Going Boldly Where No Ladykiller Has Gone Before Case File #175: Pretty Maids All In A Row
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Today’s Case File is about an athlete named Tiger who embodies an American masculine ideal. Tiger is the kind of clean-cut, all-American overachiever women want and men want to be. He’s the prototypical big man on campus, a beloved macher with easygoing charm and a million-dollar smile.
Everything seems to come easy to this Nietzschean übermensch. Women fall at his feet. Men worship him. The sun seems to shine just for him. He leads a charmed life, but his sunny façade masks a dark, rapacious core. The world has given this man everything, yet he still wants more. He has a beautiful wife and a child who would be the envy of most of us mere mortals, but that isn’t enough for him. So this conflicted man embarks on a never-ending quest for gorgeous, lithe, taut young conquests. Since he’s stunningly handsome, beloved in his community, and wildly successful professionally, this gent never has to look far for no-strings-attached partnership.
Ah, but mere casual sex isn’t enough for this man. He doesn’t have a weakness for making the beast with two backs; he has a pathological addiction to sex that poses a huge threat to his meticulously crafted good-guy image. There’s a tragic gulf between the image this man projects and the dark, sordid reality of a life ruled by compulsions and hungers that can never be satiated. The same ferocious drive that makes this man a star also drives his sexual compulsions.
By this point I’m sure you all realize that I am, of course, talking about Michael “Tiger” McDrew, the anti-hero at the heart of Roger Vadim’s 1971 ill-fated American directorial debut Pretty Maids All In A Row. The Case File title should have been a bit of a giveaway.
But my description of a man whose clean-cut image conflicts violently with his furtive personal life could just as easily apply to the icon of butch masculinity who played McDrew: Rock Hudson. Oh, and also, the golfer Tiger Woods, I suppose.
Pretty Maids All In A Row belongs to a secret subgenre of films that sounds so preposterous, surreal, and utterly unlikely that it almost feels like I’m making them up. We specialize in those kinds of movies here at My Year Of Flops, whether the Case File in question is a hilariously misguided homage to The Best Years Of Our Lives with a hook-handed Jessica Biel (Home Of The Brave), a wildly lurid sex thriller with Lindsay Lohan as a crack-whore with a robotic hand (I Know Who Killed Me) or a wacky comedy with Dan Aykroyd as a professor-turned-pimp with a metal pimp hand (Doctor Detroit). I’ve also written extensively about fake-seeming movies that don’t center on people with unusual hands. These include Rhinestone, The Kid & I, Free Money, It’s All About Love, Mac & Me, and of course, Tiptoes.
A whole bunch of crazy shit came out of Hollywood in the 1970s, but Pretty Maids All In a Row stands out as some particularly crazy shit. The dark comedy brings together a once-in-a-lifetime confluence of wildly divergent talents. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry adapted Francis Pollini’s novel for Roger Vadim, a debauched French libertine famous for his romances with Brigitte Bardot, Jane Fonda, and Catherine Deneuve—and to a much lesser extent, the mostly terrible films he directed.
Hudson tried and failed to shake up his wholesome matinee-idol image as the most charming mass murderer this side of the protagonist of Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, while Telly Savalas essentially reprises his role as Kojak. Angie Dickinson, meanwhile, oozes libidinal energy as a sexually frustrated substitute teacher, and Roddy McDowall sputters amusingly as a principal whose first, last, and only priority involves the success of the high-school football team. As if the motley crew listed above didn’t make for strange enough bedfellows, the Mike Curb/Lalo Schifrin-penned theme song is sung by Mormon boy band The Osmonds.
Pretty Maids All In A Row takes place in either the world’s best or worst high school. It’s a trippy, oversexed fantasyland where the female student body is made up exclusively of Playboy centerfolds, the guidance counselor helps both professional peers and awkward students get laid, and the sun is always shining. If it weren’t for the spate of mass murders and the faculty’s complete amorality, it would be just about perfect.
John David Carson stars as the student-manager of the school football team, a virginal sentient erection in a perpetual hormonal frenzy. As the film opens, the universe itself is taunting Carson about his virginity. As illustrated by this clip, everywhere Carson looks, he sees tits and asses and hips and lips and soft blonde hair blowing seductively in the breeze. The world is an orgy he hasn’t been invited to, a massive fuck-fest that passed him by.
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He has it bad. Thankfully, he has the world’s best/worst mentor in the form of Hudson, a football coach, guidance counselor, renaissance man, and skilled therapist who spies an opportunity to solve his protégé’s problem: He wants Carson to cast off the shackles of his hated virginity by losing it, Tom Cruise-style, to a hot-to-trot teacher (Angie Dickinson). In an inspired choice, Dickinson plays her confused new teacher as a stumbling, stuttering, painfully awkward wallflower in the body of a drop-dead-gorgeous sex bomb. She’s terminally unaware of her own womanly charms.
Dickinson cuts such a deceptively girlish figure that when she hooks up with Carson, they almost seem more like peers. I would say that Dickinson’s immaturity makes her fling with Carson less creepy, but it really doesn’t. Pretty Maids All In A Row is proudly, unapologetically creepy. The camera practically wolf-whistles in open-mouthed appreciation every time it leers at one of the film’s oversized cast of clothing-averse teen lovelies. I should also probably point out that the filmmakers saved money on its bra budget by forbidding anyone to wear a brassiere, including Dickinson in this scene, where Hudson diplomatically steers her in the direction of Carson’s tragically underutilized bed. Incidentally, I would like for “expand Milton notes into a term paper” to join “seeing Salaam Bombay!” as a MYOF-approved euphemism for sex.
