Friday, 6 February 2015

The Naked Venus (1959)

The Naked Venus is something of an oddity. It’s a nudist camp movie but it’s also an Edgar G. Ulmer movie. It bears some similarity to the nudie-cutie genre that would explode in the wake of the release of Russ Meyer’s The Immoral Mr Teas, but it’s not a nudie-cutie. It’s a romantic melodrama with nudity. It’s really in a sub-genre of its very own.

Bob Dixon (Don Roberts) is a young American painter living and working in Paris. He’s just beginning to earn a reputation as an artist with the success of his painting The Naked Venus. He is married, apparently very happily, to Yvonne (Patricia Conelle) and they have a small daughter. Yvonne had been an artist’s model. Bob’s father has just does and he announces that his mother now needs him so they must move to California.

This is where the problems start. Bob’s domineering mother takes an immediate dislike to Yvonne. This dislike intensifies when she discovers that Yvonne had not only been an artist’s model but had posed nude. She is determined to sabotage her son’s marriage.

Eventually Bob and Yvonne become involved in a bitter divorce and custody battle. The odds seem to be stacked against Yvonne - not only was she a nude model she was (and still is) a practising nudist. These are not things likely to count in her favour in court. Even worse, after fleeing from the palatial Dixon family home she has taken refuge in a nudist camp, along with her daughter.

The plot provides ample opportunities for showing nudity and the movie takes full advantage of these opportunities. Nudist camp movies tend to be a bit dull, since not much happens in a nudist camp apart from naked volleyball and one can only take so much naked volleyball. It does help if the nudist camp happens to be full of women who are not only nude but pretty and in this case the women are most certainly pretty. And it has to be said that Patricia Conelle looks very good naked.

Courtroom scenes are generally even duller than naked volleyball but fortunately in this case they’re handled reasonably well.

This was Patricia Conelle’s only movie role and while her willingness to disrobe for the cameras was undoubtedly the major factor in her casting she’s quite adequate. Don Roberts is quite good in a very unsympathetic role while Wynn Gregory drips venom as the scheming and destructive mother-in-law from Hell. It’s Ulmer’s daughter Arianne Ulmer however who walks off with the acting honours, giving a spirited performance as Yvonne’s young but determined lawyer Lynn Wingate.

As you would expect the major theme of the movie is that nudity is not immoral and that being a nudist does not disqualify a woman from being a good mother. Luckily there are some secondary themes that are much more interesting.

There was considerable concern during the 1950s abut the decline in masculinity among American men and about what was seen as the increasing feminisation of American society. This is a theme that appears in quite a few juvenile delinquent movies but it also pops up in some major productions such as Harriet Craig, Rebel without a Cause and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The Naked Venus tackles this concern with intelligence and sensitivity. Bob Dixon is definitely a young man with a severe masculinity deficit. Lynn Wingate makes it clear that she despises weak men like Bob and one has to admit that she has a point. Bob has a devoted and beautiful wife but unless he can escape his mother’s dominance he will never be a man and he will never be of any use to Yvonne as a husband.

In the 1950s American exploitation film-makers operated entirely outside the Hollywood system. They were not members of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), they were not bound by the Production Code and they had their own distribution systems. Edgar G. Ulmer had mostly worked for Poverty Row studios that were members of the MPAA but clearly The Naked Venus had no chance of getting a Production Code Seal of Approval and it was in fact produced and distributed as an exploitation movie. On the other hand it was certainly not made as an exploitation movie. Production values are modest but higher than you expect from as an exploitation movie and Ulmer approached the project the way he would have approached any other movie.

While it cannot really be regarded as in any way a typical sexploitation movie it needs to be said that it does contain quite a substantial amount of nudity. Of course given that this is an Edgar G. Ulmer movie the nudist camp scenes are rather professionally shot.

Something Weird Video have paired this movie with a Doris Wishman nudie-cutie (Diary of a Nudist) and it’s a pairing that makes some sense. While nobody in their wildest dreams would suggest that Doris Wishman was in the same class as Edgar G. Ulmer they were both in their very different ways highly individualistic film-makers and both were examples of the opportunities that low-budget movies of that era offered for eccentric and idiosyncratic movie-makers. The transfer of The Naked Venus is quite superb for such a cinematic obscurity.

The Naked Venus works quite well as a melodrama, it makes some pertinent observations on the state of American society (and American manhood) in its day, and it has naked people. It’s really more entertaining than it has any right to be. Recommended.

No comments: