1975, 81 mins. 46 secs.
Directed by David Buckley
Starring Robert Aberdeen, Ellen Sheppard, Don Scotti
Altered Innocence (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Water Bearer (DVD) (US R0 NTSC)
Post-Stonewall films in the '70s were filled with themes of gay liberation and gender-bending lifestyles, but while female bisexuality was a mainstay of erotic cinema for ages, for some reason the subject of male bisexuality remained overlooked. A few films did tackle it in fascinating and ultimately successful ways, most notably Radley Metzger's Score, John Schlesinger's Sunday Blood Sunday, Bob Fosse's Cabaret, and Jerry Douglas' Both Ways, while adult film actors would switch hit far more frequently than audiences realized (occasionally in high-profile fare like The Taking of Joanna). A title like Saturday Night at the Baths might lead you to expect a flamboyant peek at the pre-AIDS open sexuality and legendary cabaret performances that typified the bathhouses in major cities, which spawned the careers of Bette Midler, Barry Manilow, and hundreds of drag queens. What you actually get here is something more complicated and surprising, a portrait of a committed heterosexual man whose horizons are broadened by working at the famous Continental Baths (which closed a year after the film's release and turned into the infamous Plato's Retreat). As the film acknowledges, several of the men frequenting the premises were married to women who may or may not have known about their extracurricular activities, and it's this blurring of the lines that makes the film especially interesting today.
Freshly relocated to New York City from Montana, pianist Michael Lawrence (Aberdeen) lands a gig performing nightclub music at the famously "decadent" Continental Baths. Uncomfortable working around gay clientele and management, Michael lives in a Soho apartment with his girlfriend Tracy (Sheppard) and becomes friends with the emcee and manager, Scotti (real-life Continental manager Scotti). As the trio get to know each other better and Michael gets ready for his big debut at the keyboard, he starts to question his own sexual identity and wonders what this new environment might reveal about himself.
By the time this film was made, the real Continental Baths had fully embraced the campy floor shows that would draw a huge crossover crowd and ultimately spell its demise with the core customer base. Thankfully the filmmakers deliver a fantastic cinematic time capsule late in the film when we see a typical Saturday night complete with Diana Ross, Judy Garland, and Carmen Miranda imitators along with plenty of disco dancing, shower canoodling, and chanteuse Jane Olivor who went on to a mainstream career including the Oscar-nominated theme song from Same Time, Next Year. There's enough equal opportunity sex and nudity to qualify this as softcore, but the approach doesn't feel very exploitative and springs naturally from the characters. It's not a perfect film; the acting is uneven to put it mildly, especially in the opening stretch, and no matter how you slice it, Michael is kind of a jerk who probably doesn't deserve five minutes of Scotti's time. It's the depiction of an age long gone by the really fuels this one though including some fun digressions like an outrageous park football game that has to be seen to be believed.
In a bit of a blow to this film's reputation, Saturday Night at the Baths was issued on DVD in 2006 by Water Bearer Films in a heavily cut version that completely omitted a key sex scene at the end of the film. As a result first-time viewers were annoyed at the imbalance of the narrative that didn't seem to have any real payoff, but the complete and far superior version was reissued in 2008. Both are absurdly overpriced now, and you can ignore them in favor of the beautifully remastered Blu-ray and DVD editions from Altered Innocence in 2022. The presentation is completely uncut and far better looking than ever before with a lot of detail in the dark club scenes and some very punchy colors everywhere. The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 mono track sounds fine and features optional English or Spanish subtitles, which can come in handy with a few badly recorded lines. The insightful Lee Gambin video essay "A Bi-Product of the Baths" (17m50s) explores how the film's depiction of male bisexuality operates as a kind of "war cry" for how to regard intimacy and physicality in the mid-'70s, while interviews with Scotti and director David Buckley (24m37s) and Scotti (17m55s) examine the real-life hurdles to getting the film made, the avoidance of making a traditional skin flick, Scotti's entry into the bathhouse world while working on Fire Island, and the process of capturing the real Continental Baths ambiance on film at the business' peak of popularity. A new restoration trailer is included along with bonus trailers for Equation to an Unknown, L.A. Plays Itself, Pals, and Two Films by Arthur J. Bressan Jr.
Reviewed on November 13, 2022