You can probably guess how you’ll react to the 1971 film, There’s Always Vanilla, by seeing how much the title annoys you.
To some people, a title like There’s Always Vanilla may sounds innocuous and even a little innocent. After all, vanilla is a flavor and it will always exist and the movie has to be titled something, right? On the other hand, people like me see a title like There’s Always Vanilla and we just cringe because it’s such a cutesy collection of words. We see the title and then we see the fact that the film was made in 1971 and we immediately assume that the film must be some sort of annoying-as-Hell counter-culture romance. There’s Always Vanilla just sounds like something someone would say while trying too hard to be profound.
And we’re right.
There’s Always Vanilla tells the story of Chris Bradly (Raymond Laine), who is an annoying-as-Hell freeloader who the audience is supposed to find to be charming. There are several scenes in which he talks directly to the audience, which is a technique that has always been annoying but which is somehow even more annoying than usual in this film. Chris has just gotten out of the army and now he’s drifting around the country. He makes his money through doing odd jobs. Sometimes, he works as a pimp. Sometimes, he works as a guitar player. Do you remember when you were in college and there was always this kind of annoying 30-something dude who wanted to hang out on campus with all the students and he never seemed to realize how creepy everyone thought he was? Well, that’s Chris.
Anyway, Chris’s father owns a factory that makes baby food because, in 1971, movies always featured people having important jobs that sounded slightly silly. Chris’s father wants him to work at the factory. Chris wants to wander the country being annoying. The movie seems to think that we should, at the very least, understand where Chris is coming from but you know what? BABIES NEED FOOD!
Anyway, Chris eventually meets a beautiful model named Lynn (Judith Ridley, who also appeared in Night of the Living Dead) and he moves in with her. They have a falling in love montage where they run through the park and eat ice cream together. Unfortunately, Lynn knows that Chris is an irresponsible freeloader and, when she gets pregnant, she knows that Chris will be a less than satisfactory father. But, in 1971, getting a safe and legal abortion isn’t really an option either. (There’s an effectively unsettling scene where Lynn meets a back alley abortionist who isn’t willing to take no for an issue.) Lynn is forced to make a decision about her future and Chris is forced to realize that, while life offers up several different flavors of ice cream, there’s always vanilla….
So, this film is a bit infamous because it was directed by George Romero. It was one non-horror film and it’s also a film that he practically disowned. Apparently, it stated out as a 20-minute acting reel for Raymond Laine, which explains all the time that he spends talking to the audience. There’s some disagreement as to who exactly decided to extend it to being a feature film. It’s been suggested that Romero didn’t want to get pigeonholed as being just a horror director after the success of Night of the Living Dead but Romero said, in numerous interviews, that There’s Only Vanilla was only something he directed as a favor to some friends and that he didn’t even consider it to be one of his films.
Of course, a lot of the dispute about who is responsible for There’s Always Vanilla is probably the result of the fact that it’s not a very good film. It’s not as terrible as you may have heard but it’s definitely not good. Judith Ridley gives an excellent performance as Lynn and the scenes that satirize advertising have a real bite, probably due to the fact that they spoke to Romero’s own background. Unfortunately, almost all of those good things are eliminated by just how annoying the character of Chris was. There’s Always Vanilla is one of those counter-culture films that tries to be progressive (for instance, Chris briefly goes into advertising but refuses to do a commercial for the Army) but which still displays an unmistakable streak of misogyny. Chris is basically an irresponsible jerk who freeloads off of everyone but yet we’re still expected to feel sorry for him when Lynn quite reasonably decides that she needs something better in her life.
Anyway, there’s always vanilla and, fortunately for Romero fans, there’s always Martin as well.