Russ Meyer, born in 1922, started making short films as a teenager. Later he took a lot of pin-up photos for Playboy and other magazines, working with hundreds of nudie models and even movie stars in Los Angeles in the 1950s. He photographed Liz Taylor, Gina Lollobrigida, Mamie Van Doren, Jayne Mansfield, June Wilkinson, and Anita Ekberg, who had the biggest boobs of all. Later he made hyperactive, violent, very sexually provocative films independently, financing them himself. His films are now regarded as cult classics.
Meyer got into the nudie biz because of a suggestion by an old army pal named Don Ornitz, son of a blacklisted Hollywood novelist and screenwriter, Samuel Ornitz, one of the Hollywood Ten of the McCarthy-era commie witch hunts. Ornitz was doing work for girlie mags and knew that Meyer loved to look at and photograph nude or semi-nude women, so he suggested that Meyer do some work for pin-up calendars and the skin mags. At the time, Meyer was working in Oakland, California doing industrial films for the SP railroad, working as a part-time projectionist at the fifteen-hundred-seat El Rey Burlesque Theater in Oakland, taking movie stills, and other such gigs.
Meyer quickly became one of Playboy magazine’s top photographers. Founded in 1953, Playboy became a hit because it was stylish and sophisticated. It featured photos of glamorized versions of the girl next door, wholesome and sweet, and totally nude. When Meyer did a photo shoot, he would imagine the layout of the photo spread in the magazine, including the type. He would make sketches to storyboard the photo shoot and was good at telling a story with props — the rumpled bed, the gauzy romantic candles, wine glasses and so on. Hot stuff for its time, the 1950s and early 1960s.
Meyer got into making feature films when he invented a new genre of American film, the “nudie cutie.” It began with a friend’s desire to make a nudist film and cash in on the nudist-film fad. His friend Peter DeCenzie owned the high-class striptease club in Oakland where Meyer had worked as a projectionist now and then. The place featured comedians, an orchestra, and of course gorgeous dancers. The two men made a short film about burlesque star Tempest Storm called French Peep Show in 1950. Shot on 16mm it was blown up to 35mm to be shown on the big screen.
In 1958 DeCenzie called Meyer and asked him to help make another film, a nudist film. At that time horny guys who wanted to see nudity in print or in a film could find it in books that featured nude models for artists or in films that were intended to document the nudist lifestyle or in ethnographic films made in places where humans had yet to wear a lot of clothing. Those were legit outlets, legal films. The strict Hayes code had made nudity in Hollywood films taboo from the 1930s to the 1960s.
Legit nudist films had been made beginning in the 1930s and were intended, in part, to promote the nudist lifestyle and values. Quite a few mid-20th-century European avant-garde intellectuals, cutting-edge artists, and social revolutionaries felt that human civilization had gone down a blind alley with the development of hierarchies of power that allow the exploitation of people, animals, and plants, and the whole ecosystem of the planet. They also felt that human sexuality had been repressed, and that was not good for people. They advocated a return to a more natural state of human society, one which included nudism. Nudist films were made to promote this goal, or, sometimes, just to show nude people romping around and give horny dudes a chance to see some female nudity.
Note that in the 1960s, the hippies felt the same way about nudism. They tried to go back to the land and set up communes that would feature organic farming and ecologically sustainable land use. Nudism was sometimes part of this back-to-the-land movement too. (For a time long ago I lived in a co-op/ semi-commune called Nottingham Coop in Madison, Wisconsin where men and women shared a big bathroom and showered together — the idea was to not feel shameful about the human body.) So, although nudism is sometimes viewed as a kind of joke and nudist camps as places where people who shouldn’t be nude are, it has its roots in ideas that have a lot of validity.
Nineteen-thirties nudist films were not hugely popular but later, in post-WWII America, when censorship was loosening up following the war, the nudist film took off. The 1954 film Garden of Eden was one of the first. Edgar Ulmer, director of the noir classic Detour (there is an article that I wrote on Ulmer’s Detour here, on fleshapoid films), made Naked Venus in 1958. The fantastic Doris Wishman made quite a few nudist films in the early 1960s, including Nude on the Moon, a wonderful, campy sci-fi nudist film.
When Meyer’s friend who ran the El Rey decided to make a nudist film in 1958, he was hoping to cash in on the sudden revival of nudist films. Meyers thought they featured too many paunchy people, not the super-erotic females he wanted to photograph. However, Meyer had just finished shooting a spread for Playboy in which women of the future would be wearing see-through clothing and Meyers thought that the same idea could be adapted to a humorous film featuring nudism. It would be about a man who is totally inhibited and repressed, but who loves to imagine women nude, in some sense seeing through their clothing in everyday situations.
This idea was refined and became the first nudie-cutie, The Immoral Mr. Teas. Teas is a nerd who, after dental surgery, has X-ray vision. It was a smash hit and grossed three million bucks on a 24,000-dollar investment. (Perhaps in today’s dollars it would be 240,000-dollar investment that returned 30 million dollars.) Meyer put in twelve grand and so did DeCenzi. The idea was to shoot the film in four days on Eastman Kodak color 16mm film, which would be blown up to 35mm.
“We need four, maybe five well-stacked nude chicks,” said Meyer as to the essential part of the cast. DeCenzi’s regular burlesque strippers balked as did Meyer’s cheesecake models. Meyer turned to an old girlie photographer pal, Earl Leaf. The goateed photographer would tell starlets and models who were reluctant to disrobe for the camera, “nothing risqué, nothing gained.” Leaf talked Ann Peters into being a waitress in the film. Other actresses were soon on board. The film was shot at a remote lake in the Malibu hills, a Westwood ice cream parlor, El Namez beach, and in Meyer’s home. Some of the scenarios involving the nude women become somewhat surrealistic.
On opening night the theater was raided by the police and the film was on ice for eight months. However, after a theater booked it in Seattle and it was a hit there, it became a blockbuster all around the US. This launched a whole new genre — the sex comedy or nudie cutie. Many such films were made in the late 1950s and 1960s.
By the mid-1960s audiences became restless watching just silly nudism films and sexually risqué comedies and a new genre emerged called the roughie or roughie nudie. In those films elements of violent conflict and sometimes sadism were added to the nudie action. Nudie-cutie / nudist-film directors like Doris Wishman felt compelled to keep up with the trend with films like Bad Girls Go to Hell. Meyer himself got in on the quirky but highly profitable roughie genre as well. Some of his most famous films feature psycho cops (SuperVixens) and psycho females (Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill!!) who really do nasty and violent things to members of the opposite sex in a semi-sexual or overtly sexual contexts.
Now when people think of Meyer’s films, they think of grind house and drive-in movies about powerful, semi-Amazonian women with enormous breasts. In Wikipedia the film historian Jimmy McDonough is cited as having asserted that Russ Meyer’s use of powerful, overwhelming female characters puts him in his own unique genre of film. What would the genre be called? Psycho Amazonian Women with Huge Boobies? Was Meyer a feminist of sorts? The women in his films are powerful and they are quite open about wanting sexual fulfillment. His female protagonists sometimes end up defeating the men, another quirk of his films that was possible because he was making independent films rather than conventional Hollywood films.
Humor, some of it very dark, was always part of the Meyers style of filmmaking. He repeatedly told the screenwriter and film critic Roger Ebert (who collaborated with Meyer on Meyer’s one mainstream Hollywood film, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, 1970) that his irreverence was the key to his artistic success. This combination of humor and extremes of sex and violence plus a critique/lampooning of uptight moral values and stereotypes influenced many filmmakers, including John Waters. While on the surface there might not seem to be that much connection, it’s clear that the aggressive, Amazonian characters in films like Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble owe quite a debt to the characters in films by Meyer.
Below: Publicity still for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.
Waters has written about Meyer in magazines and books. In the July-August, 1985 issue of Rolling Stone magazine, Waters published an article called a Trash Tour of Los Angeles. Meyer’s green-and-orange home at 3121 Arrowhead Drive in the Hollywood Hills above the Hollywood Resevoir, was featured. Waters called the home a museum because it was packed with framed posters and memorabilia related to Meyer’s career in film.
Meyer financed his films himself and held on to the rights. In his final years he worked out of his house in Hollywood and sold his films directly from the house, often answering the phone to take orders. One fan and acquaintance of Meyer’s who prefers to remain anonymous told me, “If you called the number on the back of his self distributed videotapes in the 80s and early 90s, he actually answered the phone, and he was hilarious.”
Below — the house on Arrowhead Drive in the Hollywood Hills as it looked when Meyer lived there.
(Photo by David Frasier)
The big projects of his final years were a book all about his films and life and a 12-hour compilation film to be called The Breast of Russ Meyer. The book began as a one-volume book and ended up being three volumes. He worked on it for fifteen years with help from the writer David Frasier. Once a year, Meyer would fly Frasier out to Hollywood. The two worked daily for a week at Meyer’s home in Hollywood, starting at 5:30 am. At six pm they would head to Musso-Frank restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard for beers for Frasier and near-frozen gin for Meyer. Steaks and chops from the grill were part of the evening because for Meyer “cutting meat” was part of male friendship.
Frasier wrote that “By mid-1999 it was apparent to those in the company that RM was unable to complete the project” due to a loss of mental clarity because of Alzheimer’s disease.
Meyer ended up in the care of a woman who may have been domineering and exploitative toward him. Oddly, however, he might’ve sought that to some extent. Kitten Natividad, a star in some of his films and longtime sexual companion, said that he was always engaged in tempestuous personal relationships with women.
The person who commented on Meyer’s final years to me, and who prefers to remain anonymous, said that, “Until the end of his life he had a lot fun until some very bad people had him declared unfit and kept him from the people who really cared about him. His condition wasn’t as bad as reported, sadly, until the very end. When I couldn’t take the job as his assistant back in 94/5, he hired a woman who basically stole his life from him.
“She got power of attorney, got him totally doped up on prescription meds and wouldn’t let anyone see him, because she knew that her gig would be over. There were a few times when we got him away from her and from the house and he wasn’t aware of how bad his situation was, but he was completely lucid and his memory was sharp.
“Unfortunately, many of the people who were aware of what was happening are dead or dying now too, such as Kitten Natividad, Tura Sultana, and Col. Rob from Mondo Video. If you ever talk to Eric Caidin he can tell you all about it.”
The biography called Russ, Big Bosoms and Square Jaws: The Biography of Russ Meyer, King of the Sex Film by Jimmy McDonough describes the final years.
Frasier writes that they were filled with equal measure of Shakespearean poignancy and perfidy.
The source I cited above (unnamed) stated that she sold a lot of his memorabilia and rights to his films. However, Wikipedia says that his estate, including the rights to his films, was willed to Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in honor of his late mother.
Meyer died on September 18, 2004, of complications of pneumonia. He was 82 years old. His grave is in Stockton, California. The gravestone states that he was “King of the Nudies” and “I Was Glad to Do It”.
DON’T FORGET TO PICK UP SOME COOL BOOKS BY MATT DUKES JORDAN!!
BUKOWSKI’S LA —- a cool illustrated guide to Bukowski’s places in LA — His life story told through where he lived !!! never before seen photos by Sam Cherry — poems, and much more !!!
POE, JEKYLL, AND HYDE — A NEW book in which POE appears in the story of Jekyll and Hyde !!! Plus the entire original book by Stevenson… Plus an awesome essay on mashups, Poe, and more !!!
WEIRDO DELUXE — the classic first survey of the entire lowbrow / pop surrealist art movement
WEIRDO NOIR — very cool goth lowbrow / pop surrealist art 24 artists, interviews, and a cool timeline and intro — awesome color printing of the many pieces of art