Who would have thought that the advent of modern-day pornography, the exploitation of the female form and the first instance of really using women in film as sexual objects would arise from a little live-action cartoon-esque sex picture called The Immoral Mr. Teas (1959)? Before the release of director Russ Meyer’s first feature, extensive nudity in film was only seen in underground pornography (which had to be covertly produced and distributed, usually illegally) or in naturist pictures, where nudity was allowed under the guise of naturist films being documentaries on nudist camps and, therefore, somewhat legitimately educational. Meyer broke boundaries by making Mr. Teas the first film since early Pre-Code sound pictures to feature nudity without the pretext of naturism. Arguably the first popular and successful film of its kind, it went on to start the short-lived nudie-cutie genre and kick-started the sexploitation genre which Meyer would dominate throughout the 1960s.
The Immoral Mr. Teas is an incredibly simple picture. Mr. Teas (played by Meyer’s combat buddy Bill Teas, an alcoholic who was drunk for most of the shoot) is your average American Joe living life in suburbia. Practically ignored by everyone, Teas delivers false teeth as a job and spends most of his time eyeing up the women around town. After having an injection of painkillers for a tooth extraction, Teas starts seeing women everywhere topless, even when the injection has worn off. That’s pretty much all there is to it. Padding out the rest of the cast are a bevy of beautiful ladies; a mixture of pin-up models and burlesque dancers that both Meyer and producer Pete DeCenzie knew and a few bought in from elsewhere. The cherry on top of the casting ice cream is the gorgeous model June Wilkinson whom Meyer knew from his photographic career. Don’t remember seeing her name in the credits? That’s because she gave Meyer an uncredited cameo… Of her breasts only.
Unsurprisingly, Meyer had difficulties when trying to distribute the film upon its completion (ten years later he would encounter more legal problems when trying to distribute Vixen!). Simply put, there had never been a film like Mr. Teas before and theatre owners were scared to show it. When the film eventually had its premiere in San Diego in 1959 it was shut down by the police only twenty minutes in. Rumour has it that DeCenzie hadn’t paid the local authorities the necessary bribe and it would be a year before him and Meyer would get the print back.
Meyer needn’t have worried at the time. The Immoral Mr. Teas was hugely successful. Re-opening in Seattle in 1960, the film played for nine months. It ran for three years in Los Angeles. Made on a budget of $24,000, the film made between an estimated $1 and $3 million. Fourteen years after it was first released, it was still making money through theatrical bookings despite more explicit films being shown in cinemas and a far greater increase in sexuality and nudity being depicted in western cinema. The picture itself spawned over 150 imitations.
Watching it now, Mr. Teas feels very innocent, almost to the point of wondering what all the fuss was about. But for 1959, Meyer was teetering on the edge of what was considered legal to show in theatres. Even filming on Kodak Eastman stock was potentially a problem for production as Kodak could refuse to develop the negatives if they deemed the content obscene in any way. Its slight innocence aside, the film is all about the art of the tease and tease it certainly does. The picture is only sixty-two minutes long and the audience has to wait a full twenty-eight minutes before seeing any hint of the nude female form. Drawing from his photographic career, Meyer successfully keeps the tease up (excuse the pun) and going for the whole feature’s duration, each woman staying attractively untouched, poised on the moment of perfection until the very end. The isn’t just a film about Mr. Teas’s naughty daydreams, they also belong to the audience and the relationship between the female models and the viewers is held throughout by the distinct lack of physical contact between Teas and any of the women. In fact he seems almost terrified of what they might do to him, at one point jumping into a river to escape being near a topless sunbather.
What’s so telling about The Immoral Mr. Teas is the number of Meyer hallmarks that are abundant in it, foreshadowing future films and sequences from his later career. It’s opening montage of cars, nature and cities would be an effect used again and again (no doubt an influence from his early career doing industrial films), most notably in Mondo Topless (1966) and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), whilst the innuendo filled and often irrelevant narration used crops up in at least another five of his features. What is incredibly obvious in Mr. Teas and didn’t change at all throughout the rest of his career is Meyer’s natural ability to make any woman look beautiful through his lens. A talented photographer for over a decade before moving into film, Mr. Teas has often been described as a’year’s subscription to Playboy’, a moving image version of a themed photo shoot.
The only sad irony about The Immoral Mr. Teas is that the world it helped to create, Meyer found himself no longer a part of by the mid 1970s. Whilst the film birthed the beginnings of the adult film industry and helped to unleash sexual freedom on the big screen, Meyer found himself left on the sidelines when his lack of interest in including hardcore shots and the sex act itself meant that his films became overshadowed by pictures likeDeep Throat(1972). Still, I bet he never thought that a quaint little film about a man in a straw hat would be the catalyst to begin it all…