Thursday, June 20, 2013

"Dinah"? Shore!

Holy mackerel... That's almost all I can say. (Well, if you frequent this site you know that I can say and say and say plenty!) Over the course of my several-decades-long immersion into vintage movies and TV, I have occasionally heard mention of a little-known film called Dinah East (1970), but it's been off the radar for so long and so difficult to lay eyes on that it sort of drifted out of my consciousness for quite a while until recently when a fellow blogger (and an excellent one!) unearthed it for a tribute at his wonderful site.

Having gotten a taste of the movie there, I had no choice but to order myself a copy of the newly-restored, wide-screen DVD, for it seemed like my type of movie: soapy, glossy, melodramatic, containing late-'60s/early-'70s clothing and hair and, in no way lastly, a parade of men in various stages of undress! I was not disappointed. So obscure is this movie that I could find no original poster, stills or lobby cards to use for this post!

Dinah East (originally to be called, “The Great Put-On of Dinah East”) is an exploitation movie made with an eye for capitalizing on the age-old rumors that stage and screen legend Mae West was, in fact, a man all along and not a biological female! (I think if it had been me, I might have named the film “June East” instead... get it?!) What's ironic (or was it purposeful at the time?) is that the rather drag-queeny West herself was making a long-awaited return to the screen in 1970, appearing in the then-X-rated Myra Breckinridge alongside Raquel Welch, John Huston and others.
The writer-director-producer-composer of Dinah East, Gene Nash (eat your heart out, Eddie Murphy!), ran into tax problems with the low-budget movie and it was pulled from circulation after only limited showings. Most likely in a bid to add notoriety and publicity to the movie, he began to claim in ads that Mae West had managed to block and suppress the film because of its ostensible connection to her and her career. In truth, there is precious little about the film that bears any relation to Mae West. The moldy rumor about her gender is merely a starting point for a film that recalls many “Old Hollywood” scenarios from “Norma Desmond” to Greta Garbo to Jean Harlow.

Have you ever watched a movie, be it anything from Up Periscope (1959) to The Magnificent Seven (1960) to Ride the Wild Surf (1964) to Cool Hand Luke (1967), and wondered what it would be like to see the men of the film naked? (I sound like Peter Graves in Airplane! right now!) Good luck with that. The rules were different, though, for exploitation movies with no stars in them to speak of. Producers opting to target the oglers out there could pretty much set their own standards.

But most of the time, even in lots of exploitation films then and right up to the present day (with Andy Warhol protegee Joe Dallesandro, seen here with Sylvia Miles, a notable exception), male nudity was scant, fleeting, obscured and de-emphasized. The focus was often on women and their bodies. Not so with Dinah East. Yes, there are some naked females, but unquestionably the limelight is shone most prominently on the men. When one watches this movie, an exploitation flick dressed in Ross Hunter's bargain-basement thrift store donations, and wonders what the men might look like naked, the wishes are often granted! No less than seven actors go full-frontal, matter-of-factly captured by the camera as they go about their melodramatic business.

The film begins with a young, blonde man (Reid Smith) swimming in a luxurious pool without benefit of trunks. As he exits the pool and enters a Hollywood mansion, draped in a towel, he is stopped in the hallway by his mother, who proceeds to tug at his towel, causing it to fall off. His casual response as he stands there naked is, “I suppose being one's mother gives one the right to look every once and awhile.” In other words, the kink and the skin is present in this film from the get-go before the credits have even rolled! (The mansion was reportedly that of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, left mostly empty with Candice grown up and living in Europe at the time. Hopefully, Charlie McCarthy was safely in his case and didn't witness all the nude goings on!)
Reid's mom, the Dinah East of the title, then heads out in her Rolls Royce limousine for a toddle around Beverly Hills. Seemingly suffering from dizziness and shortness of breath, it's a struggle to get to the car. Her driver (Matt Bennett) turns around at one point to see that she has passed out and in short order discovers that she has actually died in the backseat of the car! When an ambulance comes and takes her away, Bennett is distraught.
Soon, we find that the ambulance drivers have been paid off in order to take the body to a specific mortuary/ funeral home where the shiftless embalmer likes to have celebrities deposited. Eager to get his hands on the departed star, he heads into the room with the slab and begins to undo her clothing. He is startled to see that her bra isn't actually filled with breasts, but is downright stunned when he hikes down her underwear and finds a penis!
His reaction to this news is to recoil in horror, run down the hallway and ravenously gnaw on a Baby Ruth candy bar (when he had JUST eaten one prior to going into the room with the body!) How's that for Freudian imagery? He then alerts the newspapers of his discovery.

