It was 1966 and somebody took me to the local flea pit to see One Million Years B. C. I went in an eleven year old boy with an obsessive interest in dinosaurs and came out as a horny pre-teen prone to lurid sexual fantasies about fiercely mammalian women in fur bikinis, even though he still wasn’t quite sure what such fantasies might involve.
Raquel Welch was my first celebrity puppy love, an infatuation that lasted right through to the post-school years. I had a poster of Raquel on my bedroom wall, a scene from 100 Rifles with my sweetheart wearing a shirt that turned diaphanous when wet, and it was very wet as I recall. When I got a portable black and white TV it was so that I could watch Raquel’s movies in the privacy of my own bedroom. I cut pictures of Raquel out of magazines and newspapers, and stuck them in a scrapbook (I was also interested in UK actress Imogen Hassall and French singer Francoise Hardy, but Raquel was my #1).
You can never go home, as Thomas Wolfe observed, but you can relive your memories by watching old films on DVD, and over a couple of recent weekends that was exactly what I did.
Lady in Cement (1968)
This film is a vehicle for Frank Sinatra, who stars as wisecracking private eye Tony Rome (a Philip Marlowe wannabe). While diving at sea he finds a naked blonde with her feet stuck in a block of cement. A police matter, you would think, and so does Rome, but then Dan Blocker turns up as the irrepressible Waldo Gronsky (a Moose Malone wannabe – Chandler’s prints are all over this film), a man who won’t take no for an answer and is so big he never has to. Waldo hires Tony to find his missing love, who turns out to be the eponymous lady, and the trail leads our hero to Raquel, who is playing heiress Kit Forrest (the Paris Hilton of her day) and swimming in her pool when he arrives. It’s a fun but forgettable movie. Raquel has a couple of witty lines, but mostly her purpose is to look decorative and act as a motive for the bad guys to act badly. At the end Tony gets the girl, and she is the girl that he gets. The setup is pretty much PI standard, our hero having friends and enemies on the force, looking capable while behind the wheel of a fast car and with a gun in his hand, and demonstrating an indifference to beautiful women that, in the movies at least, they seem to find irresistible. The plot has a complication or two, an odd tweak of the story, but nothing most won’t have seen before, and the real joy of the production is in the banter between Tony and Waldo, with some great one liners for each. I smirked a smirk or two, and then I turned off the TV and went to bed, with a twinge of regret for the absence of freeze frame and zoom features back when I was a horny teenager.
Fantastic Voyage (1966)
Mainlining Ms Welch. Raquel is a scientist, part of the crew of a miniature submarine that is shrunk down to microscopic size and then injected into the bloodstream of a politician so that they can take care of a brain tumour with a laser. Wow! No, really, just… Wow! The concept remains a fascinating one, tackling inner space instead of outer, journeying deep into the universe that is the human bio-system. Along the way the crew must race against the clock (they only stay small for an hour), deal with treachery from within, and overcome the biological defences of their host, which see the submarine and its crew as a foreign body, something that needs to be dealt with using extreme prejudice. It’s great stuff, and has held up really well I thought, with effects that don’t look as dated as many in movies from the 60s. And Raquel convinces as a lab rat, though acting honours go to Donald Pleasance as a scientist losing it big time. Casting is pretty much a side issue here though – it’s about the big idea and the magnificence/wonders of the human body seen through a lens, all wrapped up in a very tense adventure story. As I recall, Isaac Asimov wrote the novelisation, but no need to hold that against them. I’m surprised there hasn’t been a remake (I’m ignoring Innerspace, which played with a similar idea and obviously had this as an inspiration).
