Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Secret Sex Lives of Romeo and Juliet/The Notorious Cleopatra

Independent filmmaker Peter Perry spent the 1960s and much of the 1970s working as a director, writer, editor, and producer on various drive-in movies. Most of them belonged to the long-gone and little-heralded sexploitation genre, which consisted of low-budget movies made for adult audiences only. They were softcore pictures, which meant full frontal female nudity (and occasionally male too) and simulated sex. Even though no penetration was shown, the movies were still too graphic to receive an R rating (though the sexploitation genre peaked during the 1960s before such a rating existed).

Perry, who often hid behind the pseudonym A.P. Stootsberry, was a pioneer of the sexploitation genre, working on pictures like THE JOYS OF JEZEBEL, KISS ME QUICK!, and MY TALE IS HOT. The genre isn't one that I've cottoned to, as I become bored rather quickly during the lighthearted but lengthy sex scenes associated with it (for purposes of this discussion, I'm avoiding mention of "roughies," a grim subgenre that rests within the sexploitation genre).

However, I'll recommend a pair of Perry's pictures, which were very likely made back-to-back using the same costumes and sets. Both were heavily influenced by ROWAN & MARTIN'S LAUGH-IN, which debuted in 1968 and quickly became the most popular comedy show on television. Both also took stories from the public domain and put an amusing, sexy twist on them.

LAUGH-IN was clearly a major influence on Jim Macher, the screenwriter of Perry's THE SECRET SEX LIVES OF ROMEO AND JULIET. Shakespeare’s lauded lovers break the fourth wall, toss off witty bon mots, and get psychedelic between sexploits. Catchphrases like “Sock it to me” and “Here come de Prince” abound, and Perry often interrupts scenes for quick cutaways to Joke Wall-style gags.

The film, which Boxoffice International released to theaters and drive-ins in 1969, uses the conceit that it’s a 16th-century production of Shakespeare’s play performed before a group of hairy California hippies hilariously pretending to be drunken revelers. Cast members introduce themselves to the camera, many of them, like Perry, using pseudonyms. Macher follows the basic plot of ROMEO AND JULIET, but only as a loose throughline connecting the lengthy sex scenes. To Perry, sex is a lot of rubbing and moaning—nothing hardcore, but still X-rated (though Boxoffice International tended to send these quickies out unrated). Forman Shane (THE BUSHWHACKER) is Romeo, and Dee Lockwood (Maid Marian in THE EROTIC ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD) is Juliet.

SECRET SEX LIVES, like other period sex romps made by Perry, is rather sumptuous in its sets and costumes, which lends the sophomoric and sometimes smutty humor a touch of class it probably doesn’t deserve. A whipping scene is played for camp, as is Stuart Lancaster’s performance as Lord Capulet. Hell, Lancaster (MUDHONEY) even blows a line early on, and Perry, recognizing his film’s artificiality as a prime source of humor, left the blooper in. Long lovemaking scenes aren’t my cup of tea, but the enthusiastic cast and good-natured gagging make Perry’s picture one of the more entertaining of the sexploitation genre.

Perry and Macher followed up THE SECRET SEX LIVES OF ROMEO AND JULIET with another trashy period piece, 1970's THE NOTORIOUS CLEOPATRA. Despite the then-trendy breaking of the fourth wall a la LAUGH-IN, it isn't as funny as SECRET SEX LIVES and turns uncomfortably serious at the end. Perry and Boxoffice International head Harry Novak’s production is cheap and could have used exterior shooting to allow fresh air to infiltrate the heavy breathing (the battle scenes occur entirely off-camera). However, the sets and costumes are decent for an inexpensive sex film, and Perry doesn’t hesitate to move the camera or stage scenes theatrically to pump extra life into the, er, pumping.

Loray White, who once was married to Sammy Davis Jr. for ten minutes, stars as Cleopatra using the pseudonym “Sonora.” Many—probably most—cast and crew members used assumed names, including Perry (again billed as A.P. Stootsberry). Caesar, played by Jay Edwards as a fat, lazy, bored slob, sends his general, Marc Antony (Johnny Rocco), to bring him Cleopatra, the Queen of the Nile, so he can sleep with her. The logic of sending “the greatest lover in all of Rome” after her seems a tad stupid, especially when Caesar warns Antony to keep his mitts off her. He doesn’t, of course. In fact, he falls in love with Cleopatra, who begins scheming to replace Caesar on his throne.

The thin story is padded by several extended sex scenes, including a couple of orgies. Or more accurately, Macher wrote a few dialogue scenes to tie the sex scenes together. The score, credited to Vic Lance, is very good and includes original songs.
The acting, for the most part, is more professional than one might expect in sexploitation (the actors worked almost exclusively within the genre). The stacked Sonora/White is cast well and gets to show off her dancing prowess. Rocco’s impossibly deep voice bursting through his perpetually clenched teeth is good for campy laughs. Of course, none of the actors bother hiding their 1960s hairstyles and sideburns.

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