So many words have been written and uttered about Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Russ Meyer’s first studio film made at the behest of the then-struggling 20th Century Fox, that you’d think it would be exhausted of all interesting content. But yet, despite the growing accolades it has picked up in the half century-plus since its release (not excluding a place in the vaunted library of the Criterion Collection), Beyond the Valley of the Dolls still remains mostly a cult item that is beloved by a decent-sized group of devoted parishioners who eat whole selections of mondo and trash cinema as if they were fruits and nuts. But its slow-leaking reputation as a genre-less genre masterpiece has also been the film’s secret weapon. For Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is one of those films where a breakdown of “Oh what the hell… I’ll give it a watch” eventually occurs which, 90% of the time, means there is about to be an instant convert to the film and its specific genius. For Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is a stone-cold masterpiece of the highest order and one of the ballsiest studio films ever produced.
Blown out in CinemaScope, Meyer’s first utilization of the widest of celluloid canvasses is revelatory. Every inch of every frame of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is brilliantly crammed with detail making the film as much a feast for the eyes as it is the ears with its busy mise-en-scene matching its aural assault pound for pound. While “pure cinema” means the telling of a story with nothing but wordless images, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is “pure movie” which is a total mastery of almost every single element that goes into making a motion picture. The screenplay, the score, the sets, the design, the soundtrack, the editing, and the energy completely gel into something that few films do.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls has one of the shortest elevator pitches in all of history: An all-girl rock band (Dolly Read, Cynthia Myers, and Marcia McBroom) and their manager (David Gurian) travel to L.A. to make it big and, instead, sink into the sordid end of the show business pool and are threatened with losing their souls to the fool’s gold that is Hollywood. If this sounds an awful like Valley of the Dolls, Jacqueline Susann’s hit novel that was turned into a film at Fox in 1967, that’s because Beyond was conceived as a straight sequel with Valley’s Anne Welles and Lyon Burke being the bridging characters to Beyond. However, these characters had to be changed upon Susann’s lawsuit against 20th Century Fox and became Susan Lake (Phyllis Davis) and Baxter Wolfe (Charles Napier), respectively.
The film tries to cheat its pedigree in its opening credits by copping to the fact that it’s kinda like Valley of the Dolls but set “in another time and context;” the context being Meyerland and the time being no real time at all. Occurring outside of Meyer’s usual desert locations, this is his vision let loose in Los Angeles and, specifically, the Los Angeles of 1969. However, none of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls feels like it really takes place in a real time or place. It’s groovy but very much with a Brady Bunch flavor. In fact, this doesn’t even feel like 1969 at all. It feels more like 1966 with all of the same kind of candy-colored sharpness of an episode of Batman.
Meyer puts the pedal to the metal and throws each and every trick and idea he’d used up to that point. Tight editing, incongruous images, canted angles, and low angled shots are given the Hollywood treatment creating a world and a film like no other. The story for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, employing a perpetual “but wait, there’s more” attitude, never comes to rest and, miraculously, never runs out of energy. In fact, when the film finally does end (after three tries), the audience can’t help but feel delightfully dizzy. With a force that is completely out of this world, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is always exhilarating without ever becoming exhausting. It’s a film that goes for broke and ends up with a fortune.
For something that moves this fast, there is still a lot of care put into all of the setups. Very finely choreographed and edited pull-backs, dollies, and crane shots cover and reveal the vastness of the studio space while highlighting the intricate detail in the set design. And as corny as Emerson (Harrison Page) and Pet’s (McBroom) slow motion run through the meadow or Casey (Meyers) and Roxanne’s (Erica Gavin) moment under the tree, they’re still beautifully shot and drop-dead gorgeous. For Russ Meyer was incapable of making anything less than an eye-popping image, regardless of who or what inhabited it.
Despite the delicious dialogue from screenwriter Roger Ebert, much of the film’s drama is played out in glances and subtle eye movements ranging from Harris’s (Gurian) sad retreat into becoming the prey to Ashley St. Ives’s (Edy Williams) predator or Casey immediately noticing the bad energy of Z-Man (John Lazar) early in the picture. For a film played so broadly, there is a real sense of visual sophistication in Meyer’s framing and editing, cutting the story down to its burning fuse and collapsing time and space while doing it.
Creating this film’s very unique blend of self-aware camp and utter seriousness is almost impossible to pull off outside of the universe of Russ Meyer, the only other filmmaker placing such disparate tones within in the same frame and with the same kind of power and success being David Lynch. If any viewer was unsure about whether or not Meyer and Ebert were hip enough to know that this wasn’t to be taken as deadly serious stuff despite the film’s performances being 100% committed to that notion, that person missed hearing the sound effect of the plummeting airplane laid atop Harris’s suicide attempt, or the 20th Century Fox fanfare music punctuating the beheading of Lance Rock (Michael Blodgett). And, as for the latter, I have my doubts that Fox even knew Meyer put that in. Either that or whoever did QC at 20th Century Fox was asleep at the wheel because there’s just no fucking way that jab would have ever been approved.
Like in Vixen! and Cherry, Harry, & Raquel!, Meyer continued to show a rather tender approach to lesbianism and, along with the explicitly gay characters who reside on the margins of the mayhem in the film, Meyer and Ebert clearly register Lance’s rejections of Z-Man’s sexual advances throughout the film as cruel. That Z-Man is revealed to be a transgendered, homicidal predator keeps with Meyer’s inner conflict that began with Cherry, Harry, & Raquel! and continued throughout the rest of his narrative career; which is to say that, however tangential, the more that Meyer examined anything outside of the world of heterosexuality, the more violent the film would grow to become. Given the unique tone in his films, this trait is actually more telling than it is troubling even if, after Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, a small amount mean-spiritedness began to permeate his work.
And, in fact, the post-Manson/pre-Spector violence in this film is the most shocking up to this point in Meyer’s career but it’s also the the best and most perfectly balanced in a cinematic world that was always awash in a very unique sense of heightened reality. One second, we’re seeing something that is as shocking as what’s seen in the crime photos of the Sharon Tate slaying and the next we’re watching a paraplegic desperately try to intervene in a violent scrum immediately before discovering he has beat the medical odds and can move his legs.
No discussion of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls would be complete without mention of the film’s wall-to-wall tunes. Functioning as a full musical, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls’s The Carrie Nations (originally the Kelly Affair) has to be the best fake band in all of cinema history. Sure, there is no moment in which any of the actresses’ play-acting resembles anything remotely similar to a real band, but the energy in the songs and Meyer’s constant cinematic focus never makes it look sillier than it needs to be. And while many of the songs are dynamite, “Look On Up at the Bottom,” an absolute scorcher of a tune, is still awaiting its Oscar for Best Original Song (for which, naturally, it wasn’t even nominated).
As stated above Jacqueline Susann sued the bejeezus out of Fox which caused the studio to go to lengths to distance Beyond the Valley of the Dolls from her work. “This is not a sequel. There has never been anything quite like it,” the litigiously-minded ads would exclaim. Although that disclaimer, nor any ploy the studio tried to separate the two works, didn’t work and through gritted teeth, 20th Century Fox had to pay Susann’s estate a lot of dough when the matter was finally settled in 1975, it still holds true fifty two years later. There has never been and probably never will be ANYTHING like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. It’s simply one of the greatest motion pictures ever produced.
(C) Copyright 2022, Patrick Crain