of the Dolls
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls
by Matt Hinrichs
| Valley of the Dolls and its non-sequel, Beyond the
Valley of the Dolls, serve as proof that good cheese ages well.
One delivered its drama straight-faced and big-haired; the other
was a jiggly in-joke blown up to gargantuan proportions. For their
deluxe DVD editions, Fox Home Video has done an excellent job
of packaging a pair of films that have had little more than a
mid-level (but very enthusiastic) cult audience. Both remain unintentionally
hilarious camp classics, for sure, but these DVDs also manage
to place them within the context of the very different times they
Take 1967's Valley of the Dolls, for instance. Jacqueline Susann's
blockbuster dirty book lent itself well towards a deluxe screen
adaption, a hoary old "three girls meet different fates" concept
brought into the age of pills, booze and permissive sexual mores.
What went wrong, then? Perhaps somebody should have told the screenwriters
that passages which look good on paper don't necessarily translate
well to the screen. Mark Robson's technically proficient but cold
direction compounds the problem, resulting in a film that lacks
emotional resonance. Issues of drug abuse, mental illness and
abortion are dealt with on the same superficial terms as the chi
chi fashions, sets and shellacked hairstyles. The resulting mishmash
might appear dreadful, but really it's fascinatingly watchable.
It might be Valley's biggest legacy that it stands as one of the
few films that shows taboo situations while simultaneously being
embalmed in a studio-shined veneer of its own outlandish datedness.
With a subpar script, what else could the cast do but ham it
up? Patty Duke chews the scenery in the lousiest way as the ambitious
actress Neely O’Hara - although her ability to recite lines like
"Boobies, who needs 'em?" without bursting out laughing deserves
some kind of award. Not all the actors are uniformly awful, however.
Barbara Parkins and Sharon Tate both give surprisingly decent
performances as, respectively, starchy Anne Welles and sexy Jennifer
North. The cast also includes several men who sputter and fume
in the margins. Truly, however, this film is all about the ladies
- preferably looking fabulous in Travilla's luxe gowns. The sight
of Susan Hayward (as stage diva Helen Lawson) lip-synching a musical
number inside of a giant spinning mobile ranks as one of those
"gotta see it to believe it" moments in cinematic history.
Valley's compehensive DVD extras paint a wide-ranging but strangely
incomplete picture. Out of the living cast and crew, only Parkins
agreed to participate. Therefore the new documentary "Gotta Get
Off This Merry Go Round: Sex, Dolls and Showtunes" focuses mostly
on the film's camp appeal and its resonance with gay men. A more
comprehensive tale of the film's troubled production is told in
the "Hollywood Backstories" documentary (a truncated "AMC Backstory"
installment from 2001). "Backstories" includes some tantalizing
snippets of costume tests featuring the film's original Helen
Lawson, Judy Garland. While that footage would have made for a
terrific extra, it's absent - instead we have screen tests of
Parkins (auditioning as Neely O'Hara!), Tate and Tony Scotti.
Two campy featurettes from the '60s deal with Susann and the film's
gala premiere on an ocean liner. A chatty commentary with Parkins
and gossip columnist Ted Casablancas adds to the fun. Rounding
out the bonuses are trailers, galleries, a karaoke singalong feature,
and audio selections from the original soundtrack LP.
By the time Beyond the Valley of the Dolls went into production,
Jacqueline Susann divorced herself from the property and overwrought,
swanky screen soaps fell out of style. In a bid to reach the elusive
youth market, 20th Century Fox allowed director Russ Meyer and
screenwriter Roger Ebert free reign to fashion a freewheeling
statement on the cultures of Los Angeles, fashion, rock music,
hippies and free love. Oh, and women with huge knockers.
Where the original Valley trafficked in a more upscale setting,
Beyond goes all out for a wild and wooly “hippies gone crazy”
aesthetic which practically screams "1970". Though the film now
comes across as painfully dated due to Ebert’s slangy script ("don't
bogart the joint") outrageous costumes and groovy musical numbers,
it actually holds up nicely thanks to Meyer’s rapid-fire pacing
and an energetic cast of unknowns. The story follows the same
"three girls follow different paths" directive as its predecessor,
but that's where the comparison ends. Playboy playmates Dolly
Read and Cynthia Meyers and model Marcia McBroom star as an outta
sight rock group. The trio, dubbed The Carrie Nations by Phil
Spectorish producer Ronnie "Z-Man" Barzell (John La Zar), eventually
sleep their way to the top. The climax, so to speak, strikes the
only uncomfortable note with its creepy resemblance to the Manson
murders. Aside from those scenes, Beyond the Valley is an unforgettably
As nice as the extras on Valley were, the overall package on
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls winds up being even more impressive.
The producers managed to snag not only most of the cast members,
but screenwriter Ebert also chimes in for the DVD’s requisite
making-of docs and his own commentary. All involved have fond
memories of working with Meyer on his first big budget studio
film, which is nice since the original Valley's production appeared
to be an unpleasant experience. Among the set's new documentaries,
one on the film's music with composer Stu Phillips and singer
Lynn Carey (who dubbed the voices of The Carrie Nations) was most
appreciated. An enjoyable cast commentary, screen tests, galleries,
and trailers round out the extras.
Matt Hinrichs is a Phoenix-based writer and designer. In
addition to Mindjack Film, he blogs regularly at scrubbles.net.