There is much more to be said about Russ Meyer’s films outside the obvious. In fact, it’s something of a shame that one feels that they need to qualify their love of his movies or justify placing him in the ranks of other great filmmakers. Sure, he peddled tits and ass, but if that’s all there was to him, his films nor his legend would have endured for as long as they have. For in Russ Meyer, the audience got what they came for and then some. His starlets, as impressively and impossibly built as they were, were always photographed with a master’s eye. And beyond that, the images were always hooked together in a rapid-fire montage of unmistakable rhythm that would have made Sergei Eisenstein proud.
The Immoral Mr. Teas was Meyer’s first film and while it’s no Citizen Kane it’s a much more laudable first effort than Stanley Kubrick’s anti-masterpiece Fear and Desire. Most of the film’s faults can be placed squarely on the constraints of the time. In fact, it’s somewhat amazing that The Immoral Mr. Teas was released at all. Shot in four days and containing a threadbare, almost non-existent plot that covers a couple of days in the life of the hapless titular character (Meyer Army buddy, Bill Teas) who, after a molar extraction, begins to see the peripheral women in his life in the nude, The Immoral Mr. Teas has all the pitfalls of a film that is really only interested in making excuses to display some flesh.
But, after all, this was 1959 and The Immoral Mr. Teas holds the distinction of being the first non-documentary, non-educational, non-naturist film to display on-screen nudity. That really should be given a great deal of quiet reflection. In this day and age when nudity is mostly the norm and passé, it’s hard to imagine that there was a day where on-screen nudity wasn’t a consideration at all. But one day it wasn’t there and the next day it was and when this film punched through that specific ceiling, the walls began to collapse. It’s staggering to consider but every single second of nudity that has occurred in our films and television programs is due to this film. And, sure, had The Immoral Mr. Teas not been made, something certainly would have come along and taken its place as ground-zero for cinematic smut. But history is what it is and just as Herschell Gordon Lewis single-handedly invented on-screen gore with Blood Feast in 1963 and created a piece of actual history, The Immoral Mr. Teas, quaint and naive as it is, lives in a display case in the cinema history museum of the mind, a pioneering relic yet very much one of its time. Along with shattering the taboo of displaying women in the buff, it single-handedly invented the “nudie cutie” subgenre of film; movies that just barely qualified as feature length and were stacked to the rafters with bare breasts and butts but completely devoid of plot (and one to which Meyer would contribute another few titles before shifting into narrative work). The film also caught a wave where, in America, social mores were beginning to become more relaxed and subversive entertainment, found both in juvenile delinquent movies and the nascent Rock and Roll music, was getting eaten up en masse by the youth culture, creating a potent chemistry for change. Though it’s mostly a inauthentic mock-up, 1978’s Grease is something of a celebration of this specific period when a seismic shift in the culture occurred with drag racing, rock music, and a healthy amount of open, teenage libidinousness replacing hand-holding and Your Hit Parade (and, in fact, the cover of Jules Feiffer’s 1958 omnibus of his satirical cartoons, Sick, Sick, Sick, is seen in both The Immoral Mr. Teas and the opening credits of Grease).
What Meyer was after here was, basically, a Playboy magazine come to life. And, to that end, the film is a success. But, in other ways, the film works just as well. The repeated gag of the hula-hoop girl is pretty golden and some of the flat, industrial film-like narration, utilized to keep our sad-sack hero’s mind off of all the nekkidness around him, winds up being subversively funny. Also present is Meyer’s amazing eye for composition and rhythm. When watching the film, it’s apparent that this wasn’t made by someone who couldn’t care less but, instead, it’s a film made by a craftsman who labored over all of his shots and even managed to find a fun, creative angle to the dream sequences, stripping them down to their most basic images with a dash of Chuck Jones’s backgrounds thrown in as a whimsical garnish.
Despite its strengths, The Immoral Mr. Teas, is much more a historic document than it is a compelling piece of filmmaking. It’s dull and wears out its welcome before it sputters out and dies but, at just over an hour, it’s a pretty painless affair even when the novelty of seeing naked flesh on screen has long since become rote and commonplace. The Immoral Mr. Teas may not still light one’s fire as it did when it was first released but it’s a much more watchable and digestible piece of filmmaking than the myriad other nudie cuties that followed in its wake And, yes, I’m talking explicitly about you, The Adventures of Lucky Pierre.
(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain