The rewards from meeting my fellow Bad Movie sitemasters at B-Fest 2000 were many. One was witnessing their reactions to my pre- and post-Fest screenings of Sextette. Those who came in early saw the entire movie. Everyone, however, got to see the film’s most notorious musical number. The cool thing was that even this hoary, battle-scarred crew was visibly appalled by the film. Sure, we might be jaded. Yet we still blanch when confronted by cinematic awfulness of this magnitude. Andy Borntreger, in particular, was neary driven into catatonia by his repeated exposures to the picture. (This proved to be his karmic bill for tormenting me with a repellant Jar Jar Binks toy.) Indeed, only Freeman Williams, a.k.a. Dr. Freex of the Bad Movie Report, emerged relatively unscathed. His horrification circuits, it seemed, had been cauterized upon seeing Jungle Hell during B-Fest.
Many of our faithful readers will be surprised at my reviewing this particular film. One of my few steadfast rules is that I don’t review Bad Comedies. After all, there’s only so many ways to indicate that a joke or sight gag isn’t funny. Moreover, comedy that doesn’t work is a sort of anti-entertainment. A bad ‘scary’ monster suit, complete with visible zipper, is hilarious. Jokes that don’t work, however, only induce wincing. Short bursts of bad comic relief can therefore spice up a poor film. A steady diet of bad comedy, however, proves only painful.
This movie, however, is the exception to that rule. It’s sheer capacity for repelling the viewer is almost immeasurable, inspiring a sort of awed disgust from the seasoned Bad Movie vet. Nor need you much experience in such matters to discern its qualities for yourself. Even the layman will quickly perceive how having the octogenarian Mae West toss out sexually oriented japes affronts everything that human civilization stands for.
Another of Sextette‘s more manifest pathologies is on immediate display. It was once fashionable to stuff a movie with cameo appearances by big stars. The trend’s zenith occurred with prestige extravaganzas such as Around the World in 80 Days and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. (A more Jabootuish example would be Irwin Allen’s legendary The Story of Mankind.) It was considered sort of hip to make such appearances, and even the biggest stars did them. The acme of cameo movies was the 1963 whodunit The List of Adrian Messenger. This featured a series of cameos by particularly major stars, including Frank Sinatra, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster and Robert Mitchum. The gimmick was that they were disguised with heavy make-ups. The challenge was for the audience to identify who it was currently appearing on the screen. The film’s end credits featured these bigwigs removing their false ‘faces,’ like some particularly star-studded episode of Mission Impossible.
As an audience pleaser, this sort of thing effectively died out with the horrific “Cannonball Run” movies starring Burt Reynolds. There the parade of *cough* stars included such luminaries as Roger Moore, Adrienne Barbeau, Jack Elam, the then unknown Jackie Chan, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Farrah Fawcett, Shirley MacLaine, Susan Anton, Ricardo Montalban, Jim Nabors, Catherine Bach, Marilu Henner…well, you see what I’m getting at.
Reynolds in the early ’80s was one of the two or three biggest stars in Hollywood. Films like Deliverance and The Longest Yard had garnered him both riches and critical success. Yet here, only a few short years later, audiences could literally watch his stardom wither and die before their eyes. Clint Eastwood was perhaps the only other star as big as Reynolds at the time. He too made some yokel comedies, Every Which Way but Loose and its sequel. However, he then pocketed the cash and got back to making films like Pale Rider, Tightrope and Unforgiven. Reynolds also could have stopped while he was ahead. After all, hits like Smokey and the Bandit and Hooper, while low-brow, were genuinely entertaining and modestly well made to boot. Instead, Reynolds rode that Southern-Fried Comedy schtick until it was not only dead, but cremated. By the time he got done grinding out self-indulgent crap like Cannonball Run his career was shattered. It’s this Burt, by the way, the Loni-years Burt, that Norm McDonald so deftly skewered on Saturday Night Live.
Sextette also suffers from a severe case of Bad Cameoitis. If anything, the parade of ‘stars’ here is even more pathetic than that of the Cannonball movies. A particularly timely example is the appearance with which we open our film. We see screaming, adoring crowds clustered outside a London cathedral, chanting “We want Marlo!” (Only after watching the film will we comprehend just how unusual this request is.) Over this, a voice is heard providing a ‘news’ report. Our commentator is none other than Regis Philbin (!). The Regster was then best known as the one-time sidekick of Jack Paar during his stint as host of The Tonight Show. The focus of his commentary is a wedding. This, we learn, represents “one of the most historic events ever to happen in this city since the last coronation.” No surprise there. It’s not like London’s the kind of burg where much ever happens.
Reg’s remarks continue. See, his ‘reporting’ is actually a clever device to provide the audience with expository information – pretty sly, eh? Thus we learn that the cathedral has just witnessed the wedding of world-famous sex queen Marlo Manners. She is, in fact, “Hollywood’s all-time superstar, the greatest sex symbol the screen has ever known.” As he speaks, a procession of limos leaves the cathedral. Perhaps they’re fleeing the horrendous theme song, which also now begins. (See IMMORTAL DIALOG.) Said tune provides our first inkling of just how rough this ride is going to be. Meanwhile, we waste some of the film’s ninety minute limping, er, running time watching extras wave adoring signs. However, if you squint real hard, you can pretend that they are instead villagers chasing the limos with rakes and torches. This image is more satisfying and, actually, makes more sense.
We cut to the Sussex Court, “London’s most exclusive hotel,” the lobby of which very much resembles a cheap movie set. Inside, another newshawk is broadcasting a report. Oddly, even though this is supposedly this gigantic news story, we seldom see more than one reporter at a time. This fellow, like Regis before him, is here to fill us in on our plot. Two “events of momentous, perhaps historic significance,” are to take place at the Sussex. Aside from Marlo’s honeymoon, the hotel is also the site of a meeting of “the leaders of the world’s great powers.” They’ve come together, we learn, to “resolve the tensions and criseses which threaten the world’s survival.” These, apparently, are so well known that no details need be gone into. Needless to say, however, the stage is now set for Comedy.
We cut to the conference room where these worthies are meeting. To our dismay, and, no doubt, his, the chairman of this meeting is an aged Walter Pigeon. From this I developed a theory. As you might know, Pigeon played Morbius in the sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet. This revolved around an ancient race, the Krell, that destroyed itself when their technology allowed them to make thoughts into matter. As advanced as they were, they still had demons hiding in their collective subconscious, demons brought to life when these machines were activated. My theory is that they were destroyed when they watched this movie and it was horrifyingly translated into reality.
Pigeon is trying to call the meeting to order. Meanwhile, the delegates are crowding the windows, hoping to catch a glance of Marlo when she arrives. This hilarious joke established (hey, these “men of destiny” only want to check out a hot chick – ha ha), we cut to the hotel’s “bridal chamber.” There, sportscaster Gil Stratton (whoever that is, and why would he be covering a wedding?) is reporting on the preparations for the happy couple’s arrival. He moves to speak with Marlo’s factotum, Dan Turner (Dom De Luis Alert!!). I tend to suffer what is more or less an allergic reaction whenever I see De Luis. So it’s a mark of the film’s ghastliness that he provides the closet thing to an authentically humorous performance here.
Considering the material he’s provided with, this is even more amazing. When he sees a bellboy bringing in red carnations, for instance, he says “This is a wedding, not a bullfight.” Which, now that I think about it, is probably the movie’s third or forth funniest line. This is followed by a bit with a eucalyptus plant that seems to have been written by aliens. This comedy accomplished, although ‘perpetrated’ might be a more accurate description, Stratten asks Turner how many times Marlo has been married. “Hundreds,” comes the response. Her much-married status will prove to be an important plot device.
Outside, the big moment approaches. The limos are seen arriving, and soon the newlyweds are disembarking from their vehicle. The groom is Sir Michael Barrington, making Marlo, officially, Lady Barrington. Sir Michael is played by future James Bond actor Timothy Dalton (!). Their entrance provides our first glimpse of the pair, and it’s disconcerting. Barrington looks to be, at best, a third the age of his bride. This is somewhat misleading, however, as Dalton was at the time of filming 32 to West’s 87. Therefore, he’s more like 35% of her age, rather than 33%. West’s appearance, in contrast, can only be described in horror movie terms. In general appearance, she reminds one of those films where someone wishes a loved one back from the grave, only to be confronted with a shambling, desiccated shell. This is in no way mitigated by the film’s heavy use of soft-focus or the generous slatherings of Vaseline applied to the camera lens. Meanwhile, West’s face is so heavily made up that it appears to be made of wax. I kept waiting for one of two things to happen. Either Marlo would break out singing “…the music of the n-i-i-i-i-i-ght!!!” or her face would be struck and crack off in pieces, revealing a horrible scarred visage underneath.
As they enter the lobby, the twosome are swarmed by admirers and reporters. This provides the opportunity for West to reel off some of the same double entendres she’d used forty or fifty years earlier. When asked, “Do you get a lot of proposals from your male fans?”, the answer inevitably comes back, “Yeah, and what they propose is nobody’s business.” Perhaps because they proposed that she should quit making movies after her appearance in Myra Breckinridge. Meanwhile, the assembled extras inexplicably let loose with the guffaws upon hearing this parade of wheezy chestnuts. In fact, they laugh at lines that aren’t in any way humorous, as if they can’t tell the jokes from the non-jokes. (Actually, now that I think about it…) For us, however, the spectacle of this macabre apparition spouting such lewd, albeit tired, quips definitely lends a certain queasy frisson to the scene.
Marlo remarks that her marriage in no way means that she’s planning to give up Hollywood career. To our vast, unbelieving horror, a spectator (who’s British, by the way — I can tell from the umbrella and derby he waves around) responds to this by yelling, “Hooray for Hollywood!” As our mind just begins to deny what’s happening, the worst occurs: That’s right, a really, really bad musical number. As the largely inanimate Marlo stands cemented in place, a veritable parade of bellhops, suitcases and all, dances around her. Meanwhile, the ‘jokes’ keep coming. How bad can these be? Try this:
Reporter: “How do you like Big Ben, Marlo.”
Marlo: “I don’t know. I never met the gentleman!”
Cue gales of laughter.
Still haven’t had enough? Try this one:
Reporter: “How do you like it in London, Marlo?”
Marlo: “Hmm, I like it anywhere!”
Still, if you ever wanted to see twenty bellhops bearing bouquets of flowers tap dance their way down an ornate stairway, this is the scene for you. Or bellhops doing imitation Busby Berkeley routines with said bouquets. Or tap-dancing reporters leaping and taking Marlo’s picture. This stuff is so demented that your mind balks at accepting the evidence of your eyes and ears.
Marlo and Sir Michael are escorted to the Bridal Suite. Settling in, the enrapt Barrington gushes, “I feel like the first man who landed on the moon.” A remark which, looking at Marlo, I well understand. Except for the ‘first man’ part. Meanwhile, Marlo cracks wise about the activities soon to commence, leaving viewers to desperately wish their imaginations could be disengaged. She then shuffles into the boudoir. Barrington closes the door, himself staying in the antechamber to prepare the champagne. (This would be my strategy, too – naw, screw that, I’d be beating feet out of the hotel by now.) Here, to commence the inevitable string of ‘comical’ complications, Dan Turner enters the room. Barrington, naturally, is somewhat nonplussed to be interrupted at this juncture. On the other hand, you’d think he’d be grabbing at any straw afforded him right now. Turner! Buddy! Drag up and a chair and make yourself comfortable!
Instead, Barrington orders Dan to leave, and Dan cheerfully ignores him. (Like us, only minus the ‘cheerful’ part.) Turner instead brings Barrington up to speed on Marlo’s obligations to her Studio. These include shooting a screen test with her latest leading man and getting fitted for costumes. Proving that he’s caught a nasty habit from his new wife, Barrington ‘wittily’ replies to this last bit by noting, “She certainly won’t be needing many clothes for the next few days!” Turner, however, has arranged for all this to happen in the next few hours. After that, the rest of the honeymoon can progress *shudder* uninterrupted. His wishes disregarded, the scene ends with Dalton executing, in more ways than one, a not particularly expert example of the ‘slow burn.’
Turner exits the suite and moves on to the elevator. There he spots Dockweiler, an evident Government SpOOk. We can tell because he’s wearing sunglasses and doing that holding-his-newspaper-over-his-face thing. Once alone, they begin to argue. Dockweiler has an important mission for Marlo to perform in connection with the Summit. Apparently, she’s been a regular asset for the government, performing various Mata Hari-ish tasks over the years. Their squabbling is interrupted when another passenger comes on the elevator. Then he gets back off and the bickering recommences. I think this is supposed to be funny, but with this film it’s hard to tell. Anyway, since this was so funny the first time, two more guys now enter the elevator. However, they begin exchanging sign language. Assuming these fellows to be deaf, Turner and Dockweiler complete their conversation, whereupon the latter leaves the elevator. Then (Comedy Ahoy!) Turner learns that the other passengers aren’t deaf at all, but merely confirming illicit bridge signals. Man, that’s some Grade-A Komedy there, my friends.
Back in the suite, Marlo lies in bed dictating her memoirs into a tape recorder. She’s up to chapter 33 and introducing Barrington. Here West trots out her “it’s not the men in my life, it’s the life in my men” line. A line so old that, well, West used it back when she was a movie star. That old. Can ‘Tippecanoe and Tyler, too’ be far behind? She then makes what I believe is a ribald allusion to Barrington’s, uh, package. Sorry, folks, but that’s what we’re dealing with here. Apparently, she just wanted to get these four or five lines on tape, because she then hits the rewind button. After one second of rewind, she hits play, and we hear her talking about husband #2. This from a woman who supposedly has had at least six husbands. So many, in any case, that she can’t even remember the exact number. This concept is used throughout the film, to much supposed comic effect.
