Welcome back to our series on Gene Roddenberry’s work between Star Trek incarnations. Last time we looked at the gender bending antics of Planet Earth. In this entry we try very hard to look away from the train wreck that is Pretty Maids All in a Row.
Sometimes we leave the best for last. Sometimes we avoid things because we just don’t want to deal with them until we have to. This review of the 1971 feature film Pretty Maids All in a Row, which is actually the first production Gene Roddenberry was involved with after Star Trek’s cancellation, is more of the latter. But, there is a point to saving Pretty Maids for last beyond mere procrastination. After all, this is the film that most influenced all of Gene’s work going forward. That’s a big leap, I know. And it’s one you, the reader, would never have even considered if we hadn’t looked at all his other forgotten works first.
Pretty Maids All in a Row is, at its heart, a “sex comedy”, though I find it does neither of those descriptors justice. Because of its strong sexual nature it is nearly impossible to talk about in-depth without being somewhat graphic. Therefore, the more pearl-clutching amongst you might want to turn back. You’ve been warned.
The story of Pretty Maid’s production is filled with Star Trek participants from both in front of and behind the camera. Herb Solow, an executive at Desilu who helped produce Star Trek’s first two seasons, had just started a short tenure as a Vice President at MGM. At the studio’s behest, Herb was looking for an edgy, X-rated story that could win as many Oscars as Midnight Cowboy. How he thought Pretty Maids was their best shot is a complete mystery to me. After passing on the first script adaptation, Herb needed someone to get this smut on screen. Having witnessed Roddenberry’s lecherous and lascivious personal behavior first hand, Solow probably thought Gene was the best man to adapt a story about a teacher who seduces and murders his female students.
I started my preparation for this review not by rewatching the film, but by searching for and procuring a copy of the 1968 Francis Pollini book it’s based on. This was not easy. The book has been out of print for ages and no used bookstore in my area had a copy. Neither the book nor Pollini even have a Wikipedia entry. What’s worse, when shopkeepers looked up the title and saw its creeptastic cover containing an older man gently lifting the shirt of a clearly underage girl I had to explain exactly why I’d want such a thing. “You know Gene Roddenberry? Yeah, the Star Trek guy. He wrote and produced the film version of this. I know, gross.”
The book starts out with Ponce, a sexually frustrated high school student, rushing into the bathroom to relieve his lustful urges after ogling his teacher during class. This is when he stumbles upon a dead girl, face down in the toilet with her bare tokhes sticking up in the air. Pollini then spends a full four and a half densely-worded pages describing how nubile the corpse still is and how conflicted Ponce feels over whether or not he should sexually molest it. At this point I yawned so hard my eyes rolled too far back into my skull to continue reading the book, and I haven’t picked it up again for more than a referential skim since.
The film itself starts off similarly, but with the opening credit sequence following Ponce on his scooter as he rides to school. Once he gets to the bathroom and finds the prone body he does momentarily reach for her rear, but as soon as it’s obvious she’s dead he at least makes a run for help. The sexualization of female-focused violence is pretty common in today’s media, whether it’s “edgy” cable TV shows, horror films, or video games, but even by 1971 it had become more banal than shocking. Roger Ebert, who panned Pretty Maids in his review of it, had only one year earlier written the film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, in which a woman fellates a gun before it blows her head off. Dirty Harry, which came out the same year as Pretty Maids, features a nude woman’s long dead body being pulled slowly out of a hole in the ground. She isn’t blue or rotting or stiff, but rather as pink and supple as a living thing. Even the 1968 sci-fi soft porn film Barbarella, written by Pretty Maids’ director, Roger Vadim, features Jane Fonda getting bitten and pecked bloody while wearing barely-there space suits. My stars! An uptick in sexual violence against women in film at the height of second-wave feminism? What could that possibly mean?
There’s no point in writing a complete synopsis of this film as I’ve done in my other reviews because nothing really happens in it. It’s a pretty dull detective procedural intermixed with classic high school film antics and bizarre sexual hijinks that only people too young to be admitted into the theater would find funny. The film’s themes are better addressed through its characters than its narrative, so I’ve taken that approach instead.
