When I ask people if they’ve seen Beyond the Valley of the Dolls they often respond that they’ve only seen the “original” Valley of the Dolls, meaning the 1967 film version of the Jaqueline Suzanne novel. BEYOND the Valley of the Dolls is another animal all together.
Beyond was the brainchild of Russ Meyer, a filmmaker working on the fringes of the system and the father of what we’d probably call the “sexploitation” film. Meyer grew up in Southern California and was raised by his single mother. She pawned her engagement ring to buy her son an 8mm film camera and he quickly developed a flair for cinematography. During World War II he worked as a combat cinematographer. After the war he became a staff photographer for Playboy. This lead him directly into his career as “the king of the nudies”, as he became known.
Today we can get all the debauchery we want streamed right to our laptop or tablet. Not true in the fifties. Pornography has existed nearly as long as the cinema, of course, but they were strictly underground fare, distributed illegally and shown at smokers and stag parties.
Public exhibition of sexual acts were allowed if the movie had some kind of medical or academic purpose. In 1945 a producer named Kroger Babb purchased the rights to a “health and hygiene” film called Mom and Dad. The picture dramatized the life of a young woman as she gets impregnated by a fighter pilot who dies in combat and later has his child. The film showed footage of an actual child-birth and Babb realized that because the film was “educational” that he could get away with showing female genitalia in public. So what if it happened to have a baby coming out of it? At showings Babb hired women to dress up as nurses and hand out sex ed pamphlets in the lobby and only allowed men at certain showings and women at others. Believe it or not, the film made a fortune!
By the late fifties a new genre known as the “nudie cutie” was invented. Essentially, these films were mock “naturalist” films depicting nudist colonies and Amazonian women in various stages of undress. Utterly tame by todays standards, they were none the less exhibited publicly and gave horny men an outlet for voyeuristic intentions.
That’s when Russ Meyer came in with his first, independently produced film, The Immortal Mr. Teas. Produced in 1959, the films absurd plot centered on a door-to-door salesman named Bill Teas (the actors real name) who, after a trip to the dentist, develops x-ray vision, allowing this Willie Loman/Clark Kent to see all the women he pines for in their birthday suit. Of course this was pretty silly stuff, but the $24,000 feature ended up making a whopping $4 million upon release!
From then on Russ Meyer made a slew of sexpoitation films that played in drive-ins and grindhouses across the country. His most famous (and arguably funniest) film was Faster Pussycat Kill, Kill (1965). The film included some fantastically well endowed beauties but had no actual nudity. Today it can be shown on broadcast television without any edits. His other, more explicit pictures included Mudhoney, Motorpsycho, Mondo Topless, Vixen! and Harry, Cherry & Raquel.
Sure, Meyer made exploitation films, but they were funny, displaying a great deal of over-the-top, sometimes surreal violence and often awkward, crazy sex acts. Feminist later grew to champion his films because the women were almost always portrayed as powerful and smart while the men were shown as bumbling fools. Meyer might well have been the first director to realize the erotic lore that lesbian sex between two beautiful women can be very aesthetically pleasing to the men, popularizing the kind of “girl on girl” action that is now so prevalent in both soft and hardcore erotica.
Meyer was also an excellent craftsman. He often served as his own cinematographer and editor. His films were often lushly photographed and his editing style, with quick cuts and staccato rhythms gave his films a unique visual style that would influence the work of many future filmmakers, not to mention music videos and TV commercials.
Of course, exploitation directors rarely get much respect and critics simply ignored his work. One exception was Roger Ebert, they young film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and future co-host of At The Movies with Siskel and Ebert. He wrote an article about Meyer for the Wall Street Journal praising the quality of Meyers work and pointing out how profitable his films were. This was a period when studios were hemorrhaging money on bloated musicals and costume dramas. Ebert then asked why a Hollywood studio hasn’t asked Meyer to make a film for them. Eventually, a Hollywood studio would.
20th Century Fox had been saved from receivership thanks to the massive success of The Sound of Music and was also enjoying substantial returns on pictures such as The Planet of the Apes and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. However, the studio was also hemorrhaging money thanks to such box office flops as Doctor Doolittle, Star and Hello Dolly!. Noting the massive returns on Columbia’s Easy Rider, Fox decided to hire Meyer in hopes of producing their own low-budget/high yield movie. Meyer agreed and to show his appreciation to Ebert, who he by now had befriended, he hired the young film critic to come on board as a screenwriter.
Apparently Fox originally wanted Meyer to direct a sequel to Valley of the Dolls, which explains the films title. But Meyer and Ebert quickly deviated from that mission, taking just the basic premise of young women being corrupted by the big bad influences of the big city and turned it into something almost indescribable.
The basic story centers on a female rock trio called The Kelly Affair. They include drummer guitarist Casey (Cynthia Meyer, Playmate of the month in 1968), drummer Pet (Marcia McBroom) and lead singer Kelly (Dolly Reed) who’s rather dim boyfriend Harris (David Gurian) manages the group. They decide to head off to Los Angeles in hopes of breaking into the big time. Casey has an aunt named Suzan (Phyllis Davis) who is a wealthy fashion photographer whom Kelly thinks could help them out. The whole sequence when they decide to try their luck in the City of Angels is told in one unique minute long montage that not only gives us the information we need in a rapid fire way but also foreshadows some of the craziness that will follow.
Suzan turns out to be really nice. She offers to not only help Kelly, but she decides to introduce her to “Z Man” Barzell (John LaZar). Known as “the teen tycoon of rock”, he is a record producer supposedly modeled after Phil Specter (which make the climax of the movie seem rather prophetic). To be honest, he seems more like a strange, effeminate Roman emperor overseeing a nightly Bacchanalia of sex, drugs and rock and roll. He introduces Kelly and her friends to an odd assortment of folks that include male gigolos, fashion designers and an oversexed porn actress played by the divine Edy Williams.
Sure enough, Z Man takes the girls under his wing. He rechristened the group “The Carrie Nation” and they become huge. This soon leads to all kinds of complications between Kelly and Harris but also with the other girls and their loves.
The plot synopsis may sound cliché but Beyond the Valley of the Dolls quickly veers off into every direction imaginable. Crazy, surreal, indescribable moments of violence and mayhem are interspersed with sex scenes that are either very funny or genuinely arousing. While the acting is intentionally over-the-top the quality of the craftsmanship is undeniable. The film is beautifully photographed and at a time when most directors were emulating the editing style of the French New Wave, Meyer already had his own, rapid fire way of building a visual tapestry that was all his own and positively dazzling.
1970 ended up being a great year for Fox. Even though it was the hight of the Vietnam War the studio scored two hits with the Oscar-winning Patton (which, interestingly enough, included combat footage shot by Meyer) and M*A*S*H. BVD also did extremely well, grossing a whopping $40 million world-wide. Alas, it was not the kind of movie that a studio wants to brag about, although some critics praised the film for its surrealism and unique sense of humor. At one point Fox brought Meyer and Ebert back into the fold to direct Who Killed Bambi?, a rock and roll film starring the Sex Pistols. Filming was cancelled after just one day.
When it was released, BVD received an X-rating. At the time, all that an X-rating meant was that the film was for adults only. Many highly acclaimed films of the era, including the Best Picture Oscar-winning Midnight Cowboy were rate X upon their initial release. The MPAA failed to copyright the rating, and soon hard-core pornographers began advertising their films as being “X rated”, despite never having been reviewed by the MPAA.
Meyer went back to independent filmmaking and enjoyed success with Supervixen and Up!. Unfortunately for Meyer, hardcore erotica was for one brief shining moment going mainstream. Movies like Deep Throat, Behind the Green Door and Debbie Does Dallas were attracting the young couples that once flocked to Meyers films. Russ refused to go hardcore, although his final, hilarious picture Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens pushes the envelope about as far as it can go without showing any actual onscreen penetration.
The simple fact is, Russ Meyers movies are both sexy and funny. The eighties would give us tons of “tits and ass” comedies like Porky’s and Hot Dog, none of which were terribly funny. Most premium cable channels provide us with softcore films with simulated sex that frankly looks real fake while sex in mainstream movies, an occassional Fifty Shades of Grey not withstanding, have been all but de-sexed. It’s hard not to get a little nostalgic for Russ Meyers unique brand of movies that were hysterically funny but often madly erotic at the same time.