Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Friday, November 06, 2020

Welcome to the Zugsmithery: SEX KITTENS GO TO COLLEGE (1960)

If you don't think film critics can make mistakes, consider the terrible reviews given the sublime SEX KITTENS GO TO COLLEGE, a C-list 1960 madcap comedy (once likely called SEX POT GOES TO COLLEGE but changed due to pot references) about the effect a super genius doctor of medicine,  psychology, and physics (plus ten other degrees) has on a small town college when she arrives from Vegas to assume the role of dean (hired by "Thinko" the computer/robot who is "never wrong!") Why is she causing such a stir? Just because she happens to arrive in the body of "the Tallahassee Tassle Tosser," Mamie van Doren. Often billed as being to Jayne Mansfield what Jayne Mansfield was to Marilyn Monroe, Mamie underplays with such calm authority that even those who sneer and deride her 'type' would be impressed if they could leave their male sexual panic at the door. Not only can she can carry a film, she can stay cool and grounded as a photographic memory and 13 doctorates-having genius. No doubt she is the right woman to lead this cocakamamie college into the "space age" she 
can give you the page # of any given text. In short, Thinko is not wrong; she's qualified above and beyond the rest of them. The sparks fly because no one can handle the fact of her hotness. This inability is never depicted as anything but 'their' problem, and reflects perhaps the irrational hostility of critics (similar to the unearned scorn heaped on Myra Breckenridge.

And she's not the only assett: a stunning Tuesday Weld is the hitherto raining beauty queen. (she accuses Van Doren of "making every other woman in the world feel flat-chested"). Weld has been trying to get lumpen football star "Woo-Woo" (Norman Grabowski) to try at least for first base rather than just running off in a stuttering virgin panic. Trying to help Weld out, Dr. Mamie gives him some good counsel --just one of the surprising moments van Doren handles with a sensitive aplomb worthy of a real therapist, yet hitting all the right comedic notes with a deadpan feather ("boys with nicknames are usually sensitive"). No wonder he ends up falling for her instead of Weld, but it hardly matters. There's too much else going on as the film slowly builds to one of the stateroom scene-style 'everyone onstage' madhouses. One can't forget (though she doesn't make much of an impression) Maila "Vampira" Nurmi is around as a sexually frustrated lab assistant. And there's so much more. 

Mijanou, in a nice color photo (I couldn't find a good Sex Kittens still that does her justice)

For all Van Doren's range, the secondary romantic lead, Mijanou Bardot (Brigitte's sister!) basically steals the bulk of the sex appeal as a Russ Meyer heroine-style, sexually voracious exchange student out to bed a cross-section of ze American male for her term paper. The forthright way she explores a cross-section of manhood for her term paper is inspiring, the stuff of semi-terrified fantasy. She ends up zeroing in on a "real live Chicago gangster" in the form of Allan Drake as "Legs" --whose squeamish semi-reticence is met with bewildered academic urgency ("Do you want to set science back thirty years!?") He and his pal are there to lean on this guy "Thinko" whose been gambling rather too successfullu Though far from the most interesting of the Mad style cacaphony of crazy characters, Drake's rattled "Legs" becomes more interesting purely through his gradual tolerance of Bardot's unswerving affection, eventually, like some Anna Karina anti-heroine, she joins the bad guys ("This dialogue, pure Roaring 20s, no?!)

"I"One of the most possible people you'll ever meet."
"One of the most possible people you'll ever meet" 

And that's good Legs comes around and conquers his sexual panic. Hey, you'd be surprised how many normally red-blooded American males can't handle a beautiful girl suddenly throwing herself at him like a freight train. A man might fantasize all through his pained adolescence about such moments, but if one actually comes, it's--and Lacanians know this all too well--his reaction isn't aggressive cool, but panicky; he starts to stutter, spills his drink, and before you know it, finds himself running away, covered in sweat, desperate to get home and begin his lifetime of self-reproach over this this chickening out. To go from tortured adolescent longing for this golden chance to tortured adult regret about blowing it is almost a rite of passage; hopefully one can glean the message - you are a complicated person and the unconscious half of yourself is a spiteful anima out to keep you for herself, so she can occasionally creep up from the attic and molest you while you dream. This is the comedic gold mine understood only by a chosen few in the comedy business. College is, in this film, the zone of endless Lacanian objet petit a proximity; campus life is visualized as a zone where fantasy is freely imagined by those who have only been there in passing and thought 'man if I was in college I could score with all these chicks' and suddenly they have to put up or shut up.  The women--namely van Doren, Weld and Bardot--have all the brains and assertive libidos, and the men are reduced to terrified deer in the headlights. Such is the Russ Meyer-esque vein mined by Albert Confessions of an Opium Eater Zugsmith in the long-derided Sex Kittens Go to College. 

