"Not a sequel, but like Valley of the Dolls, deals with the oft-times nightmarish world of Show Business!"
Ad copy for the poster
One of the advantages of being old enough to remember a cult film before it became a cult film is that it gives you a sense of perspective. Russ Meyer's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (also referred to hereafter as BVD) is one of the most deliriously campy, quotable, contagiously musical, visually kinetic, laugh-out-loud bad/good films EVER. A top-ranking favorite of mine, BVD is a non-sexy sex comedy that’s also a surprisingly ingenious send-up of every show business cliché mined by movies since the days of What Price Hollywood? (1932).
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is a caffeinated homage to glossy Hollywood soap operas like The Oscar, The Best of Everything, and, of course, BVDs rootstock and inspiration: Jacqueline Susann’s immortal Valley of the Dolls (hereafter also referred to as VOD).
Although released in the summer of 1970, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is a '60s movie down to its bellbottoms and sandals. Depicting a burlesque vision of the Swinging Sixties as it existed only between the tragically unhip pages of "gentleman's magazines" like Playboy; BVD is both groovy and square. A cross between a hyperactive geek fantasy (via 27-year-old screenwriter Roger Ebert) and middle-aged wish fulfillment, the film is a garish, never-a-dull-moment, laugh-out-loud paean to '60s pop-culture excess. Directed with a manic combination of aplomb and amateurism by budget skin-flick impresario Russ Meyer collaborating with first-time screenwriter, Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert; BVD is a film so exhaustively steadfast in its desire to affront and entertain, at times it feels like a Tex Avery cartoon come to life.
|Dolly Read as Kelly MacNamara|
|Marcia McBroom as Petronella Danforth|
|Cynthia Myers as Casey Anderson|
|David Gurian as Harris Allsworth|
Having now fully established the extent to which I lovingly clutch this carnival-colored trash classic to my negligible-by-Russ-Meyer-standards bosom, I can elaborate on what I mean when I say that having an actual recollection of 1970 and the atmosphere in which BVD was released, allows for a sense of perspective.
When a once-dismissed film is rediscovered by a new generation of fans, it's not uncommon for history to be rewritten a bit as a means of staking an up-to-date claim on an older work. In the years it took for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls to morph from film reviled to film reveled, a somewhat rarified legend has developed among BVD cultists. One which contends 1970 film critics raked BVD over the coals because they didn't understand that Meyer's film was a satirical comedy (i.e., intentionally terrible), and therefore never meant to be taken seriously. Well, that's not entirely true.
|John Lazar as Ronnie 'Z-Man' Barzell. He forgot that life has many levels|
Granted, a few critics may have been confounded and didn't know what to make of a film that careened at breakneck speed from musical to melodrama to comedy to ultraviolence; but Russ Meyer's oeuvre of the outrageous was a fairly well-known commodity by the time he'd landed his contract with Fox. Having leapt from peep-show Orson Welles to being the darling of the college film circuit, Meyer's reputation as a sex parodist was well known to any '60s film critic worth their salt. Everyone knew that Russ Meyer had never made a conventional or serious movie in his life. If anyone was apt to misinterpret the built-in sex mockery of Meyer's films, it was likely the grindhouse trenchcoat set—individuals who, by nature, were inclined to approach their softcore T & A with the utmost solemnity.
|Edy Williams as the infamous Ashley St. Ives. Men were toys for her amusement|
From what I recall of reviews at the time, the critics who failed to respond favorably to Meyer’s first studio outing didn't do so out of an inability to grasp the film's sophomoric satire; rather, they disliked it because they failed to find cultural value in a bad movie being used to parody a bad movie.
Take also into account that a great deal of what is so camp and amusing about BVD hadn't yet the distance of nostalgia quaintness to make it appealing. Today we laugh at everything from its hippie-dippie rock music, to the extreme fashions, oversized hairstyles, carnival-colored decor, and hooty slang idioms. Although granted the amplified exaggeration of exploitation, the look and feel of this movie was not as absurd then as it looks now. Much like we're all going to look back at the styles and fads of today and laugh at how terrible we all look (Skinny jeans! Full beards? Tattoos and piercings!) but the elderly today find them to be as ridiculous as they are.
|Michael Blodgett as Lance Rocke. He never gave of himself|
For example: Z-Man's parties were only raunchier reenactments of those "penthouse party" sequences that kicked off every episode of TVs Laugh-In since it debuted in 1967. Edy Williams' enormous mane of hair and ever-present bikini was basically Raquel Welch's standard photo-op uniform at this time in her career. And comparable variations on Beyond the Valley of the Dolls' outrageous crayon palette decor and outre fashions could be found in a plethora of way-out Mod Cinema releases (like Britain's Smashing Time -1967), Italian Giallo thrillers (The Sweet Body of Deborah - 1968) as well as so-called "serious" films like Jacqueline Susann's The Love Machine (1971).
