Thursday, January 9, 2020

TOYS ARE NOT FOR CHILDREN 1972

Toys Are Not For Children, an unashamedly debauched ‘70s grindhouse trash treasure with the subversive smarts of arthouse cinema, is a psychosexual fever dream about childhood trauma and arrested development. In keeping with the film’s kiddie-centric theme, and being something of a case of pop-cultural stunted growth myself, I offer an introduction to the film in the style of my favorite childhood cartoon show--The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle--a program that ended each cliffhanger episode with two pun-heavy either/or wordplay titles. 
Toys Are Not For Children 
(In the voice of narrator William Conrad) Be sure to join us for our next episode: 
 "Welcome to the Psycho-Doll House” or “Mourning Becomes Electra-Complex.”

Marcia Forbes as Jamie Godard
Harlan Cary Poe as Charlie Belmond
Evelyn Kingsley as Pearl Valdi
Luis Arroyo as Eddie 
Fran Warren as Edna Godard

During New Hollywood’s clumsy transitional years, when recently-relaxed censorship laws made it easier for explicit images of sex and sadism to proliferate on movie screens, low-budget exploitation films were faced with the dilemma of seeing the once-exclusive staples of their domain—prurience, sensationalism, nudity, violence, profanity, and sordid content—co-opted by the major studios. With 20th Century-Fox greenlighting megabuck miscalculations in weirdness like Myra Breckinridge (1970) and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), and Warner Bros. bankrolling the X-rated, controversy-courting masterworks A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Devils (1971), how was a lowly, lowbrow independent expected to compete?

For many in the quick-play, easy-profit trade, the obvious solution was to raise the stakes by lowering the sleaze bar. To explore themes and topics even the majors might be squeamish about touching, and in so doing (perhaps inadvertently, but aways inevitably), usher in the crazy.
Enter filmmaker Stanley H. Brassloff, creator of two of 1968’s more obscure “roughies” (a gritty subgenre of sexploitation, usually featuring sexual violence) Two Girls for a Madman and Behind Locked Doors, and the director/producer/screenwriter (with Macs McAree) of the disarmingly whacko Toys Are Not For Children
As if suddenly realizing it has an awful lot of perversion to shoehorn into a rather breakneck 85-minute running time, Toys Are Not For Children gets swiftly down to business in a doozy of a pre-credits sequence that perfectly sets the tone for all the bizarro that follows. To the accompaniment of ominous chords of organ music and considerable heavy breathing on the soundtrack, an astonished mother walks in on her teenage daughter writhing naked on a child-sized bed in an infantile, toy-cluttered bedroom, lost in a fog of rapturous masturbation while caressing a stuffed toy soldier and moaning “Daddy…Daddy!”
And…we’re off to the dysfunction races.

Barbie's No-Fun House
Furniture scale and decor emphasize the doll-like world Jamie inhabits
“How long has this been going on? The stuff you’re doing… you’re just like your father! Well, he’s too busy with his women. All he ever did was send you these stinking toys and you take them to bed. It’s unnatural. Do you hear me? Unnatural!”


The individual demonstrating that any toy can be a sex toy when you’re toting around emotional baggage the size of a steamer trunk, is 19-year-old Jamie Godard of Long Island, NY. An emotionally immature young woman who, if you'll allow for the gross understatement, really misses her absentee father.
It seems beloved daddy Phillip Godard was abruptly and unceremoniously kicked out of the house, never to be seen again, when Jamie was but six-years-old. Left in the toxic care of Edna, her embittered, sexually-repressed mother, Jamie's coping mechanism is to cultivate a dissociatively idealized image of her father. A soft-focus, turbidly carnal image dramatically at odds with her mother's frequent, epithet-laden reminders to Jamie that her father is a whoremonger, a drunkard, and, like all men, an evil scumbag who wants only one thing from women. Well, two things, actually. Edna emphatically maintains that men only want housewives and whores...just not in the same woman.

Playing Around
Jamie finds her dream job working in (what else?) a toy store. There she meets and hastily marries her co-worker, Charlie as a means of escaping her mother. In this scene, Charlie expresses his love for the decidedly impassive Jamie under the watchful gaze of several toys. Most prophetically: a Betty Big Girl doll and one called Little Honeymoon (the space baby from Dick Tracy comics).