Husband # 2 is described as a Russian, whereupon we segue down to the Summit Meeting. Coincidence being the heart and soul of farce, even really, really bad farce, the Russian envoy proves to be none other than Marlo’s ex, ‘Sexy’ Alexi (Tony Curtis!!). Being the Russian, of course, Alexi is the one holding up the summit. He’s also the assignment that Dockweiler was talking to Turner about earlier. For unless Marlo arranges a tryst with him, he plans to ruin the conference.
Now, I want to make sure you get this, because it’s hard enough to comprehend when actually watching the film. The idea is that the decrepit Marlo remains so sexy that she still inspires rages of lust in any man who sees or has known her. In fact, it’s weirder than that. The film acts as if she’s still in her prime, utterly ignoring her all too obvious dotage. This makes for a rather surreal viewing experience.
Next on the tape is Laslo, Husband #4. Maybe. See, she can’t keep track anymore! Hahahahaha. This provides a segue to Laslo (Ringo Starr!!!) entering the hotel. We can tell he’s a movie director because he’s decked out in a cloth cap, knee-high leather boots and jodhpurs. To complete the outfit he’s got a lighting meter hanging on a string around his neck. Laslo’s a great director, we’re told, like Lubitsch. “In fact, they called him son of Lubitsch. At least, that’s what it sounded like.” Them’s the jokes, people. Read them and weep.
Back to the Bridal Suite. Since this is, technically, a comedy, Barrington is forever standing around in the antechamber. He’s then always on the verge of joining his bride in the bedroom when a visitor interrupts him. So again enters Turner, informing Barrington that there’s something on the telly he should see. “I think I’ve got something rather better to be doing than watch television,” the groom angrily retorts, and let’s not think about that statement too much. A flick of the on-switch reveals Rona Barrett (!!) as herself, giving a gossipy report on the wedding. The emphasis of which is, again, the purportedly hilarious number of husbands which Marlo has had. (They speculate up to seven, which is actually, I believe, two less spouses than Mickey Rooney had in real life.)
Being British, Barrington takes umbrage at Barrett’s saucy cheek. Learning that this is a live telecast emanating from the hotel lobby, he leaves in a fit of pique (that’s for you, Liz) to give Barrett what for. This has all been engineered by Turner, by the way, so as to give Marlo time to meet with Alexi. He pops into the bedroom, informing Marlo that her husband is downstairs trying to save her reputation. “He should be up here,” she quips, “trying to ruin it!”
Marlo isn’t too interested in hearing about her mission. This leads to a weird sequence as she remembers how she came to perform such duties at the government’s bequest. Against the background of a waving flag, newspapers with giant headlines like “MARLO OUT FOR THE COUNT” (’cause she’s dating a count, get it?) appear under her narration. She started ‘dating’ muckity-mucks at her studio’s request, and ended up doing it for the State Department. “Talk about shuttle diplomacy. I woke up in more strange places than Kissinger!” Turner explains about Alexi, and how if she’ll have a romantic dinner with him, he’ll make the necessary concessions at the Summit. With the understanding that it’s just dinner, Marlo reluctantly agrees.
Turner promises to keep Barrington too busy to notice what’s going on. Then, as he prepares to leave, he demands that she hand over the tape with her memoirs. (Yep, they’re all on the one cassette. Said tape will prove the most unbelievable element of the film, and in a number of ways.) Given Marlo’s past, including her, uh, undercover work, the contents of the tape are too hot to ever allow them to become public. More alarming to Our Heroine is the suggestion that Barrington might leave her if he heard the tape’s racy contents. “Shred it,” she commands, tossing Turner the cassette. In case you haven’t seen many movies, the film’s McGuffin is now in place.
Marlo turns on her TV to see her husband conversing with Barrett. Segue provided, we cut down to the lobby. Barrington is complaining about the gossip surrounding Marlo, but Barrett would rather talk about him. Here we reap comic gold, big, stinkin’ piles of it, from the farcical nature of Barrington’s ‘character.’ See, he’s a really, really naÃ”ve guy. So when Rona asks if he’s had ‘relationships’ with people before his marriage, he ‘humorously’ misunderstands. He begins happily recalling his close relationships with the chaps at Harrow and Eton. (Rona points out that these are boy’s schools, so that the audience ‘gets’ it.) Anyhoo, this goes on in predictable fashion, with Rona and Barrington talking past each other. Finally, she comes out and asks him, “Sir Michael, are you gay?” “Well, yes, I would say so,” our naÃ”f replies. “Always gay, never depressed. Happy and gay. That’s my motto.”
This ‘hilarious’ sequence finally spent, we shift to a raucous bunch of guys entering the lobby. These, we learn, are the members of the “United States Athletic Team.” A group sponsored, no doubt, by the fine folks at Amalgamated Generico. Their presence in the hotel established, we cut back to Turner again meeting Dockweiler in the elevator. The latter is relieved to hear that Marlo’s agreed to the job. Then they are interrupted (apparently, being interrupted is the height of comedy) when the elevator reaches the lobby and the entire athletic team crams inside. You’d think Olympic athletes would take the stairs rather than sardine into an elevator, but what do I know? When the team gets off (why is it that everything I write now sounds dirty), Turner and Dockweiler finish up with their plans.
With this taken care of, Turner turns to destroying the tape. Seeing two guys exit a seemingly random room, he asks if the shredder is in there (?!). “Good God, I hope not,” one fellow replies, and Turner sees that this is the men’s lavatory. Comedy! Said chamber is identified with some patently fake lettering reading “Gentlemens
Barrington, believing that his TV interview was a triumph, finally returns to his wife. Here we lead into the film’s, and perhaps Cinema at large’s, most grotesque moment. Random musical notes start drifting across the soundtrack, like flakes of radioactive fallout. Eventually, a semblance of a musical pattern emerges, but one which our mind refuses to recognize. Then the ‘singing’ starts, and we can no longer evade the truth. The couple is soon butchering their way through The Captain and Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together.” (!!!!!)
Words can not adequately describe the sheer repugnant horror of this scene. It’s like gazing upon one of H. P. Lovecraft’s Old Ones, something so momentously and unimaginably monstrous that even perceiving the edges of it threatens one with madness. (Just ask Andrew Borntreger.) As such, one hardly knows where to start listing some of the more evident flaws. Still, here goes:
- The way Barrington begins the song as normal speech (“Love. Love will keep us together…”) before it ‘blossoms’ into song.
- The fact that Timothy Dalton cannot sing. He tries to do that Rex Harrison speak/singing thing, but can’t pull that off either.
- The dumb-ass selection of “Love Will Keep Us Together” as the couple’s signature tune. What the hell?
- The fact that the song has to be modified in so obvious a fashion. Arguing that a lasting love is more valuable than a fling, the song’s central couplet is “Someday your looks will be gone/When the others turn you off, who’ll be turning you on?” For obvious reasons, the reference to looks being someday gone isn’t going to fly here. Therefore they change the line to “your looks will never be gone,” which plays havoc with whatever small point the song has.
- The fact that West’s contribution to the duet largely consists of tossing in the occasional “stop” and “what-ev-ah.”
- When Barrington ‘sings’ “who’ll be turning you on?”, he pulls out a diamond bracelet and waves it at his wife. Now, back in the ’30s, a woman forthrightly using her sexuality in order to make her way in a Man’s World might have been viewed, by some stretch of the imagination, as progressive. In the ’70s, however, it just seems rather tawdry. And as an action during a romantic love song moment, well, it leaves something to be desired.
- A 32 year-old Timothy Dalton is singing a love song to a practically embalmed 87 year-old Mae West, and, uh….ewwwww!!
Anyway, that’s about all I can take of thinking about that. As we know, movies often alternate horror with humor. And while I can’t really say that the following bit is ‘funny’…oh, never mind. Barrington is about to get *shudder* romantic with Marlo when an insistent knock comes at the door. Why, it’s The Who’s Keith Moon (!!), playing Marlo’s costume designer! And guess what – he’s flamboyantly gay! A clothes designer! What a twist! Moon gives perhaps the film’s most undisciplined performance, which is saying something. He’s so far over the top that if he fell he’d crash through the Earth’s crust. Either that, or he’s just unimaginably happy at being the sole male cast member who doesn’t have to make goo-goo eyes at the antediluvian Marlo.
This all sets up an excruciating sequence of Marlo wearing a long, long series of *ugh* skin-tight dresses. These are accompanied by a series of quips which are as painful to the ears as the dresses are to the eyes. I’m telling you, the Marquis de Sade had nothing on this bunch. Moon, meanwhile, camps it up with all the reserve of Animal from The Muppet Show. His ‘highlight’ comes when Marlo dons a gold-lamÃˆ dress (no, that’s ‘lamÃˆ’ with an ‘Ãˆ’), allowing him to extrapolate from the word gold into an impromptu pirate bit, complete with copious arggh-ing. This also, for those keeping score, is the occasion for West to use her inevitable “when I’m good, I’m good; but when I’m bad, I’m better’ line.
Turner, still looking for some way to destroy the cassette (uh, break it into little pieces and burn the actual tape?), ends up in the hotel kitchen area. There, the temperamental head chef (all movie chefs, of course, are temperamental) starts chasing him with, that’s right, a cleaver. He’s on edge because the delegates have all brought cooks, who are presently occupying his kitchen. This sets up an appalling (and this is me talking, here) display of ‘humorous’ racial epithets. You know how the racial humor in Blazing Saddles is aware that it’s offensive, and that’s part of the joke? Well, this isn’t like that. It’s more like when you’re at a family reunion and your aged Nana starts talking about Blacks in terms that aren’t really used much anymore, if you know what I mean. Then, as if tossing around various ethic slurs weren’t enough, we focus on a Chinese guy as “oriental” music plays merrily in the background.
Turner gets on the chef’s good side by revealing that he’s not one of the invading cooks. However, he then blows it by mentioning how much he enjoys a good hamburger. Being a Comically Snooty Chef™, of course, the guy can’t stand having such a vulgar foodstuff mentioned in his presence. Roaring, he chases Turner from the room. This is accompanied by music that would have Benny Hill rolling his eyes in disdain and culminates with a flour fight. As Turner takes his leave we see him toss the cassette into an oven. Seconds later, though, a cake is removed from the oven. I think we can all see where this is going. Meanwhile, it’s a mark of the sloppy filmmaking displayed here that the guy is shown handing the ‘hot’ cake mold with his bare hands.
Back to the conference. Pigeon is taking a vote on the treaty, or whatever it is. However, when they get to Alexi he votes “Nyet.” (Because he’s Russian, get it?) Of course, we know that Alexi won’t sign on to the treaty until he has his rendezvous with his ex-wife Marlo. Here Dockweiler strolls in and quietly informs Alexi that the meeting is on. Standing, Alexi loudly announces that “I go for a quickie” (no, I won’t think about it, I won’t think about it, I won’t….aaiee!!) and exits the room.
Barrington returns to his suite just as Moon is leaving. With over fifty minutes of screentime left, however, we know that this isn’t the ‘moment.’ Instead, the groom reveals his anger and insecurity about being Marlo’s sixth, or whatever, husband. When he snidely suggests that she’s collected husbands like they were books (?!), she vampishly replies, “Marriage is like a book. The whole story takes place between the covers.” Yep, nothing like hearing that tidbit coming from a nearly ninety year-old woman. This is followed by an obvious set-up line where Barrington refers to his “stiff upper-lip,” and Marlo leeringly replies that LA LA LA I DON’T WANT TO HEAR ANY MORE LA LA LA!!!
Turner enters, having to distract Barrington so that Marlo can keep her appointment with Alexi. Luckily, he has a handy prop: A newspaper bearing the headline “HAS MARLO MARRIED A GAY CABALLARO?” in rather a large typeface. Need I mention that this hardly seems like the headline a British newspaper would come up with? Or that it seems weird that an edition would have hit the streets in the, what, hour since Barrington’s TV interview? Anyway, Turner tries to explain the problem to the ‘hilariously’ naÃ”ve Barrington, who continues to innocently spout sentences like “It’s queer to me.” Finally getting his point across, though, Turner quickly has Barrington running back downstairs to sort the situation out.
Marlo heads off (actually, I think that word ‘trundles’ more accurately sums it up) for her meeting. Meanwhile, Turner has admitted his love for Marlo. Hey, what red-blooded man doesn’t love her, right? Depressed at her going off to another man, he wanders into the anteroom. Here a life-sized cardboard cut-out of Marlo is on display. (Said prop is seen being carried in by a bellhop, lest we mistake the cardboard Marlo for the ‘real’ one.) This sets up De Luis’ own song and dance number, as he sings ‘Honey Pie” and dances with the cut-out. Now it all makes sense. After all, if they had West herself dancing here, they would have run the very real risk of having one of her brittle limbs crack off. From that perspective, the cut-out Marlo more than justifies whatever it cost. In any case, this is probably the film’s most nauseating musical number, except for all the others.
The number complete, we cut back to Marlo, still shuffling her way down the hall. This is accompanied by the kind of ‘sultry’ music used to introduce strippers in the ’50s. Considering how fast she can move without experiencing one of the aforementioned ‘cracked-off limb’ accidents, I’m not surprised that she’s yet to make it to the elevator. Make it she does, however, although she tosses out an especially egregious elevator entendre as the doors close. I’m not even thinking about repeating it, although you can probably figure it out if you really work at it. (Hint: Think “Aerosmith.”)
The lift (we are supposedly in England, after all) stops on another floor. Entering here is George Raft, playing himself. For you youngsters out there, Raft was a popular star back in the ’30s, best known for playing gangsters and other tough guys. In this extremely nonessential bit, he trades a few ‘funny’ lines with Marlo, then gets back off the elevator. Which, considering that it hasn’t yet left the floor he entered from (in fact, the doors never closed), seems a bit odd. Well, that ate up about a half a minute.
Barrington enters the lobby, looking to chew out Rona Barrett. She’s left, however, and been replaced at the microphone by the ubiquitous Gil Stratton. Evidently Stratton was so famous he warranted two appearances. Finding Gil discussing his rumored predilections, Sir Michael decides to set the record straight, so to speak. However, the artless Barrington continues to cast inadvertent aspersions on his own proclivities. Attempting to correct the earlier impression, he notes that he’s a “man’s man.” At Oxford, he continues, he was considered quite a “coxswain.” (Pronounced ‘coxon.’) In fact, he maintained, he “coxed the entire crew.” Now, even I have a vague understanding that coxswain is a boating/rowing term of some sort. Therefore, Gil’s ignorance of the term, especially as he’s a sportscaster, seems a bit weird.
Cut back to Marlo, arriving on the world’s slowest elevator at Alexi’s floor. This worthy answers his door dressed, naturally, all in black and with a sable-trim robe perched on his shoulders. Somehow, though, they forgot to provide him with one of those big fur hats. Curtis’ performance largely consists of pronouncing words like ‘violins’ like ‘wy-o-lins.’ Oh, and every time he drinks from a glass he tosses it over his shoulder. Because, you know, he’s Russian and all. After the obligatory shot of vodka, which, amazingly, he doesn’t call ‘wod-ka’, a waiter appears with a bottle of bubbly, some (of course) caviar and a cake (?). Three guesses where this is going.
Just to make sure that they hit all the ‘Russian’ gags as enumerated by Star Trek‘s Pavel Chekov, Alexi now refers to “that great Russian poet, Shakespeare.” Ha ha, those Russians, they take credit for everything, don’t they? Then he slices Marlo a piece of cake and *gasp*…no, wait, that’s not right…*yawn*…yeah, that’s better…the cassette’s in it. When Marlo suggests that he skip the cake (because the tape’s in it. Get it? Have I explained this adequately?), the impassioned Bolshevik chucks the whole deal out the window. We watch it sail to the lawn, where a small dog runs over to it. (??)
Having completed his interview, Sir Michael makes to head back to his suite. However, he’s intercepted by Turner, who’s still covering for Marlo. The increasingly annoyed Barrington is led out to the hotel’s garden, where yet another reporter is waiting. Seething, Barrington turns to reenter the hotel, whereupon he spots Marlo and Alexi standing out on the balcony of Alexi’s room. You know, the balcony that just happens to sit directly above where the interview is set up. You’d really think that Turner would have avoided this area. Barrington, meanwhile, is so distracted by the sight that Turner manages to get him to sit down with the reporter. (Yeah, that’s what would happen.)
Back to the dog, who’s carried the cassette and is dropping it over where the U.S. Athletic Team is working out. One fellow tosses a javelin, which just happens to spear the tape. Then the coach blows his whistle, signaling them to head for the gym. At this, the guy grabs his javelin without (somehow) noticing that it’s got a pink cassette tape attached to one end. Marlo, though, is looking on from the balcony and spots the tape. She quickly makes her good-byes to the flustered Alexi and prepares to take off. However, the producers apparently felt that Curtis hadn’t suffered sufficient embarrassment up to now (and how wrong they were). Therefore, Alexi is subjected to Marlo’s warbling rendition of “After I’ve Gone Away” as she makes her exit.
We cut to the gym where the athletes, who mostly sport utterly inappropriate body-builder physiques, are working out. It’s like some road show production of Can’t Stop the Music‘s “YMCA” number. Javelin Guy, finally spotting the cassette, removes it and tosses it onto the gym’s trampoline. Marlo makes an entrance, generating much excitement, given how she’s such a sex symbol and everything. The coach breaks things up, and then tours the gym with Marlo. This allows the creepy old bat to leer at the young studs and make off-color quips. Finally, however, she spots the tape bouncing around on the trampoline.
Before she can grab it, though, she’s introduced to Ricky, the team mascot. This lad, who looks unnervingly like a young Jan-Michael Vincent sporting a Vinnie Barbarino haircut, happens to be twenty-one today. To our vast horror, this provokes yet another tune from Marlo, who sings “Happy Birthday, Twenty-one.” And yes, the song is actually, “Happy Birthday, Sweet Sixteen.” Apparently, they changed the song because an 87 year-old mummy, er, woman flirting with a sixteen year-old would be gross. Instead, by making him twenty-one, he’s only sixty-six years younger than she is. Needless to say, this requires completely different lyrics (“you’re the biggest boy under the sun / Happy Birthday, Twenty-one!”), none of which prove superior to the original lyrics, to say the least.
Meanwhile, the guy on the trampoline executes a maneuver that sends the cassette bouncing up through the gym’s skylight. Accompanied by a *sigh* ‘humorous’ slide-whistle sound, it flies way up and lands in the mouth of a stone lion adorning the hotel. Marlo is then shown in such a way as to indicate that she’s seen all this. This despite that fact that there’s no way she could have, given where she’s standing. “Everything goes up for Marlo,” she cracks.
As Marlo leaves the gym, Turner shows up. It’s time for Marlo to hook up with Laslo, who’s shooting the screen test for her next picture. Then, to (still) keep her husband busy, Turner takes him down to the gym. Apparently, having him work out with a bunch of sweaty bodybuilders will dispel the rumors that he’s gay. As they approach the gym a guy who looks just like Mr. Clean walks by. This might be a coincidence, or it might be a joke. That’s just the kind of movie it is, where you have to debate whether something was a gag or not. Of course, they could make this easier by making the ‘actual’ jokes funny, but where would be the sport in that?
Marlo enters to find the anteroom to her boudoir converted into an impromptu shooting stage. Ex-husband Laslo (Ringo Starr, remember?) greets her and introduces her to Cartwright, her erstwhile leading man. This guy is played by some generic dude, as this is Starr’s turn to be humiliated. You wouldn’t want to ruin his moment by putting another name actor in the scene. Cartwright notes that he had a small part in another of Marlo’s movies. If you guessed that this leads to him saying something like “it got bigger and bigger” due to Marlo’s presence, well, award yourself two points and some antacid tablets.
Downstairs, Barrington is in the gym, lifting weights and working over a light punching bag. Then he displays his gymnastic skills on the trampoline. Here he’s told of the mysterious flying cassette tape that his wife was looking for. Meanwhile, Cartright and Marlo are shooting their screen test. I think this is filmed so as to be exaggerated, you know, for humorous effect. However, it’s hard to tell, as, like most of the movie, it seems instead exaggerated for non-humorous effect. This bit just goes on and on and might well be the most excruciating scene in the movie. Except for all the others.
Laslo steps in to show Cartright how the scene should be done. Or so he says. We in the audience, however, like imperious, all-seeing gods, know that Laslo really just wants to flirt with his ex. He does so, and Cartright takes back over. However, Barrington now enters the room and mistakes what’s going on. Despite the crew and the film equipment scattered all over. Barrington pops the guy one, resulting in ‘birdy’ noises as Cartright hits the floor. After a few more ‘star turn’ moments for Starr, Laslo departs so as to make way for the next cameo appearance. Finally having the wife alone, Barrington makes it to bed but falls asleep as Marlo gets ready. Frankly, though, I think he’s just playing possum.
Back to the Summit. Alexi holds up his end of the bargain and signs on to the treaty. As the participants celebrate, Dockweiler calls Turner down in the lobby and tells him the good news. Turner’s soon distracted, though, by the entrance of George Hamilton (!!!). He enters wearing the sort of cornball ‘Chicago Gangster’ getup (white fedora, black shirt with white necktie, blue suit with wide pinstripes, spats [!!], etc.) that went out with The Untouchables. And yes, a bellhop is carrying the inevitable violin case. This is Vance Norton, who is, as you’d expect, yet another of Marlo’s ex-husbands. Turner watches in barely restrained panic as Norton asks for Marlo’s room number. Meanwhile, I have to wonder who decided that Hamilton, usually (and aptly) cast as a suave pretty boy, should here play an Al Capone-esque gangster.
Marlo enters the bedchamber in her most nauseating outfit yet, a partly sheer black negligee. Luckily for her husband, he’s either sawing wood or doing an extraordinarily good impression of the movie’s average audience member. His luck holds (Dalton probably used this experience when acting out another of James Bond’s narrow escapes), too, as Turner appears to warn Marlo of Norton’s appearance. Marlo is rather surprised, being under the impression that Norton had been rubbed out shortly after their marriage.
Turner and Marlo leave the bedroom to discuss the matter. With this, Barrington opens his eyes, having been faking his sleep. (Told ya!) It’s time for him to go on a pre-Bond secret mission of his own. Back in the antechamber, a knock heralds Norton’s appearance. Apparently, Norton was made a gangster just to set up Marlo’s inevitable “Is that a gun, or are you just happy to see me?” line. Meanwhile, our next plot device is unveiled. Marlo can’t remember if she ever divorced Norton, given his apparent death. And as this is a farce, Norton won’t leave her alone until she can prove he’s not still her husband. Despite her memory lapse, though, she’s sure the info is on the McGuffin cassette tape containing her memoirs. (Although she was recently shown dictating said memoirs, so why she’d remember it then but not now…) Vance and Turner head off to retrieve the cassette.
Which is what Barrington is doing. Having scaled the side of the building, he quickly reaches the lions. However, he is forced to hide between them when Norton and Turner approach from the roof. Needless to say, shots of the street far below are cut in to indicate the great height at which this is all occurring. Vance forces Turner to hang over the edge and search for the tape. After much shrill ‘comedy’ Turner is pulled back up. Rather than risk another attempt, Turner agrees that Marlo is still married to Norton. The two take their leave, allowing Barrington to procure the tape.
This is probably my favorite moment in the film. When I first watched it, I couldn’t help noticing that the shots showing the street below failed to reveal the gym. You know, the one they established earlier as being directly under the lions. Then, having blown continuity once, they proceed to grievously compound their error. For rather than climbing back down the building facade, Barrington instead jumps off the ledge. Again, repeated shots have shown a street directly under him. Instead of the expected splat, though, we cut to the inside of the gym. Barrington falls through the open skylight and safely lands on the trampoline. And as if this all weren’t sloppy enough, the cuts to the street also established the lions as being, say, roughly eight stories up. Meaning that Barrington should be going splat in any case, trampoline or no.
Sir Michael exits the gym. In the corridor, he meets the Zany Comic Chef from earlier in the movie. The Chef is pushing a big cake (again with the cakes!) down to the Summit room. As they walk down the hall, they engage in a bewildering conversation. I believe they’re hinting that both Barrington and the Chef are spies, presumably British ones. This, however, is really just a confused guess. If I’m right, their job entails seeing that Marlo’s memoirs surface in the summit room. Why? You got me. I mean, I’ve seen this film maybe three or four times, and this is the first time I’m noticing any of this. I just don’t want to think of it anymore. In any case, Barrington sticks the cassette into the Chef’s pocket and heads back to his rooms before he’s missed.
We cut to another reporter. This one is played by the guy who later portrayed Mr. Pitt, Elaine’s boss on Seinfeld. From him we learn that the “state dinner” has begun. Oddly, this takes place in the same conference room as the negotiations themselves. For the “most exclusive” hotel in London, the Sussex Court seems pathetically short on basic facilities. How about a dining room, for Pete’s sake? The reporter notes that the “exchange of native dishes is going swimmingly.” Not so, though, for we see that the Israeli ambassador has been served pig’s feet, compliments of the Arab sitting next to him. Just in case we miss the ‘joke’ (you know, because we’re morons or something), he moans, “These are not kosher!” Oh, now I get it! Ha ha! Those Jews and their wacky dietary customs, eh? (Oh, and anyone who guessed that the Israeli guy would end up eating gefilte fish, score yourself two points.)
Nobody likes each other’s food and the conference is disrupted as the delegates begin to bicker. See, this is funny, in that these guys, who should be dignified, aren’t acting that way. Thus, the unexpected reversal of our expectations as to their behavior generates amusement. I hope I’m not overexplaining this, but I didn’t want anyone to miss out on how knee-slappingly funny all this is. We also now cut to a celebrity impersonator of President Jimmy Carter (!). He’s eating from a plate of peanuts. You know, Carter…peanuts…? Of course, the point of the current bit is that everyone is exchanging native foods. Therefore, from a strict continuity standpoint, it’s the guy next to Carter who should be eating the peanuts. Still, sometimes you have to take comedic license, as it were, for a gag this good. Jimmy Carter! Eating peanuts! (The comedy continues: After surveying the scene, Carter looks into the camera and notes, “These people are nuts!”)
Turner and Norton return to Marlo’s antechamber and report that they couldn’t find the tape. This means, as Marlo notes, that there’s no way “to prove” whether she’s currently married to Barrington or to Norton. (Is anyone else not buying this? How would the tape qualify as ‘proof,’ anyway?) Meaning to have it out, Norton goes to rouse his rival. We’re apparently supposed to be afraid here, assuming we’re still awake, that is, that Norton will discover Barrington’s absence. Which would blow his cover. Or something. However, when the door is kicked open we see that Barrington has made it safely back. Whew.