High school counselor and teacher Mike “Tiger” McDrew, played by multiple Golden Globe Award winner Rock Hudson, is the alpha and the omega character of the film. You can’t talk about other characters without addressing him first, but you can’t fully understand him without discussing the many people he’s caught in his intricate web. Simply put, McDrew is a middle-aged sex fiend who beds the most nubile of his female students during office hours and then kills them when they threaten to reveal the affair. Pretty Maids is billed as a “murder mystery,” but it’s clear ten minutes in that it’s McDrew who’s doing the killing.
If anything positive can be said about McDrew, it’s that he’s a unique take on the serial killer character. He’s a sort of sexually charged, silverback gorilla of a man who proves his virility with feats of strength and organic smoothies all while wearing a mustache that would soon be synonymous with porn. He exudes a kind of old-fashioned, John Wayne-style manliness, but preaches new age ideas about a liberal future lead by wise and promiscuous young people. His students love him. They “reach,” as the space hippies in “The Way to Eden” would say. But McDrew is no Doc Sevrin. Sevrin was an obvious madman. McDrew never really says anything an enlightened audience could disagree with. Of course the children are our future. Of course everyone should be free to follow their passions without shame, sexual or otherwise.
It’s also interesting to point out that McDrew is the coach of his school’s football team. It’s almost prescient how the faculty and community ignore and deny his barely concealed philandering and obvious guilt because he’s led the school through so many victories. At one point, the local sheriff catches McDrew schtupping one of his students in a parking lot and would rather discuss players and scores than address the naked, underage girl in his car. Jerry Sandusky couldn’t find a better analogue.
McDrew’s protégé is the aforementioned horn-dog, Ponce de Leon Harper, who found the first of McDrew’s victims rump-up in the lavatory. Ponce is an awkward, virginal “nice guy” who doesn’t understand why all the “jerks” have regular coitus while he continually strikes out. The film is seen mostly through his gaze, which is exceedingly male. As with most boys, Ponce has never been taught that women are fully formed human beings, so we mostly see the world as a long parade of cleavage and upskirts that can never be embraced and furiously dry-humped.
Ponce’s main object of desire is his braless, miniskirted teacher, Ms. Betty Smith, played by Saturn, Golden Globe, and Emmy winner Angie Dickinson. Like Ponce, her life is confusingly sexless. Any attempt at using her feminine wiles on the appropriately aged McDrew are met with well-practiced aloofness because he’s a walking pedobear prototype and she’s the embodiment of the “too old” meme. Knowing how hard up the two of them are and having no sense of right or wrong, McDrew convinces Ms. Smith to sexually mentor Ponce during some after-hours tutoring at her place. After several “accidental” intimate collisions, she applauds the boy’s erection as if he were a baby taking its first steps. Eventually the two give in to each other during a sponge bath necessitated by a horrible chocolate duck mishap.
Before he was Kojak, but after he was Charles Sievers, Emmy and Golden Globe-winning and Oscar-nominated Telly Savalas was Pretty Maids’ intrepid detective, Sam Surcher. Savalas is wry and delightful, but utterly wasted in this role that amounts to nothing more than killing time. Along with his deputies, played by James “Scotty” Doohan and William “Koloth” Campbell, Surcher just sort of muddles about as a straight man set up against the insanity of a high school more interested in the football score than the amount of bodies piling up. Doohan and Campbell fare even worse than Savalas, having almost no lines. Campbell, at least, has a mildly humorous scene where he carries the librarian through the corridors of the school to see how long it would have taken the killer to get the body into the bathroom. What this test gets them is beyond me since they don’t know where the girl was murdered in the first place.
McDrew’s lovers/victims are the titular Pretty Maids, and they have very little to do as well except be naked and die. I will repeat again that this is a sex comedy, meaning the intention of the nudity is to titillate the audience. The film itself was dubiously marketed as having more skin in it than any mainstream production up to that point and its starlets promoted it with their own Playboy spreads. I’d also like to remind you that these girls are supposed to be between the ages of 15 and 17 years old. Pretty Maids relies on the bizarre trope that underage girls are somehow more sexually advanced than their male counterparts and, therefore, ripe for the picking. While Ponce is the epitome of a lanky, spotted youth, the Maids are graceful, well-groomed super models sporting barely-there outfits designed by Star Trek’s own William Ware Theiss.
