On paper, it must have seemed like a more than sure thing. In front of the camera you had Rock Hudson, Telly Savalas, Keenan Wynn, James Doohan, and Roddy McDowell - not to mention a dozen or so of the hottest early '70s starlets you've ever laid eyes on. Behind the lens, French filmmaking provocateur Roger Vadim (noted for uncovering cinematic sexiness and off his cult campfest Barbarella) was handling the directing chores while Gene Roddenberry cashed in some of his Star Trek cred to write the script. The production was so noteworthy (it was Vadim's first film in Hollywood) that Playboy even stepped up to do a full length feature (it helped that the auteur's prevalence toward onscreen nudity was part of the package). So when Pretty Maids All in a Row opened in 1971, MGM hoped for a hip, adult-themed thriller. What they got instead was a weird, wonky high school sex comedy with very few laughs, a murder mystery with an obvious whodunit, and a social satire so blatant it swung at its possible lampoon targets like a sledgehammer. Back then, it was seen as a failure. Today, it's a quaint curiosity with some intriguing post-release context to make things even more memorable.
Oceanfront High School has a problem. No, it's not the oddly named Ponce De Leon Harper and his propensity toward constant erections. No, it's not new substitute teacher Mrs. Smith, with breasts and a butt that can literally stop traffic. It can't be the majority of the student body because they're too busy believing in free love and the possible end of the War in Vietnam to cause much trouble...and it's definitely not Principal Proffer, an administrator who never met a difficulty he couldn't duck. No, the real contention seems to revolve around Guidance Counselor, Football Coach, school sage, and all around macho menace Michael "Tiger" McGrew. Using his status to gain the female students trust, he beds the babes with reckless abandon. When then start turning up dead, however, a suspicious policeman named Kojak...sorry, Captain Sam Surcher shows up and starts asking a lot of questions...only McGrew seems to be short on legitimate, non-psychobabble answers.
When Warner Brothers announced its Archive service a few months back, delivering catalog titles to eager consumers on a per request/DVR only basis, many wondered what hidden treasures would finally be unearthed. By all accounts, Pretty Maids All in a Row is a film perfect for such exclusive fan-obsessive treatment. Clearly not capable of capturing a mainstream consumer crowd (not even with Mr. "To Boldly Go..." as part of the PR), this offbeat genre gem/joke is best described as an heady acquired taste. One could easily describe it as a slasher movie where cockeyed humor replaces the standard slice and dice. You could also argue that it is a fiery hot skin flick with a closeted homosexual hunk as the lead hetero lothario. Yes, it is truly bizarre to see future tabloid headline Rock Hudson giving supposed high school babes the high hard one. He's believable, but the truth today turns his performance on its buff man's man cool cat in crowd behind. And don't worry ladies - future police woman and Brian DePalma window dressing Angie Dickinson is on hand to play horny, hard-up, and ready to bed the Partridge Family reject John David Carson. Yes - this film is just that bizarre.
Let's face it - Vadim is not a very good director - at least, not here. Pretty Maids All in a Row is choppy, illogical, and sometimes borderline incoherent. As long as he has his camera on a pair of pert nubile titties, the man is a master. But give him a joke and he'll flog it to death. Offer up some intrigue and he goes running back to the boobies. Heck, he even gets a chance to show us how the French perceive American football and the eccentric take on the sports action makes The Waterboy look like the Super Bowl. For all his carnal calling cards and critical drubbings, he is merely mediocre. But thanks to his cast, including a couple of players who clearly believe they were hired for a farce, the movie manages. In fact, Wynn and McDowell are so crazed and over the top that you'd swear chewing the scenery was part of their contract. Dickinson is also a hoot, hovering over her teenage boy toy like a Penthouse Forum letter subject and accepting the gift of an alcohol filled chocolate duck...to repeat, an ALCOHOL FILLED CHOCOLATE DUCK...with bottom lip biting sizzle. Actually, just getting the chance to see Savalas try out his "who loves ya baby" moves two years early is worth the price of admission.
In fact, taking in total, Pretty Maids All in a Row is a delicious bit of backwards glancing. All Vadim failings aside, it is a fairly accurate depiction of what progressives thought the younger generation was into forty years ago. The fashions are fantastic (including Hudson's shaggy, shapeshifting hairdo), the high school curriculum viewed as part sit-in, part free thinking happening. Room 222's Walt Whitman wishes it was as liberal as Oceanfront, the faculty apparently working out all their own personal issues within the naughty bits of the student 'body'. The corpses are just fodder for more dark wisecracks - McDowell's prissy principal even comments that the decision to hold all four funerals simultaneously was the best thing for everyone involved - after all, the kids have an important football game later in the afternoon. If films were graded on a scale of assumed lunacy, Pretty Maids All in a Row would be certifiable. It has all the potential to be a exciting, erotic thriller. Instead, Roger Vadim shows up and wants to give everything the Zabriskie Point/Model Shop approach. Maybe he should have told Roddenberry who was busy giving things his own goofy spin as well. In fact, no one was apparently on the same page during this film - and that's what makes Pretty Maids All in a Row so much fun.
As this is a catalog offering "burned" by Warners for online consumer purchase, the quality of the print is often problematic. In the case of MGM's Pretty Maids in a Row, a couple of scratches at the beginning and some faded colors along the way reveal the film's age. Otherwise, the 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image looks great - a little old and dated, but definitely DVD worthy. Be warned - the nudity here is sparse, quickly glimpsed, and unobtrusive. Vadim doesn't linger over it. Instead, he's like a school boy sneaking a peek in a neighbor's window and then running away before the image - and the angry subject - can respond.
The dialogue is easily discernible. The musical score is memorable. All of it is presented in a Dolby Digital Mono mix that's a tad tinny and a bit flat. We don't expect immersion here, or some manner of directional, multichannel offering. Things are clean and a little too crisp. Still, the results are polished and professional.
None - pursuant to almost all of the Warners Archive titles.
When you see the cast, when you read the names involved in the production and take the time and the subject matter into consideration, Pretty Maids All in a Row sets up expectations that you just know will be hard to meet. Instead, this surreal examination of the early '70s 'student body' exceeds our filmic prospects - just not in the ways you initially imagined. Earning an easy Highly Recommended rating, this is one celluloid antique that definitely deserved unearthing. It may not be the sexiest or most provocative look at student/teacher canoodling ever conceived, and there are elements outside the narrative itself that the movie could never have anticipated at the time. Even then, some old oddities merit remaining underwraps. In the case of Pretty Maids All in a Row, it deserves to let its frisky freak flag fly!
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