L-R: Tuesday, Mijanot, Mamie
I don't have all the answers; I have no idea why this awesome comedy gets such a bad critical rap, unless male critics are too threatened by the idea of a genius bombshell who's not evil, passive, helpless, materialistic, or moronic. As of this writing it has a 2.2 on imdb. and Lenny Maltin gives it a BOMB ("don't say you weren't warned!"); Glenn Erikson says "Compared to Sex Kittens, Otto Preminger's Skiddoo is a profound statement on the human condition." An uncredited imdb writer calls it "one of the most legendarily worst films ever produced." But I say, if you've been to college and like to get wasted and love Russ Meyer, Ed Wood, and Roger Corman, used to read Mad and Cracked then at least consider checking it out. I think a lot of these low budget zany comedies get a bad rap, especially if they don't have big recognizable directors (like Frank Tashlin or George Axelrod) so that critics can guess how they're supposed to respond right away. This isn't a guffaw style comedy, but how often did we laugh reading Mad as kids? 2/3 of the time we didn't even get the jokes. We had no idea what they were talking about running satires of films far too dry and adult for our interest, like The Sandpiper and The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit.  Some comedies don't have to be funny. Ask Albert Zugsmith, the strange figure who could go from producing films like Orson Welles' Touch of Evil, Douglas Sirk's Written on the Wind, to directing unclassifiable strangeness like Confessions of an Opium Eater, The Beat Generation, and Sex Kittens Go to College. He also produced Russ Meyer's Fanny Hill! 

If you don't see that list is all connected, then you need to learn so very much about the spirit of revolutionary cinematic anarchy in the service of sexual stimulation. (Behind me right as I wrote that phrase a Quaker Oats commercial said "Where new normals are created.") That's the beauty of the Zugsmith touch.  Watching Vincent Price sailing madly down the sewer towards Frisco Bay oblivion in Opium Eater for example, leaves us more questions than answers (it a horror film? A white slavery expose? A surreal odyssey worthy of Bunuel? 

It is all that and more; it's the Zugsmithery. 

The simple fact is, there are so many things to zero in on here in the Zugsmithery that if one element annoys you, there are ten more to delight or flabbergast. For me the annoying element is Van Doren's assigned romantic lead, college PR rep Martin Milner (the supposedly hip jazz guitarist who had to have weed planted on him in Sweet Smell of Success). Talking fast in a kind of high-voiced style, sort of imitating Cary Grant at his most flummoxed in Arsenic and Old Lace, Milner tries to steal scenes as if he;s feeling the need to give the film a square white fall guy center, to link the film to every other banal desperately mansplaining-flooded "sex" comedy flatlining on big screens around America at the end of the 1950s. Tather than letting the women rule as they do anyway, Milner lets a kind desperate flop sweat reduce his square lead idiot to tatters. That said, he still comes out a few yards ahead of Eliot Reid's smarmy detective in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as far as worst male counterpart to a busty comedic titan

There's one other caveat: I also don't like the cop-out ending (SPOILER ALERT!), when Mamie hangs up her shingle and goes back to Vegas to continue her tassle-tossing, so that Milner can romance her without feeling threatened. When she says "for the first time I feel like I'm really using my brain" one wants to track down writer Robert Hill and beat him senseless (I feel the same way at the end of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls when smarmy David Gurian is accepted back into the fold and the lesbians are blamed for their own deaths.)  Ugh! If there's one thing I loathe it's those smug white privilege-touting SWMs (i.e. Smug WASP Morons), often young men with clean cut hair and a pipe and an unearned lordly air, as if they believe the Madison Avenue plastic fantastic wave that tells them they--by virtue of their educated SWM status-- are in charge of any other genders and races they might encounter, determined to solve whatever bothers them until their comfortable patriarchal homogenization reasserts itself. Sure, not all these guys are insufferable; watching them today becomes more insufferable with every passing day of my work's sensitivity training. Ugh! (Of you can't get enough of my ravings on the topic, check out: CinemArchetype 13: The Skeevy Boyfriend. and Vanishing Caloric Density: The Queen of Outer Space.

