THE RUSS MEYER FILES: COMMON LAW CABIN (1967)

Outside the lack of a need for an optical house to create the opening titles, as far as one can tell, the major aesthetic difference between Russ Meyer’s gothic period and his soap opera period really comes down to whether he was shooting in color or black and white. On a thematic level, there was generally a little more whimsy allowed in the soaps that, in the gothic films, was a little rougher-hewed. Where he was once shackled a little more closely to the conventions of the roughies in his earlier work, the soap operas allowed him an even longer leash to explore sex and violence, albeit in his trademark style which draped everything in melodrama that was taken so seriously by the characters on screen, it’s not readily apparent to the viewer that everyone is in on the gag.

Bowdlerized from its more suggestive title of How Much Loving Does a Normal Couple Need?, 1967’s Common Law Cabin finds Meyer in mostly fine form as he keeps many plates in the air by delivering all the requisite elements found in a Meyer picture while trying to lay a sheen of cartoonish sensibility over everything. Initially set up as something of a con film in which Dewey Hoople (Jack Moran); live-in companion, Babette (Babette Bardot); and daughter, Coral Hoople (Adele Rein), run a tin-roof tourist trap of a dump in Nowheresville, Arizona that survives on suckers rooked in by their alcohol-soaked advance man, Cracker (Frank Bolger). When an ailing Dr. Martin Ross (John Furlong); his oversexed wife, Shiela (Alaina Capri); and beefcake detective, Barney Rickets (Ken Swofford) get hooked into daytripping to Hoople’s Haven, all hell breaks loose causing everything to spin out of control in an orgy of passion and destruction!

Common Law Cabin succeeds in breaking Meyer’s previous narrative mold while still retaining chunks of material that makes it very much his work. It’s a veritable cornucopia of match cuts and rapid fire dialogue either delivered by actors who hold accents so thick the lines are rendered inscrutable or it’s barked and cooed by those for whom camping it up to the nth degree is a professional sport. While the outer limits of the California deserts are exchanged for the Colorado River on the Arizona side of things (with some material filmed in the Coachella Valley), the universe inhabited by the characters in the film is 100% Meyer; desolate, barren, and 15/10 the absolute least conducive locations in which to engage in sexual congress with any comfort whatsoever. The violence which began to permeate Meyer’s work in Lorna is audacious and jaw-dropping in Common Law Cabin as the audience slowly weaned on catfights, gunshots, and the occasional dynamite mishap will probably feel as jolted as Barney Rickert does when, in the film’s utterly bananas climax, a racing and out-of-control Chris-Craft demonstrates how smoothly it can go through a human face.

Unlike the transition from the last of the nudie cuties to the gothic film, the tone and timbre of the soap operas don’t quite gel right out of the gate. Common Law Cabin has more than a foot in the fundamentals of what would make the next film in the soap cycle, Good Morning…and Goodbye,absolutely shine, but it’s also a little unwilling to let loose some of the broad, comic book flair that made Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! such an irresistible gas. In one corner, Alania Capri is the pillowy prototype for Erica Gavin’s Vixen, a prowling, libidinous creature with a sexual appetite that can never be fulfilled. In the other corner is Babette Bardot, the centerpiece of Mondo Topless who is getting held over for a second run much like Lorna Maitland before her. Amazonian and necessary for one specific joke in the story, Bardot is not nearly as impressive as Capri who chews into her part like it’s a five inch steak and never throws a bad pitch. In the middle, Adele Rein never has to do much except stand around and have a meet cute with a runaway teenage millionaire (Andrew Hagara), which is sort of a shame given her impressively mature turn in Jack Hill’s Mondo Keyhole the year before.

In terms of the men, Jack Moran (also the co-screenwriter) is fine but he can’t help but be completely overwhelmed by pro scene-stealers Bolger and Furlong (who also lends his majestically dry vocals to the film’s aggressively funny table-setter of an opening narration). Ken Swofford cuts quite a figure as one of Meyer’s hulking men-beasts who also performs a double function as the reviled and corrupt authority figure that is found in much of Meyer’s oeuvre. Leering, dangerous, and highly charged, Swofford’s scenes with Capri earn the horny and corny burlesque score music atop of them while he also serves as a convincing figure of menacing and towering terror as the film moves toward its conclusion.

Meyer also does something interesting with some of the more lurid elements of the story, namely the downplaying of the incestuous angle that’s baked into the script and played to the real raincoaters in the crowd. While the convention was rife in sexploitation films of the time, one gets the impression that the ogling of a daughter by her dad is not something Meyer was entirely comfortable with, leaning out of it instead of into it. While he showed fewer scruples when it came to displaying brother and sister pairings (Vixen and, I guess, the wraparound for Cherry, Harry, and Raquel), there is something in the way Meyer dips and dabs with the specific material here that reflects a filmmaker whose robust love for sex came when there was an explicit buy-in for everyone involved. Kinks are one thing and are nobody’s business but the parties engaged, but Meyer clearly feels there is a demarcation between that and a place where things get a little more creepily complicated. Much like hardcore pornography which would begin to encroach upon his work in the 70’s, there was just a place where Meyer would not dare go whether it was due to matters of taste or something deeper and personal.

And while thinking of Meyer’s work as not being very deep and personal is probably the norm, a closer view of his work in total doesn’t much give evidence to that opinion. Regardless of his public proclamations to the contrary, Meyer’s sexual identity is laid bare in his films and, as he went along, it feels like that identity gets a little more complex and is deeper than the rote and standard observation that he loved big tits.

Or, as Mr. Rickett succinctly puts it in Common Law Cabin when asked if everything he says is a double entendre, “It’s not what people say that’s important. It’s what they do.”

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

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