Welcome to Commentary Commentary, our long-running series of articles exploring the things we can learn from the most interesting filmmaker commentaries available on DVD and Blu-ray.
Roger Ebert is perhaps the best-known film critic of all time — but Lights Camera Jackson is still young, so who knows what the future holds — and among his many accomplishments is one that most critics can only dream of. He actually wrote some movies, three produced films in total, and while all three were for director Russ Meyer they show a fine comic sensibility and an appreciation for language that often marked his criticism.
Ebert recorded a commentary track for the first of those films back in 2003, and we’ve finally given it a listen. Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary for…
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)
Commentator: Roger Ebert (screenwriter)
1.“Legal difficulties with Jacqueline Susann,” author of the original Valley of the Dolls, required they point out on theatrical posters and at the beginning of the film that this bore no relation to her creation. 20th Century Fox owned the rights, and after two unsuccessful attempts by Sasann to pen a sequel they moved forward on this film.
2. He recalls Russ Meyer’s approach to naked women being similar to Hugh Hefner’s over at Playboy Magazine. “The first of the skin flicks, taking wholesome, healthy looking women instead of kind of smutty, smarmy-looking women as his models.” The connection was unsurprising as Meyer had shot 8 of the first 12 Playmates.
3. Ebert was connected to Meyer after writing a letter to the Wall Street Journal praising them for having written positively about the filmmaker. Meyer wrote him back, thanking him in turn, and the two met when Meyer visited Chicago. “When Fox asked him to direct Beyond the Valley of the Dolls he called me up and asked me to come out and write the screenplay because he felt that a conventional Hollywood screenwriter would not possibly be able to work with him.”
4. He does not recall where they came up with The Carrie Nations as the name of the girl band, “although the movie came in a frenzy of creation that only took about six weeks from blank sheet to finished screenplay.”
5. The original songs are written by Stu Phillips, often with intentional puns like “Look on up at the bottom” and “Come with the gentle people.”
6. Some cast members approached Ebert saying that while they felt it was a comedy they were confused by Meyer’s very serious conversations with them regarding their characters’ motivations. Ebert brought their concerns to Meyer who replied that “actors are never funny when they think they’re being funny.”
7. He recalls a Fox rep visiting the set one day and telling them they were going to be the studio’s saving grace that year as while others were making progress on various Easy Rider knock-offs Fox only had two war movies and a western on the slate. “The war movies were Patton and M*A*S*H, and the western was Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, so of course the studio did okay.”
8. Fox was also producing Myra Breckinridge at the time, and both were expected to earn an X-rating. The studio was okay with this as the rating had to be tainted at this time by the association with hardcore pornography.
9. The location of the big party at Z-Man’s (John Lazar) Hollywood home was actually filmed on a set built for Myra Breckinridge but never used.
10. Edy Williams plays the woman at 19:25 trying to seduce Harris (David Gurian), and she went on to marry Meyer a few months after production wrapped.
11. The band playing the party is The Strawberry Alarm Clock, and while they were thrilled to be in the film they were apparently disappointed in its reception. “But today it can probably be said that The Strawberry Alarm Clock is better known for this film than for anything else.”
12. Pam Grier is reportedly somewhere in the background of the party scene, but “I have looked at the movie many, many times, and I’ve never been absolutely sure that I was looking at Pam Grier.” He adds that one scene shows a woman in red at the left of the screen that he believes is her but can’t be certain about.
13. Meyer enforced a “no sex” policy on his productions, and Ebert recalls being told by Myer regular Haji that on Faster, Pussycat Kill! Kill! he even went so far as to nail their motel room windows shut at night. “He was very definite in the opinion that they should save all of their energy for the movie itself.”
14. While it didn’t quite find respect or an audience in America early on the film played well and became a cult hit in the UK. “That’s where The Sex Pistols saw it,” he says, adding that Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious liked it so much they hired Meyer and Ebert to direct and write a Sex Pistols movie. “We wrote a screenplay called ‘Who Killed Bambi?’ although it was never filmed because the Pistols ran out of money on the second day of production.”
15. He asked Meyer once where he finds so many buxom women, and the director replied “After they reach a certain cup size, they find me.”
16. “I had a lot of fun writing this scene,” he says about the sequence with Ashley St. Ives (Williams) and Harris in the back seat of the Rolls Royce. “I remember laughing out loud.”
17. Lance Rocke is played by Michael Blodgett who later went on to become a successful novelist. He wrote Hero and the Terror which was adapted into the Chuck Norris feature.
18. It was an intentional choice to have Petronella (Marcia McBroom) and Emerson (Harrison Page) share a date in the countryside, because “at that time movies almost exclusively put their African American characters in an urban setting.”
19. The shot at 45:39 of Petronella and Emerson frolicking in slow motion is among his favorites in the film.
20. O’Rourke’s Pub was added by Ebert as a nod to a very real place in Chicago in the late 60s, a well known hang out for all of the city’s newspapermen.
21. Haji is the naked woman painted black at the 56:09 mark. The script originally specified she be wearing a skin-tight latex outfit, but when they couldn’t find one in time they just painted her instead.
22. The film cost $900,000.
23. There’s a shot during The Carrie Nation’s TV talk show appearance that Ebert intended as a nod towards Citizen Kane. It starts at 1:16:39 as the camera tilts up to the catwalk above the stage to reveal Harris looking on.
24. Meyer was a photographer during World War II and would often share stories from his time overseas. One involved photographing the “real Dirty Dozen” during their training in England, and he said the only difference between the movie and the real-life convicts tasked with the mission was that these former prisoners were parachuted into France and “disappeared and were never heard of again.” The second featured General Patton who reportedly woke him one night to say that Adolph Hitler had traveled forty miles across enemy lines into Allied territory and that they were going to go capture him. Meyer went along as photographer, but they never found Hitler, prompting Patton to tell him “If you ever breathe a word of this I’ll kill you.”
25. The decision to have Z-Man revealed as a woman was a spontaneous one as Ebert reached the scene while writing. He shared the thought with Meyer who replied only “Amazing!”
26. The music cue that plays as Lance loses his head is the Fox logo music. “How we got away with using that music at this point in this film is something I still don’t understand.”
27. The opening credits gave a peek into the film’s ending, but rather than simply re-use the footage it was actually shot twice so that the opening version wouldn’t reveal what exactly was happening to who.
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“Russ was a very literal filmmaker.”
“Her models all seem to be suspiciously busty for fashion models.”
“We were not afraid in writing the screenplay to go right over the top with dialogue wherever possible.”
“I remember Gene Siskel in the Tribune saying that for some reason Russ Meyer had saddled himself with a neophyte screenwriter.”
“The movie doesn’t pause for subtle development of characters. They announce themselves, their motives, their hungers, and their intentions almost immediately.”
“Edy Williams’ range may have been limited as an actress, but within her range she certainly knew all the notes.”
Buy Beyond the Valley of the Dolls on Criterion Blu-ray from Amazon.
While specific sequences are referenced, Ebert spends a lot of time talking about Meyer and dealings outside of this film as if it’s not a direct recording to the film itself. He jumps around some, allows some blank air, and shares anecdotes unrelated to the film itself. It’s still a fun, worthwhile track though as the memories he recounts of the film’s production and of Meyer in general paint a picture of a glorious time to be alive.
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