|Phyllis Davis as Susan Lake|
Excessive goodness can often blind us to the human failings of those less perfect
A lot of '70s film critics were predisposed to dislike Beyond the Valley of the Dolls on principle, finding abhorrent the very idea that the same studio that gave the world The Sound of Music had enlisted the services of a "nudie" director to make an X-rated exploitation film. And as the film's X-rating had as much to do with its violent finale as for its sexual content (it was a rather soft X, but graphic violence was still relatively new to films at the time), cries of "poor taste!" met BVD's bloody 3rd act massacre which was inspired by the less-than-one-year-old tragedy of Sharon Tate's murder. (To make matters more distasteful, the Manson Family murder trials began just two days before Beyond the Valley of the Dolls' July 17 release.)
|Erica Gavin as the languid Roxanne|
Meanwhile, serious cineaste factions, encouraged by the emergent New Hollywood and the ushering in of innovative, artistic films like Bonnie and Clyde, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Easy Rider, and Midnight Cowboy, felt strongly that the motion picture industry was ill-served by a film like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. A film that many felt, like the wholesale auctioning off of studio backlot land taking place at the time, symbolized Hollywood's desperation, decline, and imminent demise. Ironically, these very sentiments proved near-irresistible when it came to marketing Beyond the Valley of the Dolls to the college/youth demographic.
|Harrison Page as Emerson Thorne|
Behind that friendly mask lies fermenting the unholy seed of a lawyer
The '60s were the age of the "put-on" and the "put-down." Movies that challenged tradition and poked fun at middle-class conventions were popular with the youth market, and the swiftest way for a mainstream film to appear "hip." Young people flocked to the underground films of Andy Warhol (Flesh - 1968, Lonesome Cowboys - 1968), the gonzo cinema of John Waters (Mondo Trasho – 1968), and Russ Meyer’s own string of grindhouse “nudies” (Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! – 1965, Vixen 1968). When cinema scholars and film critics began to pay attention to these films, cash-strapped Hollywood jumped on the bandwagon with mainstream attempts to capture the campy, comic book zeitgeist with films like Casino Royale (1966), Barbarella (1968), and the popular Batman TV show (1966-1968).
The derisive send-up of pop culture grew to be such a popular mainstay, by 1970 America had fairly overdosed on irony and satire.
|Duncan McLeod as Porter Hall|
Used his profession to mask selfish interests...to betray the trust that should have been sacred
Released during the waning days of the public's brief infatuation with Psychedelic Cinema (druggy, youth-oriented films invariably made by middle-aged men), Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and its sister-in-sleaze, Myra Breckinridge (twin Fox releases opening within a week of one another) were last-ditch efforts to hitch a ride on the already steamrolling Youth Culture gravy train. Both films arrived at the tail-end of a veritable onslaught of look-alike outrageous psychedelic send-ups of the Flower Power generation. Oddities like Otto Preminger's Skidoo (1968), The Big Cube (1969), Head (1968), Angel, Angel Down We Go (1969), The Gay Deceivers (1969), and a recent personal favorite, An American Hippie in Israel (1970).
|James Iglehart as Randy Black|
Randy's body: A cage for an animal
The success of BVD should have put Russ Meyer on the road to mainstream legitimacy, but the following year he tried his hand at his first straight dramatic film with the courtroom drama, The Seven Minutes (1971). The results proved that Meyer was something of a none-trick-pony, and that without his trademark bare breasts and ultra-violence, he was a mediocre filmmaker at best. The financial failure of The Seven Minutes (Meyer's only flop) soured Fox's relationship with the director and happily laid to rest all those film class debates regarding the so-called "intentional" ineptitude of his films ("He knows what he's doing, he's sending up the genre!") and his clumsy way with actors and dialogue.
|Henry Rowland as Otto. The man with the benign, Germanic countenance|
Signed to a 3-picture deal by Fox, Russ Meyer, in spite of the failure of The Seven Minutes, might have been allowed to see out his contract had it not been for the matter of his employers, Richard Zanuck & David Brown, being ousted not long after the release of BVD. Finding himself suddenly and once again a free agent, Meyer more or less returned to being “King of the Nudies,” independently (re)making his trademark live-action breast fetish cartoons with little variance until his death in 2004.
I felt compelled to contextualize Beyond the Valley of the Dolls—a miraculous mess of a movie I’ve loved since the days it was primarily known as "20th Century Fox’s embarrassment"—because the revisionist narrative ascribing canny premeditation to everything risible and inept in BVD is just too pat. The whole "They knew what they were doing" scenario doesn't pay respect to the freakish, one-of-a-kind, lightning-in-a-bottle quality BVD possesses which makes watching it for the 50th time as much of a blast as the first. No one could have foreseen that a breast-fixated, Johnny one-note director; a newbie screenwriter; and a cast of Playboy pin-ups and hysterically disparate actors would produce a film so dementedly sublime.
|The Carrie Nations|
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls chronicles the exploits of an all-girl rock band coping with the toxic show business cocktail of quick success, easy sex, & plentiful drugs
The making of a completely satisfying, entertaining film is a major feat in itself, and Russ Meyer achieved this miracle twice (BVD and Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!), and in having the ratio of intentionally awful to inadvertently awful so well-balanced and impossible to discern, these films achieve a kind of ideal perfection. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is my idea of perfect trash art.
