Sunday, 5 October 2014

Russ Meyer slays the sixties… Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)

We all think we know Russ Meyer or at least his legendary fascination with actresses of a certain stature. He delivered some undeniable cult classics such as Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill along with comedy erotica at the acceptable end of soft porn such as Vixen and Up!

Here, with the surprising assistance of leading film critic, Roger Ebert he delivered a smart satire on the late-60’s teen dream taking swipes at young and old in a land where the moral compass got lost somewhere between Haight-Ashbury and Saigon. The dream was almost over and this film gives it a kicking that seems to mature with age.

Casey, Pet and Kelly: The Carrie Nations!
Originally intended as a follow-up to the much derided pot-boiler – or dexy’s-fry-up – The Valley of the Dolls, the film was written by one of that film’s deriders-in-chief, Mr Ebert who had described it as a two-star “dirty soap opera” that tried “to raise itself to the level of sophisticated pornography but fails…” Did Mr Ebert succeed in bettering that score?

On the surface there are many traditional Meyer elements which would suggest that pornography was on the agenda: two of the leads where Playmates of the Month: Dolly Read (in 1966) and Cynthia Myers (1968) and it’s pretty clear why… There’s an excess of sexual and pharmaceutical activity in the orgy of self-indulgence forming the upper limits of most characters’ ambitions.

Duncan McLeod and Cynthia Myers
Bad things happen to almost all of those involved and there’s a moralising agenda that’s made bearable by the comic swagger of the direction as well as the performances. Amongst its many faults Valley of the Dolls took itself way too seriously and there’s no danger of that ever happening in this film which just about clings onto the mainstream.

The film follows the progress of an all-girl rock band as they progress from high school dances to the major leagues with the inevitable consequences…

Dolly Read
The band are Kelly Mac Namara (Dolly Read) on vocals and guitar, Casey Anderson (Cynthia Myers) on bass and Petronella “Pet” Danforth (Marcia McBroom) on drums and, initially, they are called The Kelly Affair and managed by Kelly’s upstanding boyfriend Harris Allsworth (David Gurian).

Marcia McBroom
They travel to Los Angeles aiming to stay with Kelly’s aunt Susan Lake (Phyllis Davis) who, rather generously, offers her niece a slice of her inheritance much to the annoyance of her seedy financial advisor Porter Hall (Duncan McLeod): Susan’s so nice you wonder what she’s doing using Mr Hall for advice on anything…

Aunt Susan who's only vice is being "too good"...
Susan’s a designer and “in” on the pop scene so she facilitates an introduction with its leading light, a Spector/Svengali figure by the name of Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell (John LaZar) at one of his swinging parties. In the background play The Strawberry Alarm Clock three years after their psychedelia-by-numbers smash hit Incense and Peppermints and two years after the rapidly evolving progressive music scene passed them by. They’re the perfect band for the scene though – a band who cashed in on the style without the substance of hippiedom… they weren’t exactly Love or The Doors.

The girls join The Strawberry Alarm Clock on stage
Z-Man gets the girls to join them on stage and after an impressive set he re-christens them The Carrie Nations after the nineteenth century temperance activist...oh…how…ironic…

Meanwhile Pet meets a smart young waiter/legal trainee Emerson Thorne (Harrison Page)… whilst quiet Casey – daughter of a Senator – meets Roxanne (Erica Gavin) who can barely disguise her delight as her eyes dart approvingly over the younger woman: “I’d like to design for you”, she says thinking more of the contents than the clothes…

The gang survey Z-Man's awesome party scene
Kelly is given the grand tour by Z-Man who introduces the various characters with pseudo-Shakespearian couplets from the gigolo Lance Rocke (Michael Blodgett) to the insatiable porn star Ashley St. Ives (Edy Williams). The party’s a bit like the disco sections of Laugh In when various characters stop to tell brief jokes: just substitute Godie Hawn, Rowan and Martin et al for some altogether more freakish characters all drawn from Meyer’s over-developed sense of carnival irony.

Edy Williams cuts a rug...
From here on in, the girls upward trajectory distances them from their roots and common sense…

Z-Man easily outmanoeuvres Harris to take control of the band and nudges Kelly in the direction of Lance in order to break her link with the hapless ex-manager... Despairing, Harris succumbs to Miss St. Ives’s charms falling into a life of self-prescribed numb submission; helpless to stop Kelly’ s drift into success.

Playmate of the Month, May 1966...
Kelly becomes more self-centred, pushing her aunt for a bigger share of the inheritance (even though, presumably, her own stash of bread is growing exponentially…) in the face of self-serving opposition from Porter Hall.

Pet romances the studious Emerson yet falls for a one-night stand with heavyweight boxing champion Randy Black (James Iglehart) who almost runs the young lawyer over and beats him up for good measure.

Edy on the beach
Harris is humiliated by Ashley as he fails to rise to the occasion on the beach outside another of Z-Man’s parties and is then beaten by Lance as he tries to reconnect with Kelly… In drug-addled despair he takes advantage of Casey who throws him out. Nowhere left to turn he tries to kill himself by jumping from high above the stage as The Carrie Nations perform on live national TV…
He survives, just about – will this be a turning point for him and even for Kelly?

Superwoman and a disapproving Jungle Boy
Just as you think happy endings might start to accumulate, Meyer and Ebert throw in the shocking dénouement that partially starts the film… clearly influenced by the Manson Family murders, the segment starts with Z-Man inviting Lance, Casey and Roxanne for a Crowley-esque evening of drug-fuelled magic which he hopes will see his alter ego, Superwoman, consummate a dominant relationship with Lance’s Jungle Boy. Naturally Casey is cast as the Boy Wonder and Roxanne the Caped Crusader…

But, whilst the Dynamic Duo enjoy a night of passion – tastefully documented by Meyer, lingering longer than over any other coupling – Jungle Boy is not quite so interested in playing his role… Superwoman becomes displeased and… let’s just say; heads will roll...

Torn between two managers
Dusty Verdict: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is rightly regarded as an imperfect jewel of period playfulness with some really colourful performances and a soundtrack packed with pop-psychedelia.

The girls in the band are all hyper pretty and the ex-playmate who delivers in the acting stakes is Cynthia Myers who manages to inject the right amount of uncertain vulnerability into a character who is lost even before the nightmares of success begin... she eventually finds herself more convincingly than the others who follow more prosaic paths to self-realisation...

Cynthia Myers
The supporting characters play it mostly for laughs and are so often extreme it works against any deeper drama: you feel safe in the knowledge that Meyer will always go for the comedy and the sex first... well almost.

The ending strikes now as opportunist and unnecessarily cruel and the coda showing Kelly and Harris driving a Chevrolet Corvette Stingray into a summer-sunny valley doesn't wipe away the bad taste. Was there a serious point here or cheap-shot moralising: the film apologising for reveling in its own exploitation?

Kelly's classic Chevrolet Corvette Stingray
A sonorous voice wraps up the film by briefly summarising the characters' faults, failures and fates... as with all that proceeded it it's hard to decide whether it is serious or a joke: Ebert and Meyer hedging their bets one out of habit and the other out of necessity? As the voice-over says, you, the audience, must decide for yourselves...

Writing later, Ebert, who's critical faculties made him one of the greatest of film reviewers, said:  "It's an anthology of stock situations, characters, dialogue, clichés and stereotypes, set to music and manipulated to work as exposition and satire at the same time; it's cause and effect, a wind-up machine to generate emotions, pure movie without message..."

Those causes still have effect and if you haven't seen it I'd recommend Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. It's available at very reasonable prices from Amazon... as is the groovy soundtrack.

Ashley St. Ives readies herself in the Rolls...

1 comment:

  1. Only "Actress"was Fox contract star EDY Williams. Meyer was terrible director ,EDY went on to stAR in "Dr. MINX"! GOOD FILM.