“Pretty Maids All in a Row”: Roger Vadim’s outrageous early 70s sex-and-murder black comedy

By on January 26, 2016

In 1971’s Pretty Maids All in a Row, French director Roger Vadim’s first, and only, American movie, — written by “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry, his first and only feature film screen credit — we were treated to one of the very first major studio productions to feature lots of onscreen nudity, years before comedies like Porky’s and Animal House, in a black comedy/murder mystery about a high school football coach/counselor who is bumping off cheerleaders and other high school cuties, one by one, after he gets tired of having sex with them, attaching cryptic notes to their asses.

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By the end of the sixties, the major Hollywood studios were all scrambling to find a way to continue to exist in an ever-changing and uncertain global film market, and MGM were longer at the top of the heap in an industry that wasn’t dealing very well with all of the takeovers and mergers that were going on, particularly on the west coast.

A Las Vegas investor named Kirk Kerkorian was now heading up MGM’s film studio, and below him they had a new president of their film division, James Aubrey, a former television executive, who was busy selling off a lot of the company’s assets and holdings — including a number of theaters owned overseas, the MGM record company, and parts of the company’s Culver City movie lot — in an attempt to right the listing ship.

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1969 had proved to be transitional year for most of these film companies, and MGM, like all U.S.-based film studios, were trying to find features for release that would appeal to a younger and disconnected demographic, after the surprise success of Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider.

No longer were underground, low-budget Hollywood movies the only ones to explore controversial topics and sex and violence; now major studios were trying to find their own Easy Rider, their own Midnight Cowboy (an Academy Award-winner for Best Picture in 1969 even with an X-rating).

MGM’s first attempt to find an audience for the youthquake generation proved to be a a bad trip. Italian filmmaker Michaelangelo Antonioni had come over to the United States to make his first English-language film for the studio, and MGM were hoping for success after the promising import success of his 1966 film Blow-Up, which had been rife with aesthetic experimentation — but Zabriskie Point turned out to be a major box office disappointment after failing to connect with the counterculture audience it was intended for.

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One reason (of many) may have been Antonioni’s obvious and publicly-stated dislike and contempt for America, which he clearly saw being at its lowest point in its current state (hence, the best way he felt to represent this low opinion of the country he was visiting was to have much of the Zabriskie Point story take place at the location of the same name, in the desert of Death Valley, California, providing the film with its not only its title but a kind of symbolic statement of that low opinion — at 282 feet below sea level, Zabriskie Point is actually the lowest spot in North America).

MGM soon were turning their attention to their next film project, Pretty Maids all in A Row, based on the salacious 1968 novel of the same name written by Francis Pollini, taking its title from the last line in a familiar children’s English nursery rhyme:

Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells, and cockle shells,
And pretty maids all in a row.

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Producer Jay Weston (1968’s For The Love of Ivy) and director James B. Harris — notable for having worked with film director Stanley Kubrick as a producer on The Killing (1956), Paths of Glory (1957), and Lolita (1962), the final film of the Harris-Kubrick partnership, although they remained lifelong friends — had originally optioned the novel and assigned screenwriter William Hanley to write the script, and the movie was set up at MGM with Joe Namath tapped to star as the football coach, according to announcements in national newspapers as early as May 1969.

MGM’s Vice President of Worldwide Motion Picture and Television Production Herb Solow had high hopes for Pretty Maids all in a Row, and knew that it had to find that audience the studio needed if they were going to survive. He’d had a succession of high-level creative jobs in television by that point, at CBS (Director of Daytime Programs, West Coast), NBC (Director of Daytime Programs) and Desilu Studios, where, in 1964, he’d been appointed Vice President of Production and personally oversaw the development, sales, and production of several TV shows, including “Mission Impossible,” “Mannix,” and the second season of the original “Star Trek,” where he was officially credited as “Executive in Charge of Production” (he had been chiefly instrumental in getting NBC to to pick up “Star Trek”).

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After Desliu Studios was sold off, Solow was on the move again, coming over to MGM as Vice President of Television Production, overseeing the development and series production of TV shows like “Medical Center,” “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father,” and “Then Came Bronson,” before being put in the additional charge of MGM’s motion picture production, where he would oversee movies like David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter, Robert Altman’s Brewster McCloud, Gordon Parks’s Shaft, Paul Mazursky’s Alice in Wonder Land, and Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, among many others.

Solow started making changes once he could see that the Pretty Maids project wasn’t working with Hanely’s screenplay (the playwright, novelist, and scripter had written the 1969 screenplay for The Gypsy Moths, his only feature credit).

