King of the Nudies” and “King Leer”) was a true American film artist who wrote, directed, edited, photographed, and distributed all his own films. He financed each new film from the proceeds of the earlier ones and became a wealthy man in the process. A Russ Meyer film is instantly recognizable – superior production values, rhythmic editing, and wide-angle shots leering up at the impossibly top-heavy actresses who populated his films. Meyer spent a lot of time at the Body Shop, a famous Sunset Boulevard strip club where he discovered many of these bra-busting starlets.
Meyer owned all of his films (except the two he directed for 20th Century Fox), and in the 1980s his video label, Russ Meyer Enterprises, released them on VHS and sold them for $60 each. Even by the late 1990s, when most videos had come down to the $10-$20 range, Meyer stubbornly insisted on his $60 price tag. His tapes were in red clamshell boxes that all said “Russ Meyer’s Bosomania” across the top. On the back of the video box was the phone number of Russ Meyer Enterprises if you wanted to buy more tapes. For years, Meyer himself would answer the phone if you dialed that number! I never called it myself (I wish I had), but I’ve been told stories by friends who did that Meyer was always ornery and cranky, refusing to offer bulk discounts or even combine shipping costs. By 2000, Meyer had developed Alzheimer’s and suffered from severe dementia, but was still answering that phone! Today, Meyer’s estate runs things and is known as RM Films International. They still sell his films on VHS (!), though they’ve finally come down to $40 a pop, and most Meyer films are available on DVD for the same price.
In September 2004, Meyer died of pneumonia at age 82. His tombstone reads: “RUSS MEYER, King of the Nudies – I Was Glad to Do It!” Russ Meyer directed 25 films between 1959 and 1979 and here, in reverse order, are my 10 favorites.
10. The Immoral Mr. Teas (1959)
The Immoral Mr. Teas, Meyer’s first foray into adult entertainment, was a big hit in 1959. Mr. Teas (played by Meyer’s Army buddy Bill Teas) is a dirty-minded voyeur, a dental-parts salesman who can’t help but notice the curvy women in his office, at the bar, and at the beach, and imagines them nude, picturing them in suggesting poses. Mr. Teas was filmed without live sound, just the hilariously bombastic narration that would become a Meyer trademark. Risqué for its time, “The Immoral Mr. Teas” seems so innocent today and it’s hard to believe there was once an entire industry based around a few mild shots of topless women, but of course Meyer was a pioneer of these so-called Nudie-Cuties and would go on to make the similar Wild Gals of the Naked West and Eve and the Handyman. One moment, when Meyer cuts from a fruit stand full of melons to a headless shot of the ample chest of popular British nude model June “The Bosom” Wilkinson, offers a preview of Meyer’s subsequent jokey directorial style and his well-documented preoccupation with top-heavy women. Watch for Meyer himself in a cameo as a burlesque-club patron.
9. Cherry, Harry & Raquel (1969)
In Cherry, Harry & Raquel, Meyer regular Charles Napier plays Harry, the sheriff of an Arizona border town who gets involved in mayhem and murder while trafficking narcotics for an old, rich pervert named Mr. Franklin. While trying his best to ignore his crime-fighting duties, Harry beds down with two very interesting young ladies, the British nurse he lives with, Cherry (Linda Ashton), and the blond hooker who also works for Mr. Franklin, Raquel (Larissa Ely). Since this is Meyer’s fantasy, the two women know all about each other and do not mind sharing Harry. In fact, they have their own plans to “get together soon.” This was the first of Meyer’s colorful and violent sex cartoons that set the rapid-fire editing style for the remainder of his output, a style that arose out of necessity when the original negative for half of Cherry, Harry & Raquel was lost by the film lab. Meyer had to mostly reconstruct from outtakes and some hastily shot padding consisting of the jaw-dropping Uschi Digard, a Swedish goddess of exquisite 44DDD-26-35 proportions, frolicking, dancing, and posing in the desert wearing nothing but an American Indian headdress. Napier was one of the few Meyer leading men to graduate to roles in mainstream films (he was a Jonathan Demme regular), and he brings just the right amount of over-the-top, square-jawed masculinity to counterbalance the massive bosoms of his female co-stars. Napier and Ms. Digard returned six years later for Meyer’s Supervixens.
