Saturday, June 1, 2013

DINAH EAST 1970


Fact: Myra Breckinridge, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, The Christine Jorgensen Story, and Dinah East, were all released in June of 1970. Observation: I had no idea that a mere three years after 1967’s “Summer of Love”, America enjoyed a “Summer of the Transgender.” Apparently, Hollywood, before eventually settling into the mundane rut of action, sci-fi, and superheroes, thought it was a good summertime film release strategy to saturate theaters with R and X-rated movies brimming with gender-identity plotlines. Fans of camp and cinéma de l'étrange will most certainly recognize the top three of the above-listed titles, but what exactly is Dinah East? Well, to put it simply, Dinah East is the best camp classic you've never heard of.
Jeremy Stockwell as Dinah East
"Too much love or too little of it...isn't that why people take chances?"
Matt Bennett as Ex-boxer,Tank Swenson
"It makes no difference to me whether you're a man or a woman!"
Ultra Violet as Costume designer, Daniela
"Dinah, have you thought of what will happen if you are found out?"
Ray Foster as Matinee idol, Tony Locke
"You took me home and gave me more liquor than I ever had. Then asked me to drop my drawers!"
Andy Davis as Alan Sloan, Dinah's attorney
"Have you always thought of me as...a man? I mean, 100% male in every respect?"
Reid Smith as Jeff East, Dinah's adopted son
"I suppose being one's mother gives one the right to look every once in a while!"
Joe Taylor as Bobby Sloan, Alan's son and Jeff's best friend
"How did you and Dinah East make love...did you do it to her or did she do it to you?"
Dinah East takes a “What if it were really true?” approach to the age-old rumor about silver screen legend Mae West really being a man (a legend gleefully kept alive today by West’s understandably grudge-holding Myra Breckinridge co-star, Raquel Welch) and fashions a deliriously camp (i.e., dead serious) fictional tale about a 1950s screen siren whose death reveals her life to have been one great big drag. 
The brainchild of producer Paula Stewart, publicist-to-the-stars Phil Paladino, and screenwriter/ director Gene Nash, the film (originally titled The Demise of Dinah East and The Great Put-On of Dinah East, alternately) chronicles in flashback fashion, the guarded life of Dinah East and the subsequent emotional fallout amongst those who came to know her, following the headline-making revelation of her death.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Soap opera in structure but pure 70s homoerotic sexploitation in execution, Dinah East (a title, I confess, that not only recalled for me those Mae West rumors, but the lesbian rumors that surrounded TV personality Dinah Shore during her heyday) has all the necessary ingredients to be a camp classic. It boasts uneven direction; amateurish performances; a prohibitively low budget; gaudy 70s fashions and décor; a cliche-saturated plot; Hollywood insider jokes and references (Dinah does a pretty good impersonation of columnist Louella Parsons, and matinee idol, Tony Locke, parodies Tony Curtis' infamous, "Yondah lies da castle of my faddah!"); and a sensibility both salacious and sentimental. In addition:
Lesbianism!
Wigs!
Slow-motion romantic romps!
Lots of full-frontal male nudity!
Scenes in 70s gay bars!
Porn-level  Performances!
"That's too hard to swallow...love for a son born out of rape? That's much too heavy to swallow!"
Derisible dialog accompanied by theatrical,  unconvincing displays of  temperament!
Alan- "You're nothing but a deranged little faggot!"  (*Slap*)
Did I mention the male nudity?
For me, Dinah East recalls the best and worst of Jacqueline Susann. That is, Jacqueline Susann if directed by Ed Wood, cast with models from a 1970 Ah Men catalog unfamiliar with the art of acting, and co-produced by Russ Meyer and Andy Warhol. Everything about this movie is so completely up my alley, bad-taste wise, yet, rather amazingly, I only discovered this doozy of a film two years ago. How did I go through my entire young adulthood never hearing of this film? Why hasn't Dinah East become the darling of the Midnight Movie cult circuit? Why isn't it mentioned in the same breath as such epic monuments to wonderful/awful cinema as Glen or Glenda or Valley of the Dolls?
Well, there are several reasons, some of which I'll go into later...but the main reason seems to be that almost no one, even fans of good-bad cinema, seems to know this movie exists!
Tony takes Dinah to the fights
Ray Foster (l.) was last seen as the receptionist leering at the male applicants in Mae West's waiting room in Myra Breckinridge
