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Pretty Maids All in a Row (DVD Review)

1 Nov, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop’s Warner Archive
$24.95 DVD
Rated ‘R.’
Stars Rock Hudson, Angie Dickinson, Telly Savalas, Roddy McDowall.

A high-school black comedy that couldn’t be released today without sparking reactive Op-Ed pyrotechnics, French director Roger Vadim’s first Hollywood movie is, momentarily putting aside its odder curiosities, the sexiest showcase Angie Dickinson ever got on screen. This means — though the subject will always be ripe for lusty debate — it even trumps Rio Bravo, Point Blank and Big Bad Mama (the first two, for sure, infinitely superior achievements overall). Jane Leavy’s definitive new biography of Mickey Mantle is titled The Last Boy, but this movie gave Angie the chance to play The First Cougar. Or close. 

As for the rest of a movie I’ll bet the makers of Heathers had seen, where do we begin? Well, a slightly puffy-looking Rock Hudson plays a married faculty advisor/football coach who regularly has sex on beach-town school property with the most nubile femme students from a class that has apparently nothing but — until a student’s murder slows him down (for a day or two, anyway). Warming up for the imminent Kojak, Telly Savalas plays the investigating state cop whose job duties include watching even more student bodies pile up. Roddy McDowall plays the ineffectual principal, which might have been an in-joke given the actor’s rich portrayal of high schooler “Mollymauk” Musgrave (when, by the way, he was pushing 40) in 1966’s even blacker Lord Love a Duck.

You want more? Of all people, the screenplay is by “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry, and the title song is performed by The Osmonds — a long way from guest shots with Andy Williams and a project that really must have gone over big-time in the clan’s Salt Lake City homestead. Dickinson plays the school’s new sex bomb-ish substitute teacher of John Milton – self-admittedly horny given the full year since her boy friend breakup and one asked by Hudson to aid in the sexual dysfunction of a team manager (John David Carson) he favors. Rock sells the lad’s problem to Dickinson as impotence when his problem is exactly the opposite. 

Couched as comedy, oddly toned Maids rates only three or four smiling snickers and doesn’t even seem to be going for laughs most of the time. Like a lot of socially reprehensible screen weirdoes that aren’t really good yet have an elusive “something” that keeps you scratching your head in interest, its basic demographic is pretty well limited these days to male adolescents of all ages — or, to put it another way, those disinclined to think about the socially reprehensible ramifications of what’s being portrayed. Vadim eschews ambiguity and plays everything here at face value — but then, even his most famous movies (the Brigitte Bardot version of And God Created Woman and, later, Barbarella) were little more than fluff-balls that had the benefit of looking good. Basically, he knew how to photograph — and, in real life, marry – gorgeous women. He wouldn’t have known what to do with Marie Dressler or Dame Judith Anderson.

Hudson’s character is tough to figure. He’s a sexual cheat on a beautiful wife (and mother), a woman who ends up being supportive in the mode of certain burned political spouses standing alongside hubby at the mike. What’s more — and in sharp out of his contrast with the Dickinson-Carson sexual frolicking – Hudson doesn’t seem to get much enjoyment out of his philandering. As an educator, he professes to be against the mere regurgitation of facts and historical dates, yet the theories he offers in return (perpetually spouted into a Dictaphone machine) likely wouldn’t dazzle the makers of Waiting for “Superman” — the current theatrical documentary that advocates a progressive approach to education. Yet on the other hand, he genuinely seems to like the Carson character and care about his welfare.

Getting back to the provocatively outfitted Dickinson (and it’s tough not to), her character remains one of the ultimate male-teen fantasies: the babe instructor who flaunts it in generally tasteful ways. High schoolers will never stop thinking of their best-looking teachers in hunky or hottie terms, but the days when a major studio movie (here, it was MGM) winks at characters who act on these impulses are almost certainly gone. Though it’s not an exact parallel situation by any means, my reaction to Maids these days is a little like the one I have to Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock, which I now appreciate as much for its sociological interviews as I do for the music. So despite Dickinson’s short skirts and the sight of her in some of the most memorable sleepwear ever, Maids’ most watchable component is the unintended primer it now offers in the ways times have changed and how yesterday’s (more or less) mainstream entertainment can drop a jaw four decades later.

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