Being that I can't think of a single thing I DON'T love about this movie, here is my Top Ten List of favorite things in BVD:
1. Nobody blinks!
2. Boobies, boobies, boobies!
3. The fashions!
4. The hair!
5. The cartoonish camera angles and sound effects!
7. That unexpectedly sweet lesbian relationship!
8. The movie franchise missed opportunity!
9. The montages!
Villa Elaine Apartments on Vine), and the Adm & Eve adult book store next door, the site of my very first LA job! (Stephen Sondheim collaborator George Furth came in once and I got his autograph. As he signed he said, "This is equal parts flattering and demoralizing!")
10. That leopard-print bikini!
By any rational assessment, the performances in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls are not much worse than those found in (limiting the degree of awful to the Jacqueline Susann family) in Valley of the Dolls, The Love Machine, or Once is Not Enough. The major difference being a matter of aptitude (can’t act vs. won’t act) and energy (there’s not a single lazy performance in BVD. Indeed, Meyer’s idea of pacing seems to be pitched somewhere at “fire drill”). And in that vein, Dolly Read, David Gurian, Phyllis Davis, and Duncan McLeod are all pitch-perfect.
|"What I see is beyond your dreaming."|
Faster Pussycat star, Haji, whispers mystically in Z-Man's ear
Kitten With a Whip look nuanced. Although a campy, fun presence onscreen, Williams was apparently not very popular with many on the set, save for Russ Meyer, whom she later wed. And even he, according to Erica Gavin, "Couldn't stand her."
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
As a fan of all manner of '60s pop music, I love the soundtrack to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. As a fan of women’s prison films (Roger Corman's Swamp Women), girls reform school movies (Girls Town), and Andy Warhol’s BAD - a movie about an all-girl hit squad; there’s something irresistibly badass about the idea of an all-girl rock group.
|"In the Long Run" & "Find It" are two songs on heavy rotation on my iPod|
I was 12 years old when Beyond the Valley of the Dolls came out, and I remember at that time television programming was chock full of rock groups. Real-life bands like The Beatles, The Jackson Five, and The Osmonds all had their own animated TV shows, and in addition, there was The Archies, The Groovie Goolies, and The Cattanooga Cats. Live-action had The Bugaloos, The Partridge Family, and reruns of The Monkees. The only women's rock group that I can recall was the fictional, animated, Josie and Pussycats.
|The big singing voice we hear coming out of Dolly Read's mouth belongs to Lynn Carey (shown above, right, giving grief to Tuesday Weld about her lack of cashmere sweaters in Lord Love a Duck). Carey also co-wrote two of the songs with composer Stu Phillips.|
THE STUFF OF DREAMS
No tribute to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls would be complete without a list of my favorite lines of dialogue:
"I’ve already seen a display of your discretion. It’s reminiscent of a meat ax!"
"In a scene like this you get a contact high!"
"Who is it Emerson. The delivery...boy?"
"Have you ever been whipped by a willow until the blood came?"
"You’re a groovy boy. I'd like to strap you on sometime."
"And there's someone else inside, but I - I don't know who it is...THE HEAD IS MISSING!"
"Yes, I vow it; Ere this night does wane, you will drink the black sperm of my vengeance!"
"The cat swore up and down it was Acapulco Gold, so if we’re lucky, maybe it’s at least pot!"
"And how's she getting home?"
"Roxanne, will you watch out for me?" (not funny, just the sweetest line in the movie)
"Don’t Bogart the joint!"
|Listen to it HERE|
|From Z-Man to King Herod|
That's Marcia McBroom behind those Foster Grants in 1973's Jesus Christ Superstar
|In 1967 Michael Blodgett was the host of "Groovy" an LA-based |
teen music show shot on location on Santa Monica beach
|Although never seen onscreen, Pam Grier was cast as an extra in BVD. Marcia McBroom says she and Grier were roommates at the time, and both auditioned for the role of Petronella Danforth|
|The extras on the BVD DVD features production stills showing Dolly Read in old-age makeup. They accompany youthful photos of her in a mod Union Jack outfit in a stylized church setting. A deleted musical or dream sequence, perhaps?|
Bad Idea Dept: Slated for 2016, Will Ferrell & Josh Gad are set to star as Russ Meyer and Roger Ebert in a film about the making of BVD titled: "Russ & Roger Go Beyond"
THE AUTOGRAPH FILES
Copyright © Ken Anderson 2009 - 2015