Perhaps the moment that best sums up how to appreciate and enjoy Pretty Maids All in a Row comes a half hour into the movie, when June Fairchild, as high school student Sonny Swangle, submits to questioning by Telly Savalas’ detective, Sam Surcher, about the murder of one of her classmates, Jill Fairbunn. Surcher, with Roddy McDowell’s unctuous school principal Proffer monitoring, has already talked to other queen bees of the school, and has met with a dizzying array of non-answers. “Has anyone made any…unnatural…sexual…overtures to you?” Surcher asks, trying to be solemn and in control but clearly not comfortable discussing such things. Sonny immediately starts giggling, seems to try to form words, retreats inward as if to compose a sentence, but just keeps laughing, waving her caramel candy as if about to emphasize a point, ultimately directing it towards the men as she continues cackling. The cop and the educator look at each other incredulously. It may not be the most gioconda response a young woman can offer, but there’s a multitude of possible replies to be read from her titter fit. Is she laughing at Surcher’s portentious choice of adjectives? Or his visible trepidation about sex? Or just maybe, she’s thinking, “Dude, I’m a teenage girl – when is anyone not making unnatural sexual overtures to me?” but can’t bring herself to mouth off to authority. Whatever her thought process, at this moment, all she can do is shake her head and laugh.
You really gotta laugh at Pretty Maids All in a Row. First off, it is legitimately a comedy. A very dark comedy involving murdered schoolgirls, priapism, age and gender stereotypes, social hypocrisy, and inappropriate sexual encounters…all handled with aplomb. Then, you gotta laugh at how this kind of subject matter made its way into a major studio production without so much as, say, moral crusaders of the day making an MGM hotels boycott threat. For as much as it predicts Heathers’ girl-power-intimidation or Strangers With Candy’s depiction of adults more concerned with public image and sports performance than teenagers’ struggles, it does so within a construct where the story element that would be the most hotly-contested today virtually breezes through with no challenge. There’s the old saw about, “They don’t make them like that anymore,” but in this case, “They” will never make a movie like this again. And for all the real-world counterparts one can find in this story, this is still a movie, a movie presenting Rock Hudson as a paragon of heterosexual virility, Angie Dickinson having to discover from others that she is attractive, and football teams that don’t hold practice on the day of a murder. And you really gotta laugh at that.
Considering that Maids’ storyline of a young man’s ascendancy from nebbish to navigator amidst a rash of fallen co-eds is an unlikely subject for comedy, it’s not so surprising to learn that it’s originator was himself an unlikely source for creating comedy. Novelist Francis Pollini received a Bachelor in Psychology from Penn State in 1951, and served as a 1st lieutenant in the United States Air Force from 1952-1957, a period which includes service in the Korean War. His 1959 debut novel Night depicted the battle of wits between Marty Landi, an ordinary American POW, and Ching, a Chinese Communist officer with a Columbia degree, charged with turning him to betray his country, told in an experimental style involving interior monologues and willful obfuscation. It became a minor cause celebre when published by Olympia Press in Paris, the same firm that first put Lolita and Naked Lunch in print; Scottish mail officers and police intervened when the book was sent to poet Hugh MacDiarmid in 1960, while Marilyn Monroe kept a copy in her library. Elements of Night can readily be found in Maids’ climax, as unsteady young Ponce De Leon Harper deduces the truth about who is responsible for the murders and why, and is then cornered by the perpetrator, leading to a delicate dance over what is to be done about it, or if he may even live to do anything about it.
From there, Pollini wrote three more books and three plays, before penning Pretty Maids in 1968. Reference work The Italian-American Experience: An Encyclopedia described him as, “One of the most representative Italian-American literary artists…[pulling] at the very root of rhetoric to expose the American conscience…In his fiction Pollini is realistic with sex and violence, using the aesthetic to intensify the panic that mounts steadily in the development of his themes.” By contrast, Kirkus literary magazine gave scathing capsule reviews to his three follow-ups, using terms like “[Good] for at least four or five issues of Gent or Raunchy…,” and “[Exhibitionistic] exercises in libidinous dialogues…” One of these books, Glover from 1965, is essentially an inverted predecessor to Maids. Its title character is a former hometown football hero, now Airman Second Class stationed in the UK, who coldly and cavalierly beds several women while being enabled by Lieutenant Patton, a superior officer and closeted admirer hoping to mold him into another sort of ideal man. Like Maids, it calls out how easily attractive people who say the right things are allowed to get away with bad behavior, and also features a plot turn involving extreme measures taken against a girl who poses too much trouble to the protagonist. In early preproduction press for MGM’s announcement of Maids’ filming, Glover was cited as selling over a million copies in paperback.
If you search Pollini’s name by itself, most of the hits you will get will be for his creation of Maids, thus it has supplanted Night and Glover as his best-known work. It helps that it’s the only one of his writings that has been adapted into another medium. But an argument can be made that what elevated Maids over Glover despite their similarities is that in the years between the books, the societal emergence of women openly embracing and desiring sex without commitment or monogamy took place, and thus provided the female characters more story possibilities than they enjoyed in any of Pollini’s previous works. There is little coverage or commentary readily found on the original novel, nor a definitive breakdown in the changes made in the initial commissioned adaptation by playwright William Hanley to the final screenplay credited solely to producer Gene Roddenberry, so whether Pollini or others can be assigned credit for this thematic evolution is up for debate. In a wire interview conducted at the film’s premiere, Roddenberry indicated that there was a significant difference between what he was given and what made it to screen. But it is rather telling that while Pollini clearly saw aspects of himself in each of his junior/senior Glover and Maids men, he delineated that young Glover is the Air Force football hero given too much slack, while older Tiger McDrew is the decorated Infantry Company Commander and respected psychologist who is abusing his influence, suggesting a deeper, introspective shift in his thinking.
In another wire interview conducted at the Maids premiere, Roddenberry detailed that his motivation to join the Maids project rose from frustration with networks and sponsors over story content. “Censorship and restrictions in TV got so horrendous…Film is to explore things, talk about them, joke about them; sometimes it offends some people, but if you never made a film that didn’t offend somebody, it would be a pretty sorry industry.” Though he’d been known for making sociopolitical statements through “Star Trek,’’ the only takeaway he wanted to express through the film was, “We make too much of sex.” As posthumous biographies later revealed his “casting couch” extracurricular activity before and during his lifelong marriage to Majel Barrett, maybe he identified a little too well with a leading character who talked a good game about progressive politics while wildcatting with ingenues as his younger, attractive wife provided tacit consent. It certainly provides context to explain the presence of actress Adriana Bentley (the topless girl in nerd glasses early in the film) at the Atlanta premiere – in that earlier wire interview, she proudly declared, “I’m the only one who wasn’t cast by Vadim, Mr. Roddenberry picked me himself.”
Many viewers of the film have opined that director Roger Vadim saw some spiritual kinship in Tiger McDrew as well, remarking on how by the time he took on the project, he had already been linked and/or married to Brigitte Bardot, Annette Stroyberg, Catherine Deneuve, and Jane Fonda. Musician and cultural historian Jo Gabriel, in her stunning two–part deep examination of Maids, makes a particularly interesting observation:
I know a lot of people think that Vadim is a sexist bastard which he undoubtedly is, but his sense of erotic style touches me in a way not unlike Anaïs Nin if she had set out to be a film maker instead of a writer…she too objectified [women] one could argue just as lovingly, in her written work [and] Nin herself had an elaborate love life, where she set something up called The Lie Box, having been married to 2 men at the same time…Vadim is trying to expose the dichotomy of the male exploitation of the female body, and the girls themselves as the exploiters. It is an intricate system of archetypes…[His] film is a black comedy satirizing how ridiculously over zealous we become about our heroes, our rituals. Even while [young women] are being killed. There is no seriousness. Vadim emphasizes this, by showing the mania by the high school staff, the principal…even Surcher’s assistant cops are cocky, and [all of them are] morbidly unmoved by the actuality of these crimes.
LtoR: Joyce Williams, June Fairchild, Roger Vadim, Gretchen Carpenter, Margaret Markov, Joy Bang
Convergently, in his recent Playboy essay “Where Have All the Sexy Movies Gone,” FilmCritHulk observed that in many comedies attempting to deal with sexual matters, too many err either on the side of using innuendo or of using cheap dirty shock, and that the best moments are those which, as he quotes Patton Oswalt, unveil an actuality.
And this is what audiences continue to be able to laugh about the most when viewing Maids: the recognition of all manner of uneasy truths about our institutions and about ourselves. It’s not just the mordant laughter at Principal Proffer’s constant refrain of “She was a fine girl and a really terrific cheerleader,” – a motif particularly amusing for fans of McDowell’s earlier performance as high school chaos agent Mollymauk in Lord Love a Duck – or the fact that of course Keenan Wynn’s inept police chief Poldaski picks a black football player as his first suspect. It’s that despite Tiger McDrew’s skeevy behavior, he’s still a charming antihero – we laugh about how the women fall for it, and that over the course of the movie, we too are falling for it. Quentin Tarantino, who placed this film among his choices for Sight & Sound magazine’s 2012 edition of Top 10 Greatest Films of All Time, said in a 2007 introduction, “[His] performance is so good, that it can bear the weight that Rock Hudson’s mythology bears on it…all the baggage of his fucking life will just go away…this was his last great kickass [film] performance.” And we also laugh, not with rancor but with sentimental rue, over the awkward, poignant flirtations between proto-cougar Betty Smith (a most beige appelation amidst the other pointedly-christened characters) and novice Ponce (whose name conjures either eternal youth or effeminacy), two desirable people who somehow don’t see themselves that way, brought together by the machinations of Tiger. He’s not doing it out of kindness – Betty is attracted to him, but he does not fancy women his own age, so he diverts her to Ponce, lying about the boy’s arousal abilities, in order to keep the young man from being competition for his own ersatz harem. But once they connect, there is a true warmth to their brief intersection. From that same Tarantino introduction: “There is not a seduction scene…there are sex scenes…but there is not a seduction scene that rings my bell and boils my oil more than Angie Dickinson in her scene with [John David Carson].”
Back row: Margaret Markov, Gretchen Carpenter, Diane Sherry Case
Front row: Brenda Sykes, June Fairchild, Aimee Eccles, Rock Hudson, Joy Bang, JoAnna Cameron
While Roddenberry’s quip, “We make too much of sex,” may have been self-serving to his personal life, it is an appropriate moral to take from the movie. This story can’t be compared to the later ‘70s slasher movie concept of promiscuity punished by death, because all the major female characters have been sexually active throughout the film, with boys their own age as well as Tiger. There is a different motivation for the schoolgirl murders, more disturbing by its basis in devaluation. And for as much as Vadim fetishizes all the elements that make these girls irresistible, he still bears genuine affection and hope for them as individuals. Film historian Jeremy Richey observed,
“One thing that keeps the film so strong (and I think shields it from possible labels of misogyny) is the detail and empathy given to the girls. Vadim and Roddenberry present these girls as human beings, each individually well played and drawn. The film has a remarkable level of sympathy not just for Ponce’s plight but also each girl and you can understand why they would be so drawn to the handsome and intelligent Tiger. It has to be remembered that this film is taking place in 1971, when the Sexual Revolution was exploding, but that the very straight laced morals that might seem extremely closed off were just a few years before this. The film suggests that the kids are within their rights to experiment, but that they haven’t yet learned to realize the possible consequences. Pretty Maids All in a Row is not a condemning film of conservative or liberal thinking, in fact it is not a condemning or judgmental film at all.”
Fans have debated for years about how the end of the movie should be interpreted. Ponce is shown with his own cock o’ the walk making time with multiple girls, portending that he will turn into another selfish lothario like Tiger. But maybe not. We’ve already seen these girls keeping time with other boys, and Ponce doesn’t have any adult responsibilities or proprieties at risk like Tiger had. They’re all still just teenagers discovering how they mesh with each other. And when Sonny Swangle, as our de facto Final Girl, hops on his motorcycle, she’s after the same immediate pleasures as he is. They’re gonna ride off, see where the chilly winds will take them…and have some laughs.