Russ Meyer is part of a generation of American directors who owe much of their fame to the failures of the proceeding generation. Meyer served his cinematic apprenticeship in the US Army as a combat cameraman during World War II. Celebrated by anyone with an interest in the public relations side of warfare, Meyer returned to civilian life with hopes of becoming a professional cinematographer. Upon discovering that his lack of connections made it almost impossible to get hired by a Hollywood studio, Meyer started working as a glamour photographer before managing to scrounge together enough funding to make his debut feature, a sex comedy by the name of The Immortal Mr. Teas.
Meyer’s directorial career began amidst television’s desolation of the old school studio system. Short on cash and desperate to find anyone who could help them connect with a younger audience, Hollywood began trawling film schools and drive-ins in search of talented outsiders. This decision to fling open the gates lead to the birth of the American New Wave but it also created opportunities for men who, like Meyer, had track records of using sex and violence to deliver big returns on modest investments. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is Meyer’s fifteenth feature film and it features all of his signature stylings including quick-fire editing, large-breasted women and comedy that might charitably be described as ‘camp’ but in reality is simply broad and juvenile. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is not an exciting film, an arousing film, or even a particularly funny film… but it is dull, juvenile, and unfunny in a very distinctive way.
The film begins with horror as a half-naked woman comes running out of a building followed by a caped man with a sword… and a corpulent Nazi. The sword is dripping with blood and something awful has obviously happened but the film is not yet ready to reveal the full extent of the horror.
We are then transported back to several weeks previously when an all-girl band comprising Kelly (Dolly Read), Casey (Cynthia Myers) and Pet (Marcia McBroom) are playing their own high school graduation. The women seem happy and Kelly already has a handsome boyfriend but Kelly wants to leave home and try her luck in Los Angeles, which just happens to be home to her wealthy aunt.
Upon arriving in LA, the small-town girls have their minds collectively blown by the workshop of Kelly’s aunt where actresses wander around naked and people openly smoke marijuana. Kelly’s aunt is delighted to see her and mentions that Kelly is eligible for a third of the family fortune. In celebration, the group decide to attend a party held by the legendary hell-raiser Ronnie ‘Z-Man’ Barzell (John LaZar).
The title ‘Beyond the Valley of the Dolls’ refers to the fact that the project was originally intended as a sequel to Valley of the Dolls, a best-selling novel by Jacqueline Susann that was later adapted for the screen by Mark Robson. Much like Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust, Valley of the Dolls aims to puncture the image of Hollywood as a dream factory where the streets are paved with gold. As such, it revolves around three young women who are discovered, turned into stars, and ultimately destroyed by a Hollywood machine without a care for the people it uses and casts aside. The problem with Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is that while Meyer had been working in Hollywood for a few years, neither he nor his screen-writer the film critic Roger Ebert had any idea as to what LA’s sinister underbelly was actually like. Meyer was 48 when Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was released and so the image of Hollywood he wound up ‘satirising’ was one with little or no basis in reality.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is not so much humorous as embarrassing in that characters wander around spouting 60s-inspired gibberish like “don’t bogart that joint” and “I’d love to strap you on”. It’s funny enough the first few times but the well is shallow and Ebert’s script keeps digging long after the audience is being served refreshing glasses of dirt. Moving beyond the thin attempts at satire are juvenile attempts at transgression that usually boil down to footage of enormous bouncing breasts and moments of gay panic.
Having entered a supposedly glamorous demimonde full of sex and drugs, the band members lose themselves to a series of unlikely melodramas designed to test their character. Thus, Kelly winds up having to choose between a handsome stud and her high school boyfriend while Casey struggles with her sexuality and Pet is caught in a tug of love between an ambitious black lawyer and a successful black boxer. The fact that an African American woman is only allowed to go out with African American men reveals the conservative values under-pinning the entire film: Sex and drugs is all well and good but the people who pay so much attention to that stuff that they forget about the need to find a proper job and start a family are bad eggs and best avoided.
Given its conservative worldview and lack of critical substance, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls simply does not work as a satire and its incessant movement between genres means that it is never exciting, scary, shocking or funny enough to satisfy anyone in search of those emotions. However, while Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is by no means a good film… it isn’t exactly a bad film either as the colours look splendid, the sets are well-designed, the music is great, and the direction is singularly tight. It’s just a shame that such a well-made film turned out to be so tedious.
As is frequently the case, Arrow have packed this release with a load of extras including the entirety of Meyer’s somewhat out of character and frequently-forgotten courtroom drama The Seven Minutes. Meyer completists and lovers of tasteless cult will leap on this release but the rest of us would be better served by seeking out the truly iconic films that made Meyer famous in the first place including Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and Vixen!.