Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Retro Review: PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW (1971)

(US - 1971)

Directed by Roger Vadim. Written by Gene Roddenberry. Cast: Rock Hudson, Angie Dickinson, Telly Savalas, John David Carson, Roddy McDowall, Keenan Wynn, James Doohan, William Campbell, Barbara Leigh, Susan Tolsky, Aimee Eccles, Margaret Markov, June Fairchild, Joy Bang. (R, 91 mins)

A textbook example of the kind of movie that could never be made today, PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW is a brazenly smutty, time-capsule-worthy T&A black comedy where laughs are mined from an awkward virgin being seduced by his sexy teacher and from underage, nympho high school girls hooking up with and being murdered by their charming, predatory guidance counselor and pillar-of-the-community football coach...with music by The Osmonds! It's a plot more suited for a New World Pictures drive-in comedy produced by Roger Corman, even featuring frequently nude Corman starlets like Barbara Leigh (THE STUDENT NURSES), Joy Bang (NIGHT OF THE COBRA WOMAN), and Margaret Markov (THE ARENA, BLACK MAMA WHITE MAMA), but it came from MGM, directed by French auteur and enfant terrible Roger Vadim, making his American debut ("his tribute to the high school girls of America!" the trailer crows) following the international success of 1968's BARBARELLA, and scripted by none other than STAR TREK creator Gene Roddenberry. Based on a 1968 novel by Francis Pollini, the film began life as a project for one-time Stanley Kubrick producing partner James B. Harris, with the lead role of serial killing counselor, coach, and sex addict Tiger McDrew intended for New York Jets QB Joe Namath. Given his playboy reputation, Namath would've been perfect casting, but the film spent two more years in development before it ended up in the hands of Vadim, with the role of Tiger McDrew eventually going to Rock Hudson. It's against-type casting that works, considering Hudson's past in light romantic comedies with Doris Day and years later, his closeted homosexuality becoming common knowledge to the world beyond industry insiders. Despite an Oscar nomination for 1956's GIANT, Hudson was always labeled a lightweight actor. He was making efforts to tackle more complex and challenging roles, starting with John Frankenheimer's 1966 cult classic SECONDS (easily his best performance), but the public wasn't buying it. Hudson spent most of the rest of his career in TV after PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW, appearing in just five more big-screen features (and only three of those were leads) until his death in 1985. As McDrew, Hudson, sporting longer hair than usual as well as an impressive early '70s porn stache, has a few extra pounds on him than he did in his heyday but he's still got all of the charm that made him a star, even with a sinister gleam in his eye and an unsettling leer as a bevy of beauties disrobe and throw themselves at him with reckless abandon. It's an inspired decision that allows Hudson to slyly explore the dark and twisted flipside of his onscreen persona.

Hudson's McDrew is a married dad introduced having sex with a student in his office at the same time confused, sexually frustrated virgin Ponce de Leon Harper (John David Carson) is so taken with substitute English teacher Miss Smith (Angie Dickinson, introduced with a close-up of her ass jiggling in a miniskirt) that he goes to the lavatory to jerk off but instead discovers a girl's nude body in the next stall. While clueless principal Mr. Proffer (Roddy McDowall) can't get a grip on what's happened ("I don't understand this...we've always kept our academic averages so high!") and can only offer superficial memories of the victim ("She was a fine girl...and a terrific little cheerleader") and incompetent sheriff Poldaski (Keenan Wynn) lets a bunch of curious onlookers loiter about the crime scene, no-nonsense detective Surcher (Telly Savalas) and his partner Follo (James Doohan, the only STAR TREK cast member present) arrive to take charge of the investigation. All the while, Tiger continues to score with a succession of high school hotties as the body count rises, while simultaneously advising Ponce on understanding women and learning to control his awkward and badly-timed erections. Tiger even recognizes a kindred spirit in Miss Smith, who needs little prodding when Tiger suggests she seduce Ponce and make him a man.

PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW is inappropriate in all kinds of ways. Sure, the bulk of the film is a series of dirty jokes and naked women (the August 1971 issue of Playboy was devoted to the film, with pictorials for Dickinson as well as all of the actresses playing the Pretty Maids), but there's some brilliant bits of dark humor and social commentary, whether it's a student asking Ponce if they've got football practice and Ponce responding with a dead-serious "No, we never have practice the day of a murder," or idiotic and knee-jerk Poldaski arriving on the scene of the first murder and impulsively grabbing the first black student he sees for questioning with a threatening "Not so fast...where do ya think yer goin'?" There's a running gag with Surcher constantly busting Poldaski down to traffic duty, with a great sneering performance by Savalas in what plays like a sarcastic dry run for his years on KOJAK. PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW was a box office flop in 1971, though it found a second wind on late-night Showtime and HBO in the early '80s, when the relationship between Dickinson's Miss Jones and Carson's Ponce (Dickinson has never been sexier onscreen than she is here) made the film fit right in with the "Hot for Teacher" craze spawned by the likes of PRIVATE LESSONS (1981), HOMEWORK (1982), MY TUTOR (1983), and THEY'RE PLAYING WITH FIRE (1984). With the ubiquity of teacher-student sex scandals, it's hard to believe there was once a time when such things were played for good-natured laughs, and were so part of the pop culture norm that Van Halen even had a huge MTV hit inspired by the subject. In that respect, perhaps PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW was ahead of its time, but can you even imagine it or something like PRIVATE LESSONS--a smash sleeper hit in theaters in 1981--getting the green light today without a shitstorm of controversy and trigger warnings?

1 comment:

  1. And let us not forget that it also had in it, the ever popular vixen of the time - JOY BANG!