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Playboy 50 Years of Playmates

Playboy 50 Years of Playmates
1:33 flat
73 + 156 min.
Street Date September 14, 2004

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
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Packaging: 2 discs in fat keep case
Reviewed: September 23, 2004

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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