The Immoral Mr.Teas
Cherry, Harry& Raquel
|by Nathaniel Thompson |
MEMORIES FROM RUSS MEYER & CAST AT THE EGYPTIAN THEATER, LOS ANGELES, 1999
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the world of Russ Meyer. A filmmaker unencumbered by modern society's notionsof what a movie should be. A man for whom no plotline is too extravagant, no action too intense, and no women too top heavy. A raging libidinous font of creativity whose rapid, ingenious editing defined a generation and scandalized the censors. Strap on your seatbelts, folks, and get ready for a wild trip through a filmography which cuts a ragged path through the entire underbelly of American exploitation cinema. And remember...there's always something big about a Russ Meyer movie!
Born in San Leandro, California on March21, 1922, Meyer began shooting his own films when he was fourteen years old. His service in World War II turned out to be a growing experiencein many ways; aside from continuing to sharpen his filmmaking skills in and out of the Army, he was also among the soldiers who landed in Normandy during World War II, a time he regards as the most exciting of his life. Itwas during his military tenure in France that he met a guy named Ernest Hemingway, who had a strong influence on Russ' passage into manhood. After the war, Meyer found his camera expertise in high demand; aside from working as a cameraman on such major Hollywood productions as Giant,he also became a freelance photographer for Playboy and other pinup publications, even cutting his teeth on a 1950 short film, The French Peep Show. However, Meyer could not resist the urge to strike out on his own, so he decided to make a movie called The Immoral Mr. Teas. The result became a classic of its kind and made the first of many fortunes for its creator. Today Mr. Teas seems like little more than your average nudie cutie, with its silent title character granted the power to see through clothing and the comical results which follow forming bulk of its one hour running time.
Several other soft nudie films followed,the most notable of which, Eve and the Handyman, starred Russ' wife, Eve, who later went on to serve as his right hand on every film until her tragic death in a plane crash. The other lead in thefilm, Jim Ryan, worked on most of Meyer's subsequent projects and even made cameo appearances through the early '70s. About Ryan, Meyer remarks, "He was a great help. Never a problem, never gave me a hassle. Everything he contributed to the films was enormous." In 1963, Meyer hit his next milestone with Lorna, a seedy backwoods tale of a neglected wife who fools around with an escaped convict while her husband's away for the day. Violent consequences soon follow. Shot in moody black and white, the film has little storytelling drive, focusing more on the strange incidentals along the way, and kicked off a new wave of exploitation filmmaking, the"roughie." From the beginning, Meyer displayed a love for narrators in his films (a by-product of his stint doing industrial films), and in Lorna, the narrator, a fire and brimstone preacher, actually appeared onscreen at key moments to rail at the audience. Lorna herself was played by "the outrageously abundant, cantilevered Lorna Maitland - the new standard of beauty by which all women shall be judged," as the ads put it. Lorna was Meyer's first formal narrative work, and the introduction of violence into the filmic brew inspired what was his finest film by that point, Mudhoney. A released convict moves into a Tobacco Road-style community and finds himself in the middle of a domestic war between a rich, kindly old man, his daughter, and her no good lech husband who uses religion like a sledgehammer. Excellent acting, stark photography, and the usual razor sharp editing create a multi-layered atmosphere of dread and twisted sexuality which would continue to carry over into Meyer's next several efforts.
The biker craze was sweeping the nationin the mid-'60s, and Meyer decided to take his stab at this wild fad with Motorpsycho, starring his recurring actress, Haji, in her only true leading role. Alex Rocco, who went on to appear in The Godfather and The Stunt Man, co-starred in this violent drive-instudy of a trio of delinquents whose rampage through the desert starts a deadly cycle of revenge. On Motorpsycho, according to Haji, "the only one with a trailer was Russ and his girlfriend. There were spiders, scorpions, everything. We had one little outhouse and a big barrel on top of four wooden planks for a shower, and it was so cold that you would have to stop and pray before you went in."
At the time, Meyer's next film seemed like little more than a female variation on Motorpsycho, but the results were anything but conventional. Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is a masterpiece of 1960s filmmaking which, though not a runaway hit at the time, became a huge cult favorite, not surprising since John Waters cited it as his favorite film. "Pussycat has lived and lived," Meyer notes. "I've been with it over in Russia, Germany, almost every country really." The film's success crosses many boundaries and is one of the few Meyer films to be wildly popular with female viewers. In Pussycat, three go go dancers decide to take a break from the club and head off to the desert, where they start a deadly game of chicken with a young couple. The statuesque, demonic leader of the psycho go gos, Varla, is played by Tura Satana, an unforgettable screen presence. At the time, recalls Satana,"I was called for a reading, and I was in middle of shooting Irma LaDouce. The rapport between everybody on the set was very, very good. Everybody did everything from moving props to marking scenery and marking spots where we had to be in the next take. I had to stage the fight scenes because nobody else knew how to do them, and so literally when I did the fight scenes, I really had to pick up each and every one of those guys and carry them through in order for them to look realistic. Basically I had to lay one guy on the floor because he was afraid he was going to get hurt. A lot of it actually had to be done in reverse,so try to imagine doing a fight scene that way." Satana went on towork for B-film director Ted V. Mikels, most notably in The Astro-Zombies with John Carradine, but Pussycat remains the film which fans prize above all others. "You have to see this movie more than once because there are so many lines in there you don't get at once," she observes. Satana's life away from the camera remained equally fascinating; she appeared with Elvis Presley in Tickle Me and even dated the King himself before his marriage to Priscilla. She then worked as a professionalbodyguard, often in Las Vegas, and her appearance of martial arts expertise in the film was no illusion: "I am a Go Ku green belt in Aikido, blackbelt in Karate, judo, and kendo."
