MEYER MONTH – ‘Beyond the Valley of the Dolls; Character Arcs Within Costume Design’ by Sophia Shillito21 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
HONOURABLE MENTION – June Mack
Unbelievably I can’t find any record of June Mack’s measurements anywhere but it’s safe to say that her enhanced boobs were some of the most unforgettable in all of Russ Meyer’s films. Known for playing Junkyard Sal in Beneath The Valley of the Ultravixens, Mack was murdered shortly after filming finished taking a bullet for a friend.
HONOURABLE MENTION – Alaina Capri
With a 42E bustline, Capri just misses the top ten by making number eleven. She famously had a misunderstanding with the director and refused to work with him again after he showed much more of her flesh on the big screen then he alluded he would.
#10 – JUNE WILKINSON – 43E
Naturally busty Wilkinson was shot numerous times by Meyer in the 1950s with many of his photographs gracing the front covers of pin up magazines. Meyer called Wilkinson and asked her to be in his first feature The Immoral Mr. Teas and she accepted, appearing uncredited in a brief cameo in which only her breasts appear.
#9 – TEMPEST STORM – 44E
Tempest Storm’s naturally conical breasts instantly captivated a young Meyer who took numerous pictorials of the star in the 50s. This eventually led to Meyer shooting her in his first foray into filmmaking, French Peep Show.
#8 – CYNTHIA MYERS – 39F
One of the best known Playboy playmates of the 1960s, it comes as no surprise that Russ had his eye on Cynthia long before he cast her as Casey in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. During her modelling career she featured on the now infamous front cover of Playboy’s December 1968 issue where she was dressed as a Christmas tree.
#7 – LORNA MAITLAND – 42F
Lorna Maitland wasn’t the original choice for the lead role in Meyer’s gothic picture Lorna. In fact, Meyer fired the actress originally cast for having too small a bust after he saw photographs of Lorna on the first day of shooting. Maitland was promptly hired.
#6 – USCHI DIGARD – 44F
Naturally busty Digard found her large boobs attracted a lot of attention and subsequently starred in numerous exploitation films before moving into porn.
#5 – CANDY SAMPLES – 46F
A prolific pornography star of the 70s and 80s, Samples had cameos in both Up! and Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens.
#4 – KITTEN NATIVIDAD – 34G
Meyer’s paramour for a long time, Natividad first had implant surgery when she was 21 to aid her Go-Go dancing career. Sadly for Kitten, she had a double mastectomy in 1999 after developing breast cancer. It transpired that the silicone used in her implants was of industrial grade and she has since has corrective surgery.
#3 – ANNE MARIE – 67 inch bustline
Whilst her exact measurements elude me, there’s no denying that Ann Marie’s eye-popping 67 inch bust is a sight for sore eyes, made all the more impressive by her minuscule waist.
#2 – DARLENE GREY – 36H
Arguably the most voluptuous girl to have ever appeared in one of Meyer’s films (and yes, they are natural), British Darlene Grey also has the distinction of being rejected by Playboy for being, er… Too big.
#1 – PANDORA PEAKS – 42J
The older Meyer got, the bigger in size his breast fetish got culminating in his last film and leading lady, Pandora Peaks.
HONOURABLE MENTION – Z-Man’s Superwoman costume (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls)
One of the sharpest dressed characters of 1970 release Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, it’s Z-Man’s final outfit that stands out the most; his Superwoman outfit. Forget a costume akin to something Wonder Woman might wear, this is a regal ensemble that makes as much impact as the declaration he makes; that he is in fact a she. With a colour scheme that tries to add some legitimacy to his claims (purple as a colour has often been related to monarchy and money as if he can buy his gender through money or respect), he tops the outfit off with a simple gold crown which says he/she’s in charge. For those that stand in his way he has the answer of a sword, one of the ultimate phallic symbols which also represents his willingness to castrate his male identity.