8. Up! (1976)
Meyer’s 1976 jaw-dropping comedy/thriller Up! (not to be confused with that cute Pixar film) opens with Adolph Hitler on the receiving end of masochistic sex from both a dominatrix and a man with massive manhood before he expires in his bathtub. Like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Up! was co-written by critic Roger Ebert (this time under his alias Reinhold Timme), and the script offers up more similarly berserk humor. A scene where a completely naked Eva Braun, armed with a hunting knife, chases another nude woman through the woods while screaming maniacally about the fall of Nazism is brilliantly deranged. Up! veers wildly from outrageous laughs to explosive violence while mixing in healthy doses of lesbianism, rape, backwoods sheriffs, a gorilla, piranhas, and frolicking sex out in the open, all presented with Meyer's great cinematic eye. Meyer’s usual harem of voluptuous ladies is on hand with two standouts. The bountiful Raven Delacroix is incredibly sexy and funny in the lead as Margo, and Kitten Natividad (Meyer’s significant other the final 15 years of his life) is on hand as a Greek chorus-style onscreen narrator – totally nude, of course – to fill in the blanks just in case viewers fail to quite get all the crazy plot details.
7. Mudhoney (1965)
The same year he made his masterpiece Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Meyer filmed another black-and-white melodrama, this time exploring the Southern-gothic world of Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner. Mudhoney concerns the tawdry town of Spooner, Mo., around the time of the Depression and Prohibition. Hero Calif McKinney (John Furlong) is out to find work on his way West, when he becomes embroiled in the town’s many sordid scandals. Meyer’s other main influence here besides the aforementioned authors is Al Capps’ comic strip “Li’l Abner.” Spooner one-ups Dogpatch USA in that they have three blond Daisy Maes. There’s lonely mistreated wife Hannah (Antoinette Christiana), insatiable party girl Clara Belle (Lorna Maitland, the well-proportioned star of Meyer’s previous film Lorna), and the mute, not-so-innocent Eula (introduced cuddling a kitten!). But the film does feature a buxom brunette, the tragic Sister Hansen. Meyer mainstays Mickey Foxx, Stuart Lancaster, and the toothless, cackling Princess Livingston support the hero, the ladies, and a very vile villain, Sidney Brenshaw (with his white suit and big, floppy Panama hat!), a mean drunk who gets into fights at the local whorehouse when they refuse to give him freebies. Culminating, of course, with an angry lynch mob, Mudhoney is one of Meyer’s little-seen, early exploitation gems and though it doesn't feature the same over-the-top style as his later efforts, it’s surprisingly professional, featuring an interesting story and all the sex and sleaze you expect from Meyer.
6. Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens (1979)
What began as a showcase for an exciting new screen vixen became the final narrative film for Meyer. The movie established Kitten Natividad (truly a “Little Annie Fanny” cartoon come to life) as a Meyer movie icon with not one but two roles. After a strange deviant scene involving a buxom blonde, a sheet, and a coffin, the film cuts to the trailer-park home of Lamar Shedd. Seems Lamar’s preferred lovemaking method just doesn’t, uh, sit well with the ladies, particularly his wife, Lavonia (Natividad), who seeks pleasure from the burly trucker Mr. Peterbuilt. Later on she sports a wig and Spanish accent to become stripper supreme Lola Langusta. Meanwhile, a lonely radio shack broadcasts the nonstop sermons of Eufaula Roop (buxom Ann Marie), while a raspy-voiced narrator helps guide us along (his identity is revealed in the final moments). The slapstick-comedy gag sequences and rat-a-tat editing in Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens really display the influence of animators Chuck Jones and Tex Avery on Meyer’s style. Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens (again co-written by Ebert, this time under the pseudonym R. Hyde) may be the ultimate live-action adults-only cartoon and an entertaining finale for one of cinema’s most visionary directors.
5. Mondo Topless (1966)
Mondo Topless is Russ Meyer’s sendup of the swinging ’60s, a pseudo-documentary portrait of San Francisco, and most of all, a tribute to Meyer’s favorite subject. The 61-minute sort-of-documentary is sparse, even by Meyer standards – just a rock soundtrack by the Aladdins accompanied by an over-exuberant announcer who provides double-entendre narration as stacked women dance about. With Mondo Topless, Meyer abandoned all traces of plot. The movie is about one thing alone: wall-to-wall bosoms. You see breasts indoors, outdoors, in cars, and under water. You see them gyrating, jiggling, bouncing, and flopping around. You see breasts covered in water, whipped cream, and mud. If bosoms are your thing, you’ll no doubt find Mondo Topless a certain type of spiritual nirvana. Pat Barringer shakes it topless atop a telephone tower, in a swimming pool, and in the desert. Darlene Grey hops into a muddy lake. Lorna Maitland writhes in the desert. Sin Linee dashes naked through the woods and does a berserk go-go routine in an abandoned mineshaft. Diane Young, a tiny pigtailed busty blonde boogies down on a beach, shimmying to the music while holding her reel-to-reel tape deck! Cut back to bouncy Babette Bardot as she hoofs it topless some more, this time on a railroad track as a train roars past her. If there’s a star in Mondo Topless, it’s the amazing Ms. Bardot. In his book Big Bosoms and Square Jaws, Meyer biographer Jimmy McDonough described Bardot as having “a body so ripe flies might be interested.” As crazy as it sounds, Mondo Topless overflows with aggressive energy and is one of Meyer’s very best films.
