Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Moseby Confidential Files: A Candice Rialson Double-Feature

The much-missed Candice Rialson would have been turning sixty years old next month so I thought another look at two of her major roles was in order. While Pets and Chatterbox are both flawed works, especially the latter, Candice is incredible in both and they still serve as a great reminder of how undeniably unique and startling her screen-presence was.

Part satire, part sexploitation film and part social commentary, Raphael Nussbaum’s 1974 feature Pets is a fairly remarkable feature on all counts. A low budget film with big ideas, Pets is mostly remembered today for giving talented 23 year old actress Candice Rialson her first starring role in a feature film. Rialson, who had previously appeared in just a handful of small feature and television roles, gives one of the most electric debut performances of the seventies under Nussbaum’s direction and Pets is worth a larger audience than it has ever had.

German born Nussbaum has had an interesting, if fairly unremarkable, career as a writer, producer and director and Pets stands as his most important and fully realized work. After making some early features in Germany in the early sixties (including one with Daliah Lavi), Nussbaum relocated to America in the late part of the decade with his first American credit being a co-writing detail on the 1969 Al Adamson film, The Female Bunch.

Pets started out life as a 1969 series of one act plays by Richard Reich starring notable future film actress Marlene Clark. Reich’s play received mostly scathing reviews during its Off-Broadway run by critics not able to see that its scenes of sado-masochism and male dominance were attempting to make a sharp statement on the changing role of women in society due to the blossoming feminist movement. Reich’s play and Nussbaum’s film makes the point that it wasn’t just the misogynistic male world that feminists had to overcome but also years of personal imprisonment. Regardless of Pets notorious ad campaign, and the fact that it has to play into some of the trappings of a strictly exploitation vehicle, there is a lot more going on here than the misogynistic work it is often being accused of being.

The three one-act plays came into the hand of Nussbaum and exploitation producer Mardi Rustam in the 1973 and they quickly worked it into a film script and began casting soon after. Several familiar faces were soon signed on including Ed Bishop and two-time Elvis Presley co-star Joan Blackman. The key role of Bonnie though would go to the near completely unknown Candice Rialson, billed here as Candy Rialson, and it would turn out to be the film’s masterstroke as Rialson controls the film with a ferociously intelligent and electric performance that still resonates over thirty years later.

Pets is about overcoming submission…submission not only to others but more importantly an imprisonment of a personal kind to society’s expectations. Pets is a political film posing as a sexy drive-in feature…the fact that it works as both quite well marks it as one of the most impressive low budget features of the seventies.

***Spoilers Follow***
After an eerie and striking opening sequence showing a series of animals and finally Rialson (Bonnie) chained in a group of cages, Pets begins (as it ends) in a car. We are introduced to Bonnie who is being driven around town late at night by her controlling and abusive brother. After being pushed one step too far, Bonnie escapes from her brother and makes her way into the lonely city night. The next morning Bonnie meets Pat (Teri Guzman) a tough talking thief who connives her into kidnapping a middle aged man fresh from the beach, tying him up, and robbing his house. Bonnie is a good person, but she clearly enjoys being the one in control and foolishly follows through with Pat's plan. After the robbery she is not surprisingly abandoned by the double crossing Pat. Bonnie then runs away again only to meet another person looking to control her, a lesbian painter named Geraldine (Blackman).

Bonnie enters into a relationship with Geraldine but is soon yearning to escape as the same feelings of entrapment and personal disillusionment creep on. After Geraldine murders a burglar Bonnie has a one night stand with, Bonnie escapes once again this time to a perverted art collector named Victor...a man who collects not only paintings but also exotic animals and women (both of which he keeps imprisoned in his basement). After submitting Bonnie to torture and humiliation she finally pretends to submit to his every whim and ends up chained in a cage in his basement. When Victor lures Geraldine to his house, Bonnie captures them both and abandons the house and her ways as a prisoner. As the film ends it is now Bonnie driving the car...independent and in control and free of the chains that have been around her all of her life.

Pets benefits greatly from the editing of actress and producer Roberta Reeves. I suspect that Reeves understood the films underlying themes and her cutting style slyly gives the upper hand to Rialson all the way through. We are not only sympathetic to Rialson but can also feel her blossoming empowerment...when she finally escapes from the house and her role as society's second class citizen, Reeves cleverly cuts between Bonnie triumphantly leaving the house with the sight of the animals escaping as well. Draped in a fur coat and smiling, the ending of Pets is exhilarating stuff and the clever question mark after the "The End" notice doesn't mark the hint of the sequel, but instead the beginning of a new generation of women refusing to buckle under the weight of the chains much of society stills tries to put them under.

Rialson is nothing short of spectacular in the role of Bonnie. Breathtakingly beautiful and seemingly totally aware that her role is representative of much more than just a single woman in peril, Rialson injects Bonnie with a strength and intelligence rare for any film of this kind in the seventies or since. Pets should have been the beginning of a long and prolific career for the charismatic and talented Rialson and it is tragic that only a handful of roles followed for her.

The rest of the cast is okay if not overly noteworthy. Bishop plays the sickening Victor with the right amount of sleaze and charm but Blackman is rather bland in what should be one of the film's most dynamic characters. Guzman is quite good in her part, as is television actor Brett Parker in his small but memorable role as the kidnap victim.

Technically, Art director Mike McCloskey does a solid job with Victor's foreboding house by filling it with antiquities and reminders of his role as a villainous collector. Nussbaum's direction is also fairly thoughtful throughout, although Pets does suffer from its low budget trappings. The film also feels more than a little episodic, no doubt due to its origins as three separate one-act plays. Still, for the most part, Pets is a remarkable achievement and its relative obscurity is unfortunate.

Pets came out in the early part of 1974 with one of the most notorious and misleading ad campaigns of its day. If the film manages to transcend its sexploitation stature then the seedy promotional art embraces it. The film, originally released under the title Submission, was for the most part ignored by the critics, never caught on with the public and was just finally given a limited DVD release within the past couple of years via Code Red.

Three years after Pets, Rialson made perhaps the most infamous film of her tragically short career. I’ve always suspected Chatterbox would have made a good short film in something like Woody Allen’s Everything You’ve Always Wanted to Know about Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask). Unfortunately, the film that stalled what should have been the thriving career of talented Candice Rialson is feature length and it wasn't written by someone of Allen’s creativity and intelligence.

1977’s Chatterbox, inspired by the successful French film Le Sexe Qui Parle from a few years earlier features the last starring role of the late Candice Rialson, who would appear in just a few more productions in just smaller supporting and bit roles. How much the failure of Chatterbox hurt Candice’s career is perhaps up for question, but it needs to be noted that that failure is in no way due to her performance as it is the only real bright spot the doomed production has.

Director Tom DeSimone had mostly worked in the adult industry in the years leading up to Chatterbox under the name of Lancer Brooks. He would go onto to direct features such as Hell Night (1981) with Linda Blair and Reform School Girls (1984) with Sybil Danning. His direction of Chatterbox, while flat at times, is spirited with special note going to a couple of the film’s montages and one particular musical number towards the end inspired by the MGM musicals of Hollywood’s first Golden Age.

The problem with Chatterbox doesn’t lie with Rialson or DeSimone, but instead rests on the lap of novice screenwriter Mark Rosin. The Great Texas Dynamite Chase (a much better film than Chatterbox) writer’s work is really flat here. Chatterbox wants more than anything else to be funny and it simply isn’t. The majorities of the films jokes are the kind that could have been found on any number of second rate sitcoms from the period and they really bury the film, which is a real pity as in the right hands Chatterbox could have been something of a camp classic or even a probing satirical work on female sexuality…it’s neither. It’s like a gaudy knock-knock joke with a cheap punch line and Candice Rialson deserved much better.

The film, brief at under 75 minutes, is absolutely worth a look though to see Rialson at possibly her most radiant. She’s charming even when the film isn’t and manages to give the role respectability when any other actress would have struggled to even achieve trashiness (this is after all a film about a woman with a talking and singing vagina). Without a decent script and having to recite some of the worst dialogue of her career, Rialson’s charisma, poise and intelligence still shines through…a remarkable achievement is a sadly vacant film.

Lots of familiar faces pop up from Rip Taylor to Sandra Gould to Larry Gelman but none of them can elevate the material much. The film is at least an attractive one, thanks to the cinematography by future legend Tak Fujimoto. The score by Neil Sedaka is also fairly pleasing although it none of it compares to the best of the singer-songwriter’s work.

Chatterbox is also a surprisingly conservative picture, with only a glimpse of full frontal nudity on display. It’s not a relatively titillating production and those hoping to uncover one of the seventies more explicit exploitation films will no likely be disappointed.

The film does come to life during the audacious and successful final musical number but it only serves as a note to what kind of film it could have been. Rialson is positively radiant in this scene and it serves as another reminder to the scope of this woman’s talent.

Chatterbox was released by AIP in February of 1977 to pretty much universal disdain. It was released on VHS in the mid eighties by Vestron but quickly sank out of print and legitimate copies are fairly hard to come by. To my knowledge it has never had an official DVD release, although grey market copies are fairly easy to track down for those interested.

1 comment:

dfordoom said...

Pets is a very unjustly neglected movie.