Call Me Stormy

Finding righteous currents in turbulent times

Mondo Hollywood

The first of the Italian-made Mondo Cane documentaries appeared in 1963. These weren’t documentaries so much as shockumentaries that journeyed to remote and usually primitive corners of the globe, capturing the bizarre and titillating habits of the natives. Today’s Trillion Dollar Movie, Mondo Hollywood, is an American-made riff on these lurid Italian travelogues, except it represents a departure of sorts from the Mondo formula by exposing what was primitive and bizarre among the supposed artistic and intellectual elite of Hollywood, then the undisputed movie-making capital of the world.

Writer-director-producer-editor Robert Carl Cohen began shooting his footage in 1965 and wrapped two years later in 1967. The film earned a release in the United States, albeit with a dreaded X rating, forbidding admission by anyone under the age of 16. However, the lucrative European markets proved off-limits when a scheduled 1968 premiere at the Avignon Film Festival was canceled after French censors banned the showing on the grounds that Mondo Hollywood “presents an apology for a certain number of perversities, including drugs and homosexuality, and constitutes a danger to the mental health of the public by its visual aggressivity and the psychology of its editing.”

Will you be tainted by watching it now? Let’s just say, if Mondo Hollywood came out today, it wouldn’t be slapped with an X rating or even an R, more likely a stiff PG-13. There are a few scenes of topless women, or as the poster boldly promises “Topless Girls! Trip Girls! Freak-Out Girls! Body Painted Girls! Mind Blowing Girls! Cycle Girls!”  But by and large, the visuals are tame by today’s standards.

Not so tame are the strange, freaky denizens from the underside of Hollywood who attracted much of Cohen’s attention. He introduces the first hippies, the first New Agers, the anti-war protesters, those practicing alternative sex and those experimenting with drugs inspired by LSD guru Richard Alpert, who later transformed himself into Baba Ram Dass. We meet celebrity hairdresser Jay Sebring, murdered along with Sharon Tate by the Charles Manson Family, and also catch a glimpse of a young member of The Family, Bobby Beausoleil, modeling as Cupid. The creepiest scene captures fashion designer Rudi Gernreich, creator of the topless swimsuit and a co-founder of the Mattachine Society, producing a children’s fashion show with a topless six-year-old swirling around to reveal her “sexy” body.

Besides these hedonists, Cohen documents the forces of conservatism gathering to preserve morality, including newly elected California Governor Ronald Reagan. But Cohen’s sentiments clearly align with the fringe dwellers, who are given the opportunity to narrate their own stories,  while the conservatives are portrayed as stiff caricatures and never allowed to explain themselves in their own words. In hindsight, that might be a blessing in disguise, as the thrill-seekers idolized by Cohen now come across as vain, vacuous, silly and, quite often, stupid. “Everything bores me to death,” says onetime B-movie actress-turned-sculptor Valerie Porter. “The only thing I find interesting is myself.”

Also of historical note: Mike Curb, the musical director, later composed campaign theme songs for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and Curb himself ran successfully, as a Republican, for lieutenant governor of California. His opponent, Mervyn M. Dymally, used Mondo Hollywood to bludgeon Curb, claiming the film was “pornographic” and that Curb “sang falsetto in a bathtub scene with two lesbians.” Curb first denied the charges, then admitted them, going on to win nevertheless.

Do see the accompanying Call Me Stormy post, “Before There Was PETA,” for more on Mondo Hollywood.  And join us next Friday for another Trillion ($) Movie.

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