I first heard about Pretty Maids All In A Row from Anna Biller’s Twitter account. It’s evidence that everybody’s capable of giving you useful information at least once.
This film caught my attention because it stars Rock Hudson as a serial killer collecting panties at the high school where he’s the beloved guidance counselor and football coach. We call that pedophilia now, back then it was more of a “close enough, she stopped playing with Barbies months ago” thing. That’s the feeling I get from ’70s films like Manhattan: Woody Allen’s running around with little Mariel Hemingway, and everybody around him is calmer than Mary Kay Letourneau telling her friends, “so I said to Vili, ‘I don’t got Nickelodeon but if you wanna see an angry beaver, hop on your bicycle.'”
Rock Hudson doing a film like this grabbed my attention because I love watching people who defined an era as sanitized as the ’50s and early ’60s escaping that image. My go-to example is Chuck Connors in Tourist Trap. Chuck Connors was first known for The Rifleman, a series where he represented for millions what a real man’s man was. Over a decade removed from that heyday, he played the eccentric villain in a fun and weird horror film riding the coattails of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The last time someone broke type like that was when Bill “America’s Dad” Cosby started putting Spanish Fly in his cappuccino machine.
Like Chuck Connors, Rock Hudson fit a type during his heyday. He could routinely be found in light-hearted comedies opposite Doris Day, the ones where Tony Randall was always in the supporting cast. The most notable title from that formula is Pillow Talk, a film credited as creating the blueprint for the modern romantic comedy. In it, Hudson is a playboy who ropes in Doris Day by pretending to be a humble Texan. When the illusion is shattered, Hudson pretty much says, “yeah, our entire relationship has been a lie…wanna get married?” And like every woman onscreen then, the mention of marriage completely erases Doris Day’s memory, and she says yes, roll credits. It really makes you wonder what sketchy shit your grandpa did to get your grandmother into bed.
Rock Hudson isn’t the only notable face in Pretty Maids, there are even more performers who made me say “they once guest-starred on The Carol Burnett Show!”
Telly Savalas, two years prior to Kojak‘s premiere, plays a cool police captain. Few people capture how unpredictable the 1970s were like Telly Savalas. He was a balding man in his 50s with a dad bod who had a better chance of getting laid than every blonde man in his 20s who visited the gym daily. Even homophobes looked at the way this man sucked on lollipops and let out a shuddering breath like Scotty the first time he saw Dirk Diggler unzip in Boogie Nights.
Angie Dickinson, another sex symbol, is also here. From what little I know about her, it seems like she handed the “millions of boys will masturbate to you” baton to Farrah Fawcett. Allegedly she slept with John F Kennedy. I first learned of this from a Sam Kinison bit. I remember him saying something like “she was Police Girl when she met him…and he turned her into Police Woman.”
Roddy McDowall is another familiar face who, like most of the names involved with Pretty Maids, defined an era of television. One of my reference points for him is his portrayal of Bookworm on Batman ’66. That character is somewhere between beloved Batman ’66 villains like Frank Gorshin’s Riddler and something as reviled as Liberace’s portrayal of Chandell and his Edward G. Robinson/James Cagney wannabe gangster brother Harry. You’d think a guy whose hobby was brainwashing young boys into taking amphetamines and getting plastic surgery to look just like him would excel at playing a villain.
Finally, Keenan Wynn also appears in this film. Wynn is one of those “oh, that guy” faces. He was a character actor who busted his ass and has an IMDb page to show for it. The only person who might’ve landed more gigs is John Carradine doing his best to pay off a never-ending bar tab.
That about covers it for memorable names. Unless you were routinely piss-drunk in an alleyway on Skid Row, you probably wouldn’t recognize June Fairchild. Kidding! We all remember her snorting soap powder in Up In Smoke.
Oh wait, here’s my Columbo “just one more thing” moment. The guy who wrote the script and produced Pretty Maids, he created a series with spaceships and pointy ears that people really like. The gay Asian man you see sharing all the memes on Facebook, I think he was on it.
It’s easy to see a film like Pretty Maids and realize why people romanticize the New Hollywood period. The film captures that moment after the old Hollywood studio system and prior to the landscape post-Jaws and Star Wars where every movie has to be a loud spectacle that morphs into a profitable trilogy or shared universe. The New Hollywood era was so great because there was no guarantee for what worked. That, combined with a lack of limitations, made for a stimulating adult playground not to be found during the Hays Code era or within the multi-billion dollar theme park landscape that currently exists.
Watching this in 2020, I’d argue Pretty Maids plays better than ever because it’s fun and carefree in a way movies rarely are. While most films are fueled by wholesome values like good conquering evil or the stereotypical liberal Hollywood preaching to the choir, Pretty Maids has us following Rock Hudson boning and butchering underage babes while influencing Angie Dickinson to have sex with a student by seducing her and letting her know that only after she finalizes a Van Halen wet dream will she feel Rock Hudson’s mustache tickling her most sensitive areas. Unlike a lot of movies that have followed Pretty Maids, that’s worth devoting 90 minutes to.
From that description, many would argue against me and say this film plays worse than ever because it’s in fashion now to hold up stale moral entertainment and announce to strangers that based on your Letterboxd reviews, you’re a really great person. No matter how vocal that type of person may be, that’s not the way everybody lives. Others, people who are arguably more emotionally stable because they aren’t obsessed with reminding the seven people keeping up with their Twitter feed that they’re nice and polite like Paddington, love it when fictional characters are far removed from their own moral compass.
I don’t know what it says about the current state of Hollywood when I’m consistently enthralled by titles half a century old. I have no desire to keep up with what’s currently being released. Watch The Assistant and write a three-sentence tweet where I pretend to be moved by a woman sadly eating cereal? No thanks, I’d rather watch Rock Hudson dabbling in riveting hijinks so #problematic, it makes Jeffery Epstein’s massage parlor look like an upstanding business.