Boldly Going Indeed! : PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW (MGM 1971)

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Gene Roddenberry’s post-STAR TREK career  had pretty much gone down the tubes. The sci-fi series had been a money loser, and Roddenberry wasn’t getting many offers. Not wanting to be pigeonholed in the science fiction ghetto, he produced and wrote the screenplay for PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW, a black comedy skewering the sexual revolution, with French New Wave director Roger Vadim making his first American movie. The result was an uneven yet entertaining film that would never get the green light today with its theme of horny teachers having sex with horny high school students!

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All-American hunk Rock Hudson was in the middle of a career crisis himself. After spending years as Doris Day’s paramour in a series of fluffy comedies, his box office clout was at an all-time low. Taking the role of Tiger McGrew, the guidance counselor/football coach whose dalliances with the cheerleading squad leads to murder, Rock goes way out of his comfort zone portraying a sexual predator and gives one of his best screen performances. Tiger’s a family man, Masters level psychologist, and first class scoundrel not above killing the girls he seduces when they get too close, and Rock gets to show off his acting chops to good advantage.

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A subplot involves John David Carson making his debut as Ponce de Leon Harper, a student with sexual hangups who’s taken under the wing (and covers!) of substitute teacher Miss Smith, played by Angie Dickinson . Angie is always good, but Carson’s kind of stiff as the kid with a perpetual hard-on (pun intended!), which is a shame, because the character’s central to the film. His career never really took off, and he was relegated to mainly low-budget schlock like EMPIRE OF THE ANTS and CREATURE FROM BLACK LAKE after this.

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The cast is peppered with Familiar Faces, such as Telly Savalas as a police detective out to solve the high school murder spree, Roddy McDowell as the school’s principal, Keenan Wynn as a bumbling local cop, and STAR TREK’s James Doohan as Telly’s assistant. Barbara Leigh, best known for almost starring in a Hammer movie adaptation of the horror comic VAMPIRELLA (which sadly never got off the ground), plays Tiger’s loving but unsuspecting wife. Another STAR TREK vet William Campbell appears, as does funny Susan Tolsky (of TV’s HERE COME THE BRIDES). The “Pretty Maids” are all pretty hot, including cult actress Joy Bang, Gretchen Burrell, Aimee Eccles, JoAnna Cameron (later Saturday morning superhero Isis!), Brenda Sykes, Topo Swope (daughter of Dorothy McGuire, now a top talent agent), and Gene’s daughter Dawn Roddenberry.

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There are underlying themes of oppression, non-conformity, and even racism in the film, but let’s be honest, it’s basically about sex! There’s lots of nudity, befitting a 70’s flick, and some may find it creepy seeing Rock Hudson getting down with all these nubile young chicks. As I said earlier, the film couldn’t be made in today’s repressive climate, but back then it was anything goes. I don’t know how you feel about it, all I can tell you if I was a horny 17-year-old back then, I’d have screwed Angie Dickinson’s brains out, too!

PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW didn’t do well at the box office, and Roddenberry returned to TV and sci-fi, supplementing his income with talking about STAR TREK on the college lecture circuit. The show had developed a cult following by then due to its popularity in syndication, and by the end of the decade STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE hit the big screen. The voyages of the Starship Enterprise will always be Roddenberry’s lasting legacy, but if you’ve got a taste for black comedy, check out his twisted PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW.

 

Folsom Prison Blahs: INSIDE THE WALLS OF FOLSOM PRISON (Warner Brothers 1951)

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Filmed on location inside the infamous prison, and with a testosterone-loaded cast led by Steve Cochran  , David Brian, Ted de Corsia, and Philip Carey  , I expected INSIDE THE WALLS OF FOLSOM PRISON to be slam-bang entertainment along the lines of BRUTE FORCE . Well, not so much. The trouble’s not with the cast, nor the atmospheric direction of Crane Wilbur. It’s Wilbur’s script that commits the cardinal sin of any action film: too much talk!

Even the prison itself talks, narrating the opening credits: “I am Folsom Prison. At one time they called me Bloody Folsom. And I earned it…”, intones the prison, voiced by Charles Lung (an appropriate name for someone who talks to much!). The movie begins with an attempted jailbreak, put down by sadistic Warden Rickey (de Corsia) and his thugs. He then ratchets up the punishment, making life even more miserable for the cons, until new Captain of the Guards Mark Benson (Brian) is assigned by the institution’s board of directors. Benson’s a reformer who witnesses the deplorable conditions and implements policy changes designed to rehabilitate the men. The warden goes along at first, but instructs one of his trusted sergeants (Edward Norris of THE SULTAN’S DAUGHTER  ) to keep his eyes and ears open.

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When con Red Pardue (Carey), up for parole soon, rats out an escape attempt by Ferretti (young William Campbell  in one of his first roles),  the warden puts him back out in the yard, to Benson’s chagrin. Red is an explosives expert and needed to finish a job. Ferretti offers Tinker (Dick Wesson) $300 to make sure Red never leaves Folsom, and in a tense scene, Tinker sabotages Red with his own dynamite, blowing him to kingdom come!

Benson blames Warden Rickey for Red’s murder, and resigns in disgust. Rickey now has full control of the prison once again, and reinstates his brutal reign of terror. The cons, led by lifer Chuck (Cochran), make a daring takeover of their cellblock, and this is where the action begins to quickly pick up. Unfortunately, it just as quickly fizzles out, and the damn prison starts talking again to wrap things up!

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Crane Wilbur had been around since the dawn of cinema, having been the hero of 1914’s sensational serial THE PERILS OF PAULINE. Returning to the stage, he wrote and toured with an updated version of THE BAT, later filming it with Vincent Price in 1959. He’s probably best known for his screenplay on another Price shocker, HOUSE OF WAX. Wilbur wrote and/or directed movies in every genre, from prison dramas (ALCATRAZ ISLAND, CRIME SCHOOL) to film noir (HE WALKED BY NIGHT, THE PHENIX CITY STORY  ) , exploitation (HIGH SCHOOL GIRLS), juvenile delinquents (THE DEVIL ON WHEELS), science fiction (MYSTERIOUS ISLAND). He penned two of Boris Karloff’s Warner vehicles (WEST OF SHANGHAI, THE INVISIBLE MENACE) and Price’s HOUSE OF WAX follow-up THE MAD MAGICIAN. Crane Wilbur’s last film HOUSE OF WOMEN was a distaff version of his many prison flicks. He died in 1973.

Besides the tough guy actors I’ve already mentioned, Paul Picerni, Danny Arnold, Tom Dugan, Anthony George, Damian O’Flynn, George Wallace, and Sheb Wooley all add their machismo as various cons and guards. Anyone who’s seen the biopic WALK THE LINE knows this is the film Johnny Cash was watching which inspired him to write his hit song “Folsom Prison Blues”. The Man in Black like the movie a lot. As for me, I thought it was okay, but could have been so much better. I prefer Cash’s country classic, so here it is: