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MEYER MONTH – ‘Russ Meyer’s Last Laugh’ by David K. Frasier

1 Apr

On September 18th 2004, I received the long-expected, but nevertheless painful, call from Jim “the HandyMan” Ryan. “Dave, Russ just passed and we’re having the memorial service at Forest Lawn-Hollywood on Friday. I know you wanna be there.” Ryan, RM’s most stalwart crony and factotum, had sacrificed more than half a century of his existence to the director and now summoned the faithful. On the flight out to Los Angeles I reflected on Russ and how lucky I was to have been able to number him as a cherished friend. I’d met “King Leer” in late 1985, published a reference book on him in 1990, and for many years worked shoulder-to-shoulder with The Master on his 3 volume autobiography A Clean Breast (2000), ultimately completing it when dementia made it impossible for him to continue. Upon arrival, I installed myself at the Safari Inn in Burbank, a motel Russ always pointed out as having been a popular trysting place for him. It was also memorably featured in the 1993 Tony Scott film True Romance scripted by Quentin Tarantino.

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More importantly (for a mourner seeking to immerse himself in memories of Russ) the motel was a couple of blocks from the Talleyrand Restaurant at 1700 W. Olive Avenue. Anyone who spent time with Russ ultimately ended up at what he affectionately called “the greasy spoon.” A short 15 minute drive from his home in the Hollywood Hills, the Talleyrand fulfilled most of the criterion Russ demanded in an eatery—comparatively cheap prices, studded leather horseshoe booths, warm bread slathered with butter, and Bombay gin served so cold it hurt your teeth to drink it. The first time Russ took me there for dinner in the mid-1980s we sat in a booth where in between bites of meat loaf  I interviewed him about the making of The Immoral Mr. Teas (the unpublished interview was recently included in the booklet I did for the Arrow Films release, The Russ Meyer Collection—19 Uplifting Classics).  For years afterward, often in the company of Jim Ryan, we’d consume massive amounts of food washed down with what Russ called “meaningful amounts of grog” as he waxed poetic about past sexual and filmic exploits as well as ambitious future plans. Nothing compared to sharing RM’s friendship at a groaning table of plenty after a grueling 12 hour workday.

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I’ll save the account of the viewing of the Great Man’s body and his memorial service at Forest Lawn-Hollywood for another “Meyer Month.” Jimmy McDonough covers the service in vivid detail in Big Bosoms and Square Jaws:  The Biography of Russ Meyer, King of the Sex Film (2005), required reading for anyone interested in “King Leer.” I arose early on the morning of the service, September 24th, with the intention of eating one last time at the place Russ and I had shared so many memorable meals and memories together.  A short walk brought me to the Talleyrand at the height of their breakfast rush. The place was hopping and I waited 15 minutes before a harried waitress led me to a booth where, remarkably, Russ and I had sat the first time he ever took me there. The table was scattered with dirty dishes and as I waited for it to be bussed I thought back over the time I was privileged to have shared with Russ.  Sure, he had his share of faults (he could make a dollar bill scream, was serially unfaithful, and was blindingly egotistical), but he was also capable of great kindness, generosity, and supreme loyalty. He was the Great American Success Story–a rugged individual who through sheer perseverance, talent, and relentless hard work in the service of an all-compassing cockeyed fetish had produced a body of work destined to make him an enduring part of world cinematic history. Though I hadn’t seen or spoken to Russ for several years (his court-appointed caregivers thought best to limit nearly all his outside contact with friends, see McDonough), his loss still hurt like hell. Lost in such thoughts, my eyes rested on the stack of ones left as a tip by the last diner. The top bill was signed:

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Russ always had to have the last word.  R.I.P., old friend.

David K. Frasier 3/21/20013

MEYER MONTH – ‘Skyscrapers and Brassieres’ (1963)

29 Mar

Russ Meyer doesn’t mince words, especially when it comes to the title of 1963 short Skyscrapers and Brassieres. Made to accompany the feature Heavenly Bodies, at four and a half minutes long, Skyscrapers is one of Meyer’s shortest pieces of work and gets straight to the point from the first second. Intercut footage of the city landscapes (quite literally shots of skyscrapers and office buildings) of California are shown against footage of model Rochelle Kennedy getting a custom-made bra fitted at a shop called Paulette’s. For a nice little touch, the director has a narrator spewing all sorts of architecture, mechanical engineering and physical principles which make a cute analogy to the dynamics of the bra itself and what it does for the breast. Short and sweet, it’s worth seeing just for the wonderment at how the process of making custom fitted bras at Paulette’s (a real shop of which I can find no information) worked. Definitely an experience that differs greatly from your first bra-fitting at Marks and Spencers.

MEYER MONTH – Lavelle Roby Interview

28 Mar
I have always been intrigued by actress Lavelle Roby. Ever since watching Beyond the Valley of the Dolls for the first time, I have often thought about her character Vanessa, the assistant to music producer extraordinaire Ronnie ‘Z-Man’ Barzell. In a film that is full of wonderful costumes, her black and gold dress has always stood out for me and I’ve wondered on more than one occasion, that if the film were real, what her job must have been like. I’m sure that Vanessa would have a story or two about Z-Man and his parties! After I watched Finders Keepers, Lovers Weepers a few years later, I was captivated again by Roby’s performance. In another small-ish role, she managed to be the most captivating actress in the entire picture and certainly the film’s highlight. Her character Claire is one of the stronger female characters in Russ Meyer’s entire filmography. The girl is a total badass, running her own business, not afraid to treat men the way they treat women and ready to get stuck in whatever the situation. It really is a shame that Meyer never used Roby in a leading role, for after watching her as Claire it’s evident that she could quite easily have held her own against the likes of Tura Satana and Kitten Natividad. Personally, I would have loved to  have seen a venomous exchange of words between her and Alaina Capri. Two of Meyer’s savviest actresses going head to head in verbal battle? Sounds absolutely perfect. After a little investigating I was really happy to see that Lavelle is still acting and modelling and still looks as drop dead gorgeous as she did in the 1960s! She kindly agreed to answer some questions, see below, for which I am very grateful. As my friends and readers will know, I’ve been a huge Meyer fan since I was ten (fourteen years and counting) and a majority of this website is nothing but a labor of love for me. I am more than thrilled, excited and humbled that I’m finally playing host to my first Meyer girl, it’s been a dream come true! Many thanks to Lavelle and to everyone who reads this, enjoy! 
 
How did you get into acting?
I had studied Speech and Drama in college and had continued drama classes and modelling school while working full-time in sales. When I left the company I had worked for after five years, I decided to concentrate on modelling. I had begun my career in 1963 but it wasn’t until 1966 that I decided that modelling and acting should be my career path. Actually, it was an abusive breakup that helped me make the transition. I probably wouldn’t have left the job when I did had I not been forced to go into hiding when I broke up with an abusive lover who was a co-worker. So, I guess I owe him a debt of gratitude for forcing me to take the leap. I could have still been taking acting classes and not having the courage to go for it had I not been forced to. I was the highest paid woman in my job, I was the Assistant Sales Manager of a Food and Freezer Company. I worked in a sales office with about sixty salesmen. That office made the movie Glengary Glen Ross look like kindergarten. As a matter of fact, one of my one person shows is based on one of the characters from that period.  My e-mail address, egnapos (Every Girl Needs a Pair of Stockings, registered title ) is also from that period. Eventually my first acting role was the TV show Get Smart.
 
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Meyer gave you your first feature film acting role in Finders Keepers, Lovers Weepers!, how did that come about?
It’s very interesting that my first film was with Russ Meyer. I don’t really remember how I first heard about the film, however, when I called my agent to ask him to submit me for the role of the madame, my agent laughed at me and told me that Russ would never hire me because Russ only hired big breasted girls. Since my breasts were only a small B cup, he didn’t want to submit me. I pleaded with him to give it a try, because if Russ would only let me come in to read for the part, I would surely convince him that I could handle the role. Indeed, I read for the role, Russ loved the reading and hired me. According to Russ himself, I was the first actress he had ever auditioned that had not had to show her breasts to audition for a role!
 
Talking of breasts, you show a fair amount of flesh in the film but it’s considerably less than the amount seen of co-star Anne Chapman. What was your stance on nudity and how comfortable did Meyer make you feel on set?
Russ had been famous for travelling the world over to find women with the biggest and best breasts. He was very careful in shooting me and not revealing too much flesh. And, while Anne was not a great actress, she did have a great set of tits! Working with Russ was a great pleasure. He was respectful, hard-working, and had a great sense of humour.
 
I think you were also the first Black actress that Meyer ever hired, how does that make you feel?
I never gave any thought to being the “first” other than the first woman Russ had hired who didn’t have big breasts. I was just proud that he had hired me for my acting ability rather than my body.
 
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As Claire you get to wield a gun and rock a great looking outfit made up of a mack and go-go boots. With Finders being such a small production, did you have much say in how Claire looked? I know that quite a few of Meyer’s actresses had to do their own hair and makeup…
The thing that almost drove me mad was that I wouldn’t let anyone do my makeup, however I gave in and allowed the makeup man to do it. Well, when he was putting on my false lashes he got glue in my eye. As a result, the eye ran the entire day and the eyelash glue wouldn’t stick. When it was time for my closeups, all I could think about was they everyone would be able to see this flapping false eyelash that had come unglued at the edge!

The cream outfit and the go-go boots were my own wardrobe.  I had a close friend, Tommy Roth, who designed for Little Richard,   and he designed that outfit.  Tommy was gay and a cross dresser.  He made new outfits for himself every time he went out.  He would only wear the outfit once.  Because we were the same size, I got a lot of new designs from him.  He would also borrow my things, but the skirts would be returned altered –  pencil thin where I could hardly walk! 
 
Do you have any fond on-set memories or stories from working on Finders Keepers?
The most memorable moment was the day I was on my way to the wardrobe designer. A few blocks from my house a policeman, whom I knew from the neighborhood, stopped me to flirt, as he usually did. I had a few minutes, so I didn’t mind. But, after a while, I was running out of time and was soon going to be late for my wardrobe fitting when the officer said “I must call in to see if I have  a warrant out for your arrest.” I said I need  to leave because I don’t have any more time. He was just stalling for time.  He didn’t really think I had a warrant, but since he had said that, he had to follow through.  Much to his surprise, indeed, there was a warrant for my arrest. I went ballistic!

This scene takes place at one of the busiest intersections in Los Angeles.  I am dressed in a micro-mini (more like a short blouse).  I am out of control! Enraged! Practically foaming at the mouth! The officer doesn’t know what to do.  He has to call for backup because I am now this crazy woman in the middle of the street in a rage. The pages of the script were flying everywhere.  Finally the backup officers arrive. Now my neighborhood officer has to explain why he stopped me…  I wasn’t speeding.  My licence was in order. But he explains that my vehicle identification number looked like it had been changed. 

I finally calmed down and explained that they would have to somehow reach the producer (Russ) who  I am  meeting at the designer’s studio. When they found out I was an actress, they were very accommodating.  They did indeed locate the studio through a cross directory and let Russ know that they had arrested me, but it wasn’t serious.  It had been a parking ticket that my former boss’s son had received when he had borrowed my car and failed to let me know that he had gotten the ticket.  Fortunately, the ticket was only $10, which I paid and then they released me. 

You returned to work with Meyer again on 1970 release Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, what was your experience working on this like compared to Finders Keepers?
Some of the people who worked on Beyond the Valley of the Dolls had previously worked with Russ. Of course, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was with 20th Century Fox and the cast was very large. And orchestrating a large cast of people was very different from the small, intimate sets that he had been used to when he was making a Russ Meyer film. A studio film environment was very different and there were people there looking over his shoulders, publicity people. There were business voyeurs, photographers, extraneous people that wouldn’t have been present on a smaller Russ Meyer set.

 
Did Meyer specifically ask you to play Vanessa or did you have to again read for the part?
Russ hired me for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls specifically to play Vanessa.
 
What were your impressions of the film when you eventually watched it?
While the film may have seemed like an exaggeration or a little over the top, on the contrary, Russ captured the mood of the times. Sex, drugs, rock and roll, the bizarre; he captured it all. But Russ had a way of putting it in your face, up close and personal. Mainstream America wasn’t ready for that kind of honesty. Mainstream America had this puritanical morality.  It’s a deceptive morality, like the Catholic Clergy committing horrible crimes against children but hiding it, and at the same time pretending to be the moral conscience and leaders of the faith. I think that which makes Russ’ film such a cult classic is not just because of the nudity, but the great sense of humour. The people who love him and his work get it, they get the “explicit” humour in the excessiveness.
 
The ending very much echoes the, at the time, recent Tate-LaBianca Manson murders. I know some people on the set of Beyond knew Sharon Tate and Jay Sebring and that some of the costumes used were Sharon’s actual costumes from the film Valley of the Dolls. Did you know any of the victims yourself from working in Hollywood?
I didn’t know any of the people personally, however, I have friends that were neighbours, relatives and friends of some of the victims. I knew the very first attorney that was on the Manson case.
 
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Given Hollywood’s fondness for remakes and re-imaginings, do you think Beyond could ever be remade?
Anything is possible in Hollywood.
 
They are both small-ish roles but Vanessa and Claire are both highly memorable. Which character is your favourite?
With both Claire and Vanessa there was something about both characters that I believe they shared, freedom and loyalty as friends.
 
Meyer was known for working multiple times with much of his cast and crew, how often did the two of you work together?
I had the fortune to work with Russ on Finders Keepers, Lovers Weepers!, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, The Seven Minutes and I did the entire voice track for another actress who met the breast requirement, however, her voice was terrible and had to be dubbed. I’ve forgotten the movie title but the character was Junk Yard Sal (the film Roby is referring to is Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens, the actress is June Mack – Lydia). Russ called me in to dub the film. It was great fun! I was able to do all the sexual things without actually being seen. When Russ screened the film, as we were walking out of the screening, I overheard the actress talking to one of her friends excitedly, “I had no idea I sounded that good.” She never knew that it wasn’t her voice. I was very proud that I had captured her rhythm well enough that she didn’t even know that it wasn’t her voice! In real life she was an S&M professional (sadomasochist professional). She was murdered not long after the movie was made.  I’m not sure if the crime was committed by one of her clients or not (it is well-known, but also apparently proven wrong, that Mack was murdered by one of her clients – Lydia).
 
Did you keep in touch  with Meyer after working with him?
I always stayed in touch with Russ. As a matter of fact, many of us did, male actors as well. He was well liked and respected deeply. We had reunions and also, the people he worked with, including his crew, were his friends. Some of his crew were his old war buddies.
 
Are reunions still something that happens now that Russ has sadly passed?
The last time the Meyer girls got together was at Russ’s memorial service.  We all got together afterwards and shared stories. We said that we would continue to get together. Unfortunately, we didn’t.
 
Are you close to any other Meyer alumni?
The only person that I have remained in touch with is Harrison Page (Vixen!, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls).  As a matter of fact, Harrison and I are both members of the SGI, a worldwide Buddhist organization. I started practicing Buddhism 40 years ago, and as a new member, I introduced Harrison to the practice.
 
You also worked with Melvin Van Peebles on Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, what was that experience like?
Working with Melvin Van Peebles was totally different! First of all, for the role in Sweet Sweetbacks Baadasssss Song, I had no script. I created the dialogue myself. Melvin told me what he wanted and it was left up to me to create that. It was improvisational. We shot until he got what he wanted.
 
Did you notice any similarities/differences between Van Peebles and Meyer in their approach to filmmaking?
I found no similarities in Meyers style to Van Peebles. I worked with Van Peebles on Sweetback as a favour. It was my only experience working with him and it was a frustrating experience. I am proud of the role I created, but much of the anger and frustration came out of the moment. There was nothing comfortable about the experience. But perhaps that’s what it was supposed to be. Sweetback was “raw.”
 
Was improv something that came naturally to you?
Creating the improvisational role was very easy for me because in my acting training we did lots of improv work.  I trained in a form of the Method called Transpersonal and had studied with Ned Manderino who wrote several books, The Transpersonal Actor, All About Method Acting and others.
 
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What have been your favourite acting jobs?
All of my acting jobs are my favourite acting jobs. Every single one, from the smallest to the largest, I have enjoyed doing the work. But there are those that have a more memorable story, like for example working on The Formula with Marlon Brando. I had eleven days with just Brando, myself and George C. Scott. Watching Brando do his “Brando” thing was amazing. I really learned from that experience that you didn’t have to be sane to be a brilliant actor. I also learned that if you surrounded yourself with people who couldn’t or wouldn’t say no to you, that it’s impossible to remain in the world of reality.
 
Scott and Brando aside, you’ve worked with many veteran and talented actors. Was there anyone else you worked with, in either film or television, who was particularly memorable?
I was working on a TV show, I think it was Equal Justice, and the director gave the actor Joe Morgan the highest compliment I had ever heard a director give an actor.  He said to Joe, “You are never not on.” That had a profound impact on my life.  As a matter of fact, it changed how I approached my work.  Up to that time, as we were rehearsing a scene, I always held back just a little bit.  I would never give it my all until we were ready to shoot.  But after that, I never held back.  Each time, even when we are rehearsing, I gave it my all, and by doing so, I discover something new. So, thanks to Joe Morgan, I always try to,”never not be on.”
 
Meyer was known for keeping souvenirs from his films and had an extensive archive of publicity material. Have you ever kept anything from the projects you’ve worked on?
I haven’t ever kept anything from any film that I have done. I only have publicity photographs from a movie for tv, The $100,000 Opportunity, which won a Local Emmy for CBS Repertory Workshop. It was a three character script.
 
Do you get recognised much because of your work, be it acting or modelling? I know a few people who recognise you from your cameo in Rocky (Roby makes an appearance as Mary Anne Creed).
Because of the amount of modelling work that I do, I get recognized more for modelling. My face is literally seen everywhere!  And because its lifestyle, people see me in their doctor’s office, at their drug store, advertising their resort, and on and on… I am the queen of health care and medicine! I don’t believe there is any other African-American female in my age category that advertises more in print than I do. My dream was to become the African-American Carmen. She’s my inspiration.
 
With my acting, people are seeing a lot more of my earlier work in reruns. Now they are like, “Oh, I saw you in something last week.” For example, there was a marathon of the Planet of the Apes films. I did two of those. As I switching channels, I saw myself in one of them. Just a few minutes afterwards someone called me from another state to say that they had seen me in a Jim Brown film that I had done. There are so many cable channels so the need for material is beyond belief.
 
Were you ever asked to come back to play Mary Creed in the other Rocky films?
I was never asked to come back to play Mary Creed. I think Apollo Creed was based loosely on Ali.  Ali married several times. I knew the woman who played the second wife.  We often competed for the same roles, especially in commercials.  She passed away recently.
 
You did a biker movie in 1971 (The Peace Killers), another blaxploitation flick in 1972 (Black Gunn), a franchise (Planet of the Apes) and a comedy (Love at First Bite). Is there anything you havent done that you’d love to do?
I’ve yet to do a serious drama. I want to do that. I would like to do something serious enough that I can win an Academy Award.  I still have time.  Ruth Gordon was 80 when she won her award!  I’ve still got a few more years!
 
You’ve also worked in theatre and modelling, what are your working passions now?
I have modelled since 1963 and continue to do so because I love the work. What I love most is how many people I am able to encourage because they say “I see your face everywhere,” and they are encouraged by that. Or that a relative can see my face on some ad on their computer and they are inspired by it. It encourages me that I am still modelling after fifty years and am still kicking! I am now working towards perfecting my V.O. skills. I’m also rewriting some one woman shows that I created a couple of years ago that I want to make some changes to. And lastly, there are some novels that I started, but haven’t completed. I have still much to do! And so little time to do it all!
 
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MEYER MONTH – Top Five Meyer Cameos

28 Mar

#5 – BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS
Director Russ Meyer cameos in his first studio picture as one of the cameramen filming The Carrie Nations in the television studio during one of their performances. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is one of the best satires ever written and shot so it’s a nice little nod to see Meyer playing someone in the industry in on the joke that can be fame. Meyer always said he never saw some of the more serious aspects that people read into his work but many have said he was smarter than that and knew what he was doing. All veiled up in one brief moment.

