RETRO-ACTIVE: THE BEST FROM THE CINEMA RETRO ARCHIVES
By Lee Pfeiffer
Vinegar Syndrome (we love the name) is a DVD label that specializes in preserving and restoring vintage cinematic erotica and other cult films. Their most recent coup is the release of a double feature on Blu-ray consisting of Russ Meyer's 1964 adaptation of Fanny Hill along with Albert Zugsmith's bizarre 1967 Western comedy The Phantom Gunslinger. The dual package generously provides both films on DVD as well as their Blu-ray editions. Russ Meyer was already well-known as both a cheesecake photographer for "men's magazines" as well as a director of soft-cover sex films that generally showcased young women who were super-amply endowed. Ever the opportunist, he teamed with producer Zugsmith in 1964 for Fanny Hill, which was based on a notorious 18th century novel that chronicled the sexual escapades of a promiscuous young woman. Such was the book's controversial impact that when it was reprinted in the early 1960s it was banned in some quarters for obscenity. The publisher and civil libertarians contested the ruling and the subsequent court battle put ol' Fanny right in the midst of the contemporary news cycle. Zugsmith, who was a producer of some repute (The Incredible Shrinking Man, Touch of Evil) had by this point concentrated on low-brow exploitation fare. He reasoned that if the country was up in arms over a two hundred year old book, audiences would go wild over a film adaptation of the story. The plot centers on Fanny (Leticia Roman) as a buxom blonde farm girl who arrives in London, naive and clueless about the ways of the world. She is quickly "adopted" by Mrs. Brown (Miriam Hopkins), a seemingly benevolent older woman who is, in fact, a madame who wants to exploit Fanny's innocence by turning her into a prostitute. What she doesn't count on is just how naive Fanny is. Even when residing with numerous other ladies of the night, she fails to catch on to the fact that the place is a bordello. Mrs. Brown tries on several occasions to financially benefit from renting the young virgin to any number of eager patrons, but fate always intervenes before the act can be consummated. When Fanny falls in love with Charles (Ulli Lommel), a dashing and chivalrous young sailor, Mrs. Brown arranges for him to be kidnapped and taken out of the country. Thinking her lover has abandoned her, Fanny becomes despondent and out of grief agrees to marry a loathsome nobleman. As the ceremony begins, Fanny's betrothed manages to escape and make his way to the wedding where the film climaxes in a crazy, slap-stick filled brawl. Viewers may be puzzled by the almost complete absence of eroticism in the film, along with relatively few lingering shots of semi-dressed young women. The whole enterprise is so chaste it could be shown today on the Disney Channel. This was due to the fact that Zugsmith and Meyer clashed over the content of the film, with Zugsmith insisting that comedy should be emphasized over sexual content. Meyer finished the film but justifiably regarded it as a low-grade entry on his list of cinematic achievements. What emerged is a Jerry Lewis-like farce with zany sequences in which people swing from chandeliers, cross dress and engage in various forms of mayhem. In retrospect, it seems inconceivable that the film was deemed controversial even in 1964. Zugsmith filmed the movie in West Germany using local actors for supporting roles. Although the three leads-Roman, Hopkins and Lommel- perform admirable given the circumstances, the supporting cast is encouraged to play even the most minor moments in absurd, over-the-top manner. The result is that the film's primary legacy is as an interesting relic of a bygone era when "naughty" films could still raise eyebrow without delivering much in the way of genuine eroticism.
The second entry on the DVD "double feature" is even more bizarre and makes Fanny Hill look like Last Tango in Paris in comparison. The Phantom Gunslinger was shot in Mexico as a vehicle for Albert Zugsmith to prove he was a triple threat talent, with the erstwhile fellow producing, co-writing and directing the resulting disaster. It's clear that without someone like Russ Meyer to at least try to restrain Zugsmith's instincts for broad slapstick, the project was doomed from the start. The plot, such as it is, finds a small Western town taken over by a gang of notorious outlaws. They cause some mild mayhem but mostly seem content to gorge themselves on sumptuous feasts in between flirting with the local saloon girls. The local sheriff is terrified and runs away, turning his badge over to Bill (Troy Donahue), a hunky dimwit who sets about trying to wrest control of the town from the raucous outlaws. That's about as deep as the story line goes. Zugsmith pads the film with so much slapstick it makes the average Three Stooges skit look like the work of Noel Coward. The film is certainly one of the most bizarre of its era and its hard to know whether it was ever even released theatrically in America. There is a painful element to watching Troy Donahue at this stage in his career. Only a few years earlier, he was deemed a bankable star by major studios. Whatever desperate measures persuaded him to be involved in this enterprise will probably never be known but perhaps he was inspired by the success of Clint Eastwood's spaghetti westerns. Eastwood went to Spain and collaborated with a genius named Sergio Leone. Donahue went to Mexico and was saddled with Albert Zugsmith. Such are the cruel ironies of fate. The Phantom Gunslinger is so repetitive in its gags that one is reminded that this is the kind of film they invented the fast forward remote control feature for.
Vinegar Syndrome has presented these two oddball films in pristine condition, having overseen a complete remastering process. Fanny Hill's crisp B&W cinematography is one of the better elements of the film and its safe to say that, whatever flaws The Phantom Gunslinger may have (and there are too many to list here), the movie probably never looked so good as it does through this gorgeous transfer. Vinegar Syndrome has also included some interesting bonus extras including a recent interview with Fanny Hill romantic lead Ulli Lommel that is as strange as it is entertaining. Lommel is seen attired in winter clothing and is interviewed in a park where he periodically works out on some exercise equipment(!). He tells viewers that he got the role in the film because he could speak proficient English, having grown up in the American sector of post-WWII Berlin. He also tosses out some funny, if rather insulting, comments regarding the production and the people he worked with. A second bonus extra relates to The Phantom Gunslinger with film historian Eric Schaefer (a self-described scholar of sexploitation movies) providing some sober but interesting insights into the life and career of Albert Zugsmith. The interview is far more entertaining than the feature itself. Another creative feature is reversible sleeve art that allows collectors to display either Fanny Hill or The Phantom Gunslinger as the "featured" presentation in the Blu-ray sleeve. In summary, a superior presentation of two very inferior cinematic curiosities.