Raquel made a number of westerns. My favourite would be Hannie Caulder in which she got to wield a gun, but this is okay. She plays Maria Stoner, a former Mexican prostitute, now married to a wealthy Texan rancher, becoming a very rich widow when he gets shot in a failed bank robbery just after the opening credits. Dee Bishop and his gang are locked up in the town gaol until the hangman arrives, but the man in black is in fact Dee’s brother Mace, who springs the gang and they ride off to the Mexican border with Maria as a hostage. Sheriff July Johnson and his posse set off in pursuit, willing to stop at nothing, the whole shooting match arriving in a Mexican ghost town deep in the heart of bandit territory. Black and white hats are a cliché of the western genre. In this film the dividing line between good men and bad men hinges on whether they fall in love with Maria or simply want to rape her. In white hats are the Bishop brothers and July Johnson. Wearing black, we have the rest of the Bishop gang and a Mexican bandit chief who breaks off fighting in the middle of a pitched gun battle to tear Maria’s dress from her back. Raquel’s role has a bit more than love/lust object to it though. Her character is given some depth, shown as a strong, determined and capable woman, somebody who has faced misfortune and made the best out of it. She isn’t loved just because she has a pretty face and killer body; she deserves the affection of these men, and in fact she probably deserves better. Contrarily it was Maria’s falling for Dee Bishop, who killed her blameless husband, that gave me pause. It stretched credibility for me, made me think less of Maria, and Stockholm Syndrome be damned. Kudos also to Raquel for keeping up the Spanish accent to the very end. The film however belonged to the Bishop brothers, played by Dean Martin and James Stewart. Martin as Dee had the role of an honourable bandit, a man who finds himself in bad company simply because his other options have all run out, and tries to make the best of it, to not violate his personal code. Older brother Mace wants to redeem him, to realise boyhood dreams they had of setting up on a farm together, and is prepared to relax his standards slightly to make this thing happen. Stewart strolls through the film making it all look so easy, conveying the picture of a man at peace with himself and his world, judging but not finding wanting, supremely capable and able to deal with whatever gets thrown at him. And his turn posing as a hangman was a pure and unadulterated delight, the trademark Jimmy Stewart drawl put to good use.
Myra Breckinridge (1970)
I loved the book on which this was based, and recall that at the time author Gore Vidal argued with director Mike Sarne about the casting of Ms Welch, whom he considered too masculine for the part. Yes, really. Raquel stars as transsexual Myra, the female alter-ego of film critic Myron. She comes to Hollywood and stakes her claim to half of uncle Buck Loner’s stage school, her mission to change the world through changing the mythic archetypes that tinsel town peddles to the masses, with a side order of destroying masculine stereotypes. The book was gleefully anarchic and iconoclastic, and the film tries to capture something of that, so that it becomes a film about film making, one which constantly references other productions, clips from classic films intercut with the narrative arc so that they illustrate whatever point the acerbic and inspirational Myra is attempting to make. Pop psychology also gets a look in, with Myra talking to and taking advice from Myron, and calling on her surgeon for assistance, the latter aspect played for satire and succeeding rather well. Raquel is simply magnificent as Myra, a veritable Amazon in a head on confrontation with the modern world as manifested via the Hollywood dream factory, with her deconstruction of the male psyche, given particular form in her dildo assault on stud Rusty, one of the film’s high spots. The other leads don’t match her zeal though. John Huston as Buck overacts, albeit in a role that is pure cliché, but the biggest problem for me was Mae West as super agent come starmaker Leticia Van Allen, who most of the time seems to be happily sending up her own reputation, delivering lines in a manner that made me think she was finding it hard to stop from laughing. The woman constantly seemed to be smirking, and it undermined her performance. The ending was unsatisfactory too, with Myra reverting to Myron and putting all his plans for world change to bed simply so that he can win the love of a good woman, which was anticlimactic after all that had gone before. I think that the book ended similarly, though I don’t recall it being quite so flat. A young Farrah Fawcett plays Rusty’s beloved Mary Ann, and yes, Tom Selleck put in an appearance as a stud. Flaws aside, this was an ambitious film, tackling serious themes in an original manner, and it’s probably my favourite Raquel movie.
So what’s your favourite Raquel film? And whose poster did you have hung on your bedroom wall when you were a teenager? Or now, if applicable? Tell all. I promise not to be judgemental. Much.