HONOURABLE MENTION – Vixen’s yellow bikini (Vixen!)
An instance where costume reflects the character’s personality, Vixen’s bright yellow bikini is as fun-loving, outgoing and confident as she is. Standing out against the natural colours of the forest, the bikini ensures that she is the one that stands out amongst the small community in which she lives making her all the more desirable.
#5 – Ashley St Ives crochet dress (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls)
Ash St. Ives (Edy Williams) is a superficial porn star out to sleep with whoever she wants, whenever she wants. So it’s hardly surprising that one of the most memorable costumes from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is Ives’ beige crotchet dress, which leaves very little to the imagination. Consisting of pants and a dress that comprises a bikini top with a panelled body piece, the dress is the perfect visual representation of Edy Williams’ character; superficial, vapid and attention seeking.
#4 – Varla’s black jumpsuit (Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!)
Second only to Supervixens in terms of iconography (see below), Tura Satana’s black get-up in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is one of Meyer’s most recognised and imitated visuals. The all black, skin-tight catsuit combined with her lethal moves effectively shows her off as the sleek killing machine that she is, as well as representing the dichotomy of gender stereotypes that she represents. The boots and leather gloves she wears are masculine traits to identify with whilst the fact that she doesn’t mind getting her clothes sweaty and dirty shows she isn’t afraid to be involved in some rough and tumble. Whilst the catsuit is certainly figure hugging, Satana as Varla is pretty much covered up in comfortable racing gear that wouldn’t be out-of-place on a man. The plunging neckline and exposed cleavage (Satana wore a custom-made bra to make sure she stayed in) are the only indication of her female sexuality which she always uses to her advantage. Meyer took a similar approach with Charles Napier’s serial killer character Harry Sledge in Supervixens, kitting him out in all black and gloves to be a male counterpoint to Varla.
#3 – Mr. Teas’ jumpsuit and straw hat (The Immoral Mr. Teas)
Inspired by Jacques Tati’s character Mr Hulot, Mr Teas’ brightly coloured jumpsuits and straw hat make him visually all the more detached from the world he is already emotionally scared of. Whilst the scantily clad and nude women he stumbles upon seem relaxed in their environments and at one with nature, Mr Teas in his absurdly loud orange jumpsuit looks more like an astronaut stranded in a world that he doesn’t really understand which links him in some way to his viewing audience who would have been viewing the film as new territory themselves.
#2 – Casey and Roxanne’s fancy dress costumes (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls)
He may have had a few issues but Z-Man’s choice of costume for lesbian lovers Casey (Cynthia Myers) and Roxanne (Erica Gavin) to wear at his costume party in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was the perfect visual metaphor for their relationship. Roxanne was very much the Batman figure to Casey; rescuing her, taking her under her wing and clearly being the dominant figure in the relationship. In return Casey was the perfect Robin, happy to always be by Roxanne’s side. Whilst Gavin stays in her Batman gear for a while, Myers only wears her Robin outfit briefly but it makes an impression. This is one of the best instances in Meyer’s work where costume really reflects the characters wearing them. Making it even more fun, the outfit Myers wears is one that Burt Ward wore himself in the 1960s Batman television series.
#1 – SuperLorna’s red shirt (Supervixens)
Christy Hartburg only ever starred in one Russ Meyer film and it wasn’t a long appearance either but when it comes to the iconography of Meyer’s cinematic career, it’s Hartburg’s costume from Supervixens that tops the list. Tiny white shorts, hair in bunches and a pinky-red shirt tied at the waist, exposing a massive cleavage that one can’t help but notice in all its glory. Whilst Satana’s costume is visually just as iconic, it’s the above picture of Hartburg that is regularly used to advertise Meyer’s work (from DVD box sets to t-shirts, mugs to book covers and usually to accompany articles in magazines and film books) and was the main image used in the Supervixens publicity campaign. The perfect image to sum up the women that Meyer liked to portray in his features; outgoing, fun and provocative. Oh, and very top-heavy.
Lydia and I have often had conversations broaching the idea of recasting movies we adore on a strictly ‘if you had to’ basis, and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is one that’s come up often due to the large ensemble cast. Made in 1970, BtVotD’s (as it shall be referred to from here out) tells the story of an all female rock group and their misadventures in being ‘discovered’ in Hollywood at the tail end of the ‘free-love’ era. The film was auteur Russ Meyer’s first studio production in a two-picture deal with 20th Century Fox. Originally planned as a sequel to Fox’s 1967 hit Valley of the Dolls, the film was forced to distance itself from Mark Robson’s picture after author Jacqueline Susann was appalled by the prospect of a ‘soft-core porn’ director making a sequel to her original story. This, and an X-Rating courtesy of the MPAA, did not stop the film’s pulling power at the box office, however, grossing nearly ten-times it’s $900,000 budget upon it’s release. To this day, according to screenwriter Roger Ebert, BtVotD has grossed over $40 million in theatrical and video sales to date.
I learned a long time ago that nothing in Hollywood is sacred. If there is money to be made with a remake, then you bet it will get made. When I think of BtVotD however, I can’t imagine it ever being remade. The original was so completely outrageous that I think even if it didn’t exist, it wouldn’t be made today. That itself made the ‘fictional’ task of re-casting the movie for a modern remake problematic for me. Not only do I hold the film very dear to me, but also I just can’t see it ever happening. For me this is like being asked to re-cast Twin Peaks. You just couldn’t do it. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not citing BtVotD as Citizen Kane here; far from it. The performances are very hit and miss at best and I’ve never been a huge fan of Russ Meyer’s editing technique. However, I don’t think it is unreasonable to suggest that no other movie exists that can compare to BtVotD. As a motion picture it is a wholly unique experience – which is something I can only say of maybe a half-dozen movies. It’s a musical, comedy, horror, drama, thriller! All it needs is some aliens and an animated sequence and you’ve nearly got all bases covered. How many movies can you name that tick as many boxes? Above and beyond all of this, the film is remarkably entertaining. Despite the pitfalls and dangers that come with fame and excess lifestyle the characters soon become entangled in, I still gaze upon the ‘fantasy’ Hollywood and almost cartoon-like characters as created by Russ Meyer and Roger Ebert with envious eyes.
All that said, it has still been my task to cast a fictional remake of the film. So with a gun to my head, here are my casting choices, were I to direct Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.
Kelly Mac Namara (Dolly Reed) – Isla Fisher
Isla Fisher has that perfect blend of girl next door with a dash of firecracker to make Kelly work in a modern remake. Plus, I can easily see her as the lead vocalist of the Carrie Nations. It wouldn’t be her voice of course, for that I’d hire Florence Welch.
Casey Anderson (Cynthia Myers) – Jennifer Lawrence
Like Cynthia Myers, Lawrence oozes sex appeal without having to do or say very much at all – this is pretty much the essence of Casey. Her failure to adapt to the excess lifestyle makes her the ‘tortured soul’ of the group – something I think Jennifer Lawrence would own, given her God-given acting ability.
Petronella Danforth (Marcia McBroom) – Rosario Dawson
I’m a huge Rosario Dawson fan and loved her in everything I’ve seen her in. She has the looks, the attitude and the style to bring Pet to the 21st century. She would be my Russ Meyer/Quentin Tarantino nod for the film.
Ronnie ‘Z-Man’ Barzell (John Lazar) – Cillian Murphy
This was a bit of a no brainer for me, and perhaps the easiest to cast. Now, I don’t take John LaZar’s performance as Ronnie ‘Z-Man’ Barzell lightly, as he’s without a doubt my favourite character, but I just can’t see ANYONE else in today’s talent pool delivering the line “You will drink the black sperm of my vengeance!” better than Cillian Murphy. Plus, I think he’d really enjoy calling someone a ‘buggery knave’.