Haji also returned in this film as Varla's sidekick and possibly lover. "I was dancing in a nightclub, and that's where Russ discovered me. He took five people out there in the desert besides the actors and made a great quality film - the sound, everything. It was amazing. Later I worked on a big production and thought, 'All these people, God, what they all doing here?' It makes no difference how many people you bring onto a film. If you're thinking about becoming a filmmaker, this man should be your inspiration." Despite Meyer's penchant for filling his movies with gorgeous women, he usually avoided mixing business with pleasure. Explains Haji, "He would tell all the leading ladies not to make love the night before shooting because it would show stress in her eyes from being up all night. He took us to the desert because there was no way out! There was nothing you could do!"
The third dancer in the film, the gorgeous blonde Lori Williams, held her own against these two exotic beauties. "This was really my first job," Williams explains. "I'd gotten an agent, and he sent me on an interview. Russ didn't want to hire me because he didn't think I had a big enough bust! I said I could use pushups in my bra, which I did. He didn't know whether it would work, but then in rehearsals he finally said okay. I kind of did my part like a cartoon, like the rest of the film, bigger than life." Afterwards Williams demurred from further acting roles, choosing to become a casting director and now working as a real estate broker. However, her place in cinematic history has already been assured.
In Pussycat, the three women take a young girl hostage to an isolated farm owned by a crippled rich man played by Stuart Lancaster, who had earlier appeared in Mudhoney. Lancaster went on to appear in more Meyer films than any other performer,and his marvelous voice and appealing demeanor managed to make even the most mundane scenes amusing. The object of Lancaster's lecherous affections in the film, the young hostage, was played by Susan Bernard, a Playboy Playmate. "At the time I was sixteen years old and doing some theater in Los Angeles. Like all ambitious young actresses, I was reading Variety every day. There was this huge ad that said, 'Needed is all-American girl who looks good in a bikini.' And I said,'I can do that!'
Following a goofy documentary, MondoTopless, in which Meyer took his narrator fetishism to outrageous extremes, he quickly turned out three modest but interesting films focusing on such subjects as marital fidelity and the human criminal instinct: Good Morning... and Goodbye! ("an honest motion picture which explores the deepest complexities of contemporary life, as applied to love and marriage in these United States" -- with Haji as a forest nymph!), Common Law Cabin, and Finders Keepers, Lovers Weepers, which began his technique for intercutting strange, kinky sex scenes (such as a watery tryst and a chest-shaving) with bizarre unrelated activity (a dermolotion derby, in this case). Or as the ads explained, "Russ Meyer's spirited ruttings happen on pool tables, in showers, in swimming pools... even in bed!"
1968 began the third and perhaps most astonishing phase of his career: the outrageous, Technicolor sex opus. Vixen,starring the incomparable Erica Gavin, immediately caused a furor throughout the country and, according to Meyer, went onto become his most successful film. "Vixen and all of those films seem so mild now," marvels Gavin, who dropped out of acting in the mid-'70s. "It's really hard to believe that movie was actually banned in Cincinnati! It was a lot of fun and really exciting to work with Russ." In the film, Gavin portrays a married woman in Canada whose bush pilot husband's frequent absences give her to opportunity to pounce on anyone who crosses her path, including her own brother. The husband brings a young married couple to stay with them, and Vixen promptly sleeps with both of them after doing an erotic dance with a fish that must beseen to be believed. The climax of Vixen, which gave it the necessary "social significance" to avoid obscenity charges, features the racist Vixen, a black draft dodger, and a Communist spouting hysterical rhetoric until the tongue in cheek conclusion.
Vixen's tremendous profits caught the eye of the major studios, and 20th Century-Fox soon extended an offer to bring him into the Hollywood fold. However, Meyer managed to crank out one film in between, Cherry, Harry & Raquel. Even Meyer often changes his story about how this film exactly came to be; either he was dissatisfied with it in the editing room, or an entire reel of shot footage was lost. In either case, the narrative was so choppy and incomplete in its initial cut that Meyer filmed some surreal, unrelated snippets of "super abundant" Uschi Digard as "Soul," running around the desert in an Indian headdress, plopping a tuba on her head, and splashing around in a pool. The body of the film concerned a corrupt bordertown sheriff, Harry, waging a drug war against the mysterious Apache. Meanwhile he sleeps with two different women, Cherry and Raquel, who wind up together as Harry finally has a showdown with his nemises. Virtually incomprehensible but filled with action from start to finish, the film remains a prime example of Meyer's brilliant editing technique in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. As Harry, the square-jawed Charles Napier ("Seven more teeth than Burt Lancaster!," Meyer is prone to quip) makes a solid lead and went on to find favor in Hollywood with the Austin Powers series, Rambo: First Blood Part II, and virtually every Jonathan Demme film. Napier explains, "Working with Russ Meyer was like being in the first wave landing in Normandy during World War II crossed with a weekend in a whorehouse. I'd done an early Star Trek before Cherry, Harry & Raquel, but that was about it. Seeing the movie 28 years later makes me want to go have plastic surgery." At the time Napier was hired, according to Meyer, his views on women were hardly progressive, but a screening of Faster Pussycat convinced him otherwise. "He was so much against women being in charge, as it were, but when he saw this film with women being strong, he thought, maybe there's something to this!"
Sadly, Russ Meyer passed away in 2004. Following his death, his filmic legacy has not been treated respectfully in the DVD era and beyond, to put it mildly.
Erica Gavin conducted a fascinating in-depth interview in 2010 with Ian Jane; it's very highly recommended reading.