Pink Angels, 1971
Directed by Larry G. Brown
Starring John Alderman, Tom Basham, and Robert Biheller
Pink Angels is a 1971 film about “rugged motorcyclists” who have “an affinity for lipstick, high heels and braziers” according to the promo copy on the back of a boxed set of “Drive-In Cult Classics – Vol. 3” from Mill Creek Entertainment. It sounds like a bizarre film and it truly is, especially in the context of the hundreds of biker films from the 1950s through the 1970s that depicted bikers as macho thugs who terrorized squares, women, and each other with violence, grubby denim, and a lot of facial hair — the opposite of biker queens who love to dress up in girlie outfits and chat in cocktail lounges.
Pink Angels is, to some extent, an exploitation film. That is, in order to get ticket sales, the filmmakers exploited aspects of human behavior that were considered taboo and sensational. Even fairly innocent sex and anything seemingly glorifying drugs, violence, or deviant behavior was off limits for most directors of Hollywood films due to the famous and strict Hayes Code that heavily censored films from 1930 the 1968. Even though things were loosening up in 1970, it was unlikely that any major Hollywood studio would’ve made a film about a group of seemingly macho bikers who were also flaming drag queens. Thus Pink Angels was an indie film created for a drive-in and grindhouse audience who were seeking cheap thrills. But, to some extent, it was also speaking to a counterculture audience of hippies and Beats, as were many of the biker films.
Many Beats and hippies were serious and literate. Intellectual pursuits helped hipsters step outside the box of conventional culture, but there was another powerful way to be free — satire and humor. Those in the counterculture loved comedy and caricatures of traditional values. Lenny Bruce was a hero to many Beats and Hippies. Monty Python, Firesign Theater, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, Second City, and other satirical groups were popular. Kubrick’s 1964 satirical anti-war film, Dr. Strangelove, was a huge hit with enduring popularity. Thus it wasn’t surprising to me that someone made a biker film that mocked the machismo of bikers as well as social conventions about gender roles.
When Pink Angels came out in 1971, biker films were still popular — almost too popular. When a genre of film becomes super popular, it then becomes a target of satire. Spoofs were being made about girl gangs (including one by Herschell Gordon Lewis), gangs of werewolf bikers, African-American gangs, and so on. The poster for Pink Angels (the title appears as The Pink Angels on the poster but not in the film itself) featured a MAD-magazine style cartoon of zany mayhem. It was very much like the promotional posters for some other high-spirited, almost anarchistic films of the 1960s like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World. The MAD-magazine-style art was actually a fairly accurate as a representation of the film — it’s mostly pretty goofy and light, yet also insightful. It effectively parodies many of the elements of biker films — the orgy scene, the encounter with a rival gang, the intimidating of locals in small towns, and so on. These classic elements of bikers films are spoofed gently in Pink Angels thanks to the spin the film has — these bikers are, for the most part, not only gay, but they’re also queens.
The look of the film is pretty cool. Most of the film takes place in Southern California outside of L.A. As you watch the film you get to see how things looked in 1971. The cars, the clothes, the people, the stores, the roads — all for real, not shot on a lot or sound stage (like much of Psycho, for example). That’s one very cool thing about older low-budget films — the filmmakers couldn’t afford to dress the sets and hire extras, etc. and thus modify the reality around the actors. What we see is how things actually were in a past era — the A&W root beer stand, a Rexall drug store, a super market, a women’s clothing store, the cars, etc. In addition, this film features a lot of non-actors in minor roles and they had their own hair styles and clothing as well. This is another great thing in low-budget films — the use of everyday people as actors rather than pros — a trend that was established by the Italian Neo-Realists in the late 1940s that was quite influential in Hollywood in the 1960s and 1970s.
One somewhat problematic area of the film that results from the low budget is the occasionally poor sound quality. This is a problem with many cheaper films — the sound track is often pretty mediocre. This is because live sound is hard to capture well on the fly (which is why Spaghetti Westerns were often dubbed) and because during post production there are limited funds for cool music and sound effects. In Pink Angels there are times when the motorcycles are roaring along the highway and the sound of the engines has obviously been dubbed and the motorcycles sound like mini-bikes. Since it’s the gay gang’s choppers, maybe that was part of the spoofing of bikers that runs throughout the film. If it was meant to be a spoof, it could’ve been played up with a scene where a biker is revving his bike’s engine and all we hear is a feeble whining sound. This brings up another minor complaint I have about the film — it could’ve gone further into satire and humor, but clearly it was produced on a shoestring and created quickly — thus some opportunities for comedy were missed while others were probably caught on the fly by sheer luck.
One thing that surprised me — the film looked surprisingly good to me. It was mostly shot in daylight on color film and had a great look. (The reproduction on DVD was quite good too.)
Pink Angels is totally in keeping with the counterculture values of the sixties/early seventies cultural climate. The film can be seen as a spoof of not just biker films but also of masculinity and mainstream values associated with male behavior. For that reason it’s transgressive and subversive, in an easy-going way. It’s not heavy as extreme as a film like Dr. Strangelove until the very end, when a strange twist throws the film into new territory. Throughout the film there is a parody of a military man seething over longhairs that has a Kubrick/Strangelove spoofing quality. At times the film also has the feeling of a John Waters film. Both Kubrick and Waters loved to question social conventions and the costs of embracing macho values, as does Pink Angels.
Pink Angels is worth a look if you’re into cheesy drive-in films. While it’s not quite up there in at the top of the cult-film pantheon, it definitely deserves cult-movie status.