Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
This compendium of Playboy history has one good thing going for it; it charts the history of every one
of its monthly playmate centerfold 'celebrity women' from 1953 to 2003. The disc liner notes state that
this is the first time the centerfold-ography has been, uh, laid out in one place. A longish, graphics-heavy
'docu' on the history of the magazine and its playmate history serves as new content. The rest of the
two-disc set repackages playmate 'profiles' for those who care.
The history docu is pure fluff as only the Playboy organization puts it out. We're treated
to a constant barrage of moving graphics that give the impression of a wealth of visuals. They're all eye
candy for an interesting and factual but entirely self-serving biography of Hugh Hefner and his
magazine. It's an interesting story if one hasn't heard it before; an energetic midwestern boy turns his
keen imagination to marketing a commodity previously denied to American males - glossy pictures of
naked women. Thus women, sex and a hedonistic lifestyle became another product on the consumer racks. If
the women look too good to be true, the Playboy fantasy assures us that the hot life is more
possible than one might think, provided one has the material success that is the true value being
celebrated by the magazine. Be a hard-charging captain of industry or wildly successful entrepreneur, and
the sports cars, batchelor pads and babes can all be yours. Playboy has indeed contributed to
the culture, but at least half of that contribution has been providing a target for satire and criticism.
Hefner's fantasy folded in on itself as the Playboy empire grew. Money attracts, and as the
prospect of fame and success became possible simply by taking one's clothes off and being glamorous
in a national magazine, he no longer had problems finding models. The outside nude camera pros were no
longer needed and the photos themselves were no longer legally risky. But
the magazine became more about Hef, about his fantasy mansion stocked with presumably willing babes
and the playboy clubs and the jet and the television show (that always looked like a bunch of
beautiful wannabes trying to act like they were having fun). The amazing rise of the Playboy
empire is briskly covered, even if the text tries to hard to relate it directly to the 60s wave of
permissive liberal thought. The docu also avoids any mention of inconvenient politics, even though the
magazine often took controversial stances. The show also doesn't cover the eventual closing of the Key
Clubs or the calming of the magazine into a smooth corporate money machine. The magazine is
still printed on good paper, but the spirit has changed.
The fifty centerfolds are presented in an animated format organized by year and decade. I was mostly
interested in seeing which 50s and 60s actresses had been in the magazine, as so many used the honor
as part of their PR image. Sure enough, there was Bettie Page, Jayne Mansfield, Eve Meyer, Sally Todd
(Frankenstein's Daughter), Mara Corday
(Tarantula!, Yvette Vickers (Attack of the 50 Foot Woman), Stella Stevens, Connie Mason
(Blood Feast), China Lee
(What's Up Tiger Lily?), Susan Denberg
(Frankenstein Created Woman),
Claudia Jennings and the Collinson Twins. In most cases, later fame was probably not determined by
the appearance in Playboy - Stella Stevens, for instance, earned her way as a solid actress.
More interesting is seeing how the concept of the centerfold evolved. The early foldouts were nudie
pros shot in standard girlie pinup fashion, followed by attempts at various kinds of glamour. The
dumbest I noted was a fireside shot with strategically-placed flames.
Of course, Hef's 'girl next door' publicity hype was all wet. We look at the playmates through
the decades and have a hard time associating any personality with most of them. Most come across
as women completely subjugating their identities to the desires of the male gaze. If they are intelligent,
Hef has them spouting fluffy nonsense that makes them seem like sex-toy idiots. The proof of this is
through the females we know from later acting careers. Stella Stevens just looks like another
accomodating dame instead of the distinct personality she was later able to project. Interesting actress
Mara Corday is anonymous, although not as interchangeably zombie-like as most of the rubbery
models of more recent decades.
The 80s and 90s are given a disc of their own with individual Playmate profiles
on each Playmate of the year. They appear to be recycled material; the video organization seems to have
been putting out 3 or four shows a month for at least fifteen years. Among the girls are only three or four
really memorable names, Dorothy Stratten, Shannon Tweed and Anna Nicole Smith. Each has her legacy, but
not always in a positive sense.
Playboy's Playboy 50 Years of Playmates is a fine DVD for quality. The art is presented as
smoothly as possible and the graphic interfaces are fine. The musical selections in the docu and
behind the pinups tend to sound too much like cheap library cues, but you can't have everything. This
is going to be a nostalgic disc for the kind of viewer who remembers the Playboy empire as a big
influence on his formative years.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Playboy 50 Years of Playmates rates:
Movie: Good, or at least it delivers on its promise
Packaging: 2 discs in fat keep case
Reviewed: September 23, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2004 Glenn Erickson
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