 Luckily, balancing out Milner's forced hysteria, there's wondrously wry turns by Jackie Coogan as Admiral "Wildcat" McPherson (borrowing W.C. Field's drawl wholesale as the college's financial underwriter) and John Carradine, proving he isn't limited to shady butlers and secondary Draculas as a professor. Turns out Carradine is adept as hell at deadpan comedy as one of Mamie's firm supporters. Unthreatened by her mix of sex appeal and brains he calls her "a positive vision" while helping her into his faculty-packed jalopy (her chimp sidekick sneaks into the rumble seat) for a night of buzzed carousing (or  "simple homespun country fun" as he assures her) at local college tavern, "the Passion Pit." To overcome any further doubts as to her qualifications as either genius or stripper, she hypnotizes the gathered faculty and patrons to join her in a crazy rhumba. Conway Twitty watches, moved, and sings. But that doesn't phase the benevolent and respectful ardor of the older men, who are--essentially--too debauched to be troublesome (the greatest libertines never mash or paw; they lean in only to spook off the riff-raff). 

Small bit parts and great lines float around ("I'm a selectman of the church!" rants the cop who arrests the admiral when his morality is on the ropes); Charlie Chaplin Jr. (as a bewildered fire chief); the imposing and magnificently bullhorn-voiced Babe London, who arrives in town representing "the Paddy Pad Brassier for the larger figures gal"  - At the end she's heading off once more into the great beyond: "You people don't deserve Paddy Pads! I'm taking my brassieres to Europe where they'll be appreciated!")

And over all, it's one of those great fantasies where all the women are stacked and leggy, and the men well-written and acted (Milner aside) nincompoops. With poops like Coogan and Carradine, how bad can things get, no matter how much Milner dashes around like some kind of universal chaperone (telling Jayne "You are a bit much for a growing boy to face at nine-AM in the morning.") or the flash-frozen "Woo Woo" mopes and Moranises? Sure, the ending is total chaos as all the disparate parts come together in a big science lab/classroom climax (with the gangsters and Thinko finally squaring off) but at least half the gags hit home and if you don't really laugh, well, one of the beautiful gals is usually onscreen to rest your eyes on while you wait for the next zany character to come tumbling into the scene. For all its faults, I think I like it better, as a whole, than either Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (which has an icky homophobic/misogynist subtext) or The Girl Can't Help It (which has an icky Tom Ewell smarm). Sure it's not as good as Lord, Love a Duck but what is? Even that's not perfect, though it sure is Milnerless.

 The question is, does Sex Kittens link up with Opium to delineate and auteur style for the Zugsmith? Maybe not, but it does indicate a termite interest in veering from audience expectation and letting the sewer carry us where it may. If Vincent Price were to show up, waving an opium pipe as he sails past, we might well find one. I don't think he is going to make it, but really, it's probably just because he was under AIP contract and in 1960 was making House of Usher.  Hey, maybe I am crazy or just benefitted from a nice buzz and low expectations. I think you can't pin high hopes on it, it's not any better than Invasion of the Star Creatures but if you tolerate that, there's plenty of galakazoom and maybe even some ringy-dink; best of all there's full-bodied and nuanced performances from Bardot (casually carnal), Van Doren (sensitive and balanced - she talks, not shouts, further stranding the sub-par actors--Milner in the ham flats) and Weld (less to do than in Duck but still ravishing with some good rapport with Van Doren--with whom she remained fast friends--and Bardot, who together have a kind of sisterly ruling benevolence, watching over the male college co-eds and faculty the way proud cowboys watch over the herd in Red River. Even with the cop-out coda, this baby isn't Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, this here's the Pussycat! Follow the lead of Prof. John Carradine and Coogan instead of the dopey Milner. A girl with youth, brains, education and hot blondeness is not a threat or an object, but a great drinking partner.   


  1. I HAVE to see this! I never liked Martin Milner either. First saw him on Adam 12, the kind of patrol car cop show Inherent Vice had the grace to tell me I wasn't losing my mind b thinking of it as propaganda. Then I tried getting into old Route 66 shows, and there he was again, the square tag along Tod who kept his pal Buzz from having any fun at all road tripping across the country. I watched an extra on the dvd wherein someone said that Milner was cast because he was his generation's Van Johnson. He said that like it was a compliment. Always weird when he pops in something, jarringly miscast or just unlikeable, the perineal toe-headed wet blanket. Anyway. I need to see if this is VOD. Great write up!

    1. thanks Johnny - At least we can take comfort in his getting beat up by Sgt. Kelo in Sweet Smell of Success. I forgot he was in Adam-12. That might explain my revulsion - having seen that show nightly for awhile whie it was un rerun syndication with my dad back in the 70s.

    2. One rarely reads good reviews of this gem. I first saw it on the local ABC station in NYC the early 60's. It made quite the impression on me. I was 10. It's on DVD from from the Warner Bros. Archive Collection. It looks great. Louis Nye and Vampira are in it too. It's the extended international version, if you get my drift.


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