Back Outside the conference room, the Chef is seen with his “Cake of Peace.” Which, maybe, is meant to be a joke, since it’s sort of like “piece of cake,” only backwards. Or maybe not. Who can tell? Anyway, he wheels it in, and everyone starts singing “Happy Birthday” to Alexi. (??) Alexi smiles and removes the confectionery dove from atop the cake, only to reveal *gasp* the cassette. Upstairs, Marlo and the boys watch these events on their TV. Norton heads down after the tape, with Marlo and Turner in pursuit. Meanwhile, Barrington sits back and watches his machinations come to fruition.
For some reason, the appearance of the tape has thrown the delegation into further uproar. They argue back and forth as to what they should do with it. Marlo bursts in on the meeting (it’s OK, because she’s Marlo Manners) with Turner and Norton in tow. The arguing stops as the delegates bask in Marlo’s overpowering sexual charisma. Or freeze in unimaginable horror. You decide. Marlo renews some acquaintanceships (from her years in Uncle Sam’s service, you know), and then asks for the tape. Conference leader Pigeon, though, notes that “if this tape is so vital, I think this conference should be given an opportunity to hear it.” This is, need I point out, stupid on numerous levels. But I’m too tired to go through them all right now. So let’s just move on.
Norton draws a pistol and demands the tape. (The conference seems a tad sparse on security, especially given the attendance of the President of the United States.) However, as he gets the cassette and turns to leave, a voice is heard. The delegates part, and sitting in a leather chair is The Godfather. (??!!) Italian-style music plays, and Norton kneels before him. Norton tries to convince him not to play the tape, speaking in Italian and ‘hilariously’ pleading “Por Mario! Por Irving! Mozzarella, marinara!” Despite these entreaties, The Godfather commands that the tape be played, perhaps as to nudge the film towards its ending point. That the cassette plays at all is a testament to its manufacturer, given that it’s been chewed by a dog, tossed into an oven and impaled on a javelin.
The tape just happens to immediately begin with a litany of “secrets” about, coincidentally, everyone in the room. Apparently, this is all supposed to be hot stuff. However, the ‘information’ consists of extremely vague assertions, like that one guy was getting kickbacks, without any details provided. These ‘revelations’ are also about as funny as they are informative. For instance, Marlo notes that one fellow “did so many deals under the table, nobody knew what his hands looked like.” Unsurprisingly (at least in this picture), these toothless japes draw gales of laughter from the assembled diplomats. Then, in a truly inane segue, the tape suddenly goes from gossip about these international figures to talking about Marlo getting her divorce from Norton. Defeated, he leaves the room. Well, that neatly ties up that plot thread.
Of course, the entire point of these misadventures was to arrive here. So Marlo orders the dignitaries to get going on the treaty, or else she’ll blow their ‘secrets.’ Rather than reacting angrily, or having her killed, the assembled delegates start (sort of) singing chorus to Marlo’s rendition of “Baby Face.” I’m assuming they mean a newly born baby, one whose face is still all wrinkled and puckered.
World Peace achieved, Marlo finally heads back upstairs for her honeymoon. However, a bellboy played by, I swear, Alice Cooper (!!!!!!!!) hands her a note Barrington left before departing the hotel. Per tradition, the contents are narrated in her husband’s voice as she reads it. Basically, he’s up and gone, feeling that she can never truly belong to any one man. Or something. Inevitably, this is followed by a musical number by Alice. He sits at the room’s [in]convenient piano and sings an awful disco-tinged composition entitled “Next, Next” a.k.a. “He Blew His Chance with You.” Some maids and bellhops appear and pause to engage in some really, really bad dancing to accompany this. After the number ends, Turner appears and calls, “Hello, Alice,” after the departing Cooper. I guess they were afraid that no one would recognize him and that he would escape his full measure of embarrassment.
Marlo tells Turner about Barrington’s escape, er, departure, and that she intends to get to his yacht before it sails. Turner, wrapping up another plot thread, reveals to her that he’s actually a British secret agent. One who, ironically, is described as “bigger than 007!” (Leading to Marlo’s reply that “I never got the chance to take his measurements.”) I was going to say that I’m not sure how I missed this whole spy thing during earlier viewings. Actually, though, it was undoubtedly because my brain had always shut down much earlier in the picture.
We cut to Barrington’s yacht. The morose Sir Michael enters his lounge, dressed in his pajamas and robe. Pondering what might have been, he softly mumbles the lyric’s to ‘their’ song. As he does, he pours himself a drink. Due to the miracle of the VCR, his audience can now do the same. Heaven knows, they have a lot more reason to. As he croons over a picture of his love, the camera pans to the adjoining bedroom. There we see (duh) Marlo, lounging in bed and finishing her taped memoirs. This, by the way, somewhat reduces our resect for Barrington’s ‘master spy’ credentials. Considering the speed at which Marlo moves, it must have taken her a good half hour to shamble aboard and dodder her way down to Barrington’s quarters. That she was able to do so without alerting her erstwhile hubby makes his purported espionage abilities rather suspect.
Barrington finally notices her presence when she choruses out “you will, you will, you will,” in response to his, uh, singing. Realizing that she’s there, he bites down onto his secret poison-pill tooth and blissfully escapes into Death’s welcoming arms. At least in my version, which I maintain makes a lot more sense. Here, he trots excitedly over to the bedroom to discover his waiting bride. Bemused, he calls her incorrigible, to which she replies that there’s nothing between them “that can’t be straightened out.” See, this is funny because she’s really alluding to his…oh, never mind. This goes on for a while, culminating with Marlo anticipating the use of a line which Paul Revere made famous. (And no, it isn’t “One if by land.”) This line is punctuated by a cannon firing. How clever.
We’ve now come full circle, as events mirror the film’s opening. The moronic theme song is replayed. Meanwhile, the Lady Marlo (the yacht) cruises down the Thames as sailors on a British naval vessel (!) act like the extras in the beginning of the film. Admittedly, this isn’t as good as if they opened fire with their main guns and blew the yacht out of the water. Still, we’ll take any ending we can get and like it
Note: The following was mostly gleaned from Mae West, the biography by George Eells and Stanley Musgrove. Still further details of this production can be found there, for those who are interested.
Mae West was one of the original movie sexpots back in the ’30s and ’40s. Her early films, such as I’m No Angel and She Done Him Wrong, were notoriously suggestive for the time. Furthermore, her characters tended to not only be sexually active but quite unabashed about profiting from it. If another woman said, “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds,” West was most likely to reply “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie.” Those interested in this period, and especially with the instigation of the Production Code and the Hays Office, should refer to Mark Vieira’s authoritative and profusely illustrated Sin in Soft Focus.