Lance Rocke (Michael Blodgett) – Dolph Ziggler
Here is my wild card casting for the film. For those unfamiliar, Dolph Ziggler (real name Nick Nemeth) is a professional wrestler for World Wrestling Entertainment. Those who ARE familiar will get exactly why I’ve cast him. The character of Lance Rocke is pretty much the character of Dolph Ziggler. He not only has the looks and the body to carry out the role, but the calibre of performances Ziggler delivers on Monday Night Raw every week are no further a stretch than that played by Michael Blodgett in original movie. Except for the gold digging part. Not much of that in pro-wrestling.
Harris Allsworth (David Gurian) – James McAvoy
James McEvoy has an annoying quality of being instantly likeable in whatever role he’s in. What’s interesting about the idea of him playing Harris is that his character seesaws throughout the story – we like him, we hate him and then BAM! He can miraculously walk again and we all cheer. I’d love to see McEvoy handle this type of character.
Ashley St. Ives (Edy Williams) – Christina Hendricks
Christina Hendricks is THE quintessential ‘Meyer girl’ for the movie and who better than her to fill the crocheted dress of Ashley St. Ives? Who wouldn’t pay good money to see Hendricks as a hyper-sexed porn star? Mad men, I tell you. MAD MEN! *Sorry!
Roxanne (Erica Gavin) – Liv Tyler
This casting was based solely on who I could see paired up with Jennifer Lawrence in the more intimate scenes between Roxanne and Casey. After a couple of Empire Records flashbacks, I settled on Liv Tyler. She has a very sultry and almost tender nature that would be key to the seduction of Casey. I think the chemistry between her and Lawrence would be off the chart.
Susan Lake (Phyllis Davis) – Sherylin Fenn
Who didn’t fall in love with Audrey Horne in Twin Peaks? Raise your hands… I see no raised hands. Point proven. This one is a bit of indulgence casting. I was on a bit of a Peaks revival while writing this and well… Fenn could do this role with her eyes closed. Although I wouldn’t ask her to do the role with her eyes closed. That’d just be weird.
Emerson Thorne (Harrison Page) – Columbus Short
Naturally if I was doing this in the mid-90s, the role would have gone to Alfonso Ribero, but now that he’s older, I just picked someone I figured could A) tame a rock n’ roll Rosario Dawson and B) convincingly not stand a fucking chance of winning a fight against Randy Black – although when you see who I cast as him, that pretty much could have been anyone…
Porter Hall (Duncan McLeod – Bill Murray
It’s Bill fucking Murray. End of discussion.
Randy Black (James Iglehart) – Terry Crews
At first I considered another wrestler for this role –even changing the character to a professional wrestler rather than a heavyweight boxer (Randy Black being based on Mohammed Ali). Then it dawned on me that this guy, in this day and age would be a cage fighter and the body that Terry Crews is rocking, hell, you’d believe he could beat up the Moon! Not really a difficult decision here. With Crews’ dynamic personality to boot, he’d own the role of Randy Black.
Baxter Wolfe (Charles Napier) – Kurt Russell
Despite the fact that I love Kurt Russell and want to see him in more stuff, I’m going with the Meyer ‘square-jaw’ trait on this one. Kurt Russell is a man’s man. And if anyone was going to step into the boots of Charles Napier, it’d be Snake Plissken… Or R.J. MacReady… Or Jack Burton… Or Stuntman Mike… Or Dean Proffitt.
Otto (Henry Rowland) – Udo Kier
Seriously, who the fuck else?
Paul Davis is a writer and filmmaker from London. His short film Him Indoors starring Reece Shearsmith and Pollyanna McIntosh is finally available to watch online and his next short The Body is currently in production.
