Monday, 19 April 2010

The Notorious Daughter of Fanny Hill (1966)

One of sexploitation producer Dave Friedman’s specialties was the costume nudie picture. The idea was simple. You pick a glamorous historical period. You buy a whole bunch of fabulous costumes. Then you get some very attractive young ladies to put the costumes on, and then take them off for the cameras. The Notorious Daughter of Fanny Hill was his first effort in this new sub-genre and the movie’s considerable success led to a whole series of such films.

It sounds like an expensive way to make an exploitation movie, but apparently it wasn’t really. The major studios would spend a fortune on lavish costumes for their own historical pictures, use the costumes in a couple of movies and then sell them to various costume suppliers. So for a fairly small outlay you could pick up enough costumes to make a reasonably impressive-looking historical movies on a small budget.

And by the standards of these kinds of films Friedman’s were not ultra low budget anyway. He would have actual sets constructed, and his movies were made on actual sound stages. This was at a time when many sexploitation films were simply shot in someone’s house or office. Friedman’s movies even had synchronised sound! And with a cinematographer of the calibre of László Kovács behind the camera, they represented what you might call the class end of the sexploitation market.

And that was one of the reasons Friedman was attracted to the historical nudie movie - he was aiming to get his movies a slightly wider distribution. And as he explains on the commentary track accompanying this movie, he was also looking to widen his audience to include couples, not just the raincoat brigade. The Notorious Daughter of Fanny Hill was his first attempt to give his sexploitation movies some appeal to women.

By 1966, when the movie was made, it was obvious that it was only a matter of time before mainstream Hollywood movies started to include much racier sexual content. Since the mid-50s respectable audiences had been going to art-house cinemas to watch European movies that were often screened without a Production Code Seal of Approval, and which often included much spicier content than mainstream Hollywood was offering. Brigitte Bardot’s bare bottom certainly had a fair bit to do with the major commercial success in the US of Roger Vadim’s And God Created Woman. So it seemed reasonable to assume that it would be wise for exploitation movie-makers to be ready for a major change in public tastes.

The Notorious Daughter of Fanny Hill also had the added cachet of being based on a literary classic, even if it was a literary classic of somewhat dubious reputation. In fact the movie has no actual connection with John Cleland’s novel. In fact it has virtually no actual plot at all. In the first half of the movie Kissey Hill, the daughter of Fanny Hill, has a number of amorous encounters with wealthy and titled admirers. These encounters are remarkably tame (the movie would have little trouble getting away with a PG-13 rating today) while still managing to at least imply a certain amount of decadence and even kinkiness. Her tryst with the Duke of Roxburgh consists mostly of sharing a feast, but it gives Kissey Hall the opportunity to show just how dirty you can make the act of eating a carrot.

The second half of the film merely comprises what are in effect striptease sequences by Kissey and two of her friends and fellow courtesans.

There’s nothing even remotely approaching sex, and only a fairly limited amount of nudity, with no frontal nudity at all. Combining this with the total lack of a plot you might expect this to be fairly dull viewing, but surprisingly enough it has its own charm and it’s sexier than you’d expect from the overt content. This is partly because this is a product of an age that still understood that what made striptease sexy wasn’t the stripping, it was the tease.

But there’s another very major reason to see this movie, and that reason is Stacey Walker, who plays Kissey. Stacey Walker’s entire filmography comprises two feature films and one short, but she’s one of the legends of sexploitation, and with good reason. Her legend was really cemented by her second film, the amazing A Smell of Honey, a Swallow of Brine, in which she plays the bad girl to end all bad girls. But she’s pretty amazing in this movie as well. It’s not that she’s stunning (although she’s certainly extremely attractive) or that she has a great body (although her body is not unimpressive). But what makes her extraordinary is that attitude of hers, that ability to make even the most innocent actions and remarks seem unbelievably and delightfully perverse. And to make everything seem sexual.

Being part of a Something Weird double-feature there are naturally oodles of extras, including Stacey Walker’s short film, But Charlie, I Never Played Volleyball! (in which Stacey plays an up-and-coming starlet whose agent cons her into being a judge in the Miss Nude Universe contest, one of the rules of the contest being that the judges must be as naked as the contestants). It’s silly but harmless. Much more interesting is Dave Friedman’s commentary track. The man is a born story-teller and showman, and what he doesn’t know about the exploitation movie business isn’t worth knowing.

If you’re expecting anything approaching what today would be regarded as adult content you’re not going to find any in this movie. That’s why sexploitation movies are so much more fun than what passes for erotica today - they’re all about the tease, and about having fun.

No comments: