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Valley of the Dolls
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

reviewed by Matt Hinrichs

June 25, 2006 | 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 were made.

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 wild ride.

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.

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