Yes, Dinah East, played by Jeremy Stockwell, was a man all along. We learn in flashback how Stockwell was a young cinema hopeful who could never get a job in the movies. He would report to cattle calls and be sent packing without any sort of entree to the sets. When he realized that the big need was for chorus girls and other female talent, he decided to cross-dress his way into the world of film-making!

From a simple dress extra to a supporting player to a major star, Stockwell manages to maintain the illusion of female gender, building wealth and legions of fans in the process. As the movie progresses, we come into contact with various people whose lives were either affected by or intertwined with Stockwell and each one flashes back to a key period of time in the relationship.

One is Margaret Rolfe as the wife of a security guard who was one of the first (and few) to discover Stockwell's secret, but who was kind enough to keep it. In return, Stockwell made sure that his widow was financially secure, her house paid off in full.
Studio costume designer Ultra Violet is caught by Stockwell in a lesbian clinch with one of her clients, causing a minor furor, but in time the designer becomes aware of Stockwell's peculiar situation and the two become devoted friends and confidantes. (It might be noted that Mae West had a strong connection to Oscar-winning designer Edith Head, who sexual orientation was often in question. Head designed West's costumes for Myra Breckinridge, but flatly refused to see the actual film, which, by today's standards is tame indeed.)
We next meet a flamboyant actor (Ray Foster), known for his derring-do on the silver screen, but now washed up and drowning his sorrows in a gay bar. The bar, which must be seen to be believed, has a Lawrence Welk bubble machine on overdrive and a cage containing a dancer partially clothed in pirate gear. I say partially because the well-endowed dancer's private parts (belonging to porn star Joe Frost) are swayin' in the breeze as he gyrates around inside the cage! A collection of catty queens in various modes of outre dress sits at the end of the bar gossiping (almost forty-five years later, how much of this part has really changed?!)
Foster recalls, in a rollicking and quite preposterous flashback scene, himself prancing around the studio backlot in revealing tights, debating with his agent the pros and cons of using Stockwell as a beard in order to throw people off the scent of his homosexuality. The two head out on a date to a swank dinner club where they scope each other out warily, but with a certain level of captivation. (Stockwell briefly imitates Louella Parsons in this sequence, an act that a handful of people – out of the slightly larger handful who have actually scene this movie – have mistakenly interpreted as a Mae West impression!)

He wines her, dines her and almost 69s her, but when push comes to pump, he finds that he just can't go through with it. It's okay, though, because Stockwell is able to use Foster for his own purposes as well, given that as a man posing as a woman, he can't just date anyone!

Back in the present day, we then come to know Stockwell's attorney, played by Andy Davis. Davis is being fired by the head of his conservative law firm from his connection with Dinah East, the scandal now raging furiously. Davis is disturbed by the fact that this secret has become public and has now severely damaged his career and livelihood. He studies a portrait of his son and his own late wife, which segues into a scene with that son (Joe Taylor.)

Taylor is at the seashore awaiting his girlfriend (Susan Romen), pensively processing the fact that his father has been the longtime lawyer and, allegedly, once the lover of a legendary female star who has now been revealed to be a man! His thoughts are interrupted by the arrival of his gal pal who insists that the two take advantage of the free time to make love. They hold hands and frolic (in 1970s slo-mo!) to a secluded section of the woods where they get it on. Afterwards, she starts running her mouth about his father and he angrily hits her and takes off, allowing us a momentary glimpse of his naked body.

He confronts his father Davis who then reveals in flashback how he became Stockwell's lawyer and was able to arrange the adoption of his/her son Smith. With Stockwell petrified that anyone might find out the big secret, he/she reveals it to Davis, who is apoplectic. Filled with a mixture of resentment, revulsion, betrayal and, truth be told, arousal, he proceeds to rough Stockwell up a little and then attempt to sexually abuse him/her, though it ultimately comes to nothing.
Davis, confused, frustrated and, eventually, drunk, proceeds to his girlfriend's apartment. The girlfriend (Vicki Carbe) and he have not yet had sex together, but he's decided that this will be the night. In this scene Davis finally shucks his pants and the after-effect of their love-making is their son Taylor, who is horrified to learn the details of his conception.