Surcher’s biggest scenes are spent interrogating the Maids, who are a Roddenberry rainbow of ethnicities. The scantily clad children have some interesting ideas to share with the world-worn detective. One brazenly states, “If a boy didn’t make sexual advances toward me, I think that would be pretty unnatural.” This is presented as some kind of enlightened truth when it’s really just learned helplessness. As the only one who even remotely suspects McDrew as the killer, Surcher feels like he’s supposed be an intellectual foil for the wayward coach’s laissez-faire philosophy, but he just never gets there. Instead he listens and raises an eyebrow and moves on to the next crazy situation. Rinse. Repeat.
Even after McDrew’s apparent suicide, when Surcher spots Lady McDrew holding plane tickets to Brazil, he doesn’t make a move to stop her or head her off at the airport. We know McDrew’s on the run and Surcher is wise to him, but nothing comes of it. Makes you wonder who’s supposed to be the hero here. Chalk it up to “boys will be boys.”
I’ve talked about Roddenberry writing himself into his scripts before. Wesley Crusher is a confirmed example and Spectre’s Amos Hamilton is a pretty safe bet. I think Tiger McDrew is another. While not his own, original character, McDrew is very similar to Roddenberry as far as his sexual proclivities go. According to Herb Solow’s “Inside Star Trek,” Gene often bragged about “late night casting meetings” with various actresses. In the same book, Penny Unger, Gene’s secretary during The Original Series, reports making out with him once. Nichelle Nichols and Majel Barrett were both cast in Gene’s 1963 show, The Lieutenant, before beginning long-term, concurrent affairs with him. As we know, Barrett later married Gene in 1969. Susan Sackett, Gene’s assistant from 1974 until his death in 1991, claims to have carried on an affair with him after being aggressively pursued. Basically, every alleged intimate relationship that Gene Roddenberry had after becoming a television producer was with an underling.
Obviously Gene did not fool around with anyone under consenting age, but the power imbalance between an actress and a producer or a secretary and an employer is eerily similar to that of a student and a teacher. In every one of those cases authority has a problematic influence on the relationship’s outcome.
Roddenberry’s kinship with the McDrew character becomes even more apparent in the scenes where Tiger gives his students utopian lectures of the kind that would sound familiar to anyone who’s heard Gene give an interview. I mentioned at the beginning of this review that Pretty Maids is a major turning point and influence on Gene’s work. It’s the moment when he realizes he can write his zany, lopsided ideas on free love right into his scripts and someone will actually pay him for it.
The original Star Trek was a sexy show, no doubt. While there was way more female skin, revealing male outfits were not lacking. Kirk himself spent half the first season with his shirt off for one reason or another. But that act of sex itself was either unattainable due to professional commitments, or used as a bargaining chip to convince enemies to lower their guard. No one was defined by their sexuality, nor did they celebrate it. There’s lots of screwing going on, but no one really enjoys it.
Comedy was also a no-no on The Original Series, the first season of which is remarkably grim. Some specifically comedic episodes show up in the second season, including “The Trouble With Tribbles” and “A Piece of the Action.” This kind of hilarity, as well as the inappropriate bridge jokes that would often end episodes that year, were the work of line producer Gene Coon. This brought him to blows with Roddenberry who wanted the series played straight. Though he still contributed storylines well into the third season, Coon was dropped from his production duties because of this rift.
These attitudes toward sex and comedy change after Pretty Maids. Gene’s first original television production after Star Trek, Genesis II, features a society called Tyrania whose main selling point is its sensual liberties. This includes a device called a “stim” that can induce extreme pleasure. If it hadn’t been for the slavery, hero Dylan Hunt would have preferred living in Tyrania with it’s twin belly-buttoned seductresses instead of with his sensually subdued PAX saviors. Even the method of the Hunt’s rebirth is sexual in nature. Years later, in Gene’s horror mystery Spectre, we witness another evil sect reveling in orgies, its leader vocally unashamed of bucking his family’s prudish mores. Spectre, Planet Earth, and The Questor Tapes (the last co-written by Gene Coon of all people) may not be terribly funny or sexy, but they try pretty hard to be both.
The Motion Picture is Gene’s first attempt at inserting his sexual politics into Star Trek with the alien race known as the Deltans. Initially created for the scrapped television sequel, Star Trek II, the Deltans were described in the writer’s guide as having sex during every social interaction, sort of like bonobos. So strong was their drive and so great was their skill that Deltans had to take an oath of celibacy before serving on a Starfleet vessel. When Star Trek: The Next Generation was conceived, Betazoids replaced Deltans as the sultry Greek letter aliens du jour. Possessing almost all of the same social characteristics and abilities of Deltans, Betazoids upped the ante by requiring nudity at important social events, such as weddings. Their women were also supposed to have four breasts each, but Dorothy Fontana put the kibosh on that one. Both races would continually roll their eyes at humanity’s perceived sexual immaturity.
The novelization of The Motion Picture, written by the Great Bird himself, gets even more raunchy with Gene actually addressing (and refuting) Kirk/Spock slash fiction. At the same time he makes their relationship so intense that it seems weird that they’re not having sex (look up “T’hy’la” some time). There are regular status reports on the state of Kirk’s genitals, with the good captain getting a chubby in a meeting with his ex-wife and upon seeing his new Deltan navigator for the first time. Spock describes the Enterprise as having private rooms where he overhears couples boinking. Decker actually bones the Ilia-probe with V’Ger listening in. And, of course, there’s so much more discussion of Deltan promiscuity. And what the heck was Kirk’s mom doing with a “love instructor”? That one is mentioned on page one!
Sex comedy elements invaded many of Next Generation’s first season episodes. “The Naked Now” replaced the personality-specific drunkeness of its Original Series inspiration with blanketed ship-wide horniness. In “Justice” the planet Rubicun III is infested with bushy blonde people who literally run around in white fetish gear and greet everyone with lingering hugs. Do I even need to mention Wesley’s dick joke? Riker, who was supposed to be as much Jim Kirk as Will Decker, is far more outwardly sensual than either of his inspirations. He spends his time watching holograms of comely young women playing elevator music and openly offers to share his computer-generated love doll with Picard in “11001001.” This not only acknowledges that the holodeck is used for nookie, but that everyone’s okay with it. In “Code of Honor,” “Haven,” and “Angel One,” crew members express their attraction toward guest stars without shame or reservation. This is not your grandpa’s Star Trek, but it’s definitely Gene’s.
For a project Gene was accidentally thrown into, Pretty Maids All in a Row sure did have a lasting impact on his work. It’s hard to tell whether the experience unleashed his already established beliefs on sexuality or made him invent new ones to help legitimize his womanizing lifestyle. After all, people were already lauding his thoughts on technology, race relations, and pacifism. Why wouldn’t they want his thoughts on sex, too? No matter which way it happened, it certainly turned Star Trek into a world filled with randy aliens, even randier crew members, and “love instructors.” Tiger McDrew would definitely approve of that last one.
- This is the only post-Star Trek Roddenberry production to not have Majel Barrett in it somewhere as an extra.
- Gene did, however, get his daughter, Dawn, cast as “Girl #1.” She also appeared as an Onlie in The Original Series episode, “Miri.” I reached out to Roddenberry family members hoping they could identify her, but never heard back. Since only speaking parts get credited, I’m assuming she’s the blonde student at the 3:30 mark who says, “Dig that figure” in reference to Angie Dickinson’s jiggling caboose.
- In the vein of Roddenberry’s socially conscious messaging, one legitimately funny, and sadly still relevant, scene in the film that’s definitely not in the book features the town sheriff grabbing a random black student and accusing him of being the murderer before even looking at the scene or talking to witnesses.
- Golden Globe and Emmy award-nominated and Saturn-winning Roddy McDowell plays the constantly flustered school principal, as if there wasn’t too much wasted talent in this film already.
- The opening theme song, “Chilly Winds,” was performed by the Osmonds. Kind of splatters a big ball of mud all over their squeaky-clean image.
- John David Carson, who played Ponce, cut his sci-fi teeth as the voice of Hanna Barbera’s “Dino Boy.” He later starred with Joan “Edith Keeler” Collins in a C-grade adaptation of H.G. Wells’ Empire of the Ants.
- The film’s hippie-dippie title font is like Gene’s daughter: unidentifiable, despite my best efforts. It may have been made just for the movie.
Mark’s other entries in the “Forgotten Roddenberry” series are well worth checking out. Click on to read about The Great Bird’s other 70’s exploits: Genesis II, Spectre, The Questor Tapes, and Planet Earth.