My personal favourite and one of Russ Meyer’s more well-known pictures, 1970 release Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was his first film as part of a three picture deal with 20th Century Fox. Following the story of an all girl rock group trying to make it big in 60s Hollywood, the film has achieved a cult status for numerous reasons including it’s fantastic soundtrack which is arguably one of the best film soundtracks ever recorded. First named The Kelly Affair and then re-named The Carrie Nations, none of the actresses who play Kelly, Pet and Casey (Dolly Reed, Marcia McBroom and Cynthia Myers) actually sing nor play any of the instruments on the tracks.
These duties instead fell onto composer Stu Phillips (The Monkees, Battlestar Galactica, The Amazing Spider-Man, Knight Rider) who Meyer specifically brought into the project against Fox Studios wishes. Phillips had previously co-written and produced the title track to Meyer’s film Cherry, Harry & Raquel which was released the previous year. Also on board were Bill Loose, who would wind up doing later Meyer soundtracks in the 70s, and vocalist Lynn Carey who did the voice work for the character Kelly McNamara that Dolly Reed was to lip-sync to. Carey’s vocals are incredible and were sadly replaced on the film’s soundtrack album with those of another singer, Ami Rushes, due to a dispute over royalties. Simply put, Rushes just don’t compare and are notably inferior to Carey’s who Phillips apparently had to stand on the other side of the room from the mic during recordings as her voice was so strong.
Whilst Phillips did the soundtrack and the score, I’ve decided to instead focus on the film’s soundtrack with this being my personal top ten…
#10 – ‘ONCE I HAD LOVE’ – THE CARRIE NATIONS
A rousing rock ballad by composer Stu Phillips, Once I Had Love is the perfect song for The Carrie Nations, an ode to all the friendships and relationships that they have lost. Interestingly not included in the film but on soundtracks that have been released over the years.
#9 – INCENSE AND PEPPERMINTS – STRAWBERRY ALARM CLOCK
The number one hit from 1967 gets played by the band themselves at record producer Z-Man’s first party (he owns them). A perfect example of psychedelic rock/folk music that epitomizes the whole tone of the film, the lyrics fit perfectly for the moment the song is heard in the film. The party is the first time that band members Kelly, Pet and Casey get to taste the hedonistic lifestyle that being in a successful rock group can bring them and start to question who they are personally and where the band is going under their current manager Harris, Kelly’s boyfriend. The irony in the lyric ‘Little to win, but nothing to lose’ is brilliant, there really is little for these girls to win in Hollywood but there’s everything to lose.
#8 – FIND IT – THE KELLY AFFAIR
Our first introduction to The Kelly Affair are the roaring vocals of lead singer Kelly McNamara (Dolly Reed) although it’s actually singer Lynn Carey doing the duties. This is the group before they take the trip to Hollywood, doing their own set-up, lighting effects and playing small town shows, hungry for a shot at fame; ‘I’ve got to find a direction to follow, Something that’s mine not something I borrowed’. What’s great about this scene are the subtle beginnings of the story of resentment between Harris and Kelly that Meyer hints at using some well-timed editing skills (listen to the lyrics, watch which face they fall on…). Phillips actually taught Reed, Myers and McBroom to lip-sync and play instruments to a degree that they could pass off playing them when acting (maybe not all of McBroom’s drum bashing…) which he’d never done before. Whenever the girls weren’t shooting, Meyer made sure they were practising in an empty studio with Phillips. This was a track that Phillips and Carey wrote together, in five minutes, with Phillips writing the music and melody and Carey providing the lyrics.
#7 – BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS – THE SANDPIPERS
This track is used to soundtrack the growing relationship between lesbian lovers Roxanne and Casey every time that they are alone on-screen, the sweet and tender music making their sex scene seem loving and natural and adding to its intimacy. Also used at the end of the film for its resolution scenes, the song perfectly sums up the idea of giving love a second chance, which practically most of the main characters do. I do love happy endings!