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First, he brought writer Gene Roddenberry aboard to work on the script, paying him $100,000 to do so. Solow had already known Roddenberry from working with him on “Star Trek,” of course, but he’d been working with MGM and Solow for a short time, creating and developing film projects, including a racy Tarzan movie that never got made.

Roddenberry, at the time, was seen as someone who hadn’t had achieved the success he’d promised his bosses, not at the time, seeing two prime-time TV series crash-and burn-after short-runs.

Pretty Maids would end up being Roddenberry’s first — and only — feature film writing credit during his impressive and long career. He transformed the problematic first draft of Pollini’s original story completely, deepening the dark comedy (it’s pretty black, actually) and softcore semi-misogynistic erotica of the original story — about a high school guidance counselor and football coach who sleeps with a lot of his foxy female students and then murders some of them (the ones who fall in love with him, and ask him to leave his wife, and daughter) — and turning the story into a whodunit that one writer later described as “an episode of ‘Kojak’ written by the staff of Penthouse Forum.

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Solow liked the new changes and also made Roddenberry a producer on the film, and — just as MGM had with Antonioni a year before — they turned to another non-American director to make his first English-language film for American audiences: Roger Vadim.

Vadim was an interesting choice, for sure, and on paper he seems like he would have been the perfect choice, and perhaps he was. Vadim — originally a stage actor, a part-time journalist and screenwriter and former assistant to movie director Marc Allegret (he subsequently married Allegret’s most well known discovery, Brigitte Bardot) — was already well-known for his films from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, including …And God Created Woman, starring Bardot, and his more recent sci-fi pop culture fantasy flick Barbarella, starring another ex-wife, Jane Fonda.

Both films relied heavily on the sometimes crass objectification of women while purporting to be female-driven vehicles of sexual liberation, and now he was being handed the job of telling a story set in a sex-obsessed fantasyland where the California sun overwhelms everything. It was perfect.

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Vadim was known as a man who surrounded himself with beautiful, sexually powerful and alluring women — in addition to both Bardot and Fonda, he’d also had intimate relationships Annette Stroyberg and Catherine Deneuve — but many of his films fostered the recurring image of warm-hearted, and sensual women lavishing their favors on indifferent, often evil love objects, and if there was ever a film director who could be proto-typically described to Americans as stereotypically “French,” it was Vadim.

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But, taking the helm of a new MGM feature wasn’t going to be without its problems, either. Pretty Maids was also Vadim’s first film job in four years, and he’d already broken off a contract with MGM (and Paramount too) years earlier because they had not given him the necessary control to make the films he wanted to make, but he’d had a change of heart after meeting with Solow and Roddenberry. He came to Hollywood, which was beginning to look like one of the empty ghost town sets you’d see on a typical movie back lot: there was not a single other film being made in any of the six main Los Angeles studios at the time, and MGM had only a few other films in production.

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When asked why he would return the studio which was so obviously desperately in need of hit movie, and deal with the kind of pressure he was obviously going to be facing, Vadim said:

“It seemed this time they were more interested to give more credit to the director. ‘We have changed’ they said. But form the moment I get here I fight like hell. They want names but they don’t want to pay for them. For the first time I will be at a studio for a major company in Hollywood. In a way I like a challenge. I really think it’s necessary to get involved with something new. It’s so good to break all your habits. In France I can do anything, here I have to fight.That’s a good thing. They respect you if you fight and it keeps you alert.”

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Solow and Roddenberry gave Vadim the total freedom to make the film he wanted to make out of Roddenberry’s screenplay for Pretty Maids, but Vadim assured everyone that he wasn’t going to do what Antonioni had done: “I am not trying to make a statement on America,” he said. “I tell a story and the story happens to be located in America.”

Pretty Maids All in a Row would turn out to not only be Vadim’s first but also his only American film.

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One of the first changes came in August 1970, when actor Rock Hudson was brought in to replace Namath as the film’s lead character, the he-man high school counselor-coach cum Bluebeard killer named Michael “Tiger” McDrew, who Roddenberry had smartly also given an intense military background, making him a decorated WWII veteran who espouses progressive sociopolitical theories in addition to making him a flawed human with intense sexual desires and homicidal tendencies.

(It’s interesting to note here that writers have also written some of the same things about Roddenberry, particularly since his death, focusing on his womanizing and penchant for adultery in particular — he’s even rumored to have used his own personal “casting couch” to enjoy himself with many beautiful women when he was making “Star Trek”).

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As a coach, Tiger of course leads the school’s football team to the big game against a local rival, but McDrew also notably mentors a few promising students, including his shy protégé, the improbably-named and impossibly horny Ponce de Leon Harper (played by John David Carson in his first movie), who whom he is grooming to be his future vice principal, only the coach feels that Ponce’s persistent boner problem (he suffers from priapism, a constant state of erection) has to be dealt with first, so he turns to a sexy substitute teacher Mrs. Smith (played by the incredibly beautiful Angie Dickinson, who rarely looked sexier than she does here.

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Apparently Brigitte Bardot was offered the lead as the older woman who seduces the young bonerized student but she could not get out of a prior commitment… too bad, as it would have possibly been her first and only English-language film role), but damn, we’ll take Angie in a pinch!

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At the time, Hudson’s movie career had stalled, after a few film flops (he was about a year away from his successful transition to his “McMillan & Wife” TV series), but he had just the right appearance for this role, if you think about it; sure, his chiseled movie-star good looks had faded a bit, but he still looked like he was virile as hell, the kind of older dude still able to fuck a succession of high school beauties during private liaisons in his office (at one point, Tiger claims he doesn’t “ball” all the foxy student body, “just a few truly exceptional girls”).

One of the great rumors that went ’round when the film was released — stop me if you’ve heard this before — was that during Hudson’s numerous “love scenes” he actually went all the way with the actresses playing the high school nymphets. (Yeah, right!)

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Those “truly exceptional girls” — the comely nymphets of the movie’s title — were some of the foxiest actresses around at the time and we must salute and pay tribute to someone named William Ware Theiss, responsible here for costume design — or lack of it — which showed the girls off in the sexiest, skimpiest outfits (short skirts, braless tops) that certainly no high schools at the time would have ever allowed, not that we know of, breaking numerous dress codes and quite possibly even setting off the school’s fire alarm systems.

(Speaking of actual high schools, most of the film’s campus scenes were filmed in L.A.’s “Uni High,” short for University High, a charming older school in West Los Angeles, standing in for Ocean View High, presented here as an upscale suburban school).

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Despite their little-to-no-experience in acting at the time, today the Pretty Maids are almost all known for their appearances in this film, and in exploitation and cult films during the late 60s and the rest of the 1970s: Brenda Sykes (Black Gunn, 1972; Mandingo, 1975), Margaret Markov (Black Mama, White Mama, 1972; The Hot Box, 1972), Joy Bang (Play It Again, Sam, 1972; Cisco Pike, 1972), June Fairchild (HEAD, 1968; The Student Body, 1976; Up in Smoke, 1978), Aimee Eccles (The Concrete Jungle, 1982; Group Marriage, 1973) and Gretchen Burrell, whose main claim to fame was as the one-time girlfriend of country rocker Gram Parsons. Pretty Maid Diane Sherry appeared mostly in TV shows like “Adam-12″ and “Room 222.”

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In his autobiography, Memoirs of the Devil, Vadim recalled the casting of the students in Pretty Maids All in a Row:

“…I had auditioned over two hundred boys and about the same number of girls. Most of the girls who applied were aspiring actresses, though some were students who merely found the whole thing amusing. For a man recovering from lovesickness [Jane Fonda had just divorced Vadim], this succession of young beauties should have been an excellent tonic. It was not unpleasant, of course, but I have never believed in strength in numbers.”

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The beautiful Barbara Leigh — Elvis Presley’s girlfriend at the time shooting began — stars as Hudson’s wife, and we also have to point out that she’s pretty stunning in her Playboy magazine pictorial (which has an awesome American Indian theme). Writing about the experience of appearing in the film in her autobiography, The King, McQueen and the Love Machine: My Secret Hollywood Life with Elvis Presley, Steve McQueen and the Smiling Cobra, Leigh writes:

“I landed the part when I was walking on the beach in Malibu, and Roger Vadim came running up to me from his beach cottage. He told me frantically that he was casting his next movie, starring Rock Hudson, and asked if I wanted to be in it.”

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More: “Rock Hudson was a gentle and kind man. He was the most giving and considerate actor I ever had the pleasure to work with. A true pro. I knew from the beginning that he was gay, but it didn’t matter to me. I just thought it was a terrible waste of gorgeous man. I think I somehow bonded with Rock in a strange way because I played his wife on screen. Rock always made it a point to visit me on movie sets whenever he found out I was filming. In real life, he was the epitome of his character in Giant, for he was truly adored.”

“I especially got a kick out of watching the other actresses, who didn’t know Rock was gay, hitting on him. Joanna Cameron had a crush on him, and thought they would have an affair. Rock found it all very amusing.”

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In Rock Hudson: The Gentle Giant, by David Bret, the author fills in additional info about Hudson:

“Making the film was not all plain sailing. In a distinguished career, Vadim had directed some of the world’s most beautiful women, including Catherine Deneuve and past and current Mrs. Vadims Jane Fonda and Brigitte Bardot — stars who never had problems with nude scenes. Rock would not prove to be such a pushover. When Vadim showed him the script where he was expected to appear full-frontal in one scene, he threatened to walk, telling the somewhat surprised Frenchman, ‘If you want to take a look at my dick, that’s fine by me, but I’ll be darned if I’ll flash it for all the fucking world to see!'”

