Director: Russ Meyer
Screenplay: Roger Ebert
Based on a Story by: Roger Ebert, Russ Meyer
Starring: Dolly Read, Cynthia Myers, Marcia McBroom, John Lazar, Michael Blodgett
Running Time: 109 min
BBFC Certificate: 18
Russ Meyer is an unusual character in the history of American cinema. His first feature film as a director (after working as a combat cameraman in WWII) was The Immoral Mr. Teas (1959). Widely acknowledged as the first commercially viable American ‘skin flick’ (or softcore porn as the films are more commonly known these days), it grossed more than $1,500,000 in the US at the time of its release from a budget of a mere $24,000. This success spurred Meyer on to make a name for himself as the ‘king of the skin flicks’, producing dozens of successful exploitation films that always featured incredibly buxom female stars, even when his films started to mix in other genres and become wild action-packed romps.
What’s interesting and unusual about Meyer is that, despite his reputation for making what were pretty much porn films, he actually became respected as a filmmaker in many circles. One of the key reasons for this was that he showed all the traits of being a true auteur. He worked as director, producer, screenwriter, cinematographer and film editor on many of his films, giving him a huge amount of control over the end product. His films had a recognisable style because of this. As well as the large-breasted stars, his films had a punchy editing style and bold, well composed cinematography. He made exploitation movies that actually looked good and were well put together, unlike many of the ‘skin flicks’ that would follow in his wake.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls represents an unusual point in Meyers career though. After Easy Rider, which was cheaply produced by a bunch of young ‘hippies’, became a huge unexpected success for Columbia Pictures, the other studios wanted in on the action. A number of the companies believed that giving money to young directors, fresh out of film school, would produce exciting counter-culture movies that the nation’s youth would flock to see (which is what kick-started the 70’s New Hollywood movement). 20th Century Fox’s plan though was to give a large budget to an already successful indie director with a reputation for making commercially successful genre films for very little money. The director they chose was Russ Meyer and the film he made was Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.
The studio heads originally wanted Meyer to make a sequel to the popular novel/film Valley of the Dolls, but Roger Ebert (yes, the popular late critic) and Meyer’s script was a spoof of the source material. They ended up making what Ebert called “a satire of Hollywood conventions, genres, situations, dialogue, characters and success formulas, heavily overlaid with such shocking violence that some critics didn’t know whether the movie ‘knew’ it was a comedy.” Due to this, the producers stopped referring to it as a sequel and added a disclaimer to the start of the film, informing viewers that what they were about to see had no connection to the novel or film, Valley of the Dolls.
The plot of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls follows a rock group made up of three young women, Kelly MacNamara (Dolly Read), Casey Anderson (Cynthia Myers), and Petronella “Pet” Danforth (Marcia McBroom), as they decide to move to L.A. to seek fame and fortune. Their catchy tunes prove popular, but the back-stabbings, bed-hopping and excess of the Hollywood scene prove to be their undoing. Key plot-lines include Kelly being promised by her aunt that she’d get her share of a grand inheritance, which leads to a number of slimy suitors vying for their chance to get their own hands on it. The band’s straight-laced manager Harris (David Gurian), who is also Kelly’s boyfriend, gets pushed to the sidelines too once they hit L.A. and the flamboyant, well-connected rock producer, Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell (John LaZar), takes over the band, changing their name from The Kelly Affair to The Carrie Nations. It all ends in tears of course (and some surprising violence out of left field).
I was a little disappointed with this. I’m not the world’s biggest Russ Meyer fan, but I do enjoy his tight, fun action-oriented romps. I particularly appreciate his sharp editing style and the film’s opening 15 minutes or so demonstrate this nicely, with a brisk pace making the scene-setting almost exhausting to watch. However, as the film moves on and the melodrama takes over, it starts to sag. I realise it’s supposed to be a spoof or satire, but the predictable love triangles and drug/drink problems got a bit tiresome after a while and the film felt over-long. Thankfully an absolutely bonkers and unexpectedly gory finale makes up for the long wait.
Also making up for the uninspiring melodrama is the dialogue. It’s a shame that Ebert didn’t write many more films as this contains some wonderfully quotable dialogue. Little of it is realistic in terms of naturally portraying the swinging sixties scene it wallows in, but this is clearly done on purpose. The film’s most famous line demonstrates this perfectly, “This is my happening and it freaks me out!”
Meyer’s visual style is still present, even though he wasn’t allowed to take on as many roles as usual and passed on DOP duties to Fred J. Koenekamp. The film looks good and makes the most of its extra wide format. There’s some effective off-kilter framing and a peyote smoking sequence has some boldly colourful lighting reminiscent of Mario Bava.
So there are qualities to admire here (I didn’t even mention the awesome soundtrack) and the film is enjoyable enough, but it did feel a bit flabby and watered down when compared to some of Meyer’s better independent productions. Because of this and the over-abundance of melodrama, I couldn’t help but feel slightly let down.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is out now on dual format Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, released by Arrow Video. I saw the Blu-Ray version and, as is to be expected from the label, the picture and audio quality is excellent.
Included with the film, but not obvious from the cover art, is a whole second feature film, The Seven Minutes. I planned to review it too, but unfortunately I haven’t had the time to watch it and didn’t want this write-up to get pushed back further than it already has. If I get around to it, I’ll add it to this review at some point. The 1971 film is described in the blurb as “Russ Meyer’s Hollywood swansong, an adaptation of Irving Wallace’s polemical novel about the absurdities of American obscenity laws”. It doesn’t have as strong a reputation as Dolls, possibly due to the fact that it’s not one of Meyer’s boob filled exploitation flicks. From what I’ve heard, it’s more of a straight-up drama.
You get a tonne of special features too (that I have seen). Here’s the list:
– Two commentaries on Beyond the Valley of the Dolls by co-screenwriter Roger Ebert and various actors
– Sinister Image: Russ Meyer, David De Valle’s 1987 interview with the director and his former model Yvette Vickers
– Introduction to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls by John LaZar
– Above, Beneath and Beyond the Valley: The Making of a Musical-Horror-Sex-Comedy
– Look On Up at the Bottom, with composer Stu Phillips and three members of the Carrie Nations discussing the film’s music
– The Best of Beyond, favourite moments selected by cast and crew members
– Sex, Drugs, Music & Murder: Signs of the Time, Baby!, a look at the late 1960s culture that spawned Beyond the Valley of the Dolls
– Casey & Roxanne: The Love Scene, discussed by participants Erica Gavin and Cynthia Myers
– Screen tests for Michael Blodgett, Cynthia Myers, Harrison Page, Marcia McBroom
– High Definition photo galleries
– Multiple trailers
Most of the featurettes are a bit over the top and cheesily presented, but this fits with the style of the film and they remain very informative and fun. The Ebert commentary is great too. He’s very positive about the film, but still honest about its shortcomings and rarely lets up on giving juicy tidbits about the whole production process. I haven’t listened to the other commentary yet.
And as with all Arrow releases, you get a booklet in with the package, which is as informative and attractively designed as always.