#6 – LOOK ON UP – THE CARRIE NATIONS
Another moment in the film where Meyer’s editing, the composition of the shot and the lyrics of the song really come together and play the story out well. This is also one of composer Stu Phillips favourite songs from the whole soundtrack. The Carrie Nations are successfully on the rise, caught between hot-shot popular producer Z-Man and their previous manager Harris, who has become an envious mess of a man. The girls are blossoming whilst Harris is stagnating, and this scene sure as hell makes the audience aware of it. He is literally looking up from the bottom. Watch Dolly Reed’s eyes when she’s singing. Those are the eyes of a woman on a mission to ridicule a man (trust me, I know). The decline downhill suddenly just got steeper…
#5 – I’M COMING HOME – STRAWBERRY ALARM CLOCK
This is another track that the Strawberry Alarm Clock are playing at Z-Man’s first party, again fitting in well with The Kelly Affair’s first appearance on the Hollywood party scene. You can see the enthusiasm and excitement in the girls eyes as they are being introduced to people and the idea that they have found their ‘home’ in this crowd is a strong one. Little do they know…
#4 – IN THE LONG RUN – THE CARRIE NATIONS
Newly christened The Carrie Nations and still looking somewhat more wholesome than they do in later performances, this is the start of Z-Man’s takeover and the eventual pushing out of Harris from the friendship group. Look at the composition of the shot; the overly happy and excited Harris versus the scheming Z-Man. He knows what’s good for the girls and it doesn’t involve nostalgic relationships getting in the way. Z-Man is on a mission to become the one that the girls will lean on in the long-term, if only the plan will work… Also used to musically illustrate each new relationship a character develops with another, helping the extend the guessing game of whether these relationships will provide any amount of longevity or crash and burn.
#3 – THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE – STU PHILLIPS/PAUL DUKAS
One of Meyer’s many references to other cinema in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Phillips adapted Dukas’s legendary piece of music to add to the trippiness of the ‘private party’ that Z-Man holds towards the end of the film. It’s a sinister scene, with Z-Man gleefully enjoying getting drugs into Casey’s blood stream despite her obvious apprehension. The naughtier cousin to Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, it all goes rapidly downhill from here. Nothing will ever be the same again.
#2 – COME WITH THE GENTLE PEOPLE – THE KELLY AFFAIR
And so it begins… This is the journey that The Kelly Affair take to Hollywood and drag the audience along with them, using that much-loved 40/50s film cliché of having the map superimposed onto the screen (remember folks, as much as Meyer denied it, this is one of the best satires on the 1960s as a decade to hit the film medium). They are the ‘gentle people’ wanting to spread love and trying to persuade Harris that it’s all a good idea. His apprehension is well noted, if only they’d listen and take note of his sarcastic peace sign. They feel out-of-place in their hometown, Harris feels out-of-place in his disregard for the idea of taking the trip to the West Coast and little do they know that they’ll all find Hollywood a bit out-of-place too…
#1 – SWEET TALKING CANDY MAN – THE KELLY AFFAIR
Without a doubt this is the best song from the whole film. They came to Hollywood to be heard and, boy, do you hear them in this scene. Tensions are already running high between Kelly and Harris, Casey is beginning to show signs of boredom with the whole scene, Z-Man has begun plotting his takeover of the group and the break-up between Kelly and Harris, everyone’s flirting with each other, the group become The Carrie Nations… With lyrics the singer really should be listening to herself, this is the one number I can’t help but belt out whenever I play the soundtrack at home and features some of Lynn Carey’s best vocals.