According to producer Paula Stewart (a former Broadway star [Wildcat, What Makes Sammy Run?] and one-time wife of Burt Bacharach and comic, Jack Carter), the X-rated Dinah East opened in Los Angeles (even garnering a favorable review from LA Times critic, Kevin Thomas) and played for a brief time at the New-View Theater on Hollywood Blvd. before the government shut it down and confiscated all prints of the film due to unpaid withholding taxes. Unable to meet its financial obligations, Dinah East was fairly submerged in a quagmire of copyright and legal hassles that extended over several years, rendering the film virtually lost.
This of course contradicts subsequent DVD ad publicity and internet accounts that Mae West herself halted distribution of the film because she was displeased with it and didn't want the potentially libelous film to distract from her Myra Breckinridge comeback. Paula Stewart, who claims to have known Mae West and says, that while the actress was most assuredly “Pissed off” by Dinah East, she did not in any way try to hinder its release. Behind-the-scenes money troubles (of which there were considerable) took care of that.
Dinah East director and screenwriter, Gene Nash, was also a manager, composer, and country western singer (1959 single, "I'm an Eskimo, too").  Photo courtesy of Johnnyreay.com
PERFORMANCES
As Marilyn Monroe-esque glamour queen Dinah East, New York actor Jeremy Stockwell (he appeared Off-Broadway in Fortune and Men’s Eyes - 1969, Nightride - 1971) is a little too stiff and inexpressive to radiate the necessary diva quality to make the character a believable superstar (Candy Darling would have been great). And outside of resembling on occasion (depending on the wig) a butch Doris Day, Carol Wayne, or Donna Mills, he doesn't really look much like a woman. But on repeat viewings, there’s something about the actor’s lack of skill which works to the film’s benefit. Stockwell's performance is infused with so much sincerity that after a while, his constricted body language and modulated line readings begin to look like the behavior of a person holding themselves in reserve for fear of detection. I'm not about to infer any of this is intentional, but what with the character of Dinah being written so sympathetically and the somewhat stilted screenplay leaving viewers on their own to intuit what would make a man keep up such a charade for so long; what Stockwell loses in camp points by failing to rise to the flamboyant heights of what we might expect from a Golden-Era movie star, he gains in likability.
Maybe I'm just corny, but the romance that develops between Dinah and ex boxer, Tank, is really sweet. 
Which brings me to one of the points I think works against Dinah East ever realizing its true camp potential: the film doesn't have a mean bone in its body. The film is singularly lacking in bitchiness or spite, prime ingredients in gay film campdom. The characters in Dinah East are flawed but decent, and treat one another in an uncharacteristically decent manner for an exploitation film (the very odd character of Dinah's emotionally-conflicted attorney, Alan, notwithstanding). Stockwell’s performance falls into arch camp primarily due to the limitations of his acting, the Douglas Sirk-inspired twists of the melodramatic plot, and the camp array of wigs and 70s fashions at his disposal.
A big star requires big hair
But Dinah is no Margo Channing or Helen Lawson (although as you can see from the above phot, she has both the hair and wardrobe for the latter). Those seeking All About Eve  levels of catty dialog and diva posturing will have to look elsewhere. Or at the very least, content themselves with the film's clumsy attempts to shoehorn nudity and sex into the plot at clockwork intervals, and the brief but nonetheless priceless flashback scenes at a gay bar populated by bitchy queens and outfitted with a nude pirate dancing in a cage (!) and a "Champagne Lady" bubble machine.
For the most part, Dinah East's laughs are mostly of the unintentional sort. Laughs born of the film's meager budget, weak actors, often hilariously tin-eared dialog, and the curious commingling of sincere soap opera with grindhouse sex exploitation. While Dinah East's endearing ineptitude is  to die for, I also found the film to be rather refreshing in its lack of the kind of cynicism and self-aware snark usually found in transgressive cult films. So many of the movies that have gained cult status in the gay community have done so in part because of their outre homophobia (Valley of the Dolls, Myra Breckinridge), that Dinah East, at least comes off as far ahead of its time in its empathetic depiction of gays, lesbians, and transgender.
Cornball montages were very popular in 70s movies, and Dinah East has a romantic montage that wouldn't be out of place in a Debbie Reynolds or Doris Day film. Tank and Dinah fall in love to the wince-inducing strains of, "Thank you, Alexander Graham Bell...you're swell!" An original song (by director Gene Nash?) sung by 40's singing combo, Jon and Sondra Steele (My Happiness- 1948). 

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Movies about Hollywood can always be counted on for the camp recycling of over-familiar soap opera tropes and hoary show business clichés. Dinah East is no exemption. The film's obviously slim budget not allowing for even a passable representation of the 1950s or a convincing depiction of the opulent high life of a major Hollywood star (Edgar Bergen’s home stands in as Dinah’s Bel Air mansion), the one thing Dinah East gets incredibly right is its depiction of Hollywood as a town where it's possible to keep lifelong secrets simply due to the fact that absolutely everybody else in town has secrets they also don't want to have exposed. In the satiric 1973 Hollywood murder mystery, The Last of Sheila (penned by Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim, two then-closeted homosexuals who obviously knew a thing or two about the need to keep secrets), a character sums it up perfectly when she says: "That's the thing about secrets. We all know stuff about each other...we just don't know the same stuff."
Dinah and Daniela forge a friendship out of  a commitment to keeping each other's secrets.
In a welcome change of pace from most hetero-centric exploitation films full of shapely but untalented bimbos hired with an eye towards the director’s casting couch, Dinah East is loaded with good-looking himbos and male eye-candy who can’t act their way out of their tight pants. Happily, they're never required to wear them for very long.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
With all the great purveyors of cinema camp either dead (Jacqueline Susann, Andy Warhol, Ed Wood, Russ Meyer) or unofficially retired (John Waters, Roger Corman), I can't tell you what a kick it was unearthing an honest-to-god, period-perfect, classic piece of ripened 70s cheese like Dinah East. Although virtually every frame feels made-to-order for my personal warped sense of aesthetics, it was actually my partner who brought the film to my attention after discovering it on Netflix. I fell in love with Dinah East on first sight.
It's funny unintentionally, sometimes it's even funny on purpose. It's bizarre, silly, audacious, tacky, unevenly paced, and mostly terribly acted. But it's also marvelously entertaining, better-plotted than most movies today, and as a bonus, given the subject matter's potential for vulgarity and offensiveness, it's surprisingly sweet-natured, forward-thinking film.
It has become an instant favorite mine, and I understand that it has been re-released on DVD in a restored, widescreen version that should be a good deal brighter and crisper than these screencaps indicate. Still, Dinah East is one of those films worth seeing any way you can get it. They don't make 'em like this anymore. And more's the pity for us lovers of retro camp cinema.
Dialog between two grave-diggers at the end of the film (one being Studio-54- flash-in-the-pan-to-be, Sterling St. Jacques)
"Just goes to show you; you can really put the world on if you try hard enough."
"Yeah man, but who wants to go to that much trouble?"


BONUS MATERIAL
Actor Jeremy Stockwell out of drag.
Photo by Kenn Duncan from the 1969 Off-Broadway production of Fortune & Men's Eyes



Some of My Best Friends Are... (1971)
Dinah East's Joe Taylor (bottom left) went on to appear with Warhol superstar Candy Darling in another gay-themed film that has somewhat disappeared. That's Gil Gerard of Buck Rogers fame to Taylor's right. Also in the cast, future TV stars, Rue McClanahan, Fannie Flagg, and Gary Sandy, in addition to Sylvia Syms and Carleton Carpenter (of MGM, Debbie Reynolds and  "Abba-Dabba Honeymoon"). The film is not on DVD that I know of, but available for instant view on Amazon.com. 


Read more about this underappreciated 70s curio at Poseidon's Underworld

Copyright © Ken Anderson

21 comments:

  1. Wow! That "In addition:" roundup is something else!

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  2. Along with the glut of aformentioned gender-bending films released to American theatres in 1970, add "Funeral Parade of Roses" (also known as "Bara no soretsu") by Toshio Matsumoto. Sashaying its way into US theatres in October of that year, only slightly behind the American made products you've mentioned, "Funeral Parade of Roses" debuted in its native Japan in 1969, the film having a significant influence on Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange" released in 1971. Readily available from video stores--I was most fortunate to catch this at the cinema several fews ago.

