Thanks to the Russ Meyer Trust another one of the infamous sexploitation directors early films has finally seen the light of day after being out of circulation since its original theatrical release. The 1961 picture Erotica sits alongside a few of Meyer’s other early films in the Vintage Bodies Set which came out towards the end of last year. Shot after Meyer’s second feature Eve and the Handyman, Erotica consists of six small nudie cutie segments, another of Meyer’s films that plays out as a cinematic pin-up photography pictorial.
Meyer and his producer Pete DeCenzie fell out making Eve and the Handyman when he bailed out on the picture just before production had started. However, DeCenzie returned for Erotica, and later again on its follow-up Wild Gals of the Naked West, which was shot on a four grand budget. Also returning on the production was editor Charles G. Schelling who had helped Russ shoot French Peep Show (and would later go on to become sound recordist on the movies made during Meyer’s gothic period) and then-wife Eve with the role of financial co-ordination (something she ended up doing a lot of during her husbands career). Long-time friend and general all-rounder Anthony James Ryan also briefly cameos in the last vignette as the Handyman, his lead role in the directors previous picture, alongside another gentleman dressed in Mr. Teas’ lurid orange jumpsuit (never one to miss out on self promotion, Meyer had two one-sheets for both The Immoral Mr. Teas and Eve and the Handyman on prominent display at one point). This was a, as the films narration points out, ‘film made by adults for adults… It is truly Erotica!’.
In reality it is what it is, which for me is sadly one of the weaker entries in Meyer’s filmography and is, at times, really rather boring. Whilst it has two Meyer film staples, pretty topless women and bizarre indifferent narration, you can’t help but feel that other similar pictures like Europe In The Raw and Eve and the Handyman did it better and got away with a little more charm. The are some cute moments; the opening in particular is quite sweet, showing a very basic but behind the scenes look none the less at the process a film goes through with symbolic images to represent each part (someone cigarette smoking is the actor, a huge money bag the producer, disembodied hands cutting film being the editor, director chair for the director etc). Segment two ‘Beauties, Bubbles and H20’, an ode to the traditions and history of bathing (aka a trio of topless beauties washing themselves with very bubbly soap) also has some nice cinematography and photographic set ups, one can imagine that if the director had actually shot stills for this segment alone, they would have probably been quite stunning. The shots of one girl having a bubble bath in a kiddies blow up pool are particular favourites. This second vignette also featured popular model Althea Currier who already had an ucredited role in The Immoral Mr. Teas and would go on to appear in Heavenly Bodies and Lorna.
The rest of the picture feels very much the same with so much narration it makes you lose interest in anything the film has to offer (there’s even a soundtrack reel gag in one of the segments where off-screen voices argue that the narrator is reading the wrong ‘informative’ script, how very meta). Segment one, ‘Naked Innocence’, is essentially a re-tread of Meyer’s 1959 short This Is My Body starring Diane Webber, only This Is My Body is a lot better. Middle pieces ‘Nudists on the High Seas’ and ‘The Nymphs’ suffer from far too much narration and not enough going on visually to really make an impact whilst the last chapter, ‘The Bikini Busters’, is a bloated, unrealised comedic take on the history of the bikini; ‘and so it went, down through the years with more and more clothes being added, until the women got so much to looking like the men that the men stopped looking’.
The only other highlight in the feature is the short segment ‘The Bare and The Bear’ in which Meyer shoots an impressively endowed woman rolling around on a Malibu beach wearing only a bear skin to accompany narration that informs how durable and soft bear fur really is. This lucky lady was Sherri Knight, a model with a fifty-five inch bust that Meyer had shot for skin magazines before in the past. According to Jimmy McDonough’s biography, producer DeCenzie saw pictures of Knight and insisted that Meyer include her in the film. They shot for one day, wrapped and Meyer never saw her again. Not that it matters. Once you see her wearing the fur stole, you’ll never forget her.
There’s a beautiful little film that’s spent the last year doing the festival rounds and if you’re a Russ Meyer or sexploitation film fan, it’s well worth seeking out. In fact, it’s well worth seeking out if you’re a film fan in general as this cinematic gem is well shot, well acted, well written and utterly full of charm. Up The Valley and Beyond is a short film, based on the book Russ Meyer, The Life and Films by David K. Frasier (itself one of the best books about the director), dramatically exploring the early stages of the marriage between the legendary filmmaker Russ Meyer and his model wife Eve Turner. Beginning with a great montage of black and white World War II footage highlighting where Meyer had come from (a great minute of editing in which editor Nickolas Perry really creates a sense of how the War was seen by the cameramen who filmed it), the film then bursts into gloriously bright 1950s pop colours and prints and shows how Meyer and Turner first met when he was looking for the ‘right built’ woman, eventually becoming a couple. Director Todd Rosken has struck casting gold with his two leads, Jim Parrack (True Blood, Sal, Battle Los Angeles) and Sarah Jones (Alcatraz, Big Love, Sons of Anarchy) who both pull off the real-life big characters. Parrack in particular is delightful as a younger Meyer, nailing the mannerisms and enthusiasm of the man himself and is a worthy candidate for the lead role in any future Meyer biopic. Equally good is Jones in the role of Eve, a tough woman to imitate and who Jones doesn’t quite nail completely in looks but certainly manages to bring across in fiery character.
The film has played at many major film festivals over the last year including the BFI London Film Festival, New York Film Festival, Seattle International Film Festival and the Palm Springs International Shortfest. What makes it stand out is the way in which Rosken and his crew have interpreted Meyer’s sense of style and substance, creating a playful fifteen minute dramatic homage that lives up to the infamous directors reputation without being too cliché. The one glaring out-of-place moment is the need for Meyer to validate his heterosexuality which no-one really need ever or have ever questioned. Aside from that, the pace of the piece flows extremely well, even if it does feel more like a promo for a feature than a short film. Director Rosken kindly took some time out to answer a few questions about the film and his inspiration.
Have you always been a Meyer fan?
I remember watching a documentary on Stanley Kubrick and Woody Allen said that the first time he saw 2001: A Space Odyssey, it looked great but he didn’t really get it and didn’t give much thought to it. Then a friend of his wanted to see it so he decided to see it again and after the second viewing, Mr. Allen realized how far ahead of everyone else Kubrick was and how it changed his perception of what can be done with film. This is sort of the same thing that happen to me. The difference being that it was the first time I saw Russ Meyer’s Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens. It was a moment of pure shock that jolted my perceptions of what the art of cinema was. It was a giant leap forward! From that point on I was a fan for life. It was after that that I did further research on his films and life.
Where did the original idea for the short come from?
The short film is just a snapshot from one of the many themes further explored in the feature length screenplay. The feature screenplay is based on more than twenty hours of video taped interviews with Russ’ closest friends, cast and crew members including Kitten Natividad, Tura Satana, Erica Gavin, Hugh Hefner and Roger Ebert. The screenplay is also based on a prodigious amount of periodical research (articles from the 1950’s-current) and a book titled Russ Meyer – The Life and Films by David K. Frasier. Making a short film can be just as complex as a feature film. There are no rules… but we wanted to have some type of conflict and resolution. So we decided to focus on the early part of russ’ life as a glamour photographer.
What was it about the period in time of his life that you chose for the shorts subject that interested you?
Being in the army during WWII was Meyer’s favourite time. The late forties and early fifties was also a time of discovery and invention in America. Disneyland opens, colour TV was introduced, first atomic submarine launched and the first Playboy magazine published. It was the time when Russ Meyer met Eve Turner and decided to transition from glamour photographer to filmmaker. It was the beginning of love and his life as a filmmaker.
Is any of the footage during the War montage at the beginning attributed to Meyer at all?
I would love to be able to say that the archival war footage used in the opening montage was footage that Meyer shot, but due to time and budgetary constraints, we had to choose other WWII footage. Creating the opening montage was a huge task! Nazi music, narration and wintage titles… It was like making a movie within a movie. My editor Nickolas Perry, who is also a brilliant director, was able to construct the one minute montage from hours of archival footage that I selected from various sources. There are a couple of shots that bear an uncanny resemblance to Meyer himself. Maybe it’s him?
Love is certainly the word that springs to mind when discussing Russ and Eve specifically. How did you go about tackling their relationship to condense it down for the general feel of the short?
Based on interviews that me and my writing partner, Bobby D. Lux, conducted and periodical research, we were able to see that this was a true and meaningful love that was shared between Russ and Eve. In the short film we show their love just starting to blossom.
What is it about the filmmaker for you personally that makes him so captivating?
Russ created his own cinematic language. I think the highest level of achievement for any artist is to create their own aesthetic and Russ did so masterfully . Although he had brilliant and amazing people working with him such as Anthony-James Ryan and Richard Brummer, Russ directed, wrote, produced, shot, and edited all of his films. He was the personification of what it is to be an auteur (the author of his own work). In an industry where decision by committee is the norm, Russ was the lightning rod for true independent film making. Russ Meyer challenged perceptions, broke boundaries, and never failed to entertain!
After doing a bit of research, how did your impressions of him change?
After scouring over everything that has ever been written about the man, my impressions of him didn’t change. I was able to perhaps understand how he developed his obsession (anyone familiar with Russ knows what that is!) and his style as a filmmaker. Russ’ film making technique was an amalgam of his prior experiences as a cinematographer in WWII and as an industrial filmmaker. Russ was able to incorporate his experiences flawlessly which gave his films their unique style.
How did you get Parrack and Jones on board?
My casting agent sent the script to their agent who repped both of them at the time. He loved it and gave the script to Jim and Sarah. I met with each of them to discuss the film. After we did a screen test there was no one else I wanted to audition. They nailed it! They both brought so much to the filming process and inspired me the whole time. I wouldn’t have been able to make the film without them.
Did you give them any research materials or let them do their own interpretations?
I did give them research materials such as pictures and interviews. I think their performances were original and organic.
Are you interested in further exploring a feature?
How is progress with that coming along?
We have been focusing our attention on the festival circuit but will start contacting producers soon. You can see the trailer for the short film below and on the website www.upthevalleyandbeyond.com.
There is no denying that Russ Meyer and his second wife Eve made a terrific team. Both knew how to work with each other, both understood their market and both always got the results they wanted. It was their first partnership however that would prove to be the most electric. Eve was a beautiful 50s pin-up, Meyer a talented cheesecake photographer. His pictures of her are the ones that stand out the most amongst his photographic career. It didn’t matter what angle Eve was in, what position, what lighting hit her, in each still Mr. Meyer took, nothing had ever looked more breathtaking. That isn’t to say that Eve was the only model Russ photographed, he continued to snap various models right up until he death, but none of these pictures have the charm, beauty or vitality that the ones of his wife produced. The following photographs are as accurately attributed to Russ Meyer as I could make them but verification in both books and on the internet is tricky. Some of these Russ took and some of these were probably taken by someone else but you get the idea. They just don’t make women like this anymore…
Behind every successful man, there is a woman. Director Russ Meyer had three wives in his lifetime but it was his second wife, Eve Meyer (nee Turner), who really stands out from the crowd. Russ and Eve were a hardworking team, one that knew how to work with and bring out the best in each other. Even after they divorced, Eve remained a formidable force in his life. She was his original pin-up queen, the star of one of his films, the producer of countless others and a savvy business woman who knew how to deal with the sexploitation film market as much as her husband did. Eve Meyer, one of a kind.
Evelyn Eugene Turner was born into the world on December 13th 1928 in Atlanta, Georgia. After working a while for Western Union she was eventually transferred to San Francisco where she became a legal secretary for Pepsi. Turner always knew she could handle men and match them as an equal, being a great poker player and having a keen interest in fishing. She also has a vivacious sexual appetite, once even throwing Russ Meyer out of her house after a date when he (of all people!) suggested that they wait until their wedding night! A woman ahead of her time, her friend once said of her, ‘Eve was the first person that I ever saw wear pants and heels’.
As soon as Meyer set his eyes on Turner he knew she was the one for him. With a bust described as ‘conically maddening’ (a good thing for our breast loving director), Russ admitted that he knew he’d marry her the minute they’d met and he’d even go on to name his filmmaking company Eve Productions. She was the secretary of a lawyer, he was a divorce client of the said lawyer. He was given her number and the rest is history. After a tempestuous engagement, the two were married on August 2nd 1952 in San Francisco.
Eve was an incredibly beautiful woman and it wouldn’t take long for her to become a pin-up superstar in front of Russ’s camera. Her looks photographed well and her personality shone through in all her pictures; a woman that was able to be a girl-next-door one minute and a sultry vamp the next, Monroe crossed with Turner and then some. She already had some modelling experience behind her when she first met Russ, but it would take him months of persuasion to try to get her to pose for him. It’s not surprising that she eventually became one of the most popular pin-up models of the 1950s, constantly appearing in magazines like Adam, Fling, Modern Man and Frolic. Mr. Meyer even told stories that actress Ava Gardner had the hots for Eve (Mrs. Meyer accompanied her husband on one of his early jobs as a studio stills photographer and Gardner was his first assignment). In 1955, Eve appeared in Playboy as Miss June, in a fantastic spread photographed by her husband. The pictorial is electric and the gatefold in particular is more arousing then any porno picture I’ve seen that’s been shot in the last twenty years or so. The spread featured Eve by the fireplace, wearing a sheer gown that shows just about the right amount, with a look on her face that screams ‘Well, are you gonna come get it or not?’. I have always maintained that she was and is one of the most beautiful creatures to have ever graced this Earth, this spread being proof (a nice selection of some more gorgeous photographs from across her career can be found here).
Not content with being just a model, Eve also did some film work, predominantly working again for Russ in front of the camera. In 1954 or 1955 (dates vary according to sources) Eve starred in Russ’s first involvement within the exploitation movie business, an expose on abortion entitled The Desperate Women. Circling around innocent women and a shady backstreet abortionist (a clichéd character that Meyer revived for his studio picture Beyond the Valley of the Dolls in 1970), the posters showed an angst ridden Eve under the tagline ‘Shall I Take The ‘Easy’ Way Out?’. An uncredited role followed in 1955 as a model in Artists And Models and four years later Eve landed a lead role in war drama Operation Dames aka Girls In Action (1959). Difficult to find on home video format, the only video I’ve seen (posted below) shows that she is just as good in this as she was in her later picture with her husband, her natural good looks standing out and her enviable figure making more than an impression.
