Some incredibly annoying music (a goofy 50’s schmaltz take on children’s song “london bridge”) plays against some rather nice faux-medieval folk line art, pointing at the odd admixture of high and low art the coming film aspires to.
An annoyingly squeaky-voiced, fake-British accented Fanny Hill (Leticia Roman) is the center of attention here and for those who’ve never read the book or seen other adaptations thereof, she pretty much stays an innocent among (literal) whores throughout the proceedings. There’s even a happy ending.
So let’s get down to it, shall we?
Roman, best known for her role as Nora in Mario Bava’s Girl Who Knew Too Much, is an extremely pretty blonde and a lot of money was clearly spent on costuming and set design (unless this was all some rather clever use of location scouting), but we’re very much talking Russ Meyer film here.
So this begs a major question: are you a Meyer fan? Certainly there are many, going all the way up the critical food chain of yore. Hell, Roger Ebert not only championed the man, but worked hand in hand with him during the 70’s, most infamously providing the script for the hilariously odd camp classic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.
Having enjoyed the hell out of that bizarro piece of celluloid and the late Tura Satana’s main moment in the sun Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!, I even sprung for that Russ Meyer box set a few years back. Unfortunately, as I discovered, those two were practically anomalies in the Meyer filmography, otherwise marked by a cartoonishness much akin to 60’s television sitcoms and tongue in cheek rhapsodic meditations of narration about the female breast.
Having sat through a good dozen of the man’s films, I’ve had more than enough of Russ Meyer for even the most devoted film buff’s lifetime – bar the original pair of films that led me down that crooked path to ruin, I could do without ever seeing one of the man’s films again.
That said, for a Meyer film, this one is at least attenuated somewhat, presumably by some combination of the earliness of the film in his oeuvre and the involvement of Brauner and Zugsmith on the production end. Either way, the usual Meyeresque obsessions with poor white trash, racism and ever bigger mammaries are all but absent. Sadly, the most offending aspect of Meyer’s films, namely his sad attempts at an arguable ‘comedy’, remains all too apparent…
So let’s focus on the pluses.
First and foremost, there are any number of simply stunning looking women on display. Their beauty is further enhanced by a crisp, well framed and properly lit black and white photography.
The film is further based on a noted Victorian semi-erotic “classic” – while hardly on the level of your average “Anonymous” effort of the period, much less the later works of D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller or (in particular) Sade and the French Decadents, Fanny Hill is a well known “saucy satire” reminiscent of Chaucer (albeit one with a Voltairian bent). And it’s big budget, which means nice sets, furnishings and costumerie galore.
On top of that, this film is not part of the aforementioned, more or less comprehensive set of Meyer films (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls being the other missing film of note), so Meyer fans will certainly want to snap this one up.
And of course, being a Vinegar Syndrome/Process Blue affair, the picture itself is nothing less than stellar – given their continuing track record in this regard, this particular aspect of their releases pretty much goes without saying at this point.
Now the minuses.
The comedy. Did I mention the comedy? Yeah. The comedy.
The music. Benny Hill had a better score.
The terrible exaggerated accents and vocal performances. If Roman’s irritating high pitched, pinched voice British accent weren’t bad enough, get ready for the cockney maids, street people and Cousin Dinkelspieler (Helmut Weiss) with his absurd “German” accent. Oh, yeah, and then there’s the pop-eyed performance of “his Royal Highness Cherry Bye-Bye” (Alexander D’Arcy).
And finally? It’s Russ Meyer, for all the pluses and minuses that statement implies in and of itself.
Let’s see. Cast and crew notes. Artur Brauner, who’d give us far better in partnership with Dario Argento, Amando Crispino and especially Jesus Franco, shares production funding with Zugsmith, as previously noted.
Miriam Hopkins, who’d sunk a long way since her role as Ivy in the Frederic March Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, delivers one of her final performances as the madam of the house, Maude Brown.
Uli Lommel, later to come to better infamy with his roles in and direction of films like Tenderness of the Wolves, the Devonsville Terror and Boogeyman I-II, is more or less wasted here as Fanny’s eventual love interest Charles, but provides the biggest name outside of Meyer himself attached to the production for all the starfuckers out there.
Look, the bottom line is that this is an adaptation of Fanny Hill. It’s like Tom Jones – a “bawdy” Victorian era novel whose reputation makes it come off as being more sexual and interesting than it actually is. While not bad for a Meyer film, it still bears enough of his touch (and that of the early German sex comedy, before they got more raunchy and entertaining in the disco era) to make it more appealing to the type who absolutely adores the likes of I Dream of Jeannie and The Munsters – safe, goofy, campy and very early to mid 60’s televised situation comedy in tone.
Next up we get another Zugsmith effort, of a similarly 60’s sitcom bent: The Phantom Gunslinger, featuring Arch Hall Jr. lookalike Troy Donahue as a trainee preacher in the old west doing the Zorro thing on the side. I’d reference the Scarlet Pimpernel too, but he was protecting the rich and gentrified “elites” against the crimes of the “commoner”, so it’s more Zorro than not.
There’s also a Jayne Mansfieldesque blonde too ‘important’ for a last name, going by the moniker of “Sabrina”. Uh…you mean the teenage witch? Who the hell is this woman and why is she in this picture? For that matter, why is a Hitler lookalike (complete with an overwrought Teutonic accent and combover!) running the local bank? And shades of Wakefield Poole, there’s even a midget involved.
Shot 3 years later than Fanny Hill and with Zugsmith in direct control of the entire affair, this one comes off like a two part episode of the Monkees, complete with bright day-glo colors and campy over the top costumes (a gunslinger dressed like a matador, a baddie with an earring whose suit and hat come in ever more garish shades of green, skulls embroidered on boots, giant sheriff and deputy stars, top hatted barkeeps, it gets worse from there…).
To keep things in the same general ballpark, by way of comparison, the Mamie Van Doren vehicle Las Vegas Hillbillys was a far better written and more entertaining movie…by leaps and bounds, in fact.
Look, if you dig 60’s TV, you’ll absolutely adore these two features. Personally, I detest that banal pandering to middle American tastes and super-safe “humor” designed to make little kids and old ladies titter mildly. Think Arch Hall’s obnoxious The Nasty Rabbit (aka Spies A Go Go) and you’ll get the idea – to call these “slapstick” would be an insult to Harpo Marx, the Stooges and Laurel & Hardy combined. Frankly, it’s just stupid and quite painful.
Meyer fans will definitely want to check this one out for Fanny Hill, and that’s about as much as I can offer on these two. The positives mentioned for the Meyer film decidedly do not apply for the Zugsmith co-feature, so you can guess what the viewer is left with in terms of The Phantom Gunslinger.
At this point, all I can do is shake my head and sigh at a few hours lost, duly note the aforementioned positives for those so inclined, and heartily exclaim: bring on January’s release schedule!