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    1. Thanks for calling attention to "Funeral Parade of Roses", a film I'm unfamiliar with but one which sounds like a worthwhile entry in the 70s counterculture film sweepstakes. That's great that you actually had the opportunity to see this!

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  3. Almost needless to say, I have GOT to see this movie!!!!!!!!!! I had heard about it a couple of times here and there, but always forgot to actively seek it out, so this is the first time I've ever seen pictures from it or anything. Wow...... MY KIND OF MOVIE, for sure. Thank you so much!

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    1. Hi Poseidon
      Equally needless to say, I immediately thought of you while writing this. I think it is definitely your kind of movie and you'll love it. No need for thanks. Just doing my best to promote the overlooked cinema curio whenever I can! :-)

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  4. I ordered it today..... Cannot wait to see it! (I have heard that the DVD - at least the one on Amazon that I'm getting - is actually taken from a VHS and not all fixed up, but fingers are crossed that it's at least a decent print. Maybe the comment there I read was old or wrong? Most people seemed pleased with it.) THANKS AGAIN for drawing it to my attention through your site. I can't fathom any way that I wouldn't enjoy seeing it.

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    1. You act fast! I'm sure you'll love it. And, in spite of what is written on Amazon, I think you will be getting one of the cleaned-up/restored versions. The rights have been bought up by a new distributor and the old ones should all be out of print. The giveaway is the DVD case: the good version is the one with the faux pop-art cover. The faded VHS rip has a grainy photo of Stockwell on the cover. Happy viewing!

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  5. Wow, never even heard of this film but I NEED to see it!

    I just found your blog and I know I am going to while away many, many hours here. We share the same aesthetic sensibilities and love of film!

    Can't wait to delve further...down the rabbit hole of classic movie fabulousness...

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    1. Welcome Angelman66
      I'm glad you found this blog, and see that you made good on your promise to willingly tumble down the rabbit hole of classic and not-so-classic movies. By your selection of films to comment on, I think we indeed do share a similar taste in movies. So, welcome to the asylum,and yes, you NEED to see this movie. It's one of a kind! Thanks

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  6. Good lord. It looks like it has the production values of an After School Special hijacked by the Mitchell Brothers - remarkable that it isn't better known. Makes me wonder about Nash's two other credits - what looks like a slasher/gore pic starring Margaret O'Brien (!) and a country-music outing with Tex Ritter.

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    1. Hello Muscato
      Your description is pretty much on point. Yes, "Dinah East" really is a Mark Robson-like movie (Peyton Place, Valley of the Dolls) saddled with the budget of an underground film and a director more at home with drive-in exploitation fare. It's such a mixed bag.
      I hear the financing was particularly hard to acquire (due to the subject matter), and the dwindling funds necessitated a rather hasty shoot by a director who wasn't that skilled to begin with.
      It certainly is an oddity and a welcome discovery for those tired of rewatching the same cult films that have been in circulation since the 60s.

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    2. Am I the only one to notice that the writing from the opening titles as pictured above seems strikingly similar to that employed for "Myra Breckinridge"?

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  7. This is why I love your blog; I learn SO much from it (gender rumors on BOTH Dinah Shore & Mae West - wow!). I haven't heard of this film, but, needless to say, must try to find it. It looks, from your screen caps, like echt 70s camp, with bad taste galore in costuming and wigs (oh yes, those wigs - they made me think of the tacky perukes trying for a faux-30s look in the Debbie Reynolds/Shelley Winters 70s some-kind-of-classic "What's the Matter with Helen," a film that, if you haven't already, I hope you will one day review).

