THE RUSS MEYER FILES: EVE AND THE HANDYMAN (1960)

Russ Meyer had to take incremental steps to get to become the storied and respected filmmaker that he eventually did. His first step was being a gifted photographer who was as adept at his skill as mortars and debris rained down around him in the heat of battle as he was while studying the contours of his models’ bodies as they were lying at the base of an oak tree while bathed in dappled sunlight. His second step was punching through the wall of morality and releasing The Immoral Mr. Teas, his groundbreaking film that introduced actual nudity in a motion picture to those who would pay for the privilege to see it.

I would bet that Meyer’s most important step in the evolution of his success was hooking up with and marrying the former Eve Turner in 1952. No doubt that Meyer had talent to burn and that his personality caused him to be a little shrewd but Eve took his game to a whole other level. At once both his business partner and muse, Eve Meyer pumped life into his output in which she was the subject by being both impossibly built and having a uniquely strong relationship with the camera. In terms of what they did for each other and each other’s work, you’d probably have to look to Jess Franco and Lina Romay for something comparable.

So it’s something of a shame that, as far as his motion pictures went, Eve Meyer was only ever in front of the camera in Eve and the Handyman, Russ’s follow-up to the previous year’s Teas. But her presence in it is both sly and smart; Eve Meyer is the primary woman on display in this film and it ends up being ten times as effective as Teas without having to resort to any nudity on her behalf.

Like Teas before it, Eve and the Handyman is little more than a sketch-pad for Meyer’s visual ideas and micro-budgeted creativity. A jack-of-all-trades handyman (Anthony-James Ryan) is stalked by a mysterious, trench-coated blonde whose constant, double entendre-stacked voice-over narration positions the film as a bawdy, Dragnet-style procedural in which every move of the handyman is noted and remarked upon by his voyeuristic pursuer. Gone is the gimmick in which naked girls pop up to awkwardly pose in the daydreams and hallucinations of our protagonist only to be replaced by our bumbling hero staying 100% focused on his day-to-day tasks, never to be distracted by the many buxom women he encounters along the way (mostly all played by Eve Meyer in various get-ups).

Where Teas reflected women contented to be placed like statues and given little to do, Eve wants women to be the driver of the engine. Teas wants to be a moving centerfold and Eve wants to be the whole damn magazine. The jokes are livelier, the mood is more jovial, and, more importantly, Eve Meyer flips the script by giving the audience an instance in which the woman is on top and the man is the dope. Sexually oblivious, Bill Ryan’s Handyman gets saddled with Eve Meyer almost exclusively because her mission is to, ostensibly, wise him up. So she becomes every woman in his path while remaining the detective that wants to sell him toilet supplies in the end.

Eve Meyer’s presence in this film couldn’t help but inform Meyer as to what exactly he wanted in the future. For Eve Meyer is the first “Russ Meyer Woman.” Eve Meyer showed Russ Meyer how to present a woman who looked like she wanted to be wanted. More importantly, she wanted the audience to know she knew they knew that she wanted to be wanted. Untangle all that and you’re are the heart of what makes Russ Meyer’s films stand so far apart from other films of their ilk that the massive delta between them renders it unfair to mention them in the same breath. Show me a Russ Meyer film that’s blessed with a narrative structure and I’lll show you a heroine that sprung forth from Eve Meyer’s roots which are so firmly planted in this film.

Once past the nudie cuties, the cinema of Russ Meyer is as equally hilarious and exhilarating as it is titillating. And even if the nudie cuties are tame pieces of antiquity, they aren’t bereft of a good laugh or two. The jokes in Eve take a while to unfold and your mileage with them may vary; they might or might not be worth it, depending on your perspective. But this film is the first to have this specific blend of broad, sight-gag humor and sex which was mostly missing from Teas, a film that feels like it can barely breathe lest it get caught doing what it wants to be doing. Additionally, in employing a panoply of visual ideas representative of intercourse and orgasm (the constant churning of oil wells, the coupling of trains, etc.), Meyer gives the thrust of the train into the tunnel at the end of Hitchcock’s North By Northwest, itself released a scant one year earlier, nowhere to hide.

As stated before (and likely will be stated at least one more time in this series), there’s just not a lot of there there in the subgenre of the nudie cuties. They are what they are and the trick is to try and enjoy them with a sense of historical context because there just aren’t many of them that are going to stop the conversation at a dinner party and become the thing everyone will have to have seen before the next get-together. Depending on the director and the talent involved, they mostly all run the gamut between unwatchable and pleasant enough. With Eve and the Handyman, Russ and Eve Meyer joined forces to give the audience something a little more more memorable; electric burlesque compliments of Eve’s stong, palpable sexuality reminiscent of one of Howard Hawks’s joyously randy heroines and Myer’s clean compositions, edited together like a breathless Gatling gun shooting off eye candy.

“The biggest catch in life, my friends, is a happy ending,” so says our heroine in the final line of the film. As much as that phrase meant something even in the creaky days of 1960, the film earns its right to use it as Eve and the Handyman, while not the best or bawdiest of Russ Meyer’s output, is truly his first effective mix of the sex and the sublime.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

THE RUSS MEYER FILES: THE IMMORAL MR. TEAS (1959)

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