Saturday, November 16, 2013

It Speaks For Itself

If Disney had made an R-rated comedy about a talking vagina, it would probably resemble CHATTERBOX. Despite its raunchy premise, the 1977 AIP release is a sweet, good-natured, old-fashioned (yes) nudie cutie with barely a smidgen of sleaze. As directed by Tom DeSimone, whose background was in pornography, CHATTERBOX would make a great double feature with the equally sweet THE FIRST NUDIE MUSICAL.

Candice Rialson, a bubbly, charismatic regular in 1970s drive-in features (such as HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD and SUMMER SCHOOL TEACHERS), plays Penny, a nice hairdresser who is astonished, as anyone would be, to discover one night while making love with her boyfriend Ted (Perry Bullington) that her That’s right. It talks. And not kindly either, insulting Ted’s sexual prowess, causing him to storm out of his relationship with Penny. It also sings. Quite well, in fact.

After “Virginia” causes a lesbian client (Arlene Martel) to come on to Penny and her boss (friggin’ Rip Taylor!) to yell at her, a harried Penny visits a psychiatrist, Dr. Pearl (Larry Gelman, a BOB NEWHART SHOW semi-regular who had just acted in the X-rated ALICE IN WONDERLAND), who sees in Virginia not a freak or a pervert, but a ticket to fame and fortune. Exploiting Penny’s hidden skill to the max, Dr. Pearl helps her become the world’s top singing sensation, cutting a hit record (“Wang Dang Doodle”), performing on television (a talk show hosted by Professor Irwin Corey!), appearing on the cover of TIME, and even making a minor celebrity of her sycophantic mother (ex-Honeymooner Jane Kean).

Although one would be tempted to believe a comedy about a singing sex organ would be reckless with the smut, the humor is about on the level of TV sitcom with a bit of slapstick mixed in. Even the way in which the action is blocked and scored seems to anticipate a laugh track. The sex scenes are relatively antiseptic, and although Rialson’s top half is often on display, “Virginia” is always discreetly covered or hidden from view, even when she’s talking on the telephone. Okay, so the constant punning (Virginia’s favorite TV show is, of course, LEAVE IT TO BEAVER) is somewhat juvenile—the screenplay is credited to Mark Rosin (THE GREAT TEXAS DYNAMITE CHASE) and Norman Yamemoto (SAVAGE STREETS—but DeSimone manufactures a family-friendly approach that makes it easy to overlook its superficial flaws and admire its good-naturedness.

Much of the film’s success is due to its leading lady. 24-year-old Rialson appears in every scene and is completely up to the task of carrying a nutty concept on her Santa Monica-born shoulders. Fans of Rialson’s body, both in and out of her clothing, will exalt in her many topless scenes; her casual attitude towards the nudity helps deflect any feelings of exploitation. She brings a great vulnerability to Penny, which lends much needed weight to the farfetched story.

Oddly enough, Rialson never again appeared in a leading role, and, in fact, only a bit part in William Richert’s WINTER KILLS lie ahead in her career. It has been said that CHATTERBOX was her career-killer, that producers were leery of casting the star of a talking vagina movie in their filmes. Although her biggest parts were in low-budget drive-in movies, Rialson was an appealing screen presence and possessed a natural beauty and charm the equal of another California blonde who went on to mainstream success: Michelle Pfeiffer.

Not that I want to make CHATTERBOX out to be more than it really is. In the hands of a cruder filmmaker than DeSimone (ironic, I realize) or a less likable actress than Rialson, it would come off as offensive and stupid, rather than the surprisingly fluffy comedy that it is.

DeSimone went on to a pretty steady mainstream exploitation career, directing the Linda Blair slasher HELL NIGHT and the third ANGEL installment. Jonathan Demme’s regular cinematographer Tak Fujimoto shot CHATTERBOX, and several songs were contributed by none other than Neil Sedaka! Garry Shandling later made a movie about a humming penis, WHAT PLANET ARE YOU FROM?, directed by Mike Nichols. It wasn’t a hit.

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