    Two things I thought of in relation to this film: One, the real-life gender-bending case of jazz pianist Billy Tipton, who did pass most of his life as a man and was only revealed on death to have been born female (Tipton even had a common-law wife and adopted 3 sons, with whom he "loved to go on Scout camping trips," per wikipedia). Two, the Japanese late-60s film 'Black Lizard,' which is stupefyingly camp with a straight face, if you forgive the pun. It was adapted for the screen by the novelist Yukio Mishima, and the star was an actor who played the title role (a criminal mastermind in the plot) throughout in female drag (he was also Mishima's offscreen lover). I saw the film once, many years ago, at a revival theater and have never quite forgotten it; it's in eye-popping color with a kind of James-Bond gadgetry fix; and Mishima makes a cameo right at the end as a samurai fighter. It's apparently not on dvd and hard to find, but I recommend seeking it out.

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  8. Thank you for your comments, GOM! Bringing movies like this to the attention of those blissfully unaware of its existance may constitute a form of anti-cinema subversiveness, but I like think that there are a couple of depraved souls who love 70s trash as much as I do and would welcome the unearthing of this bit of grindhouse Holy Grail. :-)

    By the way, you're no slouch in the information department yourself. I don't know that I ever heard about Billy Tipton! What a story! It never ceases to amaze me how truth is always standing to-to-toe with the strangest fiction.
    I have never heard of "Black Lizard" before, but it sounds irresistibly silly. I hope it makes its way to DVD sometime in the future.
    Oh, and I am indeed a fan of "What's the Matter With Helen?" and long to write about it here someday. What an oddity that one was! Thanks for a very informative, fun comment!

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  9. Yayy! I found a great deal on the DVD for Dinah East and will shortly get to see it! Can't wait to report back to you...I so appreciate being turned on to new-old movies!!

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    1. Wow! between this post and the one on Poseidon's underworld, I suspect there's going to be a run on the sale of that Dinah East video. No one seems to have heard of it, but everyone is intrigued!
      Anyone who likes Andy Warhol films as much as you do will sure to have a blast with this. Enjoy!

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  10. Oh, wow, what a delight this was for me. As a lover of those trashy, glossy Joseph E. Levine-produced biopic/flashback films of the 60s like Harlow (the Carroll Baker one - have never seen the Carol Lynley one made the same year) and The Oscar, this movie was as tasty as diving into a double banana split with extra whipped cream...

    And just as you and Poseidon noted: it's so surreal to see all these different type men of the era completely naked; we are used to undressing male movie characters in our mind, but here there is no need to. Every one of them strips!! I also love the hot girl-on-girl scenes with Ultra Violet, but we are more used to female nudity than all this late-60s meat-and-potatoes (as Mae West would say).

    This indeed would make a perfect double feature paired with Myra Breckenridge, made the same year. Dinah is a REAL underground picture masquerading as an A-List Hollywood movie, whereas Myra is an A-List feature masquerading as an underground film...Myra is so so so tame and moralistic and reactionary, compared to Dinah's progressive and free-thinking themes.

    Thank you for turning me on to this movie - it now holds a proud place in my collection, right between Die, Mommie Die and Double Indemnity.

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    1. Hi Angelman
      So thrilled that you liked the movie (Although there was little real doubt...the film is a hoot!).
      I think you really captured the essence of it in describing it in terms of those overlit Joseph E, Levine films from the 60s. If "Dinah East" had the budget, I've no doubt that it would have looked exactly like "The Oscar".
      Also, I love the comparisons you made between "Myra" and "Dinah"..."Dinah is a REAL underground picture masquerading as an A-List Hollywood movie, whereas Myra is an A-List feature masquerading as an underground film." That's really quite astute and sums up perfectly how these films saw themselves.
      Makes me happy to know that perhaps another person out there will spread the word on "Dinah East" (If you write about "Dinah East" on your blog, let me know. I'll include a link with this post).

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  11. Reid Smith was My uncle Kurt Grayson's best pal, Kurt also an actor/real estate flipper as Reid was. I recall having dinner at Jackie Smiths Coldwater cyn home and beating Reid at arm wrestling when I was 14, just as Charlies Angels was due to be released for TV. Reid also dated Maude Adams and many beautiful women.

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    1. Thanks very much for providing fans with a little post-"Dinah East" info on actor Reid Smith! Nice to hear from someone who actually knew him and in such a cool retro-context (Maud Adams, Jacklyn Smith...that's great!)
      Much appreciated.

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