Birth of a Nation (aka The Clansman) without condoning the central conceit that the Ku Klux Klan are the heroes of the piece. Understanding that there had been nothing like Citizen Kane seen in theaters before Welles popped it up there might help you stop yourself from declaring it “boring” in public, which will rescue you from getting your skull caved in by film scholars. Often, movies set in their contemporary times often serve as snapshots of history in terms of culture, fashion, politics and attitude. To that end, Pretty Maids All in a Row is a preservation of a singular moment in time—a specific ten minutes during the height of the sexual revolution, possibly just moments before the criminalization of “statutory rape”.
The early ‘70s were a dynamite time to attend Oceanfront High School. There isn’t a single chick in your biology class that isn’t a stone fox and the female students seem to outnumber the males by about thirty to one. And hell, those boys are all football jocks—even Ponce De Leon Harper, the team’s “student manager”, is a decent-looking chap and pretty cool for a virgin. But that latter part is a drag, man. Being seventeen and never even touching a girl? What a bring-down. Fortunately for Ponce, Vice Principal and Guidance Counselor “Tiger” McDrew (Rock Hudson) has taken him under his wing. He wants to see the lad follow in his footsteps—go off to college, come back to the school to teach and coach, and be a master with the ladies. He even cooks up a scheme to help Ponce score with the new substitute teacher, Miss Smith (Angie Dickenson), who wears even less than the female students causing Ponce to walk funny every minute of the day. But there’s a real bummer harshing everyone’s vibe—seems there’s a serial killer on the loose at the school. Girls are turning up murdered, with notes pinned to their panties referring to them as “Honey”. I mean, like, who calls someone “Honey” any more?
Now the state fuzz is all over the school, Captain Sarcher (Telly Savalas) and his partner Follo (James Doohan) are questioning everyone. And that’s cutting into Tiger’s time with all his pupils. I mean, he has a lot on his plate. The “Testing” sign above his locked office door is always on, ya dig? And the big game is on Friday! You don’t think these murders are gonna interfere, do you? No way, man.
Okay, I’ve had my fun. Pretty Maids All In A Row has one of the strangest pedigrees of any movie in my recent memory. A black comedy based on a less-than-popular novel by Francis Pollini, adapted for the screen by Gene Roddenberry of all people, directed by Roger Vadim (in a funk over his recent divorce from Jane Fonda—who certainly didn’t take kindly to his casting her brother, Peter, as her love interest in Spirits of the Dead, not that that was the direct cause of the split), co-starring Keenan Wynn and Roddy McDowell and “introducing” John David Carson, whose biggest claim to fame is that he was the runner up to play “David” on The Partridge Family. Other folks popping up include Roddenberry’s Star Trek pal Doohan as Savalas’ partner, and JoAnna Cameron (TV’s Isis).
The movie’s tone is all over the place and Vadim downplays the mystery aspect of the movie to concentrate on the sex romp. Shooting in his usual bland “soap commercial” style, Vadim frames everyone on a lateral plane and lets the dumb story play out. Fetishizing all the girls, amplifying the fact that young women were coming into their own sexually at the tail end of the ‘60s, high on women’s equality and the sexual revolution, there isn’t a single female character portrayed as anything more than an object of desire. Micro-mini skirts, skin-tight pants, high booted and bra-less, these “Pretty Maids” are that and nothing more. Even Dickenson is a characture babe, though her romance with Ponce is handled with more dignity and grace than any of the proceedings. For the most part, the movie is preoccupied with all of Tiger’s trysts with the female students. Let’s forget for a moment that he’s married and has a daughter, and let’s even forget that each of his partners is under seventeen, when does he find the time to teach and coach and do all the things he’s seen in the movie that make him so groovy to the students? He’s always in his office with one naked girl after another, his “testing” light on and door locked—in fact, “Lock the door” is his casual way of signaling that he wants to “make it” with whoever enters his room. Like every male fantasy played out in Penthouse Forum, every girl is ready and willing just for him. “My generation is more liberated,” explains Rita—played by “Joy Bang”. “We’re more in touch with our emotions.”
Swell. The fact that all of the murdered girls were sexually assaulted before being strangled never seems very important to any of the police—not to bumbling Keenan Wynn (constantly reduced to directing traffic by the irritated Savalas), not even to the hard-boiled Sarcher. In fact, the murders themselves seem to be little more than an inconvenience. After all, the best that anyone can say about the first victim is that she was a “great little cheerleader” (and only Ponce takes offense to that and only once). The funerals are all held at the same time, as a run-up to the big game (“We never practise on the day of a murder,” Ponce says to one of the players) and the only wet-eyes belong to Tiger—one student is idly blowing bubbles during the eulogy—and that seems to be because he lost a few great pieces of ass. Even when the murderer is unveiled, to no one’s surprise, it seems secondary to the fact that Ponce finally made it with Miss Smith and is on his way to becoming a ladies man like ol’ Tiger.
Despite a heavy campaign by MGM, which included a multi-page spread in Playboy, Pretty Maids All in a Row bombed when it was released, but not for the reasons you’d think. It appears that today’s society is far more outraged by teenage sexuality than that of the ‘70s. The main criticisms seemed to be leveled at Vadim’s uninspired direction and the bland performance by Carson (despite his early turgid turmoil depicted as intentionally hilarious). ‘70s audiences had no trouble with bubble-headed sex kitten Dickenson or swinger Hudson in his polyester pants and porno mustache. As Rita says, that generation was more liberated and not as hung up on those sorts of things. And at the time, Hudson, as Tiger, was the guy all the women wanted and all the guys wanted to be. Forty years ago he wasn’t a skeezy scumbag with a thing for little girls. That Dickenson has only a momentary lapse of conscience before bedding Ponce is secondary—she even explains that she wants it as much as he does. Their scenes together, however, do smack of amusing subversion. Their animalistic mating sequences were surely meant to parody Hudson’s squeaky clean pairings with Doris Day. (Though the mental image of Hudson mauling Day has to be upsetting to even the hardest cynic.)
So while this is all now embaressing at best and offensive at worst, to watch Pretty Maids with a level head, you have to ground yourself firmly in the times during which it was made. The casual approach to the murders is high black comedy; the swinging the pinnacle of hip. If you modern-day viewers can choke down your puritanical instincts in these days of post-Janet-Jackson-wardrobe-malfunction (and keep his lunch down during those sex scenes with Hudson), you will discover a biting, sardonic script at work. Much has been made of Daniel Waters taking inspiration for Heathers from Massacre at Central High, but it isn’t too hard to see Pretty Maids’ fingerprints on that seminal ‘80s movie.
But as far as the mechanics of the film, Vadim apologists have described his style as acutely “European”, so reducing females to the basics of their anatomy is less fetishism as it is liberal and modern (he even poses a naked Dickenson in a way to homage ex-wife Brigitte Bardot in his own And God Created Women…), but one man’s liberated is another man’s uninspired. Other “European” touches seem to be a disinterested approach to background sound and room tone—all of which seem to utterly disappear when the ADR’d dialogue pops up.
But there is also a good deal of delicious irony to be mined by modern viewing. Make all the jokes you want about Hudson’s real-life sexuality, Savalas smoking (though lighting the matches with his thumb is damned cool). Pause now, too, to make as many Star Trek jokes as you want; be sure to include references to Uhura’s and Nurse Chapel’s own micro-skirts (same costumer, after all). And let’s not forget to mention that this sex-and-murder hilarity fest was scored by uber-straight Mormon family, The Osmonds.
Ultimately, your enjoyment of Pretty Maids All in a Row will rely on your own sensibilities at the time of watching. If you’re squirming during the opening sequence of under-age ass-shots, you might be better off switching to something else. It’s likely that all the teen sexuality is what’s kept this movie from getting a legitimate DVD release—or even a cable restoration as the TCM print I watched was pretty worn, dirty and suffered from severe chemical “breathing” in the third reel. But then, I guess, if you feel guilty for getting turned on or off or whatever, someone is just going to accuse you something or other, so you’re damned no matter what you do. As for me, feeling dirty is always preferable to piety. Like Billy Joel sang, “Sinners are much more fun.”