Wednesday, December 7, 2011

THE LOVE MACHINE 1971

"The Waiting Is Over...The Love Machine is on the Screen!"

So declared the graphically austere poster ads (a gold ankh against a simple black background) heralding the arrival of The Love Machine —sorry, Jacqueline Susann's The Love Machine— to movie theaters in 1971. Hard to believe when looking at the film now, but there was a degree of anticipation attending the release of The Love Machine, the big screen adaptation of Susann's 1969 best-selling follow-up novel to the phenomenally successful, Valley of the Dolls.  

A considerable amount of this anticipation was due to so much having transpired in the four years since 20th Century-Fox first released Valley of the Dolls to big boxoffice and a flurry of lousy reviews in 1967. First and most significantly, Jacqueline Susann had proven herself a viable boxoffice name in her own right, capable of selling tickets regardless of the relative artistic or critical merit of the project. Secondly, movies themselves had grown increasingly permissive in terms of nudity and language since 1967 (Fox's own Myra Breckinridge had seen to that); thus there existed, at least among Jacqueline Susann's broad fan base, the hope that the film of The Love Machine would have license to be every bit as tawdry and smutty as the source novel.
Naughty, Naughty
In the 70s, gay characters in movies were shorthand for decadence and "with it" sexuality.
Here we have David Hemmings (r.) in full flame as fashion photographer Jerry Nelson, with his blow-dried inamorato, Alfie Knight (Clinton Greyn). 

In the minds of many there also existed the misplaced and misguided confidence that The Love Machine was going to be a better film than Valley of the Dolls. Why? Well, putting aside for a moment the obvious assumption that it would be near impossible to make a film that could be worse; it was Jacqueline Susann herself (who had never made secret her dislike for the movie version of Valley of the Dolls ) who assured her fans that both she and her husband, Irving Mansfield, were going to take steps to guarantee their creative input in bringing The Love Machine to the screen

Indeed, thanks to a lawsuit filed by Susann against 20th Century-Fox pertaining to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)that unofficial, unauthorized, non-sequelSusann and Mansfield were able to take The Love Machine to the greener pastures of Columbia Pictures. There, Susann acquired $1.5 million for the rights, a possessive author's credit, and Mansfield was granted the title of executive producer (apt enough, given that he was a TV producer by profession and The Love Machine was all about the television industry). The Susann-Mansfield household was holding the reins to this project.
The Hitchcock of Coarseness
Jacqueline Susann makes another cameo appearance in one of her films.
(That's L.A. newsman Jerry Dunphy on the left)

An author's possessive film credit of the kind exemplified by the clumsy title, Jacqueline Susann's The Love Machine, is most certainly rooted in vanity and product branding; but it also carries with it the implication the that the film is a true representation of the author's intent and vision. Well, as anyone will attest who's seen Stephen King's abominable self-penned 1997 TV-movie adaptation of his novel, The Shining (he disliked the many alterations and omissions in Stanley Kubrick's 1980 film); an author's participation in the adaptation of their work is in no way a reliable gauge of anything resembling quality.
John Phillip Law as Robin Stone
Dyan Cannon as Judith Austin
David Hemmings as Jerry Nelson
Jodi Wexler as Amanda
Maureen Arthur as Ethel Evans
The Love Machine tells the story of the swift rise and fall of Robin Stone, an ambitious local news anchor who ruthlessly muscles his way into the job of network television president. Despite looking thin, wan, and desperately in need of a blood transfusion; Robin is an irresistible ladykiller who leaves a trail of broken-hearted lasses clad in blue bathrobes in his wake. With Nielsen ratings and audience-share figures where his heart should be, Robin Stone is like a male version of Faye Dunaway's character in Network (1976), crossed with Valley of the Dolls' Helen Lawson, with a little of Stephen Boyd's Frankie Fane from The Oscar (1966) on the side.

As with most of Jacqueline Susann's characters, Robin Stone is allegedly based on a real-life individual. In this case, the late CBS TV executive, James Aubrey - the man responsible for The Beverly Hillbillies and a host of other lowbrow moneymakers during the '60s. Like his movie counterpart, Aubrey is said to have been a calculatingly shrewd cookie who held the TV viewing audience in contempt and made a fortune banking on the public's insatiable appetite for mediocrity. Judging by the popularity of today's Jersey Shore/Kardashians train wrecks, you can't say the guy wasn't something of a visionary.
The Love Machine
In all but the most archly ironic circumstances, Jackie Susann was unsuccessful in getting anyone else to take on the word "dolls" for barbiturates. She didn't fare much better in persuading the American public to adopt "The Love Machine" as slang for TV sets (because it "sells love, creates desire"...you see).