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#4 – BENEATH THE VALLEY OF THE ULTRAVIXENS
Meyer essentially plays himself in this feature which see’s him at the end of the movie with his camera filming all the juicy action and giving a moral monologue that stinks of the closing epilogue of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.

#3 – AMAZON WOMEN ON THE MOON
In this comedy anthology, Russ plays a video shop owner who supplies one lucky guy with a video many can only dream of. A perfect cameo for the director, who you can’t imagine running a video shop that’s any different.

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#2 – MOTORPSYCHO
In this film from his gothic period, the director has a relatively notable role with quite a few lines… As a misogynistic, corrupt Police Chief. Upon viewing a semi-unconscious victim of a criminal assault, he says to her distraught husband ‘Nothing happened to her that a woman ain’t built for’. According to Jimmy McDonough’s biography of Meyer, his mother loved it saying ‘You were such a wonderful policeman, your father would’ve been proud of you’.

#1 – THE IMMORAL MR. TEAS
The perfect cameo for the star and a nice little nod to where it all began. Meyer plays a cheering front row audience member in a burlesque club which just so happens to also be playing his very first cinematic endeavour French Peep Show.

MEYER MONTH – ‘Heavenly Bodies’ (1963)

26 Mar

2012 saw another of Russ Meyer’s early films finally get a home viewing release for the first time, 1963’s Heavenly Bodies. This was one of the directors early films, alongside This Is My Body and Erotica, that had been out of circulation since its original 60s theatrical run. Like Meyer’s other early films, Heavenly Bodies is essentially a moving image pictorial, a brief glimpse at the life of a glamour photographer and the pin-up model at work. Opening with up close shots depicting the contours of the female body, or as Meyer has it in his narration ‘the component parts of a woman’, the picture eventually shows us the printing process of the glamour magazine before moving on to show different segments of various known photographers (Ken Parker, Fred Owens, Charles Schelling) conducting their own photo shoots. Shot over a long weekend to make Meyer some cash after having some time off for being in hospital, one gets the feeling that those involved didn’t really have to do an awful lot to make the whole picture come together.

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There isn’t a lot going on in the picture and it serves more as a nostalgic treat into how things were done in the past. With each segment, the narrator goes through the exact specifics of what camera and what lenses each photographer is using and what they change to during their session if light or their subject focus changes. As interesting as it is, it probably won’t mean anything to those watching who know little about photography, cinematography and cameras themselves. The way shoots are conducted however is quite interesting (the financial, mental and physical benefits of using two models at the same time for instance). For a film that sells itself as an expose on glamour photography there are, of course, some beautiful shots, namely the shoot with the two models at the start of the film which takes place in and around a home swimming pool. Another fun little segment shows how pin-up photography has changed over the years, with film stock turning black and white to play out a cute little scene in the days when models wore a lot more clothing and photographs took longer to capture (it stars the wonderful Princess Livingston in her first Meyer film cameo, which I had wrongly attributed to Wild Gals of the Naked West).

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Part of the charm of Heavenly Bodies is seeing the camaraderie of director Meyer and his war buddies who he frequently enlisted to help him over the years with his various film projects. There is one scene in particular where Russ takes his fellow 166th Signal Corps photographers on a photo field trip to the woods to shoot two buxom models (Althea Currier and Monica Liljistrand) amidst the lush scenery. Whilst the models are putting on their make-up and doing their hair, all of the director’s buddies are setting up and cleaning their cameras and lenses. Eventually they find a nice spot to shoot pictures of the two girls, all whilst fighting each other over taking turns and getting the best angles. It’s quite sweet to see them almost worshipping the pretty models knowing that they must have come across some really challenging stuff between them when working out in the field during World War II.

It’s not going to be to all Meyer fans taste, no doubt a large number of people will find it very boring, but for Meyer completists and photographers Heavenly Bodies is an interesting little snapshot into two different but very similar work practices that took over Russ Meyers life. If you’re going to bother watching his early films, you best include this in your viewing as its one of the more significant in the batch that have finally been released.