It would be Russ Meyer’s 1960 release Eve and The Handyman which saw Eve finally become her husband’s moving-image muse. Eve had been upset that Russ had ignored her whilst filming The Immoral Mr. Teas. Used to working as a team, Eve wasn’t the star in his first feature and was upset that some of the interiors were filmed inside the couples actual home. Russ made up for it by writing his second feature for his wife and, wow, does she shine in it. Using the scenes like Playboy photo shoot set-ups, Eve looks beautiful as she marches around in a trench coat and underwear following the Handyman, played by long-term Meyer friend Anthony James Ryan. By this point already used to Russ’s way of directing and shooting, Eve is one of the few women most comfortable in front of the directors camera throughout his entire filmography. The two could really work well together and it shows. He knows all the right angles to film her at and she knows just what the camera, and audience, are after. It’s just a shame that Handyman would be her last acting role. God knows where she would have gone had Meyer used her as an actress over and over.
It wasn’t just in front of the camera that Eve felt comfortable but behind it too. When Russ Meyer ran into trouble with Bill Teas over the distribution of sexploitation classic The Immoral Mr. Teas (the distribution of which Eve oversaw), it was his wife who came to the rescue, buying Teas out of his 2% share in the film. She also accompanied him to Europe in 1963 to help him shoot the footage that would comprise Europe In The Raw and eventually show up in a recycled form in Mondo Topless. She put up half of the bankroll for the production of Mudhoney. It’s no secret that she hated Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and had to be talked into co-financing it, only for it to bomb on release and drain Eve Productions dry. Eve even bailed out Russ during the production of Vixen! after he ran out of money, a bail out which saw very hefty returns in profit. Basically put, no Eve, no sexploitation/cult film classics from the 1960s. In total she produced fourteen of her husbands films, both his independent and studio releases. What do you expect from the girl who learnt to develop photographs so she could develop her husbands own pictures of her!
Once things started heating up for Russ in the mid-sixties, things in his marriage began to cool down. Eve reportedly didn’t like the direction his career was going in and was terrified of him getting involved with other women. Eve also began to drink, and by drink I mean really drink, which Russ detested. The two eventually divorced in 1968. An amicable separation (apparently even using the same attorney), the two still remained friends up until Eve’s tragic death in 1977. She was the distributer of all Russ’s films and produced a significant number of them after their divorce, including the studio pictures made under 20th Century Fox. Ever the savvy businesswoman, in 1970 she sold the entire catalogue of Meyer’s films to Optronics Laboratories for home video viewing. In 1971 she produced her only non-Meyer feature, The Jesus Trip, a drug/religion drama that involved motorbikes concealing heroin and a nun that doesn’t know whether she wants love or the Church. In 1975 there was a rumour that Eve was planning to write a book about her years collaborating with Russ that was to be titled This Doll Was Not X-Rated. Sadly the book never materialised but one wonders that it might have been full of juicy stories about the pair.
Eve Meyer died on March 27th 1977 in one of the deadliest aviation accidents in history. Arriving in the Canary Islands from Los Angeles for a holiday, Meyer’s plane was hit by another Boeing aircraft. Due to dense fog along the runway, neither plane nor Air Traffic Control could see that two planes were about to collide. In total, 583 people died with one plane being wiped out in its entirety. Despite their divorce, Russ was reportedly beside himself.
There is no doubting that Russ and Eve were meant for each other and loved one another very much. Not that their marriage was an easy one, with a fair few infidelities on Mr. Meyer’s part and a few alleged lesbian dalliances on Mrs. Meyer’s side. She also wanted children, whilst he was adamant that a family would only get in the way of his career. During the shoot for Lorna, Eve checked herself into a hospital for an unknown infection. Her words to Russ when he finally visited her were apparently ‘I can never have a baby, now. I hope you’re satisfied’. God knows how Eve would have felt if she found out that Russ actually had an illegitimate son with one of his starring ladies. No doubt their explosive marriage would have been far shorter. Differences aside, the two were a force to be reckoned with. Each knew the best in each other, what the audience wanted and how to deal with the business side of things. It’s hardly surprising that Russ Meyer’s most successful years were those with Eve at his side, whether it be as his muse, producer, wife or business partner. Whilst the world of sexploitation owes a lot to Russ, it seems that he couldn’t have done it without Eve.
Eve Meyer, one of a kind.