Pretty Maids All in a Row (1971)

Synopsis:

At a California high school, a serial killer preys on female students. While cops try to capture the killer, a student with self-esteem issues (John David Carson, The Savage is Loose) gets encouragement from a substitute teacher (Angie Dickinson, Dressed to Kill) and the school’s popular football coach (Rock Hudson, Giant).

Reaction & Thoughts:

“Once you start retreating, life will drag you down.”

I love movies with an offbeat sense of humor. I love genre-bending films even more. Here are two of my favorite things for the price of one: a teen slasher spoof sex farce! Pretty Maids All in a Row is like a cross between Amy Heckerling’s teen comedy Fast Times at Ridgemont High and slasher cult classic Graduation Day.

Gene “The Great Bird of the Galaxy” Roddenberry wrote and produced this ornery, politically incorrect black comedy. Who would have thought it? Roddenberry spent a lifetime trying to convince us that there was hope for a better future, yet he made a movie that is determined to illustrate that the present is distressingly bad — Pretty Maids All in a Row is a blunt dissection of 1970s ethos.

“I am not trying to make a statement about America,” French director Roger Vadim (Barbarella) said when asked about the movie. “Liar, liar, polyester pants on fire!” It’s a little too obvious that Vadim was hell bent on ridiculing attitudes toward sex and violence in America. He also takes a few swings at Americans’ obsession with sports. But the film doesn’t feel smug at all. I thought that behind all the crass jokes and weirdness, the movie makes some genuinely keen observations regarding the American culture.

You might think this is a tasteless comedy, but Pretty Maids All in a Row isn’t all that different from an old Billy Wilder (The Apartment) movie. Vadim simply takes advantage of a more permissive era. Like Austrian Wilder before him, the French filmmaker seemed delighted with the opportunity to spoof America’s societal mores — sometimes it takes an outsider to see things as they are, not as we think they are.

 Pretty Maids All in a Row uses stereotypes to highlight the country’s blind spots and biases. Above all, the film is great at showcasing one of U.S.’s strangest double standards: in America, violence is far more acceptable than sex. It’s all done in a cheeky manner, but the film’s main point is well taken. Combine Vadim’s flair for the quirky and Roddenberry’s penchant for moralizing and you get one helluva satire of the unusual kind — movies do make strange bedfellows!

Young John David Carson (no relation to you know who) has the lead role, but Pretty Maids All in a Row really belongs to the extraordinarily good supporting cast. It’s impossible for me to know if this was intentional or not, but Rock Hudson’s performance as a football coach & school counselor with an insatiable appetite for young female students is just too funny for obvious reasons.

Angie Dickinson is also great as a teacher with some interesting “extracurricular activities.” Telly Savalas’s sly police detective seems like a dry run for Kojack. Keenan Wynn (The Absent-Minded Professor) plays a bumbling local cop and Roddy McDowall (Planet of the Apes) is the school’s principal. Trekkies will enjoy seeing James “Scotty” Doohan and William Campbell (Star Trek‘s The Squire of Gothos and The Trouble with Tribbles) in small roles. Frankly, it was a little strange to hear Doohan talk without the famous Scottish accent! However, he is very good as Savalas’s sidekick and I wish he had a bigger career outside Star Trek.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

 Pretty Maids All in a Row won’t be for everyone. Even counter-cultural types didn’t know what to make of it — the film flopped at the box office. Millennials won’t like it either — it’s hard to see today’s young people embracing something so unapologetically politically incorrect. However, if you enjoyed savagely cynical comedies like Michael Lehmann’s Heathers or Alexander Payne’s Election, there is a good chance that you will fall in love with this wacky satire. Color, 91 minutes, Rated R.

This is my contribution to the Beyond Star Trek Blogathon, hosted by The Midnite Drive-In and Hamlette’s Soliloquy.

17 responses to “Pretty Maids All in a Row (1971)

  1. Hey Binford! had absolutely no idea this was a Gene Roddenberry film! Great cast, and a black comedy I need to see again soon! happy new year!
    – Chris

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I really enjoyed your trenchant and observant review of Pretty Maids All in a Row.

    I didn’t know what to expect upon my first viewing of this movie, but easily slipped into its quirks and bite. Perhaps audiences of the time didn’t appreciate being lampooned (of course, it’s always the other guy), but it should find its audience in this day and age.

    – Caftan Woman

    Liked by 2 people

    • “Perhaps audiences of the time didn’t appreciate being lampooned.” Excellent point! I didn’t consider the possibility that audiences don’t laugh when the joke is about them.

      Like

  3. I always known about this one, but thought it was a made-for-TV murder mystery…not a dark sex comedy! If I got this confused with another film, I don’t know which one…but quite the cast, and from the look of that one photo above, I’d say Kojak is being joined by McMillan (sans Wife) and Police Woman!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes! I can’t believe how many actors ended up on a TV series. Plus Roddy McDowall in the short-lived TV version of Planet of the Apes. Also, Joanna Cameron as the star of the morning TV show The Secrets of Isis, a childhood favorite!

      Like

      • Joanna Cameron! I had to look her up to make sure we’re talking about the same person, and yep…Isis! I remember it as ‘The Shazam/Isis Hour’…and I never knew she also worked in movies and other TV shows!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve wanted to see this forever! I have a wee little crush (okay, a big old crush) on Angie Dickinson, so she’s the main reason I’ve always wanted to catch this one. I’ll need to finally hunt down a DVD, or see if it’s streaming. Lovely review, as well.

    Liked by 1 person

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