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According to Robert Hofler’s The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson, one of Hudson’s friends once famously told him that he didn’t have to just stick his dick in anything that wiggled. Hudson riposted “Oh, but I do!” Hudson’s character here shares the actor’s turbo-charged libido, only this time, it’s directed at nymphets with an unfortunate habit of turning up dead the minute they begin to make trouble for him.
The spate of murders brings the sleepy small town to the attention of super-cop Savalas, who treats a local constable (Keenan Wynn) with richly merited condescension. Savalas learns early that the town cares less about finding the serial killer in their midst or mourning his victims than in the success or failure of its high-school football team. For example, when the town unanimously decides not to let anything as trivial as the violent deaths of young women keep them from enjoying pigskin heroics, principal McDowall guilelessly enthuses “I’m so proud of our community. Everyone insisted we not cancel the game!”
In Pretty Maids All In A Row, football is a matter of life and death, much more than death itself. Everyone is willing to look the other way if it means doing their part for school spirit. In this very extreme example, Wynn stumbles upon Hudson having sex with one of his students in a parked car in the middle of a football field (how American!), and feels the need to apologize profusely for having the gall to accidentally happen upon the married Hudson engaged in adulterous statutory rape with a student. [The clip below is NSFW.]
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I have a friend who taught at a boarding school, and she said that in a hermetic, incestuous environment like that, teachers tend to regress emotionally back to the age of their students. If you spend enough time with anyone, you inevitably take on some of their characteristics. That regressive instinct doesn’t necessarily lead to teachers having sex with students, but it can lead teachers to gossip, conspire against enemies real or imagined, and generally behave like eternal adolescents.
That’s certainly true of the ostensible grown-ups in Pretty Maids All In A Row. The whole town seems stuck emotionally somewhere before eighth grade. They’re incapable of seeing anything outside their own selfish interests. When Wynn turns up dead along with the woman Hudson was making out with in the car, McDowall catalogs the damage thusly: “two A students, a B student, and now a chief of police!” The loss of human life is always sad. But the death of an A student who might also be a cheerleader? Now that is downright tragic.
Part of what makes Pretty Maids All In A Row such a fascinating artifact of the free-love movement is its seeming amorality. Hudson is presented throughout not only as a good guy, but as a crucial step in mankind’s evolution. The filmmakers’ attitude toward Hudson is one of admiration rather than horror or disgust.
It’s difficult to say how much of that implicit approval of Hudson’s crimes and proclivities comes from Roddenberry and how much comes from Vadim. Roddenberry’s liberal humanist leanings colored Star Trek to an almost embarrassing extent; like Rod Serling, he just barely bothered to Trojan-horse his liberal sermonizing into science-fiction conceits. Pretty Maids suggests at times that the problem lies more with society than with Hudson himself. If Americans only had a more open-minded attitude toward teachers fucking their students, Hudson wouldn’t feel the need to kill and kill again.
I’m guessing some of you fine folks might be familiar with Roddenberry and Star Trek. Apparently it has a bit of a cult following. How is Pretty Maids All In A Row treated in his various biographies? How much of his vision made it onto the screen? What attracted him to the project? How did he get along with Vadim? Please do help a brother out.
It’s easy to see what attracted Vadim to the project. I can only imagine the glee he must have taken in leering unbecomingly at various cocktail waitresses and college co-eds and cooing, “You know, I discovered Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve, and I’m scouting for my latest film, and I think you might just be perfect for it.”
For Vadim, the early ’70s were a perfect era: They had all the sex, drugs, and decadence of the 1960s without all that killjoy idealism and progressive politics. So is Hudson ultimately a beneficiary of the sexual revolution, or a victim? If he wasn’t so trapped in the socially sanctioned role of the family man/coach, Hudson could conceivably fuck anything and anyone he wanted, but sexual liberation also provides him with an endless supply of willing partners. The 1960s in Hudson’s libertine feels it’s perfectly fine to fuck students, but the 1950s reactionary within him makes him kill to assuage his guilt. (And evade the long arm of the law.)
That generational divide reflects the actor’s own internal contradictions. Hudson took full advantage of the sexual freedoms of the 1960s, but inside, he remained a conservative 1950s guy who voted Republican (when he voted at all) and viewed effeminate homosexuals and the gay-rights movement with disgust. Other than a desire to have sex with men, Hudson thought he had nothing in common with radical gay activists.
Accordingly, Hudson delivers a magnetic, compelling performance that alternates between the glad-handing camaraderie of everybody’s pal and the deep internal torment of a man living a lie. That’s something Hudson personally knew an awful lot about.
I don’t want to over-praise Pretty Maids. It is in many ways a poorly made movie full of talent-impaired starlets clearly cast for reasons that have nothing to do with their mastery of acting, and many of Hudson’s lines are inexplicably post-dubbed. But it’s a transgressive, unique, fun, and funny spin through a post-’60s carnal wonderland where the girl next door is a playmate and a cheerleader and a prostitute, all wrapped up in one tight little package. It’s a gleeful, slyly satirical comedy of amorality, written by a man who wasn’t shy about broadcasting his beliefs.
Pretty Maids All In A Row is curiously devoid of suspense for a film about a string of gruesome serial killings, but that’s probably because the filmmakers don’t particularly want Hudson to get caught, or care about his crimes. In the film’s final sick joke, Carson is set up as Hudson’s successor once the football coach fakes his own death and hotfoots it to Brazil.
Carson, suddenly imbued with swagger and self-confidence, helps “console” fetching lady students traumatized by Hudson’s death. Specifically, he consoles them with his penis. In the final line of the film, Carson asks an iconic question that helped define the generational shift from 1960s free-love idealism to 1970s mindless sexual self-indulgence when he shoots a sexy young thing a Cheshire-cat grin and inquires “Your place or mine?”
Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Secret Success