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
My fondness for a certain brand of bad film is as difficult to explain as it is to defend. It's not like I just get off on making fun of them. On the contrary, most of these films are very professional, well-made films in every department. What I think I respond to is that scary zone in the creative arts where the attempt fails to match the execution. Where all the talent, creativity, and hard work on one end just somehow ends up being 100% opposite of what anyone intended. It fascinates me because I believe it can occur at any moment, no matter how heavily the deck is stacked for success. For example: take the idea of Marlon Brando putting cotton in his cheeks in The Godfather. That's something that could have turned out disastrous, but instead became iconic. Or what about Al Pacino's Cuban accent in Scarface. Wasn't that a huge risk? It could have derailed the entire picture!  
No, Robin Stone doesn't pay a visit to Pee Wee's Playhouse. This is just a horrific example of 70s chic decor

The point I'm making is that the collaborative art of film is often like a dance on a wire: fiasco or triumph is sometimes based on tiny, intangible miscalculation or moment of blind overconfidence. Something which can't be known or sensed until after the film is already in the can. Hindsight makes it all seem like it could have been avoided, but that's just not the case. the crap shoot of it all is what fascinates me.

If it's true in life that we learn most from our failures, I believe there to be a similar lessons to be gleaned for the film buff confronted with a well-intentioned mess. When you watch a film that cost millions, involved hundreds of decisions, hours of hard work, the collaboration of many talented individuals...and the result is sometimes deplorable, you staring straight into the face of the elusiveness of excellence. That or perhaps hubris, too many cooks spoiling the broth, or maybe (worst of all) professional cynicism: films which don't really care if they're good, so long as they make money.
Ambitious Robin Stone goes head-to-head with network
programming executive Danton Miller (Jackie Cooper)

 The Love Machine tries to be a hard-hitting, cynical, claw-his-way-to-the-top drama along the lines of The Sweet Smell of Success and The Young Philadelphians; but for all its faddish clothes, bare bosoms, and cuss words, it's fundamentally a creaky Fannie Hurst melodrama. It feels as though it's striving hard for sensation and daring, but it's focus needs adjusting. It's too shallow for a character drama, too superficial for a TV expose, and far too cliche-ridden to work effectively as drama. The Love Machine's utter cluelessness about how old-world it actually is makes for addictive viewing.
The real star of The Love Machine is Robin's collection of blue bathrobes.
It got so that I started to miss them if they failed to show up in a scene.

PERFORMANCES
Robin Stone is portrayed with remarkable ineffectualness by the late actor (and last-minute replacement) John Phillip Law, last seen sporting angel's wings and a feather diaper in Barbarella. By all accounts a terribly nice guy in real life, Law latches onto Robin Stone's closed-off, inexpressive side and gives a performance too stiff even for a character referred to as a machine. Susann had wanted Sean Connery for the role.
John Phillip Law's lifeless performance is perhaps in part due to his stepping in at the last moment for originally-cast actor Brian Kelly (star of TV's Flipper) who was injured in a motorcycle accident. In several scenes it's obvious Law is wearing ill-fitting clothes cut for the shorter-in-stature Kelly.

Dyan Cannon has always been a favorite of mine, but her performance here (no great shakes, but heads above the rest of the cast) is consistently undermined by the jaw-dropping, high-fashion get-ups she's called upon to wear. Given that's she's not really provided a believable character to play, her bizarre fashion sense always takes center stage. According to a Jacqueline Susann bio, Cannon was so struck by a case of the giggles during a preview of The Love Machine (inspired by both her performance and the film), she had to excuse herself.
The lovely Dyan Cannon, playing the wife of a television executive, decides to wear a test pattern

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
For anyone finding the film hard going (it's rather slow by today's standards) I beg you to stick around for the climactic "Hollywood party fight scene." Here Ms. Cannon (balancing 23 pounds of teased hair) finally abandons her heretofore starchy acting style and lets loose with that infectiously raucous laugh of hers, setting in motion a truly memorable free-for-all that should have become a YouTube camp highlight by now. In trying to top Valley of the Dolls' infamous wig-down-the-toilet scene, The Love Machine finally does something right.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
When The Love Machine was first released to theaters, I was a mere 13 years old. Too young to see the much-ballyhooed motion picture, but old enough to take my mom's paperback novel to school and pore over the "dirty parts" with my schoolmates. I'm not sure what my problem was at such an early age, but I was very much into the sleazy but entertaining novel, and went out and bought an "ankh" ring just like on the paperback cover. (In my defense, I grew up in San Francisco during the hippie era, and ankhs were kind of all over the place.) I also unsuccessfully tried to persuade my sister to buy that Faberge "Xanadu" perfume that was cross-promoted in the film (ads for which recommended you mark "his" favorite spot with an "x").
Xanadu by Faberge
Samples were given away at many theaters showing The Love Machine
In spite of my unseemly youthful preoccupation, I didn't actually see The Love Machine until I was well into adulthood. I'm happy to say that I wasn't disappointed. While not nearly as much fun as Valley of the Dolls, The Love Machine has more than enough in the way of over-the-top fashions, poky dialog, and questionable performances to rank high among my favorite guilty pleasures.
"...and when you put it on, you'll live forever. And love me forever."

Copyright © Ken Anderson

About Ken Anderson: LA-based writer and lifelong film enthusiast. You can read more of his essays on films of the ’60s & ‘70s at Dreams Are What Le Cinema Is For

10 comments:

  1. Love, LOVE, L-O-V-E! I've been meaning to get around to this one over at The Underworld. You had a lot of insightful things to say about the backstory, the context of the film within its time, etc... (One reason I haven't profiled TLM is that I don't have it on DVD. These caps are terrific looking!) I echo your remarks about good/bad films and that indescribable appeal (which you described well.)

    Poseidon3

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  2. Thanks very much, Poseidon. Our tastes in good/bad films frequently intersect.
    "The Love Machine" was a long time in coming to DVD. They don't promote those made-to-order DVD's very well, do they? I keep thinking that certain films I love have never had a DVD release, only to have someone tell me that it's out on made-to-order for ages.

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  3. I haven't seen this film but am curious to give it a look see as VALLEY OF THE DOLLS is one of my all time favorite films!

    This sounds like a hoot, especially the John Philip Law/Dyan Cannon/David Hemmings triangle.

    I do however own the soundtrack album with selections of Artie Butler's score and Dionne Warwick's renditions of "Amanda" and "He's Moving On".

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    1. You really should seek it out. You owe it to yourself, they don't make movies like this any more. Much to enjoy visually, performance-wise, and in the tin-eared dialog which tries so hard to be raw and real. I have the soundtrack album too, and yes Dionne is in fine, fine voice. Thanks for reading my blog and commenting!

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  4. Why would anybody want to watch a shitty movie based on a novel that was actually (IMHO) quite good?

    The Love Machine cries out for a remake set in the early-to-late'60's time span of the novel, with the same people that make the show Mad Men in charge, and with the same actors (perhaps Jon Hamm can play Robin Stone, since Stone and Don Draper are almost the same type of man?)

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    1. Are you kidding? Shitty movies like this make for some of the most entertaining movie watching imaginable.Good camp like this is hard to find.
      And yes, a remake or miniseries would be great before America's love affair with the "Mad Men" Sixties peters out. Your casting of John Hamm (or at least the Don Draper side) would be perfect for Robin Stone.

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  5. You've pointed out all the reasons I love movies like this, Ken--from the flamboyant sets and costumes to the melodramatic plotline and the alternately wooden and over-the-top performances--all shellacked and buffed to a high glossy shine!

    John Philip Law is one of the most gorgeous guys to ever grace Technicolor...yes, he could use a little more meat on his bones, but that face, those cheekbones, those eyes! Yes, he is one hell of a bad actor...but totally my type. Not nearly as talented as my beloved Jeffrey Hunter, but he'll do on a cold rainy Sunday afternoon...the perfect time to watch movies like this.

    Poor Jacqueline Susann, who has gone down in history as one of the worst novelists of all time...but I agree with Lionel--she wasn't. Her books were pretty damn good page turners, much better than the movies that were based on them. Truman Capote's infamous dig of Susann's writing stuck ("That's not writing, that's TYPING"), and branded her inaccurately as a no-talent. She was at least as inventive and sexy a storyteller as Judith Krantz or Joyce Haber...

    I too vote for a new miniseries remake--and Jon Hamm would be perfect as Robin Stone! I loved learning that the character had been based on Jim Aubrey--the monster who cancelled the classy Judy Garland Show just as it was finding its audience. On the last night of filming, Aubrey sent flowers to Garland's dressing room with the following note attached: "Thanks a lot. Now you're through." Evil!!

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    1. Hi Chris!
      I feel about Julian Sands like you feel about John Philip Law, so no explanation is necessary. He's not the greatest actor...but who cares? As the careers of Diana Dors and Jayne Mansfield attest, sometimes eye-candy is enough.
      Similarly the Susann issue. Not the best writer, but a fun weaver of trashy tales. Pop culture understands that enjoyable froth like "The Love Machine" is an art in and of itself, and questions of it being "good" or "bad" almost don't even apply.
      I'm glad you like this movie, which concerns itself with a world (network TV) that is as archaic as "Mad Men"
      I didn't know that Judy garland tale, so that was a great bit of stuff you added there at the end! Boy, the guy really sounds like a piece of work!

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  6. It's so nice to know that there are other people in the world that love John Phillip Law, Jacqueline Susann and The Love Machine as much as I do. It makes me so sad that JPL and JS are gone. It helps to be able to read the books and see the movies whenever I want so they are still here in that way. Ken you sound like a really cool person and I'm glad I happened to come across this blog! Great review of The Love Machine! franci

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    1. Hi Franci
      I suspect that there are a great many fans of Jacqueline Susann and the films made from her books. She was a good deal more fun than many of her counterparts and successors.
      I really miss these kinds of overblown movie soap operas. Today they tend to be made into Lifetime movies lacking in bite or wit. As you say, it's great that these films are still here to look back on. (Strangely, they improve with age). Thank you for your kind comments!

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