Tuesday, March 29, 2011
Difficut To Remain Analytical
Chilly winds may blow, but they weren’t strong enough to allow me to make it down to the New Beverly so I could see PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW when they ran it at midnight recently, even if it was showing twice over that particular weekend. At least I got to see it at the theater when Quentin Tarantino ran it in ’07 and here it was back as part of his March Madness series but though I wanted to go again this time things sadly just didn’t work out that way. Make no mistake, I’m pretty sure there’s no way I could make a strong argument for 1971’s PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW as a good movie in any way whatsoever but it does have a certain odd pull to its weirdly innocent sleaze that makes you go “huh?” as you watch it, wondering if you missed someone explaining a vague plot point while distracted by all those girls walking past the camera. Plus there’s Angie Dickinson, looking so mind bogglingly sexy here that it’s enough to make me completely despondent that I wasn’t around way back then to meet her at the time. It just seems so unfair. The first film directed by the famed Roger Vadim (lover of Catherine Deneuve, husband of Brigitte Bardot and Jane Fonda, among others) after BARBARELLA, that alone makes PRETTY MAIDS of interest but maybe even more intriguing is that it was produced and written (from the novel by Francis Pollini) by legendary STAR TREK creator Gene Roddenberry with the film’s basic view of women in general making me think a little more about the way certain female characters were treated back on the original STAR TREK, what with Marla McGivers allowing herself to be dominated by Kahn Noonien Singh and all that. Not to mention all those memorably skimpy outfits the various women were dressed in on that series and even William Ware Theiss, the show’s costume designer, performed that task here with Angie Dickinson, to name one, wearing something during much of her big seduction scene that is about as alluring an outfit as she ever wore onscreen. It’s certainly a weird movie…but how much of that weirdness is intentional looking at the film now is probably open to debate since at least some of it is made even stranger due to now looking back at it forty years after it was made. If I’d made it to the New Beverly I might have attempted to lead a discussion group afterwards to see just what the hell people thought about this thing but I couldn’t so I decided to watch it at home. It just seemed like it needed to be done.
At carefree, laid back Oceanfront High School the big man on campus is guidance counselor/football coach “Tiger” McDrew (Rock Hudson, with a mustache that probably deserved its own screen credit) beloved by all with a wife and daughter as well but with a certain secret habit of bedding female students during private testing periods on the side. Among the make students, one he has a particular fondness for is Ponce de Leon Harper (John David Carson) who is just about the shyest most awkward kid around when it comes to girls (“I’m seventeen years old and I haven’t even so much as touched a girl’s breast yet” he tells Tiger) and currently being driven even crazier by the arrival of beautiful substitute teacher Miss Smith (Angie Dickinson). Things only seem to be getting worse for Ponce when he stumbles across the dead body of pretty young Jill Fairbutt, found strangled in the boys room with a note reading “So long, honey” attached to her bottom. The police, led by Captain Sam Surcher (Telly Savalas) come to investigate but with the principal (Roddy McDowall) muttering “She was really a terrific little cheerleader” over and over the school tries to deal with the shock. But as Tiger works to set up a certain private study session between Ponce and Miss Smith, more dead girls begin to pile up, each one with a new note pinned to them, and everyone begins to worry how all this is going to affect morale for the big game.
One key issue in films can be tone and the thing is that PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW never quite establishes a clear one so as a result there’s very little logic to anything that happens on any level. For the most part it’s a sex comedy, sort of, and there’s definitely a number of actual (or at least would-be intentional) laughs but it all has such an odd, airless feel, photographed in a flat manner that makes it feel like a TV production that somehow got out of hand with all the nudity and sleaze. There’s a bizarrely detached feel that is only aided by how much of the dialogue seems to be dubbed in a hollow style with all that Lalo Schifrin la-la-la music of the time continually wafting through the air, complete with that title song “Chilly Winds” performed by The Osmonds of all people. There’s just not much style to it, or at least not the right style and Vadim seems more interested in photographing the girls than in making the story particularly coherent. It doesn’t quite seem like any of it is set on planet Earth but maybe it’s just the visual representation of a teenage boy circa 1970, or maybe that of a middle-aged director and producer trying to push the Hollywood envelope circa 1970 as well, with the camera leering as much as possible at every girl who wanders past the camera wearing short—really short–skirts along with Angie Dickinson playing someone who is apparently not even slightly aware of the effect she has on every teenage boy in front of her. To call it a satire seems like an even stranger concept since I’m not exactly sure what the satire is supposed to be unless it’s a look at what the world is seemingly turning into with a fair amount of the dialogue, like Rock Hudson dictating thoughts on how he believes the world he wants to defy is “racing toward a new dark ages”, seeming to strive for some sort of significance but it all just becomes too much of a jumble. Along with all that is the feeling of maybe too much emphasis being placed on Roger Vadim’s own take on America, observing lots of natioanl pastimes like how everyone in this high school (“I believe that this is where it’s at,” Hudson tells Savalas about teaching there as opposed to a university) is getting obsessed over the big game while a number of murders are occurring but maybe the director just didn’t focus on the right elements to make it all cohere. And there’s the undeniable oddness of a film like this coming from a major studio (MGM) which has big stars like Rock Hudson and Angie Dickinson laughing about possibly getting it on with their students—even Daniel Waters didn’t go there when he wrote HEATHERS, a much better film (and considering how PRETTY MAIDS seems like it’s from another galaxy it’s all the stranger to think about how they’re less than twenty years apart) although I do wonder how this film might have been an inspiration for him, if even a small one.
The murder mystery element of the story (despite how some of it may sound, it’s not at all a horror movie or body count picture) is about as strange as anything—no spoilers but you can probably tell who the killer is just by reading the plot summary and it’s never quite revealed so much as it’s just sort of apparent by a certain point. There’s something to the whole film that feels unaccountably off in the plotting as if it’s missing a reel or even just a bunch of random scenes that were lost in a cut down TV version. The climax also feels truncated and somewhat muddled as if a lot of it needed to be pieced together in the cutting room when a key scene didn’t get shot so in the end there’s just kind of a “huh?” vibe as that cheery Osmonds song starts up again when the credits roll. With Ponce’s character arc going from being the one person upset over the way people remember the murdered girl he finds to where he winds up in the end, which I suppose is the film’s take on learning how to be a man in the modern age, the film seems to be about passing the torch from someone who knows how to handle women down to someone younger in order to do what exactly? Learn how to seduce them? Learn how to kill them? Trying to place the film in the pre-ERA context it’s almost as if the people making this film never bothered to consider that any woman would ever have actual thoughts in their head beyond the next guy they could sleep with and it would be one thing if that’s what the film was satirizing…but I don’t think it is. There’s not much point in taking PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW at all seriously in terms of being a worldview which would, frankly, be a little depressing so maybe I should just listen to some more of that relaxing Lalo Schifrin music and just roll with it. It’s a film where as bizarre as Miss Betty Smith’s seduction of Ponce might be, it’s still just about the sweetest scene in the whole movie, which is itself about as twisted as anything I could say about it. Interestingly, the speech Dickinson has during her big nude scene is also her strongest moment in the film, talking about how the one hundred billion stars in the galaxy could easily represent all the men who ever lived but it doesn’t seem to take into account the possibility that those stars could also represent the women, the ones this film seems to think it’s best to just disregard.
The oddness extends to the performances and seeing Rock Hudson with that huge mustache playing someone with his own secrets definitely lends an extra level to things now, but he also seems to be dubbed more than anyone else here and at least partly because of that he feels somehow separate from many of the other actors almost as if he was matted in after the fact. Angie Dickinson displays a great amount of awkward charm in a near impossible role, genuinely enjoyable to watch but also so mind-bogglingly sexy that I almost don’t know how else to say it and maintain any level of seriousness. Playing straight man against all this madness, Telly Savalas seems to nail the right tone more than anyone, which is as baffling as anything since he’s really doesn’t play his role at all different from any of his other performances, coming complete with his usual familiar mannerisms. As Ponce, John David Carson seems at times a little too vacant in his shyness and yet he somehow manages to sell his transformation by the end so it all somehow works even if it isn’t entirely clear what he’s been turned into. Roddy McDowall has some funny moments as the principal, Keenan Wynn is the idiot local chief of police while on the Star Trek side of things James “Scotty” Doohan and Willam Campbell, two-time guest star on the show, have prominent roles as investigators alongside Savalas. Barbara Leigh, later in Peckinpah’s JUNIOR BONNER, is Hudson’s wife while the numerous pretty maids of the title, all truly impressive, include Joy Bang of MESSIAH OF EVIL and THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT’s June Fairchild, complete with a pretty amazing laugh, almost literally bouncing across the screen as Sonny Swangle.
PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW can’t really be called a good film. It may even be a poor film. And yet, there is something oddly enjoyable about it which may come from the weird charm of watching this now-forty-year-old movie and trying to make some kind of sense of it all feels a little addictive as much as I suspect I’m maybe overthinking it all (and it’s available from the Warner Archive if you feel like finding out for yourself). Roger Ebert gave it two stars at the time, not treating it as some bizarre anomaly but simply seeming to feel that whatever the film was trying to do just didn’t work and I suppose it doesn’t but there’s still something strangely compelling about it all. At the very least I can’t think of any other film it even resembles and that includes HEATHERS. Plus it has Angie Dickinson. There’s probably a whole college thesis that could be written about the film’s sexual politics and what exactly both director Vadim as well as the writer/producer who years later was praised for creating a show that stood for a hopeful future for all of humanity might be trying to say with it. It even makes me think about the Roddenberry-produced STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE which I actually just saw again recently and with PRETTY MAIDS in mind I couldn’t help but ponder how in comparison it plays as just about the most blandly asexual movie of all time (twisted thought that just came to mind—transpose this film’s entire plot onto the Starship Enterprise, with Rock Hudson as the Captain, helping a shy young ensign along with all the pretty Yeomen everywhere…). But as I look at the blank faces of all those pretty maids singing the school song near the end as the camera pans over them, well, I’m almost not quite sure what to think about PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW. I’d call it a Southern California time capsule but even with some of the girls offering insights like how their generation isn’t afraid of feeling affection it’s tough to imagine it having much to do with any version of reality ever—and if it can be looked at in that way it just makes the film all the more strangely compelling. Of course, from what I understand things were pretty crazy back in those days so who knows. Even now I almost feel like watching the film once again to try to sort some of it out and if it turns up again at the New Beverly a few more years down the line I may have to do my best to have some of those chilly winds blow me down the street so I can actually be there.