CHERRY, HARRY, & RAQUEL! (1969)

In Russ Meyer’s Cherry, Harry & Raquel!, released in 1969 as the filmmaker inched closer to Hollywood, the cock of Erica Gavin’s eyebrow causes the soul of Vixen to discorporate and it finds itself inhabiting the shell of Uschi Digard, herself trapped in a lunar landscape of desert nothingness where man’s determination grinds fruitlessly against the natural order of things and leaves them in a bloody heap in the dust.

Well, at least that’s my take on it since Cherry, Harry & Raquel! takes on a decidedly surreal attitude that is partly due to the expansion of Meyer’s visually sophisticated palate and partly due to star Sue Ashton, impatient and distrustful of Meyer’s cinematographic ambitions and intentions, walking off the set halfway through production. Ostensibly, this is a movie about the marijuana drug trade on the U.S. side of a border town where corruption and greed foster its illicit growth. And while it is still very much that, it’s also a movie, like Vixen! and Finders Keepers, Lovers Weepers! before it, that builds an extra room onto Meyer’s mansion of libidinous activities as acted out by the female characters in his film.

Harry (Charles Napier) is a small-town sheriff who has been corrupted by local power-broker and drug kingpin Mr. Franklin (Franklin Bolger). Mr. Franklin asks Harry to murder both a rival drug dealer and Harry’s partner, Enrique (Bert Santos), as part of the drug operation’s fire-sale closure. Touching this world are Cherry (Ashton) and Raquel (Larissa Ely), the two women who figure-eight through the lives of Harry, Enrique, and Mr. Franklin. Constantly kept apart by fate, circumstances, and the explicit orders of the males in the story, the ménage á trois promised on the film’s one-sheet never happens but it’s certainly not for lack of trying on the women’s part. The women, in fact, are bemused at Harry’s sexual hang-ups, Cherry almost wishing she’d fall into a dalliance between him and Raquel. And, in the end, the two women find themselves curled up together in a revolving chair, awash in sexual ecstasy while the men lie in pools of blood, having fought for things not worth a dime.

Upon Ashton’s sudden attrition from the film, Meyer set to editing what he had and, naturally, he had less than a feature. The only thing that could have been worse had an earthquake swallowed up the entire cast and crew but only after the production insurance had lapsed. To fix his problem, Meyer drafted Uschi Digard (credited as Astrid Lillimore) into the production. Digard, a Swiss model who was insanely popular in men’s magazines at the time, was asked to perform a whole host of strange, disconnected things like run around the desert wearing nothing but a headdress, operating a derelict switchboard while naked, and floating around in Russ’s pool. Not a one of these things made any kind of sense in and of themselves but when incorporated into the finished film, Meyer hit a geyser in terms of both his cinematic rhythm and in his journey of self-expression in film. For in Cherry, Harry, & Raquel! one can almost hear Meyer begging for help, painfully wailing at the existential revelation that he is nothing without a female’s assist. Never before had Meyer’s bare needs seeped onto the screen as they did here.

One of the film’s biggest tells is Meyer’s casting of Charles Napier, the greatest of all of Meyer’s burly, square jawed male leads, as the hero and embodiment of Meyer’s retrograde sexual attitudes that are strangely and perversely tied to Harry’s patriotism. In his previous films, Meyer generally had to count on slightly less-chiseled male specimens to match against his dazzling beauties but in Cherry, Harry, & Raquel!, he found a rock-hard Adonis with a jawline that was exactly 90 degrees, no more and no less. So perfect was Napier that Meyer was immediately awestruck upon first seeing him, never laying eyes on Napier’s gorgeous date while he needled the greenhorn actor who, upon being cast in the film, would provide Meyer with his first full-frontal male shot, marking one of the first times a penis was seen in a major motion picture.