Michael Ewins reviews Russ Meyer’s 1973 attempt at Blaxsploitation filmmaking Black Snake. Warning, it’s not one of Meyer’s best films…
In the summer of 1970 Russ Meyer unleashed Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, an X-rated satire depicting the drug-fuelled hedonism of early-70’s Hollywood, following a sexy three-piece rock outfit (Dolly Read, Cynthia Myers and Marcia McBroom) as they descend deeper and deeper into its swinging, sensual realm. It was the first of Meyer’s pictures to be distributed by a major studio, 20th Century Fox, but following a major flop (1971’s The Seven Minutes) he was forced back onto the independent scene. One might assume that this two-picture quickie would have whetted Meyer’s appetite for destruction, and marked a return to the garishly camp pictures of yore (Vixen!, 1968, for example), but the director had other – somewhat stranger – aspirations. Rather than producing another corset-busting crime caper, Meyer instead turned out the bonkers blaxploitation drama Black Snake – or as it’s known in France, Serpent Noir…
The year is 1895. Blackmoor plantation is ruled by the heel of Lady Susan Walker (Anouska Hempel), an oppressive, toffee-nosed dominatrix who inherited this corrupt empire from her first (deceased) husband. Her iron grip is upheld by the nasty Joxer (Percy Herbert), a foul-tempered racist who indulges his prejudice with the crack of a whip (the titular black snake). Into this world comes Charles Walker (David Warbeck), a plain sort of chap aiming to unravel the mystery of his missing brother, who disappeared sometime after marrying Lady Susan. The island’s prehistoric barbarity disgusts Charles, but his efforts to defend the black slaves only serves to incite more violence. So yeah, it’s miles departed from the sort of softcore romp usually associated with Meyer, who here trades his bold colour schemes and taboo-busting humour for po-faced politics and unflinching sadism (there’s even a crucifixion sequence!)
Meyer had always intended Black Snake to be a “statement” on racial bigotry, but his navigation of complex moral lines is frequently dogged by a (surprise, surprise) penchant for excess. The film does actually boast a solid thesis, and some dedicated performances go a long way toward anchoring the drama in some sort of reality – Warbeck (who was once on the shortlist to play Bond, before losing out to Roger Moore) is really effective here, especially in his scenes with preacher Isiah (Thomas Baptiste), who delivers lines like “You think God is white?!” as if they’d been handed to him in stone. The hodgepodge of accents on display are hilarious, but hey, awkward line readings are as much a staple of Meyer’s cinema as voluptuous females…
His intentions may have been admirable, but Black Snake ultimately suffers in the chapters most recognizable as Meyer’s. At the halfway point he finally reveals Charles’ brother, Jonathan (David Prowse), who turns out to be a zombified, rape-happy hunk, supposedly struck by some kind of voodoo curse (although that’s never clarified). During the finale he runs rampant through the plantation HQ, whose railings are littered with hung corpses, each emitting the clang of a church bell when Jonathan bangs into them. Meyer’s zany sound design has always managed to land laughs, but here it feels so awkwardly misplaced as to become borderline offensive. I wish I didn’t have to treat the film so seriously, but from the opening frame it practically begs for a pedestal to stand proud from.
What’s really missing from Black Snake, however, is a commanding female figure. Even ignoring her proportions (it’s no secret that Meyer preferred the bustier model) Hempel just doesn’t pack the physical heft to convince as a nymphomaniac warden – there’s just no confidence in her stride, and her slinky contour feels lost every frame (Meyer was notoriously unhappy with her casting, even editing in a breast double for the close-ups). Tura Satana, Erica Gavin and Raven De La Croix typify the Meyer model – Hempel seems almost the antithesis, and her acting chops certainly don’t make up for the fact. The actress got her start in Hammer’s Scars Of Dracula (Baker, 1970) and starred in a few cult titles before retiring in 1980, following her marriage to Sir Mark Weinberg. Now residing in London as Lady Weinberg, Hempel is a celebrated hotelier and designer (recently ranked among Architectural Digest’s Top 100 interior designers). I was interested to learn that, although Black Snake is available on DVD in the UK, its star bought the TV rights in 1998. Needless to say, it’s no longer in circulation. You’re not missing much, but if this film isn’t Meyer’s finest hour then it’s certainly among his most interesting…