The psychological fallout of being raised by two monumentally ill-matched individuals with the relationship skills of an Edward Albee Second Act, is that Jamie hasn’t grown up so much as grown weird. Inhibited, sexually fearful, and emotionally shut off on any subject that isn’t related to either toys or her dad; Jamie lives in a cocooned world of developmental suspended animation. One that feeds the delusion that her Daddy isn't just the only man ever to love her, he's the only man who WILL ever love her.
Like The Wizard of Oz, The Bluebird, and countless bedtime stories about little girls embarking on journeys in search of something elusive and prized, Toys Are Not For Children is a fucked-up Fractured Fairy Tale chronicling Jamie's perverted Pilgrim's Progress to contrive the world's most misguided father and daughter reunion.
Something Olde, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue
The blue, in this case, being Charlie's balls. Jamie prefers honeymoon cuddling with her stuffed toy


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS MOVIE
One of the nice surprises about exploitation flicks is that while they remain refreshingly honest and upfront about their commitment to giving audiences only the most salacious, exaggerated take on a subject at any given time, behind the surface, a great many of them turn out to be remarkably subversive. 
The kind of movie Toys Are Not For Children sold itself as can be gleaned from the two act-of-desperation alternative titles it was rereleased under after initially bombing at the boxoffice: there’s the grossly misleading How to Make Love to a Virgin and the simply nonsensical Virgin Dolls. But Toys Are Not For Children is actually an outlandish incest taboo/titillation tease propping up a provocatively rendered commentary on the limited and contradictory nature of society’s assigned roles for women. 
Jamie finds a friend, surrogate mother, & role model in Pearl Valdi, a New York prostitute and single mother (looking very Jacqueline Susann in her Pucci dress and mile-high hair) who visits the store one day to buy a birthday gift for her 9-year-old daughter. Jamie suggests a toy oven:
Jamie: “She can cook for her friends!”
Pearl: “Heh, she’ll be doing that for the rest of her life!”
Jamie: “Oh, when you’re 9 its fun to play house!”
Pearl: “As long as you only PLAY house...it’s OK.”


With its three female major characters, at times, Toys Are Not For Children feels like Robert Altman’s 3 Women (1977) filtered through the twisted mind of John Waters. Jamie, Pearl, and Edna each represent a restrictive feminine archetype. Jamie is woman as the eternal child. The infantilized daddy’s girl expected to be the virginal, compliant, and dependent love-receptacle whose sexualized innocence she’s neither allowed to acknowledge nor own. Who gets to define what it means to be a "good" girl or woman? Too often it's tied to archaic, patriarchal notions of purity and the silencing of a woman's voice in deciding who has access to her body.  
Pretty In Pink
Even in the midst of the Women's Movement, the '70s trafficked heavily
in the fetishization of sexualized youth and the infantilizing of women 

If Jamie is a worst-case casualty of our culture’s mania for girls who mature sexually but never grow up, then Jamie’s mother Edna is the Donna Reed / Leave It To Beaver domestic fantasy yanked to the dark side. Literally a housewife in that she’s never seen outside the confines of her claustrophobic home (the film’s dollhouse motif, again), Jamie’s vindictive mother—like the proverbial madwoman in the attic—is characterized as crazy and irrational, but she’s the only one who actually sees what’s going on. 
Between the sleaze and shocking revelations, Toys Are Not For Children manages to squeeze in a surprising number of barbed observations about the narrow scope through which women are viewed by society. Through the subtly competitive relationships Jamie has with her mother (vying for the attentions of her father), and Pearl (capitulating to Eddie, Pearl's pimp and bedmate), it's dramatized how women, for want of male-gaze validation (aka love), often adopt inauthentic, ill-fitting personas and fail to be mutually supportive allies to other women...even in instances of shared trauma. 
In its depiction of Jamie's traumatizing home life, the film points to the cultural contrasts in the ways marriage is framed for women (all Happy Homemaker fulfillment, no drudgery) and men (standard Playboy Joke Page stuff about loss of freedom and a lifetime saddled to the ol' ball-and-chain). 
I Don't Wanna Grow Up, I'm A Toys R Us Kid
Ironically, the first time Charlie meets Jamie, he's the one acting like a child. Driving a toy car through the aisles, upon catching sight of his future wife, the camera frames him so he's surrounded by gendered toys of domesticity: a toy over, vacuum cleaner, blender, dishwasher set, and hairdryer

Rounding out this triad of female archetypes is whore: the umbrella label assigned any woman who falls outside the Purity Myth. As it happens, Pearl (who instantly won me over in her introduction scene by giving serious Jacqueline Susann energy with her big hair and Pucci dress) actually IS a whore, but an unapologetic one with a maternalistic streak. Caring to Edna’s cold, colorful to Edna’s drab, and lively to Edna's cynical dispiritedness, Pearl becomes an unexpected, unwilling role model for Jamie. 
I'm Coming Out
Jamie gets herself a Klute haircut, a new wardrobe, and a new career.  
As with Altman's film, the three women in Toys Are Not For Children exemplify three distinct aspects of female identity that are simply the standard-issue complexities and contradictions of being a dimensional human, yet society promotes them as being at odds with one another.
"That Jamie is a real doll!"
Charlie fails to conceal his annoyance at his boss Max (N.J. Osrag)
for insisting that married life must be pure bliss


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
I can’t say exactly what expectations I brought to Toys Are Not For Children, I only know they were low. Making the mistake of assuming the film’s obscurity was indicative of its quality, I settled in hoping for nothing more than a newly unearthed, so-bad-it’s-good godsend. Is it low-budget? To be sure. Feature uneven acting? Without a doubt. Camp? Most certainly. But, much like when I saw Dinah East (1970)--that other little known exploitationer I discovered decades after its initial release--I came away from Toys Are Not For Children simply floored to discover a sharp, perceptive, almost recklessly strange film. Feminist and fabulous, I'm convinced it's one of the best of the genre.
Sex-phobic Jamie has a particularly bad reaction to happening upon an amorous couple in the woods

Though not all of its ideas are thought through, and its take on sexual psychosis is dodgy, I'm nevertheless impressed by the film being audacious enough to structure its narrative in the form of Greek tragedy. Toys Are Not For Children cleverly tells the body of the story in disjointed, time-hopping flashbacks. The dual benefit and overall effect created is of having the viewer share Jamie’s fractured psyche while at the same time creating a narrative tension that feels like the piecing together of a puzzle. 
The look of the film is colorful and toy box bright, giving forth with an eye-orgy of kooky '70s decor, fashions, and hairstyles. The performances run the gamut of being a step above Andy Warhol level to the unexpectedly affecting and natural performance by Evelyn Kingsley as Pearl. 
Depending on how you look at it, Jamie's development or degradation is given visual emphasis in these mirror shots that have the artwork in Jamie's room reflect the changes in her life. Top right: a tiny picture of a little girl hangs in a room cluttered with toys. Below: a large painting of a nude woman staring unashamedly at the artist (viewer).

As the 1970s progressed, exploitation films grew so increasingly standardized and mainstream, genuinely offbeat, difficult-to-categorize releases like this all but disappeared. A fact that makes me regret that I missed out on the opportunity to see Toys Are Not For Children on the big screen in a theater back when it came out. Certainly, amid the glut of male-centric action films and buddy movies I saw at the time, a female-driven exercise in eccentricity like this would have been most welcome. But that's past. I'm just glad SOMEONE thought to exhume this forgotten gem and give us connoisseurs of the kooky an experience not easy to forget.
Twisted Toy Story

BONUS MATERIAL
I was surprised to discover the actress playing Jamie's perpetually
pissed-off mother was a former big band singer and jazz vocalist
who, in 1947, introduced the popular standard "A Sunday Kind of Love." 


Films Dealing With Themes Similar to Toys Are Not For Children
Toys In The Attic (1963): Family dysfunction, incest, and Yvette Mimieux as a childlike woman.

Secret Ceremony (1968): Family dysfunction, sexual abuse, Elizabeth Taylor as a maternal whore, and Mia Farrow as a childlike woman.
Secret Ceremony
Toys Are Not For Children


Several times in the film I found my eyes drawn to the distinctive art print Pearl has on the wall of her apartment. It's a poster for a 1967 exhibit at New York's Pace Gallery for surrealist Ernest Trova. The image is from his Falling Man series. 


