Rock Hudson is Tiger McDrew, the most popular member of the faculty at a southern California high school. He’s the assistant principal, the football coach, the guidance counselor, and possibly even the drama teacher. He has a beautiful wife and a darling child, and everything a man could want. That includes being the object of desire for every female student at the school. Tiger has “all the pretty maids” at his beck and call, and despite being a married man, he has no qualms about beckoning or calling them often. Unfortunately, his lustful cravings are about to take a violent turn…
John David Carson is Ponce de Leon Harper—Yes, that’s the character’s name. (When Carson first appeared, I immediately thought “Keith Partridge”; Turns out he was actually second runner-up for that plum Partridge Family role.) Ponce is Tiger’s assistant, a shy, awkward student with nothing but sex on the brain. Early on in the film, he rides his moped to school only to be confronted by a multitude of sultry vixens in revealing clothes, while the camera eagerly looks up all of their skirts. On this morning, Ponce is hot for teacher, and it’s hard to blame him, because his teacher is the milf-alicious Miss Smith, played by Angie Dickinson. After she (deliberately) rubs up against him, Ponce gets a certain male problem that sends him running to the bathroom holding a book across his lap.
Once there, he sees a pair of limp legs in the adjacent stall. He discovers the strangled corpse of one of the cheerleaders with a note attached to her panties that reads, “SO LONG, HONEY!” Soon, both Tiger and Ponce are tangled up in a murder investigation led by police captain Sam Surcher (Telly Savalas, who almost seems to be auditioning for Kojak here). After yet another girl is murdered, and another, the faculty and students seem almost oblivious to the killer in their midst, and continue to spend their time engaged in various sexual escapades; One of the big subplots of this movie finds Tiger asking fellow teacher Miss Smith to seduce Ponce, and even though he’s a teenager and one of her own students, she’s more than happy to go along with it. And if that weren’t enough, Miss Smith’s seduction of Ponce involves a very large chocolate duck filled with liquor. (Don’t ask.)
Pretty Maids All in a Row is a curious film. If you’ve heard of it, odds are it’s because it was written and produced by Gene Roddenberry (when Roddenberry walked away from the last season of the original Star Trek over scheduling disputes, this was his very first project). And if you know about the Roddenberry connection, you won’t be surprised at all to see James Doohan in a supporting role as Savalas’ assistant (speaking with no trace of a Scottish accent, which Doohan does not have; It was an accent he used solely for the role of Scotty). And you might enjoy brief appearances by William Campbell (best known from Trek as the effete, omnipotent Trelane) as the sheriff working the case with Savalas and Doohan. And if you’re really, really into your Trek minutiae, you’ll recognize the name of costume designer William Ware Theiss, the man who designed the original Starfleet uniforms (which surely accounts for the plethora of mini-skirts on display here).
But if you’re looking for anything even remotely like Star Trek, you’ll be disappointed and possibly a little disgusted. Unlike Trek, this is not family-friendly fare, but compared to other movies from the same period (Raquel Welch using a dildo in Myra Breckinridge and Marlon Brando and his stick of butter in Last Tango in Paris both immediately spring to mind), Pretty Maids is quite tame. If it were made today, it would probably feature a cast of unknowns and have a short run on the festival circuit, but because this was 1971 and small films with a vaguely hipster bent were all the rage, Roddenberry was able to attract top-flight talent like Hudson, Dickinson, Savalas, and Roddy McDowall as the school principal. This is the movie’s undoing, unfortunately; With this many famous names involved, we except to see something a lot more interesting than what they came up with.
The film has its moments. It tries to be a black comedy, and almost succeeds. There’s a scene where a bumbling sheriff (Parts: The Clonus Horror’s Keenan Wynn) takes the note off the corpse and stuffs it in his pocket so it won’t get lost—much to Capt. Surcher’s horror; and there’s another scene taking place immediately after another killing, where Ponce informs one of the football players that they “never have practice on the day of a murder.”
Another point in this movie’s favor: Angie Dickinson has one lengthy semi-nude shot, which should count for something.
But despite all the potential, and despite an intriguing plot that feels like a precursor to Twin Peaks, it’s hard to say what the filmmakers were going for here. There are murders taking place, and a serial killer on the loose, but the movie is not about murders, or an investigation, and the whole serial killer angle seems almost peripheral to the story. (I won’t give away who the murderer is, but it’s made obvious pretty early on. It’s like reading a whodunit where the name of the killer is revealed on page ten.) In fact, everything feels peripheral here. Tiger’s football team even has a “big game” towards the end of the film, but it’s presented in such oblique terms that it’s almost like visual background noise. What the movie really seems to be about is the needs of Roddenberry and director Roger Vadim (And God Created Women, Barbarella) to show as many waifish women of different ethnic persuasions in various states of undress.
You can’t really blame Roddenberry or his script. Reportedly, Vadim was impossible to control, and he had a rep for becoming obsessed with filming the female form and neglecting everything else. As a writer, Roddenberry has been called many things, including ham-fisted, hackneyed, and sexist, but I think even Gene would have had enough sense to have a point to all of this. Vadim’s artsy European sensibilities may have made stars out of Brigitte Bardot and Jane Fonda, but it doesn’t mesh at all with the setting of a sunny southern California high school.
This may not be relevant, but Rock Hudson sounds very odd during this film, and most of his lines are obviously dubbed. This makes some of his scenes, particularly one with wife and daughter where all of their voices are dubbed, feel like something out of “Manos” The Hands of Fate. I had to wonder if Hudson was ailing at this time due to AIDS, but 1971 was probably a little too early for that. Ill or not, poor Rock unfortunately looks so old here, and his Sancho Panza mustache isn’t helping matters any, making it tough to believe so many gorgeous young girls would jump into bed with him. (And no, that has nothing to do with what we now know about Rock’s sexual orientation.)
For another odd trivia note, this has to be about the last movie where I’d except a theme song performed by the Osmonds and co-written by Mike Curb, the famed conservative Christian music mogul. Apparently, Curb was in charge of MGM Records at the time, and was determined to get his recording artists on soundtracks to MGM films. Hence, the extremely dated title tune “Chilly Winds”, which incidentally was co-written with Lalo Schifrin, who also provided the score and would soon gain fame scoring disaster movies.
This film is not totally useless. In Trek circles, there are constant discussions about what a genius Gene Roddenberry was. Mentioning this film is an easy way to put an end to those discussions. No wonder Gene was so eager to revive Star Trek just a few years later.