Russ Meyer‘s Mondo Topless is proof of two things. One, if you were ever unsure that the director had a breast fetish then this is the film for you, approximately sixty minutes of breasts and not a lot else. Two, that it is actually quite possible to get bored with boobs. Yes indeed.
Meyer’s vision of San Francisco sits perfectly with his ideal woman…
The premise of Mondo Topless is incredibly simple. Cashing in on the ‘mondo’ documentary craze that was common through the 1960s and 70s, Meyer made his own documentary focusing on breasts (what else?) and exotic dancers and models that he had come to know through his career. It wasn’t easy. The year before Meyer had released Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! which tanked commercially and made Meyer and his producer wife Eve little money. Scraping together $12,000 and shooting over five days, they filmed footage for the final feature. In 1963 Meyer had travelled to Europe to shoot footage for a documentary called Europe in the Raw! and recycled some of that into what would become Mondo Topless. Opening with a typical Meyer montage of the city of San Francisco, complete with a commentary full of innuendo, Meyer makes his intentions known from the outset; ‘Situated on precipitous peaks above yawning canyons… Precariously perched and poised on the tip of a peninsula’. After a few shots of strip joints and the reassurance that the topless craze is everywhere in 1960s America, Meyer introduces us to his girls and their assets. And boy do some of them have assets.
The dancer with the hippy-chick vibe, Sin Lenee
First up is Pat Barringer, aka Pat Barrington, a platinum blonde topless dancer who also appeared in a handful of sexploitation pictures throughout the 60s. Second is Darlene Grey, the only girl from Britain in the picture and possibly Meyer’s bustiest find (a whopping 36H bra size). Go Go dancers Sin Lenee and Darla Paris show their frenetic moves in the forest, whilst Diane Young tries to bury herself in the sand with her energetic routine. Donna X, aka Trena Lamar who also appeared in earlier Meyer flick Wild Gals of the Naked West (1962), gets slow and sexy in a motel room and Babette Bardot (‘French and Swedish, fifty-fifty where it counts!’), star of Meyer’s 1967 feature Common Law Cabin, drives around San Francisco nude and dances to a passing train. Add a handful of performers from Europe (dances by performers Veronique Gabriel and Gigi La Touche were inserted from aforementioned Europe in the Raw!) and a few others from America and you’ve got your cast, dancing and jiggling their way across your screen.
Pat Barringer taking it low… I’m sure Lady Gaga saw this film in her early days, it’s just too obvious…
That is essentially it for the whole film, a group of women dancing and showing off the routines they would perform for men in strip joints and bars. Except that Meyer takes this one step further and adds an audio commentary by each girl over their performance, giving insights into their individual personalities, minds and attitudes towards their work, bodies and life. What began as a soundtrack of question and answer sessions between Meyer and his subjects was eventually dropped for the comments by the dancers themselves. The result is a bunch of random comments, some tedious, others unintentionally hilarious (‘Colour makes me feel sex’ is a great one-liner), juxtaposed with the images of the topless dancers, making for some rather odd moments. Judging by the bust of a few of the ladies and the manner of the film, you’d expect comments on their breasts, how difficult it is to buy swimsuits or find a bra the right size; ‘I didn’t really need to wear a bra ’til I was half way through junior high school. It all came late but it was there boy! No denying it!’. But much of the comments reflect the time in which the film was made, with defense cases made against their careers, what they think of feminism, their hopes for having future families and their opinions on the sexual revolution. As ‘insightful’ as it is, at the end of the day it all feels a little weird. After all, you don’t normally go and watch strippers or exotic dancers hoping to hear them speak…
Donna X, aka Trena Lamar, and Meyer’s trusty tape recorder…
Impressive soundtrack aside (I joke somewhat), Meyer’s girls are the real sight to behold in Mondo Topless, each memorable in their own unique way. Statuesque Babette Bardot drives around the city nude before exclaiming the difficulties in keeping a womanly appearance with childlike qualities during her strip routines. Take note too of the bruises up her thighs as she reclines to pull her stockings off whilst sucking her thumb. Dirty bitch. Pat Barringer proves that you can dance anywhere when duty calls, shaking her assets at the top of a telephone tower, out in the desert and in Meyer’s own swimming pool. You won’t remember Darlene Grey’s face but you’ll never forget her rather impressive bust. Arguably one of the most voluptuous girls Meyer has ever used throughout his entire career, the director managed to get shots of her rolling around in the mud before she left and was never seen again by the crew. Dancers Sin Lenee, Diane Young and Darla Paris have about as much impact as each other, all very much energetically into what they do but not so different. A result of working at the same club perhaps.
Darlene Grey and her eye-popping 36H bust
It’s very easy to tell the difference between the footage of the girls shot in America and the earlier European footage that’s intercut just on the appearance of the women themselves. Gigi La Touche is arguably the most naturally attractive girl in the whole picture, looking incredibly cute with just a sparkly guitar covering her modesty. Veronique Gabriel looks gorgeous but her routine amounts to nothing. Only with Meyer’s fetishistic camera angles on her costume and figure does she become alluring. Sadly most of the footage from Europe feels this way and contrasted against the later film shot in America it all seems a little tame and slightly passionless. Also shot and placed between clips of the girls dancing is footage of a pin-up having her photograph taken which feels slightly out-of-place, the static of her poses placed alongside the movement of everyone else. The final gem amongst all this is the test footage of Lorna Maitland before she filmed Lorna with Meyer in 1964, looking gorgeous in colour film stock which she never got to experience (Lorna was shot in black and white).
Babette Bardot takes the wheel in San Francisco
Pretty girls aside, it’s very easy to see how audiences now would get tired of this film really quickly, for it is essentially a one trick pony playing the same trick way too many times. In a society that has a huge placement on instant gratification, Mondo Topless represents the dying art of the tease. The film amounts to images of women dancing (and I know a lot of people who wouldn’t even consider it that these days), baring their breasts and not a lot else. No full frontal nudity, no sex. For generations bought up on the more explicit sex that Deep Throat (1972) help usher into cinemas and pornography that has become more accessible over the last ten years, films like Mondo Topless have become redundant. Their purpose to arouse long since reduced to a bygone era where titillation and the idea of ‘less is more’ once held more meaning and power. In a time when many aspects of culture and society are sexualized, Meyer’s film feels a little tame. It’s the beginning’s of foreplay that doesn’t lead anywhere else and, in all honesty, when you’ve seen a couple of pairs of boobs, the rest aren’t that different. Even as a major Meyer fan, I’ll openly admit that it’s a rather boring film, with a run time of sixty minutes feeling hugely inflated.
And yet its typical Meyer, the pure concentration of his fetish distilled onto celluloid. Upon viewing, you can’t deny that Meyer knew how to photograph the female form well and its evident that the camera loves it’s subjects. If you’re a keen exploitation film fan, its worth watching once for its place in sexploitation history but if you’re a big Meyer fan, it’s an absolute must.