It's Time To Speak of Unspoken Things


Copyright © Ken Anderson

13 comments:

  1. This was such a fun read about a VERY obscure title! This quote alone: "For many in the quick-play, easy-profit trade, the obvious solution was to raise the stakes by lowering the sleaze bar. To explore themes and topics even the majors might be squeamish about touching, and in so doing (perhaps inadvertently, but aways inevitably), usher in the crazy," is enough to make me want to see it! LOL I just love movies from this era in general, especially ones that are really pushing it for their time. The guy playing the husband isn't really my type, but I did like the shot of the guy on the blanket in the woods. I was going to remark that the chances of coming across something like this seems so less likely today, but we did - after all - have a case last year of a couple going to town in our new Sky Wheel and being caught! LOL I doubt that anything can compare to "Dinah East" for me, but I do welcome similar offerings. Thanks!!

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    1. Happy New Year, Poseidon!
      You actually DID come to mind when this title came my way, and I hope you do check it out sometime. I'm so glad so many DVD companies are digging up these obscurities because, like you, I find this particular period in filmmaking so fascinating.
      No market research, no trying to appeal to the broadest, safest audience...just the kind of off-the-wall weirdness that screams "Only in the '70s" to me.
      As a gay man tired of all the one-sided, female-only nudity in movies of the era, I also appreciate that TOYS offers equal-opportunity exposure and tweaks the conventions of the genre by being unusually sensitive to the female perspective.
      Dinah East is in a class by itself, but TOYS proved a marvelous surprise. I'm glad you enjoyed the post and thank you so much for commenting.
      By the way, I've so been enjoying the posts on your site even though I've been more of an invisible, non-commenting presence. Will get back into the swing of things in 2020.
      Much appreciated, Poseidon.

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    2. Ken, first, thank you so much for your remarks about my site! It's so hard to keep in there plugging away after ten years...! I try. I went and watched "Toys are Not for Children" within an hour of reading this. I really, really liked it for all the reasons you cite. I could hardly believe this was basically Fran Warren's only acting role (I mean, not even a "Dragnet '67" in there anyplace?! LOL) She was so involved in what she was doing. And I loved the prostie. I would have loved a little more male skin since it seemed a little tease-y with that. BUT... My principle takeaway, which I don't believe you mentioned and which was, to me, utterly staggering... is HOW MUCH Marcia Forbes reminded me of Jennifer Jones, in features and even acting, throughout the whole thing!! It lent the movie an even more perverse air for me. Ha ha! And when she was snuggled up against sideburned Luis Arroyo, I kept thinking of Montgomery Clift (even though his sideburns weren't in "Indiscretion of an American Wife!") Take care!

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    3. Hey Poseidon- You move fast! I'm glad you enjoyed it. I had a hunch you might like it, but you never can be sure. I thought the film had a lot of actors with good character faces (I really liked the look of the toy store owner) but it's so strange that this is the sole film role for so many people. (Love the Dragnet '67 comment!) Dave, a reader of this blog, has actually seen Ms. Warren in her only other film role - an Abbott & Costello movie- but the actress who played Pearl is so good I was surprised she's not to be found in anything else. Better acting than usual for this kind of film.
      But most fascinating of all is your takeaway of Marcia Forbes so recalling Jennifer Jones to you! I can't say it occured to me at all when I initially watched it, but on reviewing one scene after reading your comment, I can see what you mean (especially as I remember Jones in the film "Carrie").
      A big thanks for calling attention to something new to look for in this fascinatingly weird film!

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  2. Well, Ken, you've stumped me again. I pride myself on being an expert on 1970s cinema, but I let out a big 'huh?" when I saw this post. Yet I then opened up my Screen World for the films of 1972 and there it was - albeit buried on page 132 in a list of "other films of the year." :)

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    1. Hi Mark- Wow...your reaction to the obscurity of this title is not that dissimilar to mine. When I saw the Blu-Ray and didn't recognize the title, I, too, went to my trusty Screen World collection and found that it did, indeed exist. Only when I saw the original poster art on line did I recall seeing ads for the film back in 1973. But it's a film that never seemed to have cropped up anywhere, ever, since that time.
      I really wish I HAD seen it as a youngster when it might then would have seemed somewhat shocking (instead of quaint and a bit camp), it would have been a favorite.