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The rest of the principle cast — including Roddy McDowell (as the bewildered principal), Keenan Wynn (as Chief John Poldaski, pretty much a typically inept town sheriff) and Telly Savalas (seen here just a few years before his role as Kojak on TV, playing a homicide detective named Sam Surcher, wearing his dark glasses on the top of his bald head, who is pretty put-out after having to deal with the sex-obsessed students on this campus and a local police force apparently filled to the brim with doofuses) — elevate the proceedings much higher than what you might expect from the material, and Roddenberry even managed to find roles for James “Scotty” Doohan and William Marshall, both veterans of “Star Trek.”

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Production proved to be problematic for Vadim, who found it difficult to work in a studio system that wasted time and money both, causing him to go over-budget and beyond the shooting schedule. Here, Vadim describes what it was like to shoot the film’s opening sequence:

“I had to shoot three takes of a boy on his Vespa. In the morning a motorized column consisting of four trucks, the generator set, makeup vans, actors, extras, the producer, the director, costumes and mobile kitchens, plus six or seven production cars, set out from the studio. The drivers’ union refused to allow me to drive my own car. I managed to slip away unseen, accompanied by my director of photography, who had become a friend and accomplice. The actor followed on his Vespa. In an hour, with a hand-held camera, we had all the takes I needed. By the time the column arrived the shot was all finished. The studio had been figuring on two whole days of shooting.”

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That opening sequence, by the way, features The Osmonds’s singing their catchy theme song “Chilly Winds” (co-written by Christian music mogul Mike Curb) over archetypal ’70s-looking credits (love those 70s fonts), while we see Ponce riding his Vespa to school, a series of shots before the camera cuts over a foxy coed ass, wearing panties and discovered bent over a toilet in the boy’s bathroom. It turns out that she’s a dead cheerleader and she has a note attached to her ass that says “So Long Honey.”

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(Speaking of opening sequences, Zabriskie Point‘s opening is being briskly sent up here by Vadim). And speaking of music, Pretty Maids‘s music score is by Lalo Schifrin!

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As you might expect, Vadim fought with MGM over the final cut and then watched his get savaged by the critics, despite making some money for them, when it was released into theaters on April 28, 1971, the same month that an issue of Playboy magazine published an article about the movie written by Vadim, accompany a nine-page pictorial of actresses Angie Dickinson, Gretchen Burrell, Aimee Eccles, Margaret Markov, Playboy bunny Joyce Williams , and others.

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The film reviews were decidedly mixed, and today the film seems to be either savagely attacked or surprisingly praised (we’re obviously praising it). A lot of film directors seem to tend to love the film: director John Landis, reviewing it for Trailers From Hell, said “I kind of like it because it’s so outrageous,” and points out that it would be inconceivable for any major studio to even consider releasing a film like this today.

Quentin Tarantino has notably singled it out as one of his all-time favorite films, sharing space right alongside films by Francis Ford Coppola, Sergio Leone, Howard Hawks and Martin Scorsese.

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West coast critics tended to be more positive while East coast critics were extremely negative on the whole. Roger Ebert wrote, “One thing you can say about Pretty Maids All in a Row. Rock Hudson sex comedies sure have changed since Pillow Talk…The movie itself is, finally, embarrassing. It’s embarrassing because Vadim’s personal hang-ups don’t fit the nature of his material, and so he tries to bend things.”

After its release, producer Herb Solow, in 1973, left MGM to become an independent filmmaker and formed Solow Productions. Gene Roddenberry returned to television, and Roger Vadim went on to a commercially successful career, but he never made another film for an American studio.

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MGM struggled mightily, selling off the domestic distribution rights to all of their movies for ten years, beginning in 1973, to United Artists, after Kirk Kerkorian decided to cut back on production and invest in the $120 million MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. The studio completely cease production of feature films by 1976 and by 1979 MGM was primarily a hotel company.

Pretty Maids All in a Row became one of those films (certainly the title was parodied) that launched a thousand porno flicks, and its influence can be seen in films like Heathers and Carrie, not to mention the Eagles titled one of their songs from Hotel California after it (“it’s nice to hear from you again/And the storybook comes to a close/Gone are the ribbons and bows/Things to remember places to go/Pretty Maids all in a Row”) although we don’t have any proof that it was a song inspired by the film.

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It was initially made available on VHS but then went out of circulation for a long time, earning a reputation as one of those great cult movies you just had to see — bootleggers traded copies for years until it was finally made available on DVD by the Warner Archive company.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.