While Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is probably Russ Meyer’s best-known film today, and the film on which his reputation as being something more than just another exploitation fim-maker largely rests, the surprising fact is that at the time it was a major commercial disaster. It left Meyer desperately needing a new movie that would make some money, and he needed it fast. His answer to the problem was Mondo Topless.
“Mondo” movies were all the rage, so to Meyer it was evident that what the world needed was a mondo movie about topless go-go dancers. And that’s what he delivered. The movie consists of topless go-go dancing, and topless go-go dancers talking about being topless go-go dancers. But it’s a topless go-go dancing movie shot and edited by Russ Meyer in his own inimitable style, and with the kind of tongue-in-cheek narration you’d expect in such an exercise made by Meyer. And it does have a certain bizarre charm.
Given that the movie was going to be entirely plotless it was going to have to have a fairly short running time and since Meyer already had a lot of footage shot in Europe for an uncompleted project called Europe in the Raw he really didn’t need to do all that much extra filming. And it required no sets, and no props. And no costumes, apart from bikini bottoms! It took four or five days to film, cost virtually nothing, and made lots of money. Apparently the world really did need a topless go-go dancing movie. And who am I to argue with public taste? It put Meyer back on his feet financially and restored his commercial credibility and his confidence.
It was in many ways a return to the type of movie that launched Meyer’s film-making career, the nudie-cutie. This was a genre he more or less invented. In the late 50s the US Supreme Court had ruled that nudity was not, in itself, obscene. This opened the door to the nudist camp movie boom. As long as the nudity wasn’t specifically sexual the film-makers were on reasonably safe legal ground. But it quickly became apparent that one could only take so much of nude volleyball. Meyer’s breakthrough idea was to add a simple plot and some good-natured humour, and when combined with lots of naked ladies the result was the first nudie-cutie, The Immoral Mr Teas. It was released in 1959, and it made a mint.
Mondo Topless lacks any plot at all, but it does have a kind of theme (the dancing) and it has the same feel that The Immoral Mr Teas had. It’s a good-natured movie that celebrates the female form without ever feeling exploitative or tacky.
As you might expect, most of the ladies are very well-endowed. Perhaps too well-endowed for most tastes, although surprisingly enough several of the models don’t have the spectacular assets that generally caught Meyer’s attention.
The appeal of the movie today is mostly its time capsule quality. It has a classic 60s vibe to it. It not only captures the spirit of the golden age of go-go dancing, but the footage from Europe in the Raw preserves the spirit of what could be seen as the last golden age of live adult entertainment.
It has to be admitted that this is really a movie for Russ Meyer completists only, although fans of camp and of 60s culture in general may find it rewarding.
It’s not exactly Citizen Kane, but Meyer’s approach to his subject is refreshingly shameless and light-hearted. Meyer made some bona fide classic movies in his time but this isn’t one of them. On the other hand it doesn’t have any of the mean-spiritedness or nasty sleaziness of so much modern porn. It’s just a fun movie about boobs basically and Meyer doesn’t even pretend that it’s anything more than that.