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  3. Hi Ken...happy new year! You’ve introduced me to another film I know must see...thanks to you I am now hip to the rare charms of Dinah East, after all, and have never been the same since! I trust the story will be the same for Toys Are Not For Children!

    Looking forward to the 2020s cinema-dreaming with you and your readers!
    - Chris

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    1. Hi Chris
      Happy New Year! You and Poseidon are really too much...here I am, a silent-but-appreciative ghost on both of your wonderful blogs, and you both always make an effort comment on our shared love of obscurities.
      You are the best, and I must do better in 2020.

      I really loved this film far more than I expected. Hard to tell objectively if it's up to "Dinah East" standards (this one more reflects my love of dysfunction along the lines of VIRGINIA WOOLF), but I do hope you check it out and see for yourself. It's a worthwhile one-of-a-kind oddity!
      Here's to reading more from you in the coming year. Thanks, Chris!

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  4. Dear Ken: Happy New Year!

    WHERE did you find out about this movie? I've never even heard of it before. Is there a book called "Weird Movies from 1968 to 1972" that I don't know about?

    I have to compliment you once again on a terrific essay. Although I don't think I'll be seeking out a copy of "Toys. . ." (I have a feeling that watching it would leave me profoundly depressed!), your essay makes the movie sound fascinating.

    And just a few quick observations: As it happens, I have seen Fran Warren's only other feature film, which happens to be "Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd." And in the photo you captioned "Playing Around," doesn't Harlan Cary Poe look like a dead ringer for Jim Carrey?

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    1. Happy New Year, David!
      Ha! I cracked up at the idea that there really SHOULD be a book titled "Weird movies from 1968 to 1972"!
      I found out about this title because I always check in on the websites of DVD distributors known for digging up obscurities (Arrow, Kino-Lorber, Criterion, Shout Factory). When I saw the title it triggered a vague memory of familiarity. I checked in a SCREEN WORLD reference book to see if it was a film I'd forgotten, and, sure enough, it turned out to be a movie I recall briefly playing at a grindhouse theater on Market Street in San Francisco.

      I don't pretend to know every film that came out during the 70s, but its SO surprising to unearth a film that is more or less right up my alley that I didn't even remember.
      You're right, it is a strange and fascinating movie. One you're wise at not subjecting yourself to given its overall depressing themes.
      I'm so impressed you've seen that other Fran Warren film! I'll trust she was a significantly happier camper in that one.
      And in calling my attention to it, when I look at that screencap of Harlan Cary Poe, I see Jim Carrey in Dumb & Dumber.
      So good to hear from you, as always, and I'm glad you found the film essay interesting even if the film itself turned out ot be an easy pass for you. Thanks, Dave!

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  5. In terms of sleazy takes on sexual psychosis with a devotion to both shock value and some rather good period wardrobe, "Love Me Deadly" definitely belongs on your list of related films. Lyle Waggonner, Mary Charlotte Wilcox and a weird combo of movie of the week melodrama, and the sleaziest possible take on daddy issues.

    1972's "The Baby" could also arguably fit in, though its a stunted male character serving as the manifestation of the female leads in the film's mommy issues.

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    1. I don't know whether or not you've ever seen TOYS ARE NOT FOR CHILDREN, but you are 100% in the ballpark by tagging both of the films you mention in your comments as being companion pieces in the same lowbrow league as TANFC. Particularly LOVE ME DEADLY, which is beyond bizarre, but, as you noted, has great retro fashions and so many welcome shots of '70s-era Los Angeles.
      I have copies of both BABY and LOVE ME DEADLY, and should I ever do a compilation post of "Only in the '70s" oddities, those titles would surely head the list.
      Thank you for commenting!

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  6. I have seen it, as exploitation films and other low budget madness, are my personal favorite grubby little corner of cinema history....I bumped into your review of the even more nonsensical "An American Hippie In Israel" and stopped pushing buttons long enough to read some of your other pieces, since I enjoy your even handed treatment of even the shlockiest of schlock.

    I'm sure I'll be round to comment again.

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