Pretty Maids All In A Row, which — as should be pretty obvious from the trailer above — was originally released in 1971, is a bit of a historic film for me. You see, I love movies. And, as a part of that love, I usually don’t give up. Regardless of how bad a movie may turn out to be, once I start watching, I stick with it. I do not give up. I keep watching because you never know. The film could suddenly get better. It could turn out that what originally seemed like a misfire was actually brilliant satire. If you’re going to talk or write about movies, you have an obligation to watch the entire movie. That was a rule that I had always lived by.
And then, one night, Pretty Maids All In A Row popped up on TCM.
Now, I have to admit that I already knew that Pretty Maids was going to be an extremely 70s film. I knew that it was probably going to be more than a little sexist. I knew all of this because the above trailer was included on one of my 42nd Street Forever DVDs. But I still wanted to see Pretty Maids because the trailer hinted that there might be an interesting hiding underneath all of the cultural baggage. If nothing else, it appeared that it would have some sort of worth as an artifact of its time.
(If you’re a regular reader of this site, you know how much I love my cinematic time capsules.)
So, the film started. I logged onto twitter so that I could live tweet the film, using the hashtag #TCMParty. And from the moment the film started, I knew it wasn’t very good. It wasn’t just that the film’s camerawork and music were all extremely 70s. After all, I like 70s music. I don’t mind the occasional zoom lens. And random psychedelic sequences? WHO DOESN’T LOVE THOSE!? No, my dislike of the film had nothing to do with the film’s style. Instead, it had to do with the fact that there was absolutely nothing going on behind all of that style. It wasn’t even style for the sake of style (which is something that I usually love). Instead, it was style for the sake of being like every other “youth film” that came out in the 70s.
And then there was the film’s plot, which should have been interesting but wasn’t because director Roger Vadim (who specialized in stylish decadence) had no interest in it. The film takes place at Oceanfront High School, where the only rule is that apparently nobody is allowed to wear a bra. We meet one student, Ponce De Leon Harper (played by an amazingly unappealing actor named John David Carson), who is apparently on the verge of having a nervous breakdown because, at the height of the sexual revolution, he’s still a virgin.
(Because, of course, the whole point of the sexual revolution was for losers like Ponce to finally be able to get laid…)
Ponce is taken under the wing of high school guidance counselor Tiger McDrew (Rock Hudson, complete with porn star mustache). Quickly figuring out exactly what Ponce needs, Tiger sets him up with a teacher played by Angie Dickinson. However, Tiger has other concerns than just Ponce. Tiger, it turns out, is a sex addict who is sleeping with nearly every female student at the school. But, American society is so oppressive and puts so much pressure on the American male that Tiger has no choice but to kill every girl that he sleeps with…
This is one of the only film I can think of that not only makes excuses for a serial killer but also presents him as being a heroic character. And, while it’s tempting to think that the film is being satirical in its portrayal of Tiger and his murders, it’s actually not. Don’t get me wrong. The film is a very broad comedy. The high school’s principal (Roddy McDowall) is more concerned with the football team than with all of the girls turning up dead at the school. The local sheriff (Keenan Wynn) is a buffoon. The tough detective (Telly Savalas) who investigates the murders gets a few one liners.
But Tiger, most assuredly, is the film’s hero. He’s the only character that the audience is expected to laugh with, as opposed to at. He is the character who is meant to serve as a mouthpiece for screenwriter Gene Roddenberry’s view on America’s puritanical culture. If only society was less hung up on sex, Tiger wouldn’t have to kill. Of course, the film’s celebration of Tiger’s attitude towards sex is not extended towards the girls who sleep with him. Without an exception, they are all presented as being empty-headed, demanding, shallow, and annoying, worthy only of being leered at by Vadim’s camera until Tiger finally has to do away with them.
(The film’s attitude towards women makes Getting Straight look positively enlightened.)
Rock and Angie
ANYWAY! I spent about 40 minutes watching this movie before I gave up on it. Actually, if you want to be technical about it, I gave up after 5 minutes. But I stuck with it for another 35 minutes, waiting to see if the film was going to get any better. It didn’t and finally, I had to ask myself, “Why am I actually sitting here and wasting my time with this misogynistic bullshit?” So, I stopped watching and I did so with no regrets.
What I had forgotten is that I had set the DVR to record the film while I was watching it, just in case I later decided to review it. So, last week, as I was preparing for this series of Back to School posts, I saw Pretty Maids All In A Row on my DVR. I watched the final 51 minutes of the film, just to see if it ever got better. It didn’t.
However, on the plus side, Rock Hudson does give a good performance in the role of Tiger, bringing a certain seedy desperation to the character. (I’m guessing that this desperation was Hudson’s own contribution and not an element of Roddenberry’s screenplay, which more or less presents Tiger as being a Nietzschean superman.). And beyond that, Pretty Maids serves as evidence as to just how desperate the Hollywood studios were to makes movies that would be weird enough to appeal to young people in the early 70s.
Watching the film, you can practically hear the voices of middle-aged studio executives.
“What the Hell are we trying to do with this movie!?” one of the voices says.
“Who cares!?” the other voice replies, “the kids will love it!”