The time; the early 1950s. The scene; the El Rey Burlesk Theater in Oakland, California. The situation; photographer Russ Meyer makes something of a living photographing burlesque dancers and strippers in cheesecake poses on black and white film. Meyer’s favourite is stripper Tempest Storm and one day he decides to shoot a two hundred foot roll of Kodachrome of the girl working her stuff after closing hours.
Meyer was playing with fire. Only Kodak itself could process the film stock and in those days, the subject matter would have alarm bells ringing. He might even have his film confiscated. But the director made sure that a pretty girl delivered it personally to the lab and gave the lab man a little something extra. Things would have been fine, had Meyer not handed in the roll in a tin that bore his employer’s sticker, Gene Walker Films (Meyer at this point was also working on industrial short films). One call from Kodak to Walker later and Meyer was read the riot whilst also, surprisingly, being given his reel of film back. Russ showed El Rey manager Pete DeCenzie the footage which made his eyes bulge. DeCenzie asked Meyer to shoot a filmed version of a typical El Rey show and so one night, Russ smuggled his bosses 16mm camera into the club and churned out French Peep Show. This would be the start of Meyer’s film career.
Attributed to around 1952 but frequently to 1954, French Peep Show clocked in at an hour-long. Produced by Pete DeCenzie, the film plays host to Meyer’s first ‘directed by’ and ‘photographed by’ credits. Your standard El Rey show, he picture featured eight dancers, including Tempest Storm, and a host of comedians performing their acts. To accompany the production, a publication was also put together featuring Meyer’s pin-up photography and on-set production stills. According to Jimmy McDonough, Meyer told Fling magazine’s Arv Miller that the picture never got beyond pasties, which as McDonough notes would make some sense. It was the early 1950s and although nudity in film had been seen before, it’s hard to think that Meyer could have gotten away with showing topless burlesque dancers in the film. That said, I have no doubts that it was an exciting film none the less, a time capsule of entertainment that was once popular. If Meyer’s cheesecake photographs from this time are anything to go by, the picture would have been well executed, capturing well the routines of the strippers and dancers in all the seductive amusement.
Sadly, French Peep Show is no more. Out of circulation since its original theatrical run, it is now presumed lost. No one appears to have a copy, even Meyer himself didn’t hold on to one. According to him, once Pete died, his wife Yvonne burnt all remaining copies (Yvonne and Russ didn’t see eye to eye, especially when Russ wasn’t given his ten per cent of the profits that the picture saw). I remain optimistic that a remaining print still exists but doubt greatly that the Meyer estate hold a secret copy (otherwise it would have been a logical title to add to their recent release of Meyer’s early films that have never been publicly available before). Although The Immoral Mr.Teas was his first feature film and general success, I believe that had Meyer still had or had found a copy he would have released it whilst he was still alive. Always one to promote and publicise himself, even Russ would have understood French Peep Show’s significance for being the first example of all his cinematic career and style on celluloid (he openly admits that this is his first ‘proper’ film in a late 1990s interview for magazine Total Film) and as part of burlesque film history.