But this unique male-on-male gaze came with a rise in the graphic onscreen violence. For all of his reputation as a tits and ass director, Russ Meyer was no slouch when it came to delivering shocking and oftentimes gory violence. Ever since Lorna impaled herself for everybody’s sins in 1964, Meyer found a way to entangle his characters into a bloody heap in the final reel of the film. Here, there a starker separation between sex and violence in this film as they never truly meet due to the men’s insistence on keeping their business to themselves.

As in most Meyer films, the women are hipper than the men in Cherry, Harry, & Raquel!. It’s almost as if all the women in the film have seen Vixen! and have decided it to be the alternative feminine avenue which best fits their comfort zones. In fact, the world of Cherry, Harry, & Raquel! looks to be a place where the men are little more than chaos agents with dicks who continually prove their worthlessness; a Sappho universe where Raquel, quoting Erica Gavin, purrs to Harry that “all women like a change of pace.” In fact, in a mirror opposite callback from Finders Keepers, Lovers Weepers! Cherry shaves the pubic hair of Millie (Michelle Grand), who says her significant other “won’t recognize her.” More than just a recycled idea from a previous film, it cuts out some of the fat by turning what was a kinky shave job between a man and a woman into a kinky shave job between two women of different color.

And, ultimately, the climactic sexual encounter between Cherry and Raquel is the most satisfying to any of the characters in all of the film. No more sand in the crotch nor bed spring in the back as encountered with the men throughout the picture; the encounter between Cherry and Raquel, in the words of the latter, floats on a cloud. And it cannot be a coincidence that both Cherry and Raquel ask Harry pointed questions about each other in the same bend in the road though at complete opposite times of the day, a yin and yang kept apart by Harry’s “un-American” disdain of “women messin’ around with women.”

Unless forewarned, there is a decent chance that one may be startled into dropping whatever they’re holding the nanosecond Cherry, Harry, & Raquel! fades up. For this is not a movie that opens, it’s an id that screams. The opening crawl, an insanely packed scroll of endless text about encroaching obscenity laws, is half righteous and half self-serving put on which ends, notably, with the line “THINK ABOUT IT!!!” as if you just got served some dubious science in an email from your MAGA uncle. Being laid over a montage of incongruous images immediately announces this as being something crazier and outlandish than the comparatively sanguine Vixen! before it. But while the images over which the text runs is such a corker of pure visual candy, the explicit message being delivered was in the service of something that truly was on many a pornographer’s mind; namely, the numerous obscenity cases popping up all over the country.

And Cherry, Harry, & Raquel! pushes the sexual envelope a little further than in his previous work. Aside from the aforementioned shaving scene, the blowjob alluded to with a perfectly timed car horn in Good Morning… and Goodbye! just two years earlier gives way to a much more pointed and elaborate oral sex gag which involves a mouthful of champagne and, while not explicit, leaves much less to the imagination. And, not for nothing, but Cherry and Harry’s desert adventure montage, is probably the most erotic sequence Meyer ever pulled off in his entire career, helped in great deal by the clever and carefully matched inserts of Uschi Digard, It’s a true Eisensteinian exercise in displaying the underlying, inherent, and powerful eroticism that’s mined from the myriad fleeting images hazily recalled from a sexual encounter. With Digard standing in as the fantasy surrogate in both Harry and Cherry’s ribald reminiscences, Russ Meyer creates pure magic out of almost nothing.

But most important in Cherry, Harry, and Raquel! is Meyer’s acquiescing to the changing time. Perhaps he was seen as an old-fashioned square but just how anti-pot or anti-lesbian can a film really be when the only two characters who achieve full happiness are the two women who fuck themselves into utter blissfulness after getting high? For while Cherry and Raquel comfort each other in a perpetually spinning mod chair, the men and their plans all utterly collapse on each other on a patch of worthless desert. And one can throw Russ Meyer into that latter pile. For whatever his intentions, the waylaying of the production by the Ashton exit revealed that for all of his independence, Russ needed women much more desperately than they needed him.

(C) Copyright 2022, Patrick Crain

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