Taylor departs to Stockwell's mansion where he hopes to console his friend Smith, who is himself in shock over losing his adoptive “mother” who was actually a man! I cannot tell you how much I was hoping that these two buddies were going to somehow “turn to each other” in their respective hours of need, but, sadly, it wasn't to be...

Smith is facing a tidal wave of scandal and scorn including the loss of his fiancee, whose parents refuse to let her see him after hearing the news. In yet another flashback, we see Smith cavorting naked with the girl (Kitty Carl) in his backyard swimming pool. They are deliriously happy at the prospect of marrying, but first he must break the news to his mom. Again, as before, Smith is nude throughout most of the scene.

Overhearing Smith's grief, we then spy chauffeur Bennett again, who is desolate after the death of his employer. In the movie's final flashback sequence, we discover that Bennett was a professional boxer, hired to train with swashbuckling (and swish-buckling) actor Foster, which led to his meeting Stockwell. Bennett and Stockwell begin to see more of one another and, in one of the film's corniest, yet somehow most irresistible, moments they are shown jogging together, Stockwell riding a bicycle alongside a running Bennett and sailing together. A cheesetastic song called “Thank You Alex,” sung by Jon and Sondra Steele, plays over this sequence.
Bennett falls in love with Stockwell and, as it turns out, couldn't really care less that Stockwell is actually a man! (As Joe E. Lewis said at the end of 1959's Some Like it Hot, “Well... nobody's perfect!”) The two carry on a clandestine romance that transcends their outward roles of boss and driver. Bennett does have a nude scene in the movie, but primarily a rear one, though one can see from his white sailing britches that he's no slouch. Amazingly, in this ostensibly lurid and exploitive flick, the love affair between these two more-than-complicated characters is treated with surprising tenderness and acceptance.

The finale of the movie involves Dinah East's wordless funeral service with the chief participants gathered around (but, strangely, NO ONE else!) Naturally, though I have revealed much in this synopsis, there is still a lot that I have chosen not to tell in order to maintain a level of surprise for those of you (I should think most of you!) who have yet to see this. I can not recommend the movie enough to fans of camp and old-style Hollywood soap.

The men are handsome (and with a variety of body types and hair levels), but not unusually "hung," displaying a welcome comfort with their bodies that is foreign to what we generally see today outside of folks like Ewan McGregor or Michael Fassbender. So often we only catch a glimpse of naked stars or quasi-stars who feel they have something worth showing. The others contort or obscure themselves out of (legitimate!) fear of ridicule as the standard for what is acceptable has become distorted by repeated exposure to pornography or to those who are justifiably confident in letting it all hang out. (Even many of the men on pay cable series with frontal nudity rely on either digital enhancement or prosthetics -!- in order to meet this standard.)

What's most staggering about Dinah East, though, is that its budget is low and its acting is of highly variable quality, yet the participants seem to really be trying to give their all. None of the people in the film (with the exception of the clammy, hammy mortician at the beginning) plays his or her role for laughs or even with tongue in cheek. They are serious about what they are doing and, as a result, occasionally obtain a fleeting level of excellence! Of course, this dire seriousness can also be quite funny when things go the opposite way. And we can't discount the mindblowingly sympathetic, progressive and accepting way in which subjects like homosexuality and gender-bending issues are handled in an era when most other films presented these things as either garish comedy or grotesque sickness.

This was the screen acting debut of Houston-born Stockwell and he was not seen again for almost two decades after. ( lists this Jeremy Stockwell as the same man who later became a TV actor, panelist and sought-after acting coach in the U.K., but I could not pin down this information as fact!) So many times, Stockwell has been derided for not looking enough like a woman, yet I can't see where he's any less feminine-looking than, say, actress Lindsay Crouse:
To me, he looks damned similar to omnipresent 1970s TV actress Laraine Stephens, shown below:
Yes, the voice is a bit low, but I'll take that any day over the forced, high-pitched falsetto that so many men playing women have adopted. He's also done no favors by a few wretched wigs amid the occasional okay ones. But for a pronounced chin and an occasional unease in gait, I think Stockwell pulls it off very well! He is small-framed, has petite, attractive hands (often another dead giveaway) and an appealing, even sparkling, smile. I really appreciate the understated, realistic quality that he brings to the part. There's a thick Texas accent that he is unable to disguise despite trying, but, listen, this could have been a lot worse! Incidentally, some of the clothing he wears in the movie belonged to co-producer Paula Stewart (comedian Jack Carter's wife!) as they wore the same size!

The person in the film with the most personal fame was Ultra Violet, a French actress (born Isabelle Dufresne) who spent significant stretches of time with noted iconoclastic artists Salvadore Dali (shown with her below) and Andy Warhol. A minor screen acting career lasted through the early-'70s and she published a book about her time with Warhol in 1988. Her own accent creates an occasional chuckle in the film such as when she refers to the studio “grape VINE” at one point. She is currently seventy-seven.
Foster had been working on TV and in movie bit roles since the mid-'50s, but Dinah East seems to have slammed the lid on anything further. Though his performance is sometimes too broad, he does have several sincere and quiet moments that are played quite skillfully and it's a shame he disappeared from view after 1970. He is apparently still alive today at age seventy-eight, but like most people in this movie, information is hard to come by.

Loveable lug Bennett had played a small role in Tony Curtis' The Boston Strangler (1968) and went on to small parts in Hickey & Boggs (1972), a Robert Culp/Bill Cosby big-screen teaming, and such TV projects as Little Ladies of the Night and Alexander: The Other Side of Dawn (both 1977) as well as How the West Was Won, a 1978 miniseries, before petering out in the mid-'80s. He died of a brain tumor at only age fifty-seven in 1991.

Three young men received “Introducing...” credit in Dinah East. Reid Smith proceeded to a surprisingly busy, though minor, career in television and the odd movie. He had a role in Anne Baxter's The Late Liz (1971), was a regular with Mitchell Ryan on the short-lived police show Chase (1973-1974) and guest-starred on many shows from Columbo to Mork & Mindy to Remington Steele to Dynasty before retiring in the mid-1990s. He is sixty-four today.

The second, Joe Taylor, proceeded to a role in the gay-themed movie Some of My Best Friends Are... (1971) that featured an eclectic cast including Fannie Flagg, Rue McClanahan, Carleton Carpenter, Sylvia Syms, Gil Gerard, Candy Darling and Gary Sandy, followed by a couple of bits. His last credited part was in 1974. I am fascinated by his thick eyebrows, huge, pouty lips and voluminous hair. He is about to turn sixty-seven, presuming he is still with us.

The other actor who was “introduced” in this film was Andy Davis as Taylor's father. Remarkably, Davis was four years YOUNGER than Taylor, but I really must say that he pulled the casting off with considerable skill. Davis was twenty when he worked on the picture.

Davis had actually worked for a couple of years in the business prior to this as a guest star on Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. and The Wild Wild West along with a role in the low-rent, awful, sci-fi flick Journey to the Center of Time (1967), which featured Scott Brady, Anthony Eisley and Gigi Perreau. He was to perform just one more tiny role after East in 1971's The Resurrection of Zachary Wheeler before sliding off the radar. He is currently sixty-two. He is my favorite performer in the film, thanks in no small part to the fact that his looks and build are exactly what I like (and scarce as all-get-out to find these days... everyone around me seems to fall into three categories now: gaunt, six-pack cut-or obese!)

When it came to titling this post (my pithy, punny titles either seem to come to me very easily or else I agonize over them), I had quite a few! I settled on the one I did because I wanted to try to use the word Dinah and because Dinah Shore also had some rumors about her, true or not, whether regarding her sexuality or her ethnicity. Some of the discarded ones include: “Help! I've Got an 'East' Infection,” “The Wild Wild 'East',” “Go 'East', Young Man” and “Let's Grab a Seat at the 24-Hour 'Dinah.” One user had a great one, "Dinah Sore." Grateful as I am to the folks who put out the restored, wide-screen DVD (which is still of so-so quality thanks to the low-end original materials), it would be sensational for somebody to dig up this cast and get them to talk about it themselves!


Jennifer Merrill said...

I loved this film when I finally found it... thanks for sharing your review... still wishing I could find out more about Jeremy Stockwell! :-)

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