TOP TEN TUESDAY: The Best of Russ Meyer
Article by Jim Batts, Dana Jung, and Tom Stockman
Russell Albion “Russ” Meyer was born in California in 1922 and spent WWII as a combat photographer. In 1953 Playboy magazine debuted and Meyer was one of its first centerfold photographers. Meyer had a knack, and a passion, for photographing gorgeous, busty women and felt that the gals in the nudist camp movies that were popular in the ’50s were far too plain-looking for his tastes. In 1959, Meyer scraped together $24,000 and made THE IMMORAL MR. TEAS, a quaint, colorful, and cartoonish movie about a nerdy fellow whose life is constantly interrupted by beautiful large-breasted women in various stages of undress. There was no sex in Meyer’s film and he made no pretense of presenting nudity as a lifestyle choice, as did the nudist camp movies. It was a simple and honest film about voyeurism and the display of the unclothed female form. THE IMMORAL MR. TEAS was a huge hit, the genre known as the nudie-cutie was born, and for the next twenty years, Russ Meyer was known as the “King of the Nudies”.
Russ Meyer 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 that 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. After achieving success with more ‘Nudie Cuties’ such as EVE AND THE HANDYMAN (1960 which starred his wife Eve Meyer), and WILD GALS OF THE NAKED WEST (1961), Meyer embarked on a more ambitious phase in his career with quartet of black-and-white films that combined his love of female anatomy with potboiling melodrama. LORNA (1964) and MUDHONEY(1965) were Erskine Caldwell-inspired backwoods morality tales while MOTORPSYCHO and FASTER PUSSYCAT, KILL KILL! (both 1965) were violent desert gothics. All four are bold and energetic films that were way ahead of their time on many levels and have aged well but these actually contained less much nudity than his earlier color films and were not box-office successes.
His next film, MONDO TOPLESS was a hit in 1966 but Russ Meyer’s first real blockbuster was VIXEN in 1968, after which he was hired to make studio films by 20th-Century Fox. The first of these, BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1970 with a screenplay by Roger Ebert) was a smash but after the failure of the second, THE SEVEN MINUTES (1971), Meyer went back to independent filmmaking. BLACK SNAKE (1973), SUPER VIXENS (1975), UP (1976) and BENEATH THE VALLEY OF THE ULTRA-VIXENS (1979) completed his filmography.
Meyer owned all of his films (except the two for Fox) and in the 1980′s, his video label, Russ Meyer Enterprises, released them on VHS and sold them for $60.00 each. Even by the late 1990′s, when most videos had come down to the 10-20 dollar range, Meyer stubbornly insisted on his $60.00 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, Russ 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 alzheimers and suffered from severe dementia, but was still answering that phone! Today, Meyer’s estate runs things and is known as RM Films International (www.russmeyer.com). They still sell his films on VHS (!), though they’ve finally come down to $40.00 a pop and most of Russ Meyer films are available on DVD for the same price. In September of 2004 Russ Meyer, King Leer himself, 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, according to We Are Movie Geeks, are his ten best.
10. THE IMMORAL MR. TEAS
THE IMMORAL MR. TEAS, Russ Meyer’s first foray into adult entertainment, was a big deal and a big hit in 1959. Mr. Teas (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. Risque 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 Russ 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, is a nod to Meyer’s subsequent jokey directorial style and well-documented preoccupation with top-heavy women. Watch for Meyer himself in a cameo as a burlesque club patron.
Meyer’s 1976 comedy thriller UP was was co-written by Roger Ebert and contains Nazis, lesbianism, rape, buggery, a backwoods sheriff, piranha, kinky sex—and that’s just the first 10 minutes! The gorgeous Raven Delacroix stars as the wonderfully named Margo Winchester, one of Meyer’s strongest female characters. Constantly victimized by most men, yet refusing to play the victim, spitting out her lines in a Mae West-type drawl, Delacroix and her bountiful figure totally steal the movie. Totally nude and usually running around outdoors for most of the film, Delacroix is incredibly sexy and funny as Margo. Meyer’s usual quick editing style is on display, with lots of shots of feet walking and running, plus lots of outdoor sex. The plot veers wildly from outrageous laughs to explosive violence, and contains riffs on PSYCHO, TEXAS CHAINSAW, ALICE’S RESTAURANT, CITIZEN KANE (!) and others. And just in case you don’t quite get all the plot details, we have the added bonus of Kitten Natividad as our onscreen narrator—totally nude, of course—to fill in the blanks. Also look for B-movie regular Janet Wood (ANGELS HARD AS THEY COME, CENTERFOLD GIRLS) as Alice.
8. CHERRY, HARRY, AND RAQUEL
In CHERRY, HARRY, AND RAQUEL Charles Napier plays Harry, the Sheriff of a Arizona border town who traffics narcotics for an old, rich pervert named Mr. Franklin and gets involved in mayhem and murder. 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 blonde 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 his 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, AND 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. Charles Napier was one of the few Russ 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 five years later for Meyer’s SUPER VIXEN.
Prior to his grand opus FASTER PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL! Russ 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, Missouri around the time of the Depression and Prohibition ( the exact setting year is pretty vague ). Hero Calif McKinney is out to find work on his way West, when he becomes embroiled in the town’s many scandals. Meyer’s other main influence here besides the mentioned authors is Al Capps’s classic comic strip ” Li’l Abner “. Now, Spooner one ups Dogpatch USA in that they have three Daisy Maes ( rustic blonde bombshells ). There’s lonely mistreated wife Hannah, voracious partygirl Clara Belle ( played by Meyer star Lorna Maitland ), and mute , not-too-innocent Eula ( we first see her cuddling a kitten! ). But the film does feature a buxom brunette, the tragic Sister Hansen. Meyer mainstays Mickey Foxx, Stuart Lancaster, and the grinning, toothless Princess Livingston support the hero, the ladies, and a very vile villain, Sidney Brenshaw ( love his white suit and big, floppy Panama hat! ). Culminating, of course, with an angry lynch mob, MUDHONEY is one of Russ Meyer’s little seen, early exploitation gems.
6. BENEATH THE VALLEY OF THE ULTRA VIXENS
What began as a showcase for a new screen celebrity became the final fiction film for the fantastic Russ Meyer. While many site animation director Chuck Jones as an influence for his desert epic SUPERVIXENS, here Meyer is steering more towards Tex Avery and Frank Tashlin especially in the slapstick comedy gag sequences and rat-a-tat editing. Also this film established Kitten Natividad as a Meyer movie icon with not one, but two roles. After a strange deviant scene involving a buxom blonde, a sheet, a coffin, and, could it be… Martin Boorman (!), we zip to the trailer park home of Lamar Shedd. Seems his preferred lovemaking method just doesn’t, er..uh, sit well with the ladies. Particularly his wife Lavonia ( Natividad ), who seeks pleasure from the burly trucker Mr. Peterbuilt ( look out for that hot, lamp bulb….YEOOWW! ). Later on she dons a wig and Spanish accent to become stripper supreme Lola Langusta. Meanwhile, a lonely radio shack broadcasts the non-stop sermons of Eufaula Roop ( buxom Ann Marie ), while a raspy-voiced, Humphrey Bogart sounding narrator helps guide us along ( his identity is revealed in the final moments ). BENEATH may be the ultimate live-action adults-only cartoon and an entertaining finale for one of the movie’s most unusual visionaries.
5. MONDO TOPLESS
MONDO TOPLESS (1966) is Russ Meyer’s send up 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 Russ Meyer standards – just a rock soundtrack by The Aladdins accompanied by an overexuberant announcer who provides double entendre narration as stacked women dance about. With MONDO TOPLESS Russ 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 underwater. You see breasts gyrating, jiggling, bouncing, and flopping around. You see breasts covered in water, whipped cream and mud. If breasts are your thing you’ll no doubt find MONDO TOPLESS a certain type of spiritual nirvana. Pat Barringer shakes it topless at 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 routinein an abandoned. 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 Russ Meyer biographer Jimmy McDonough decribed 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.
Erica Gavin royally chews up the scenery—and everything else– in VIXEN (1969), Meyer’s ode to supreme bitchiness. Gavin is the Vixen (yes, that’s her name) of the title, a nymphomaniacal, racist, and downright nasty-tempered woman who is stuck in the Canadian outback with her loyal but somewhat 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 dramatic flair, and of course returned for a more tragic role in Meyers’ classic BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS. Like many of Meyer’s actresses, Gavin’s onscreen beauty and persona seemed to blossom fully under his direction, though she did a wonderful turn in Jonathan Demme’s CAGED HEAT , sadly, her final film to date.
3. BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS
In the late 1960′s the major Hollywood studios faced a crisis. How could they produce films that would get young audiences back in the movie theatres? 20th Century Fox had noticed the big box office generated by Russ Meyer and signed him up. Talk about giving the keys to the inmates. The house that Zanuck built probably had no inkling that he would turn out this bizarro look at the counter-culture. The plot ( there is a bit of one ) follows the rags to riches, rise and fall of an all girl rock band called the Carrie Nations. Meyer brought aboard two of his film veterans, square-jawed Charles Napier and VIXEN Erica Gavin along with his missus, Amazonian bombshell Edy Williams playing adult film star Ashley St. Ives who spouts one of the film’s most hilarious pick-up lines, ” You’re a groovy boy. I’d like to strap you on sometime”. Speaking of lines, the screenplay is credited to Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Roger Ebert. This helps make the films final moments, a violent Manson-like blood bath at the beach home of record producer Z-Man ( one of cinema’s strangest villains ) surprising. Is the same stodgy ole’ Uncle Rog that was so appalled at the original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD? At least before the mayhem we get a tender lovemaking scene between two women dressed as Batman and Robin ( wonder if West and Ward had actually donned these suits since this was shot at the same studio ). Well to quote Z-Man ( as Austin Powers repeated several decades later ), ” This is my happening and it freaks me out! ”
Regarded by many as the crowning achievement in the Russ Meyer canon, SUPERVIXENS (1975) certainly deserves its reputation. All the usual Meyer touches are on display—the rapid editing, bosomy 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 explosive action, 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 played many villains in his long career, but none with more gusto than Sledge, and had featured roles in everything from the original STAR TREK to AUSTIN POWERS, plus several other Meyer pictures. 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 USN) before quitting the movies.
1. FASTER PUSSYCAT, KILL KILL!
Opening with a narrator intoning “Ladies and gentlemen – welcome to violence!”, FASTER PUSSYCAT, KILL KILL! tells the sordid tale of a trio of bisexual amazon go-go girls on a neck-breaking crime spree in the Californian desert. This politically incorrect, black-and-white desert 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 with her black stretch jumpsuit, leather boots and gloves, who wears her troweled-on mascara proudly across her evil eyes is 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.