What kind of competition did burlesque movies eventually get in the "Adults Only" field in the fifties?
Eddie Muller: In the fifties the influence of foreign films was felt very, very strongly, partly because of television. The incredible number of movie theaters in this country had to find something to show that you couldn't get on TV. So a lot of theaters were showing ethnic movies. So in a Polish neighborhood, they'd show Polish movies; in an Italian neighborhood, they'd show Italian movies. But little by little those films started to be assimilated into the mainstream and were no longer showing just in ethnic enclaves. They were actually accepted in university towns first. And then you have the whole continental attitude about sex, which is far more liberal and permissive than anything that's going on in this country. The liberalization of the movies in terms of sex had a lot to do with a very intelligent audience accepting more challenging movies and more challenging attitudes. And also it had to do with the clanging of the cash register. You could see women with less clothes on than you could see in American movies . The two things truthfully go hand in hand.
At this time, were court cases also helping to legitimize movies with nudity ?
Eddie Muller: The Court of Appeals in New York was where Judge Charles Desmond issued the ruling saying that nudity per se was not indecent. And at that point, you could show people who were naked; you just couldn't show them doing anything remotely sexual. So for a few years, there were all of these movies of people enjoying themselves in the great outdoors, in sack races, playing ping pong. The activity they were most engaged in was figuring out ways to pose so that their genitals weren't really exposed to the camera. One of the things that was so funny about this was in order to go into an actual nudist camp, to take your cameras in there and make a movie, you were really dealing in many cases with some pretty dedicated nudists who really believed in the value of nudism as a philosophy. When these exploitation producers went in there, they often had to sign an agreement that allowed the nudists to declare their philosophy or their manifesto as part of the film.
Images: Did this come in terms of a narrator for these films?
Eddie Muller: Exactly. "These happy people frolicking in God's playground, basking in the sunshine and blah, blah, blah are expressing their deep found belief …" And you know these movies are playing in the theaters where guys are going in there (in a low, gravely voice) "I gotta, I gotta, oh, look at her!" And then the producers engaged in what they call "salting the mine"--which was "We're going to go to this nudist camp and we're going to shoot this at a nudist camp because people are naked here and nobody cares. The cops aren't going to come and bust us." But then they would bring with them real performers, burlesque stars such as Blaze Starr, and it was a marquee star that people would pay money to see take her clothes off, as opposed to just some dedicated nudist, who looks like Aunt Thelma.
Images: Russ Meyer came along with The Immoral Mr. Teas in 1959 and it took a different approach. It gave us naked women, yes, but now there wasn't any pretense of nudist camp philosophy. The naked women were there simply for us to ogle. Is this movie a bridge from the older nudist camp movies to a new type of sexploitation movie on the horizon?
Eddie Muller: Absolutely. The Immoral Mr. Teas is like a cheese-cake calendar come to life. That was the principal behind it. It was also leering, whereas nudist camp movies were hysterical because they bent over backwards to pretend that looking at naked people wasn't the point of the movie. But with The Immoral Mr. Teas, that is the point of the movie--looking at gorgeous women in various states of undress. That was it. No two ways about it. Russ Meyer, his claim to fame really was that he was a craftsmen. Some people would dismiss that and say "Get serious! He's just shooting dirty pictures of women," but compared to what else was on the market, he was a craftsmen. He really cared about what he was doing and he had a lot of pride. And that really came through in these movies he made. It's a subtle difference, but it is a notable difference. And certainly the money that that movie made at that time was astounding. At that point, it was far and away the most successful "Adults Only" movie ever made. It was a revelation in the business.
Images: And therefore soon afterwards we ended up with many imitations?
Eddie Muller: Oh, yes. The Immoral Mr. Teas started the whole genre of the nudie cuties, which is distinguished from nudist camp movies in that they took place anywhere. They were very, very whimsical movies with incredibly ludicrous premises. Like a couple guys go to an apartment to paint the exterior and they spill some kind of invisible ink in the can of paint. They're painting the walls and the next thing they know, they are seeing right through the walls. And then they see all these women going about their daily chores in various states of undress. Ludicrous, but there's the premise.
Images: In The Immoral Mr. Teas we get an ineffectual lead character. Is that what we found in most of the movies from this period--a man who wasn't going to follow through sexually? A man who was simply a voyeur?
Eddie Muller: That character is what distinguishes the genre--the bumbling dolt as the male character. I think it partly had to do with wanting to seem harmless so that the nudity and the leering quality were allowable. The men represented no threat to these women at all. Granted on the surface it is men exploiting women--it's hard to get away from that, that's how these films were sold. But it is interesting to note that in a lot of these cases the women were depicted as being far more self-assured, self-confident, than the men. In nudie cuties, the male characters are kind of having a laugh on themselves for being so sexually obsessed in the first place. Whereas the women are just sort of going about their business. To the men in the movies, they are unattainable goddesses that inflame their imaginations, but then it's one pratfall after another as they screw up and embarrass themselves in front of these women. That is the hallmark of the nudie cutie movies.
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Photo credits: All photos are courtesy of the collections of Eddie Muller and Daniel Faris.