Tuesday, July 1, 2014

PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW

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Legendary film director Stanley Kubrick had the audacity to make DR. STRANGELOVE: OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB in 1964, just a couple of years after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kubrick's poked fun at the blackest of subject matters, nuclear war, in a brilliant and very funny film that is now widely regarded as a classic, a masterpiece of Cold War black comedy.

In 1971, film writer/producer Gene Roddenberry (yes, that Gene Roddenberry) and director Roger Vadim, made PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW, a black comedy about, among other things, statutory rape and serial murder. I guess they figured, hey, Stan got away with making fun of a touchy subject in STRANGELOVE, so why can't we do the same?

The difference is, of course, that DR. STRANGELOVE is a truly great film while PRETTY MAIDS, which I watched last night for the first time in forty-three years, isn't. And I don't care that Quentin Tarantino named PRETTY MAIDS as one of his Top 10 Greatest Films of All Time in Sight & Sound magazine in 2012. QT is entitled to his opinion and so am I. I say PRETTY MAIDS is one bad, cheap looking, morally reprehensible, not-very-funny, totally icky film. And that's despite the presence of many very beautiful women.

I saw PRETTY MAIDS at the old Fox Theater on Airport Blvd. in Austin when it was first released in 1971. I think I saw it with my brother. It was a hard R rated film and it set my fifteen-year-old hormones to boiling. Set in a California high school (I was just beginning my high school years), PRETTY MAIDS is the story of Michael "Tiger" McDrew, a guidance counselor and football coach, who has some extremely progressive views on the state of high school education. Tiger is played by a shaggy haired Rock Hudson, who also sports a vintage porn star mustache. Although Tiger is married to the beautiful Barbara Leigh (they have an adorable daughter), Tiger can't keep the pony in the barn and the guidance sessions he provides to a series of beautiful high school girls involve more than just conversation. In short, he's screwing practically everything in a skirt at Oceanfront High School.

The action begins when young Ponce de Leon Harper (John David Carson), finds the body of a dead girl in the boy's bathroom. He's gone there to relieve himself from the perpetual boner he sports throughout the film, a boner caused in no small degree by substitute teacher Betty Smith (the gorgeous Angie Dickinson).

A police investigation is soon underway involving detective Sam Surcher (I'm not making these names up), who's played in pre-KOJAK mode by Telly Savalas. He's aided in his investigation by fellow cops James (STAR TREK) Doohan and William (STAR TREK: SQUIRE OF GOTHOS) Campbell. Local police chief John Poldaski (Keenan Wynn, a STRANGELOVE cast member), is a buffoon as is school principal Mr. Proffer (Roddy McDowall).

The police try to figure out who killed the pretty young cheerleader (and it's not hard to figure out who the killer is folks) and Dickinson throws herself at Hudson only to be rebuffed and pointed in the direction of young Ponce, he of the eternal erection. While Hudson is busy having sex with multiple female students (all of which are under age, which constitutes serial statutory rape), Dickinson seduces the hapless Ponce (another case of statutory rape) and more bodies of dead girls start showing up in the darnedest places.

PRETTY MAIDS trades heavily on the fantasies of every young man who ever attended high school: the idea of having sex with a drop dead gorgeous, older teacher, an experienced, sexually voracious woman who would teach her students a thing or two. Cougar, anyone?

Among the fetching young ladies is Joanna Cameron, who would later star on Saturday morning television as Mighty Isis. All of the female students are attractive. They almost all sport long, straight, parted-in-the-middle hair, a style that was quite popular at the time.

But the eye candy can't disguise the fact that the film is cheap and slightly grimy looking. The dialogue sounds like it was almost entirely looped in post-production, Vadim's direction is artless and bland and while both Hudson and Dickinson do their best with the poor material they're given, it's neither performers' finest hour. Watching the tall, dark and handsome Hudson play a decidedly heterosexual predator made me wonder how many people (if any) involved in the production of PRETTY MAIDS, knew that Hudson was gay. He had yet to come out in 1971 but surely there were some people in Hollywood who were aware of his sexual orientation at the time of the film.

My guess is that Gene Roddenberry had some time and money on his hands after the cancellation of STAR TREK and decided to write a screenplay based on the PRETTY MAIDS novel by Francis Pollini. Roddenberry also served as producer of the film. He hired Vadim to direct and threw some work to his old TREK buddies Doohan, Campbell and costume designer William Ware Theiss. PLAYBOY magazine gave the film a nine-page pictorial in the April 1971 issue and I'm sure that exposure of the various women in the film certainly helped sell tickets.

I'm not a prude and I'll confess that I found the film hysterically funny when I first saw it. But watching it as a fifty-eight year old man, left me feeling uncomfortable and a bit dirty. And I could only wonder what in the hell Gene Roddenberry thought when he was making the film. What was the target audience for this film besides horny fifteen-year-old kids like me? Was he trying to lampoon the "anything goes" sexual freedoms of the early '70s? Was it a comment on permissiveness without consequences? If so, the dead women certainly pay a heavy price, while the killer escapes. What does that say? As a comedy, black or otherwise, it just isn't that funny. And as a 1970s T&A sexploitation film, PRETTY MAIDS isn't nearly as much fun to watch as the contemporaneous drive-in fodder of the day that featured nurses, stewardesses and women in prison. Angie Dickinson and a bevy of young beauties aren't enough to redeem this one. Thumbs down.

 

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