4. Vixen! (1968)
Erica Gavin royally chews up the scenery – and everything else – in Vixen!, Meyer’s ode to supreme nastiness. Gavin is the Vixen (yes, that’s her name) of the title, a nymphomaniacal, racist, and downright nasty-tempered woman stuck in the Canadian outback with her loyal but dim husband and his charter flying business. Looking for kicks at any and every opportunity, Vixen seduces just about every other character in the film – including the wife of a client, a Canadian mountie (I guess they always get their woman, too), and her own brother! There is a subtext of racial prejudice in the film, and the latter half of the movie bogs down somewhat with lots of debate amid racial slurs, all in the name of social justice. However, the movie is most fun when watching Vixen do her thing and have her way with anyone she chooses, all the way to a happy ending. A few years later, Gavin played essentially the same role in Erika’s Hot Summer, but without Meyer’s magic touch, and returned for a more tragic role in the director’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Like many of Meyer’s actresses, Gavin’s onscreen beauty and persona seemed to only blossom fully under his direction, though she did a memorable turn in Jonathan Demme’s women’s prison opus Caged Heat (1974), her final film to date.
3. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)
In the late 1960s, major Hollywood studios struggled with getting young audiences back in the movie theaters. 20th Century Fox had noticed the big box office generated by indie maverick director Russ Meyer and signed him up. Roger Ebert had been writing Meyer fan letters so the director reached out to the young film critic and asked him to write the screenplay, something he had no experience with. The result is an absolute feast for the eyes: bright colors, dancing bodies, flashy camera and editing techniques. The story follows the rags-to-riches rise and fall of the all-girl pop band the Carrie Nations (Cynthia Myers, Dolly Read, and Marcia McBroom). Meyer brought aboard two of his film veterans, square-jawed Charles Napier and Vixen! Erica Gavin. Also in the film is Meyer’s wife, bombshell Edy Williams, who plays adult film star Ashley St. Ives and utters one of the film’s most hilarious pickup lines: “You’re a groovy boy. I’d like to strap you on sometime.” This helps make the film’s final moments, a violent Manson-like bloodbath at the beach home of record producer Z-Man (one of cinema’s strangest villains) surprising. At least before the mayhem we get a tender lovemaking scene between two women dressed as Batman and Robin. To quote Z-Man: “This is my happening and it freaks me out!”
2. Supervixens (1975)
Regarded by many as the crowning achievement in the Meyer canon, Supervixens (1975) certainly deserves its reputation. All the usual Meyer touches are on display: the rapid editing, top-heavy actresses, extreme violence, etc. What sets Supervixens apart is the audacious unpredictability of the plot, told in the most surrealistic style of any of Meyer’s films. Always one to constantly whiplash his audience back and forth between uproarious comedy and shocking violence, here Meyer’s sense of absurdity reaches new heights. In perhaps no other Meyer film, even Faster, Pussycat, do we literally not know what will happen from one minute to the next. This accomplishment is aided by two outstanding performances. As the sadistic lawman Harry Sledge, veteran character actor Charles Napier gives the performance of his life. Napier, who had roles in everything from the original Star Trek to The Silence of the Lambs to Austin Powers, played many villains in his long career, but none with more gusto than Sledge. Meyer’s ace in the hole, however, was former model Shari Eubank, who plays the dual roles of the title. Mixing sweet and innocent with mean and deadly, Eubank is mesmerizing from start to finish. Unfortunately for film fans, the talented Eubank made only one other film (the forgettable Chesty Anderson U.S. Navy) before quitting showbiz.
1. Faster, Pussycat, Kill! Kill! (1965)
Opening with a narrator intoning, “Ladies and gentlemen – welcome to violence!,” Faster, Pussycat, Kill! Kill! tells the sordid tale of a trio of bisexual, amazonian go-go girls on a neck-breaking crime spree in the California desert. This politically incorrect, black-and-white gothic melodrama was made as a quickie for the Southern states’ undemanding drive-in market in 1965 but over the years has developed into one of the most beloved cult films of all and is the crown jewel of Meyer’s career. John Waters called it “the best movie ever made, and possibly better than any movie that will ever be made.” Faster, Pussycat, Kill! Kill! is a prime example of female empowerment. The pussycats consistently dominate the male characters, showing them up as wimps, dolts, or both. Tura Satana’s Varla, the scary yet desirable dominatrix, sports a black stretch jumpsuit and leather boots and gloves, and wears her troweled-on mascara proudly across her evil eyes. She’s one of the great villains in movie history. The director’s audacious sense of eroticism (though there’s no actual nudity), comic timing, and social satire is off the charts in Faster, Pussycat, Kill! Kill!, everyone’s favorite Russ Meyer movie.