MEYER MONTH – Tempest Storm Pictorial

26 Mar

Burlesque star Tempest Storm was right there in 1952 when Russ Meyer’s cinematic career first began. Storm was a regular performer at the El Ray Burlesk Theater in Oakland, California and Meyer had begun taking pin-up photographs of the dancers there which he then advertised and sold as sets or singles through glamour magazines. His pictorial of Tempest is an early example of the types of angles and shots he would use in his later filmography and the photographs are nothing short of stunning. Storm’s assets are shown off to their full potential, her curves and presence made all the more Amazonian by Meyer shooting her from below. Always one at photographing women well, Meyer makes Storm more than desirable in his pictures which at the time were rather risqué. Below is nearly the entire shoot, minus one or two pictures of which I couldn’t find online. Enjoy!

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MEYER MONTH – ‘Beyond the Valley of the Dolls; Character Arcs Within Costume Design’ by Sophia Shillito

21 Mar

First off, I have very limited knowledge of Russ Meyer as a filmmaker. Lydia is the reason I even know who he is and introduced me to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. I’ve always been fascinated with costume and costume design. For anything. That’s why I studied it at university and hope to pursue it… That’s my proviso for this article and a preempted defence if I make scurrilous remarks about Meyer!

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Before talking about costume design for the three female leads in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls I feel that it’s worth quoting one of the most important costume designers for the field, Deborah Nadoolman Landis; “Costume is character.” Short and sweet. But, for me, it is short statements like this that help to solidify the importance of costume within film, theatre and television. Costume is used to help tell stories through the unspoken fleshing out of a character. A lot of press attention is given to period costume design – particularly when you hit awards seasons. But costume design is an important aspect of any film. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was not a period film at the time. It would have been regarded as a contemporary film; if very stylised in that way.  Clueless was the same (not particularly current I know). Clueless was a contemporary 90s costume designed film. But in a very heightened way. The film was using costume to explore characters but there was also a definite link with fashion. This is also true of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. The credit list at the beginning doesn’t list a costume designer; ‘Fashions by De Graff of California by David Hayes’. That’s one quick way to eschew costumes into fashion territory but, for me, costumes are costumes. They may have been designed by a fashion designer but fashion designers have designed costumes for decades. They are still using clothes to help visually explain a character to the audience. Costumes work for a particular character. Even if they are ‘shared’ by different characters. They would be worn a different way. Have you ever borrowed an item of clothing from a friend? Has it ever been worn in exactly the same way? No. Unless you want to be them, it won’t happen. 

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But back to Russ Meyer and the costumes used in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. I find the costumes in the film interesting in its separation between performances by The Carrie Nations and the band’s individual clothing outside of that world. It is worth analysing the costumes used within the “music videos” separately from the character and costume arc for each member.

costume 1

Kelly’s arc is the fairly typical good-girl-conflicted-by-wealth-and-power in ‘big bad’ LA, then realises her errors and is ‘redeemed’. Kelly is first introduced wearing a bright red mini-dress – more overall colour than Casey or Pet. Up until Harris’s fall, Kelly is mostly seen wearing bright colours. It can also be noted that after arriving in Los Angeles Kelly is mostly seen wearing warm colours – lots of orange. Her first appearance at Ronnie’s party is significant for the fact that she wears a dress belonging to Susan – it is noticeably the lightest costume in tone that she wears until later in the film. The iconic scene of Kelly and Harris together in the country shows an extreme change for Kelly’s previous style. The purple is very soft and muted in tone; the shirt is long-sleeved with a high neck; the skirt is floor length gingham (very non-LA style). It’s worth noting that the skirt does have a huge slit in it though – this is a Meyer film after all! Kelly’s final appearance is at her wedding to Harris, wearing a light pink dress and jacket. A mature option that in no way draws attention away from other characters to her.