In 1926, before making the transition to films, West wrote and appeared in the play Sex on Broadway. So charged were the contents that West ended up arrested on obscenity charges. Which, needless to say, made the show all the bigger of a hit. Ultimately, she was convicted and spent a little over a week in jail and paid a $500 fine. Considering that she’d reaped around a hundred thousand smackers (in 1920’s money!) over the year-long course of the show, she could well afford it.
West went on to Hollywood and made an even greater fortune. Despite her lasting fame, however, she only appeared in a dozen films, including her two later ones. Her most famous feature was probably My Little Chickadee (1940), mostly because her costar was the inimitable W. C. Fields. After that, she made but one other movie in 1943 before retiring from the screen. She wasn’t to appear in a picture again until 1970’s Myra Breckinridge. Then, apparently fearing she hadn’t done enough to humiliate herself, she made Sextette eight years later.
Based on a play West wrote in 1961, Sextette was intermittently worked over for many a year before making it to the screen. Screenwriter Herbert Baker’s revision was the one finally used, and it was he who created the summit meeting subplot. West, meanwhile, was a bit of a trial. For instance, she refused the seventy-one year-old Cesar Romero and knocked the casting of Tony Curtis, roughly thirty years her junior, because she thought both actors too old to play her lovers. (!!) Yet at the same time she was vocally unhappy about the casting of such ‘youth’ icons as Starr, Cooper and Moon. She didn’t even approve of De Luis. Of the major players, only Dalton and Hamilton won her favor. The legendary Edith Head, meanwhile, provided the star’s wardrobe, the sixth Mae West film for which she performed this task.
West’s age caused a series of production problems as well. For instance, Ken Hughes, the film’s director, was forced to stay in a booth during shooting. From there he would feed West her lines via a microphone receiver hidden in her voluminous wig. Meanwhile, her eyesight was so bad that they used sandbags to indicate her marks. And on one occasion, seventy-five takes were required to get a scene into the can.
Meanwhile, her unwanted costars attempted to sustain the film’s improbable illusion with the press. Dom De Luis told reporter Guy Flatley that “not only is she peppy, but she is a sex symbol.” Even more craven was Ringo, who also talked with Flatley. “She’s old enough to be my grandmother,” he noted, “so it’s sort of embarrassing to say, but she’s bloody attractive.” Edith Head’s comments on the film are a tad more believable. She reportedly said she’d give up two of her eight Oscars™ if she could escape association with the film.
After the film was finished, the producers struggled to find a distributor for it. Finally, over a year later, Crown-International slowly began releasing the film around the country. Completed in mid-1977, it wouldn’t make its New York premiere until June of 1979, inspiring Vincent Canby’s review as quoted below.
THE CRITICS RAVE:
Some, no doubt, will find this review one of my more mean spirited pieces, especially as regarding Ms. West. However, for true vituperative zeal, one should examine the hatchet work performed upon the film by prominent critics of the time.
I’ll start with Rex Reed. Ms., er, Mr. Reed, would seem in little position to lob brickbats at Ms. West. First, he was a former costar of hers, having appeared in the legendarily dreadful Myra Breckinridge. Thus, out of a sheer sense of camaraderie he might have evinced more tact in his disapproval of the film. And while the picture warrants everything you can throw at it, it seems somewhat callous to draw attention to Ms. West’s lazy eye, as he does below. Also, given his ‘performance’ in Myra, one can reasonably argue that his critic’s license should have been revoked altogether. (The same with Roger Ebert, pace his repulsive script for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.) In any case, here is a sample of Reed’s scathing review:
- “Most pathetic is seeing her enter in full bridal regalia, the groom at her side. He looks 25, she looks like something they found in the basement of a pyramid.”
- ” “How do you like it in London?” a reporter asks. “Oh, I like it anywhere,” she drools, her left eye taking a look at her right eye.”
- “The music starts and Mae has to clear out of the way, maneuvering with the agility of an ocean liner in a fish pond as the lobby bursts into “Hollywood”.”
Astoundingly though, one could find more concentrated acid spewing from the caustic pen of Vincent Canby. As film reviewer for The New York Times, Canby was, along with Pauline Kael, perhaps the country’s most influential movie critic. Canby’s erudite skill as a wordsmith serves to make his remarks all the more merciless.
- In the first sentence of his review (June 8th, 1979), Canby announces that “Sextette is a disorientating freak show.” It was, he further noted, “a poetic, terrifying reminder of how a virtually disembodied ego can survive total physical decay and loss of common sense.”
- “The character we see in this peculiar film looks less like the Mae West one remembers from even “Myra Breckinridge” than like a plump sheep that’s been stood on its hind legs, dressed in a drag-queen’s idea of chic, bewigged and then smeared with pink plaster. The creature inside this getup seems game but arthritic and perplexed.”
As if this (and more) weren’t enough, two weeks later Canby returned to the subject in a piece on summer horror movies (including Prophecy!). Amusingly, he first slams Barbra Streisand in The Main Event, noting that that film’s director “seems to have less control over Miss Streisand than our scientists have over Skylab.” Soon, though, he’s back to the matter at hand:
- “The creepiest monster movie of the year to date must certainly be “Sextette,” in which we are presented with the bizarre sight of the 87-year-old seemingly arthritic Mae West tottering around as she mouths some of her better known one-liners and pretends to be the kind of sex-object that drives men to suicide. When Mae was a kid – in her 40’s, say — one could say she was parodying sex. When she’s in her 80’s, the spectacle suggests some kinky variation on necrophilia.”
Lastly, a more benign and amusing view can be found in the book Midnight Movies, by Jonathan Rosenbaum and J. Hoberman. In it, they freely call the film one of the worst ever produced. Yet they also advance the theory that it represents perhaps the most gallant film ever, one altogether too chivalrous to call attention to its lead lady’s fading charms.
Let the double entendres and smirky one liners begin:
- Regis on Marlo: “The wedding of a world famous figure, and surely this figure is famous the world over.”
- Dan Turner discusses Marlo’s appetites: “Marlo loves short marriages and very long honeymoons. We’re doing a new picture, a satire on Washington. By the time she gets out of bed, there may be a new administration.”
- Marlo reminisces about a former husband: “A real farmer. He spent his childhood in the wheat, and his marriage in the hay.”
- The coach of the U.S. Athletic Team reacts to a request for a night off: “You guys are here to train. If there’s gonna be any broad jumping, it’ll be at the track, not in the bedroom!”
Now that’s comedy!
Marlo, ogling an oiled young bodybuilder lifting some weights: “That looks heavy!”
Bodybuilder: “I lifted twice this much in the Olympics.”
Marlo: “Did you get a medal?”
Bodybuilder: “No, I got a hernia!”
The movie’s horrifying theme song. Please, somebody, make it stop:
The female answer to Apollo.
As lovely as Venus de Milo
A livvv-ing dream.
You are the promise of tomorrow.
For you’re the rainbow that we follow,
across the Silver Screen.
[The lyrics thankfully become indecipherable for the following two stanzas, both times the song is sung. ]