AGFA (Blu-ray) (US R0HD)
The largely undocumented history of gay underground cinema outside of heavy hitters like Andy Warhol is still fertile ground waiting to be brought back to light, and a welcome step in that direction comes with this 2021 Blu-ray release from AGFA, What Really Happened to Baby Jane? And the Films of the Gay Girls Riding Club. Also known by its acronym GGRC, the L.A.-based club (founded by onetime network TV professional Ray Harrison) put on various events including drag balls and the occasional real horseback riding shindig when they weren't turning out quick, cheap, campy DIY films often inspired by real Hollywood productions. Here you get five of their not-quite-magnum opuses in all their glory, complete with a sensibility tied to the films of more familiar names like John Waters, Andy Milligan, Walt Davis, Curt McDowell, and the Kuchar brothers. The films here chart a decades' worth of work, with a clear progression along the way from scrappy silent B&W shorts to ambitious feature-length color extravaganzas with exhibition also moving from initial private play at bars, parties, and drag shows to limited runs at gay-themed grindhouse theaters around the turn of the '70s.
First up is 1962's Always on Sunday (8m21s), a silent (with music and intertitles) riff on Jules Dassin's 1960 Greek international smash Never on Sunday about a hooker's potential path to respectability. The plot gets mostly thrown out here as we focus on party girl Ilya (Melina Hoover) and her escapades with her fellow working girls and sailor clients at a bar in Piraeus, "ancient port of love," complete with a bartender played by the wonderfully named "Furi Cote." Anyone unfamiliar with the original film will probably be left scratching their heads at this one, but it's a lively introduction to the GGRC style with Harrison (who directed most and possibly all of their films, originally under the name "Connie B. DeMille") showing a surprising fidelity to the visual style of the source.
The following year's What Really Happened to Baby Jane? (31m32s) ups the ante considerably with a hastily-shot lampoon of a certain horror classic from Robert Aldrich, sticking quite close to its inspiration including a lengthy pre-credits sequence and most of the major plot points covered quite well. The drill here is mostly the same with a rivalry ignited since childhood between showbiz sisters Baby Jane (GGRC regular star Warren Fremming, billed as "Freida") and Blanche (Roz Berri), the latter confined to a wheelchair after a tragic car accident the same night she won an Oscar. It's actually impressive how well they pull off the big set pieces from the original film, albeit with a bit of extra campy splash throughout and a great little twist ending that completely upends the original finale into something much more celebratory.
Also hailing from 1963 is the Tennessee Williams-inspired The Roman Springs on Mrs. Stone (19m14s), obviously riding the coattails of Warner Bros.' 1961 production of The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone starring Vivien Leigh. The gist here is the same as aging actress Karen Stone ("Michele Lay"-- no points for guessing her real identity here) finds herself abroad in, ahem, "Italy" where she gets to mingle with the jet set and hang around swimming pools as she becomes enamored with a smooth-talking gigolo, Paulo (Antonio Vierra), who's abetted by the Countessa Vaselinni ("Lottie Zircon").
The most Something Weird-ish of the batch is easily 1967's Spy on the Fly (43m42s), a very fragmented and ridiculous spy spoof in which Agent 0069 (Fremming again) has to embark on a covert car trip (in drag) from L.A. to San Francisco involving a pickup of some top secret atomic bomb plans picked up at "Madame Tussaud's Beauty Parlor in Beverly Hills," where the mayhem starts right away with electrocution via salon dryer. A great (albeit insanely repetitive) soundtrack of library surf rock music virtually steals the show here among all the silliness, plus a cool demo of how Fremming's female persona is created in the makeup chair since it's actually part of the plot here. You also get some fun scenery of what was likely a preplanned road trip that inspired the film, with stops at swingin' spots through Santa Barbara and Carmel before the big finale in a San Francisco opium den.
Finally we jump forward to 1972 with the last and longest film in the batch, All About Alice (68m2s), the only entry shot in (gorgeous) color and full sync sound. It's also the high point of the collection with an elaborate drag version of All About Eve, starting off with a Tony Awards ceremony where Alice Barrington (Jarman Christopher) manages to beat out "Julie Harris, Maureen Stapleton, Jessica Tandy, and Estelle Parsons" for the big actress award. In flashbacks we see how the scheming Alice ingratiated herself into the celebrity theater scene and tampered with the life of insecure star Mona Manning (Fremming, of course), as well as her best friends, Shirley (Chuck Bratton) and Peter (Wallace Fredericks). Alice even makes a move on Mona's beefy boy toy, Mike Cassidy, played by popular early '70s sex loop performer Dakota who provides all the hilariously gratuitous nudity here. The story's obviously been updated here with more sex and references to topics like Vietnam, but the thrust is the same here down to the ironic ending (which features a fun Homicidal-style extra twist here if you're paying attention).
For their home video debuts in any format, AGFA has given them the glamour treatment here with what are advertised as 2K preservations from the only known 16mm elements in existence (with Alice looking the best courtesy of the 16mm camera reversal). Obviously there's some wear and tear in spots on the earlier films, but all things considered they look pretty great. The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 mono tracks are obviously confined to the limitations of the sources, with frequently tinny music and very erratic dialogue recording being the standard here. Sympathy definitely goes out to whoever had to do the English SDH subtitles, which tend to resort to "(rapid indiscernible speaking") in some of the more muffled bits. What Really Happened to Baby Jane? also comes with a very informative new audio commentary with Ask Any Buddy's Evan Purchell and AGFA's Bret Berg, who cover the existing scarce info about the GGRC, the professional perils of making gay films in the '60s, the venues where these were shown, and the move to pornography which still left theaters looking for other programming to fill out their listings. Purchell also points out some of the recurring actors and gives some info on Harrison as well as parallel enterprises like the physique modeling world and gay magazines that now serve as a primary source for info about the scene. Also included is a reel of tame but interesting silent outtakes (10m9s) from Alice, while the reversible disc sleeve features some great vintage ads for these films showing how they were popping up past their sell-by date on some very interesting double and triple bills.
Reviewed on September 25, 2021