“The Naked Zoo”: One of Rita Hayworth’s last movies was a sex, drugs & crime-filled sleazefest filmed in “psychedelic color”

By on January 5, 2017

William Grefé’s The Naked Zoo — filmed as The Grove in 1969 but not distributed in the U.S. for another two years, opening in Lima, Ohio, on May 12, 1971 — is memorable for being the penultimate film appearance of former glamor girl and Hollywood starlet Rita Hayworth, who was 51 years old at the time. It’s now streaming on Night Flight Plus in our Something Weird collection.

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Grefé’s original 99-minute version of the colorfully lurid exploitation sex/drugs/crime flick was heavily edited by its original theatrical distributor, R&S Film Enterprises.

They changed its title and made cuts in the first few reels, adding two inconsequential sequences — a gratuitous nude scene with a topless gal and her vibrator, and footage of the Topanga Canyon-based blues-rockers Canned Heat performing at a party — which were actually lensed not by Grefé but by another Florida filmmaker, Barry Mahon.

Canned Heat in Barry Mahon’s added footage, not originally part of Grefé’s 1969 film

Something Weird Video, however, took great pains to restore Grefé’s original film for its initial release on VHS, and so what we’ve got for you is pretty much that same “director’s cut” of The Naked Zoo, with the film’s original opening and title sequence, various other scenes — including the original party scene without Canned Heat — and the original closing credits.

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The original title of The Naked Zoo was The Grove, which is what the locals call Coconut Grove, a hippie enclave in Miami, Florida, which had become an artist colony back in the 1940s.

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The plot concerns a pretty-boy aspiring novelist and overall shitheel named Terry Shaw who pretty much does whatever he wants, which of course means he’s doing lots of drugs and bedding a number of foxy babes.

He also ends up becoming something of a gigolo when he begins an affair with a sexy older gal, Mrs. Helen Golden, who is married to a crusty old disabled, motorized wheelchair-bound millionaire named Harry, but then the old dude finds out about his wife’s affair and dies while attempting to shoot them both.

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The police detectives determine the old dude’s death was accidental, but Mrs. Golden knows the awful truth and blackmails her young buck writer into continuing to sleep with his benefactress, but it’s not too long before he’s sleeping with her daughter, too, which leads to the film’s surprising ending.

Oh, and there’s a crazy and downright disturbing scene where the writer pours booze all over the lady’s face.

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Much of the film’s sequences seem to be taking place at Shaw’s swingin’ bachelor pad (complete with a pinball machine in the front room), where partygoers drop acid and get their freak on (lesbianism, foot eroticism, etc.) in perverted low-budget party scenes — funded by Mrs. Golden’s payments, of course — that wouldn’t have seemed too out of place had they appeared in Russ Meyers’ Beneath the Valley of the Dolls.

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Among the lovelies that sleep with Shaw are a black beauty named Nadine (Fleurette Carter), and a strange blonde hippie chick (Fay Spain).

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Oliver’s Shaw gets to mutter the film’s best line: “Jean, you are a juvenile bitch siren, and you just killed the poet in me.”

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The director considered that the story he’d be telling — based on writer Ray Preston’s original story and a script credited to both Preston and Grefé — would fall midway between Mike Nichols’ The Graduate and Tom Jones, Terry Richardson’s bawdy, funny 1963 Best Picture Oscar-winning adaptation of Henry Fielding’s classic novel starring Albert Finney in the title role.

He considered Hayworth’s role as Mrs. Golden to be as vital to his movie as that of Anne Bancroft’s “Mrs. Robinson” was to The Graduate, or at least that’s what the director originally intended.

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Grefé shot the film on a $250,000 budget, which isn’t bad for an exploitation film, when you consider that’s about $1.6 million in 2016 dollars.

He went to L.A. and offered Rita Hayworth’s agent $50,000 for the one-time star to appear in his low-budget film, but the agent reportedly wanted $250,000, his entire budget, and so they fought about it for the next three days.

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Grefé was finally able to get his investors to give him a $50,000 cashier’s check and handed it over to the agent, who went ahead and made the deal (her fifteen minutes of screentime took roughly two weeks to shoot).

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Once Rita Hayworth had signed on, Grefé was able to add venerable Hollywood character actor Ford Rainey to his cast, and he also was able to get veteran comedian and actor Joe E. Brown to make a quick cameo appearance too, playing the writer’s publisher.

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Brown is probably best remembered for playing aging millionaire “Osgood Fielding III” in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959), mostly for uttering his famous punchline to Jack Lemmon’s double bass playing/crossdressing character “Daphne”: “Well, nobody’s perfect.”

Veteran Florida-based actor William “Bill” Kerwin — who starred in the Herschell Gordon Lewis films Blood Feast, Two Thousand Maniacs!, Jimmy the Boy Wonder, and Grefé’s Impulse — also has a cameo appearance too, as a cop.

His brother was Harry E. Kerwin, another South Florida-based film director along with his fellow Floridian filmmakers like Grefé, Mahon and K. Gordon Murray .

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For his leading man — the writer who gets involved in a series of affairs, notably one with the wealthy gal who is old enough to be his own mother, played by Hayworth — Grefé signed Stephen Oliver, who was just twenty-seven at the time (24 years younger than Hayworth).

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Oliver had been working in the California oil fields as a teenager, but the young, good-looking young man eventually made his way to the movie, and by 1969 had already appeared in quite a few biker flicks, including Motorpsycho (1965), and Angels from Hell (1968), but he was probably best known at the time for playing the truculent chauffeur “Lee Webber” on the popular ABC TV series “Peyton Place.”

The primetime soap opera, one of the first, lasted five years, but Oliver was only on the show for two of those years (1966-’68), but those 150 episodes of the nightime soap landed him a $1.4 million dollar contract with Twentieth-Century Fox studios.

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The set for the writer’s swingin’ bachelor pad — where most of the film’s action actually takes place — was built at the Filmworld studios, in Fort Lauderdale, where Grefé had shot many of his films.

The home scenes with Hayworth were filmed in a deserted house near the derelict ruins of a failed tourist attraction called “Pioneer City,” in Dania, just north of Miami, on the property of a former theme park called Pirate’s World, which we told you about in this post.

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If you’ve heard Madonna’s 1990 hit song “Vogue,” you’ll remember that she says “Rita Hayworth gave good face.”

Hayworth — born Margarita Carmen Cansino on October 17, 1918, in New York City — was probably always destined to be a star of the silver screen, due to her stunning, sensual looks.

Today she is likely best known for her standout roles in Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai (1947), and for the title role in Charles Vidor’s Gilda (1946), a favorite of film noir fans because it was chock-full of sexual innuendo and included a controversial (but tame by today’s standards) striptease by Hayworth.

Her father, a dancer, was originally from Andulusia, Spain, and her mother, a former Ziegfeld Follies girl, was American, and early on their daughter Margarita was often mistaken for being Mexican-American.

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She did start her career as “Rita Cansino” down in Tijuana, Mexico, dancing professionally at the age of twelve.

At age sixteen, she was dancing onstage in Agua Caliente, Mexico, which led to her being spotted by a production chief at Fox, who got her to make her way with her family to Hollywood, California.

A year later, she met her first husband, Ed Judson, a balding car salesman from Texas who was twenty-two years her senior. He spent the next four years managing her career, teaching her how to walk, talk and look beautiful (couldn’t have been too hard).

It was Judson who changed her name to Rita Hayworth, and made sure her hair was dyed auburn red, and her hairline and eyebrows were shaved to give her a higher, more attractive brow.

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Judson worked the phones and managed to get Hayworth plenty of press in newspapers and magazines, and eventually helped land her a seven-year contract with Columbia Pictures, “selling” her, like used car, to Harry Cohn.

She mostly appeared in b-movies before she became one of the most popular pin-ups for soldiers during World War II, after a photograph of her in Life magazine, wearing and ivory silk satin and black lace nightgown, became the unofficial pin-up photo for American servicemen serving overseas.

It’s the same famous poster of Rita Hayworth that Morgan Freeman’s character gave Tim Robbins’s character in Shawshank Redemption and it was also reproduced on an atomic bomb that was dropped on the Bikini Atoll, which we mentioned in this post.

Life magazine writer Winthrop Sargeant nicknamed Hayworth “The Great American Love Goddess.”

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Rita Hayworth in Life (August 11, 1941)

That same year, 1941, Hayworth took the screen opposite James Cagney in Strawberry Blonde and she shared the dance floor with Fred Astaire in You’ll Never Get Rich. Astaire later called Hayworth his favorite dance partner.

At the time she filmed The Grove (The Naked Zoo), Hayworth was just beginning to show early signs of Alzheimer’s, and Grefé has recalled that she only held up production for a couple of days, which he attributed at the time to the actress’s alcoholism issues, which he knew about (in 1969, not much was known yet about Alzheimer’s).

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For her final role in the 1972 film The Wrath of God, her health and mental state were so bad that she could not remember her lines and her scenes had to be shot one line at a time.

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She was 54 years old, and for the next twenty years she would gradually lose every memory of her bittersweet life. Her diminished skills as an actress were largely chalked up to what many believed was a severe alcohol problem, and to early signs of Alzheimer’s, which doctors diagnosed her as having in 1980.

In 1981, she was put under the care of her daughter Yasmin Aga Khan in New York City, where her tragic illness drew national and international attention to Alzheimer’s disease, about which little was known until President Ronald Reagan was diagnosed.

She took up painting while struggling with Alzheimer’s disease, producing beautiful works of art (some which were featured in the 2009 documentary film I Remember Better When I Paint).

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Rita Hayworth spent her final years staring out a window in Central Park West. She died on May 14, 1987, age 68.

Be sure read our post about William Grefé’s The Psychedelic Priest (aka Electric Shades of Grey), which — like The Naked Zoo — is part of our Something Weird collection over on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, 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.