Kelly with Harris

Casey’s arc is pretty shocking but also less focused than Kelly’s. Kelly is, after all, the ‘star’. Casey is mostly seen wearing light colours when they get to LA. Casey obviously feels like the overlooked member of the group – particularly noticeable when you see her reaction to Ronnie’s ‘praise’ following ‘In the Long Run’. The tones are also cold until she announces to Roxanne that she’s pregnant. In that scene she is seen wearing a beige/khaki military style coat dress. Even though the colour is not particularly cold, it is pale and skin coloured. If she weren’t so tanned she would look particularly washed out. Her first kiss with Roxanne, following the abortion, is in a yellow high-necked knitted dress. The first bright colour she has worn since arriving in LA. That moment marks the happiest that Casey has seemed. However, her next appearance has her returning to light blue. Is this a comment on Casey and Roxanne’s relationship? Maybe she isn’t as happy as we are led to believe? Casey survives longer than Roxanne because she left their bed. Possibly the light blue dress was an indication that Casey hasn’t been ‘redeemed’ to the same extent that Kelly was.

Casey telling Roxanne about her pregnancy

For me, Pet’s is the least interesting arc. She arrives in LA, already more confident than Casey, instantly begins a relationship with Emerson, cheats on him, gets back together with Emerson, and then gets married. She doesn’t seem to have a set colour or tone. Her costumes don’t make any drastic change from pre-LA to LA. However, her colours become much softer in tone following her night with Randy and apology to Emerson. Pet’s costumes even have a range of textures – she is seen wearing lots of satin, lace, polyester. There is no coherent theme to her costumes. If anything, she is the mid-way point between Kelly and Casey and wears things that wouldn’t be out-of-place in one or the other’s wardrobes.

Pet after her night with Randy

The costumes of The Carrie Nations are very interesting. These costumes are much less individual and more fitting with ‘The Supremes’ style of costumes. ‘In the Long Run’ is the first song that they “record” and their costumes have a mix of style and feel, reflecting various acts of the 60s and 70s, and build up towards the end of the song. They start with jeans and simple blouses. Then the blouses become pussycat bow blouses and waistcoats. Each member has a different colour blouse but matching waistcoats – completion of a group. Almost styled like The Carpenters. Then the costumes take a swing to the 60s with pink sequin mini-dresses. A style of dress never seen on the characters before or after. This isn’t their choice – this is a style chosen by Ronnie to help gain fans. The song ends with long blue glittery Grecian dresses. A swift move from the 60s to the 70s. And another dress style never seen before or since. 

The Carrie Nations 60s Minidresses

The next time we see The Carrie Nations ‘perform’ is for ‘Look On Up from the Bottom’. It’s another case of a carefully styled uniform for the band. It starts with the girls wearing skirt suits accessorised with a pattern either down the front of the jacket (Casey) or as a headscarf (Kelly and Pet). This moves into skirt dresses, different colours for each but all the same style. Finally they are seen (only from the waist up) in jackets with coordinated polka dot neck scarves.

costume 2

The costumes that the girls wear in these sequences seem to have no sense of order to their use. Particularly noticeable with ‘In the Long Run’ where styles move from late 60s to early 60s then early 70s. There is no real consistency beyond the bond within the group. The costumes all seem to be based on groups of the time. Whether this is mockery or appreciation I guess is up to the audience member. I think that using a similar style for each band member is a clever touch of moving the group away from their first performance in the film at a school dance. This is their big break. They ARE The Carrie Nations.

costume 3

The costumes need to be viewed outside of the character’s story arcs. Including their television appearances. I specifically noticed Casey’s dress. This scene comes after her night with Harris. She is distraught and has discovered that she’s pregnant, even if no-one has been told yet. But what is she wearing? A long clinging red dress. That’s not a dress you wear to hide away or to recover from a traumatic experience. This is the main reason that I separate the television interview appearances away from character arcs – and also, this appearance is part of their public view. A styled view to co-ordinate with earlier performances. It is all about The Carrie Nations. Not Kelly, Casey and Pet individually.

costume 6

The costumes of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls may not have as big a connection with the 60s/70s as we think they do but they are used to describe the heightened Los Angeles world that Meyer has created. Costumes shouldn’t necessarily be authentic and realistic. They should be appropriate for the film, the characters and the story. The costumes can tell you a lot about the differences between Kelly, Casey and Pet. Even if you aren’t looking for it.

Sophia Shillito is a London-based Costume Designer and graduate of AUCB. Not content with just designing and making, she also writes for the site Damn That’s Some Fine Tailoring and can be followed on Twitter here.

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