Film Review

THE RUSS MEYER FILES: MONDO TOPLESS (1966)

If you track a filmmaker’s career, you’re likely to see things like Mondo Topless occur. No, I don’t mean that every auteur is going to crank out a quick-buck skin flick when they hit rough waters but, instead, there is a pattern of running back to material that’s bankable once experimentation bites them in the ass. Also gnawing at the filmmaker is the knowledge that only so many flops in a row can get you a one way ticket to director’s jail so the return to the familiar seems doubly enticing.

So it’s understandable that, after the box office failure of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Russ took a step back, bought some color stock, went into his own archives, and stitched together Mondo Topless, a fleet, cacophonous, and full-bast of adrenaline which is as much fun as it is utterly inconsequential. And though its particular structure (which is more or less the same as the one utilized in Europe in the Raw) would get aped in Pandora Peaks, Meyer’s sad and unfortunate final film from 2002, Mondo Topless is minor Meyer; more or less serves as something you’d throw on at a party while waiting for all the guests to arrive. Even in his own filmography, it doesn’t do much more than stand as a mark in time to separate his silky, black and white gothic films from his garishly colored soap operas. But, by god, it’s good fun and one hell of a time capsule.

One part San Francisco travelogue, one part documentary, one part shameless flesh parade, Mondo Topless is Meyer having some fun with the then-nascent glut of “mondo” documentaries that were successful simply by giving middle-class Americans the promise of seeing footage that felt exotic and taboo. The central idea of Mondo Topless is that the topless dance craze is completely devouring the globe and Meyer, through the barking, breathless narration delivered by John Furlong (narrator of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and appeared as Calif in Mudhoney) aims to get to the bottom of it; tracing its origins in San Francisco and then as it spreads to all points beyond.

As was the norm for any of his location photography, Meyer’s multi-Dutch angled views of San Francisco are beautiful and capture what looks to be the last days of a generation right on the cusp of the Summer of Love. And, once again, it’s an absolute joy to see all the trappings of the time, most especially in the colors, the fashions, the automobiles, the signage, and the numerous reel-to-reel recorders and transistor radios, generally used as foreground texture in shots that look almost as if they were shot with a split-diopter.

As stated before, all of this is a setup to be a look at topless dancing. But Mondo Topless isn’t at all an actual expose on the topless dancing craze sweeping the planet in 1966. In fact, it’s not even close. For just a cursory glance at the movie reveals something that has most definitely been Frankensteined together from other works, finished and unfinished, that were lying around Meyer’s editing room. Some of Mondo Topless is newly shot material. Pat Barrington (here working under the name Pat Barranger), Darlene Grey, Mrs. X, Sin Leneee, and most definitely Babette Bardot (“50/50 where it counts!”) are contemporary. But some of this (ie, the moments where we see a performer but only hear Furlong’s narration) feels suspiciously like the cheesecake footage that was shot for Erotica from 1961 or Heavenly Bodies from 1963. Likewise, all of the staged strip routines that are purported proof of the topless craze having jumped the Atlantic and spreading across the globe in 1966 are, in fact, reused from 1963’s Europe in the Raw. This double dip is just as well since nobody saw Europe in the Raw the first time around and the burlesque acts by Veronique Gabriel and Abundavita simply should not be missed. And Lorna Maitland’s bit, a crass but understandable way to get her corpus in the actual film and her name on the one-sheet, is just reused footage from production shoots for Lorna.

But none of this really matters as Meyer’s rapid fire editing and wall-to-wall women go a long way in making the 60 minutes that make up the running time of Mondo Topless go down a lot smoother than the 60 minutes that make up one of his nudie cuties. And, once again, Meyer accidentally stumbles onto some feminine truths while also giving the audience what they came for. While it’s almost a meta-concern that the women are being objectified given that objectification is the name of the game when one is a topless dancer, sex and body-positive messages drift over the soundtrack alongside some verbal deconstruction of the mechanics of the craft as the candid audio interviews with the performers are laid over images of them dancing alongside oil rigs in the California desert, climbing electrical poles, or writhing around in the mud, among other sundry things.

For Russ Meyer, Mondo Topless was his wouldn’t be the last time Meyer would go back to the tit (pun 15/10 intended) that supplied the mother’s milk as Supervixens would later prove to be a retreat of sorts after two back-to-back, less pneumatic projects would be met with crickets. And like Supervixens would prove to be, Mondo Topless isn’t quite a return to the type of film he used to make, here specifically the pre-Lorna, narrative-free nudie cuties that made him famous. Instead, Mondo Topless employs even more frenetic editing, louder music, more extreme camera angles, and more suggestive undulations to point outrageously toward the future.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

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