An exploitation director, a film critic and a cheap lurid novel walk into a bar; specifically, Russ Meyer, Roger Ebert and The Valley of the Dolls. Oh, and the bar is 20th Century Fox who gave the duo permission to do whatever they pleased. Things like this simply don’t happen anymore and that’s a shame because it proves something I’ve long suspected: if guys like these were given major budgets to work with more often, they would Godzilla stomp Hollywood right into the Pacific.
The story, penned by Ebert, seems simple enough. A young rock group travel to Los Angeles in search of fame and fortune and they find it. They also find out that the wiener isn’t always tastier on the other side of the grill. In fact, sometimes it tastes like crow. In this case, it tastes like overdoses, suicide, Nazis, violence, infidelity, decapitations and a lawyer. That Meyer and Ebert procured studio approval for this subject matter is a minor miracle, both in that it is impossible and the world is much better for it. The peculiarity of the situation was not lost on the production of which Ebert himself explains:
We wrote the screenplay in six weeks flat, laughing maniacally from time to time, and then the movie was made. Whatever its faults or virtues, “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” is an original — a satire of Hollywood conventions, genres, situations, dialogue, characters and success formulas, heavily overlaid with such shocking violence that some critics didn’t know whether the movie “knew” it was a comedy.
The film knows it is a comedy all right, so much so that it uses Fox’s own theme song as the coup de grace to a broadsword attack. That attack is perpetrated by Z-Man a character based loosely (although eerily prophetically so considering recent events) on Phil Spector and played here by John LaZar with so much gusto the character threatened to steal all of the attention off of our protagonists, the Carry Nations. John LaZar himself sees this success as a detriment to his career believing he was typecast from that point on. That’s unfortunate for Mr. LaZar, but great for Costume Box Theater because he was amazing in Deathstalker II and likely wouldn’t have taken that role had he become famous.
The Carrie Nations are played by Dolly Read, Cynthia Myers and Marcia McBroom, three young, and like everyone else in this film, extremely attractive actresses. They are voiced by Lynn Carey, the singer of Mama Lion who’s urgent and powerful vocals drives the surprisingly good soundtrack. I’m not particularly a fan of pop music and have a special distrust of anything from the Woodstock era, but I honestly do like these songs. I guess it’s to be suspected from a woman that breastfeeds lions.
It’s not just the people that are beautiful. Everything in the film, the sets, the locations and especially the vulgar Technicolor that saturates each frame threatens the spoil the viewer off of everything but Douglas Sirk melodramas and trips to Versailles. The fact that all of this beauty is in the service of a broad lampoon makes the visuals that much more poetic. Beauty in the service of humor is so rare it is the highest form of art. Imagine a porcelain sculpture of an angel that squirts condiments out of its mouth. Unfortunately it was a one-time affair. Even though the film was a financial success, this team never got the freedom to create another masterpiece such as this. A searing shame for anyone who’s ever read Ebert’s Who Killed Bambi? Instead, after Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Meyer filmed a couple of smaller features for Fox and then went back to working outside of the studios, while Roger Ebert disappeared into obscurity never to be heard from again.