Tribute today to the still-living and still-gorgeous Mamie Van Doren. My usual hierarchical formulation for her is “as Jayne Mansfield is to Marilyn Monroe, Mamie Van Doren is to Jayne Mansfield”, although Van Doren’s film career began much earlier than Mansfield’s. Typecast (like the other two) as a buxom blonde sexpot, Van Doren appeared in plenty of serious, “real” studio pictures but usually in smaller roles and she never did break through to the levels of stardom enjoyed by the other two “Ms”. Her starring parts were mostly in exploitational B movies about things like rock and roll, beatniks and juvenile delinquency.
I got to watch a slew of these a few months ago when TCM had a much overdue Mamie Van Doren festival. And there were many unlooked for rewards. One of the earliest of these pictures Untamed Youth (1957) features the seminal rock and roller Eddie Cochran and comedian Wally Brown. (The latter turned out to be ex-vaudevillian with an interesting film career; this was the first film I’d seen him in). But the most delightful surprise of the bunch turned out to be Sex Kittens Go to College (1960). This was one of those notorious film titles I’d long known about, like Ilsa, She Wolf of the S.S., which can’t help but stir the imagination no matter how little you know about the actual movie. In this case, I think the title is a little unfortunate (or badly calculated). To modern ears, the title conjures something close to pornography (or whatever the early 60s pre-porn equivalent was): shot on a shoe string, with no stars, and an outsized preponderance of nude people in the sack. In a college dorm maybe but in the sack nevertheless. But that doesn’t describe this movie at all. It’s actually just a very funny college comedy with several recognizable stars, plenty of laughs, and decent production values. It’s no “A” picture, but it’s light years from the “Z” that the title implies. (That’s why I say the title is unfortunate. It’s liable to keep some people away who wouldn’t be the slightest bit offended by the movie’s actual content. And at the same time, those seeking salaciousness won’t find it. Or much of it)
Yes, it’s most definitely a sex comedy. Look at the poster above, which privileges the cleavage of three of its stars, Van Doren, Tuesday Weld and Bridget Bardot’s sister. But really it’s no more risque than, say, a Rock Hudson–Doris Day picture, at least to modern eyes. Produced, directed and co-written by the interesting Albert Zugsmith, the film stars Van Doren as a long-awaited professor named Dr. West (echoes of Mae), holder of 13 degrees and speaker of 18 languages. When she makes her splashy arrival at Collins College, no one is expecting a genius to look like her. And the rest of the comedy unfolds from the turmoil caused by having a hot body on premises. (Keep your mind on your work, gentlemen!)
Later, it emerges that Dr. West is a former stripper, a further plot twist. Zugsmith had a Castle-and-Corman instinct for what put butts in seats, if not for what makes a critically acclaimed classic. But what impresses the most is the really solid cast he put together, all working gamely to put across this silliness. In addition to the above named bombshells, the roster includes John Carradine, Jackie Coogan, Babe London, Martin Milner, Louis Nye, and Vampira! And, in a cool bit of stunt casting, Charlie Chaplin Jr. and Harold Lloyd, Jr (the two also appear in other Zugsmith extravaganzas). And as the requisite rocker in the coffee bar scenes, Conway Twitty. And an actual working robot named Thinko! (more on Thinko here. Thanks Kevin Maher! : http://blog.wfmu.org/freeform/2008/04/elektro-the-rob.html)
Hey, if this is college, tell me how to enroll!
For more on comedy film history don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc An