Recently watched: Blaze Starr Goes Nudist (1962), also known as Blaze Starr Goes Back to Nature, Blaze Starr Goes Wild, Blaze Starr the Original and Busting Out.
Blaze Starr is frazzled! In fact, her nerves are shot from the high-pressure rigors of being a famous sought-after actress. Flame-haired and buxom sex goddess Starr (1932 - 2015) plays herself and was of course one of the top striptease headliners of the post-war era (billed as "The Hottest Blaze in Burlesque”), but weirdly, her occupation throughout the film is referred to as “actress” rather than dancer. Happily, the stressed-out Starr unexpectedly finds ecstatic serenity in nudism - naked as nature intended! - at the Sunny Palms Lodge retreat, a sun-kissed nudist camp in Homestead, Florida. To paraphrase Starr herself: she swaps the hot lights of the film studio for fresh air and sunshine, heavy make-up for suntan lotion and the hectic social whirl of glitzy show biz cocktail parties for al fresco picnics! (As the film’s trailer exclaimed: “Yes, it’s finally happened! One of the most beautiful women in the world let’s down her hair and finds relaxation at a nudist camp! In blazing Eastman colour!”). But how will Starr’s suavely-moustached fiancé and manager respond to this new lifestyle choice? Will she lose her film contract if the studio finds out? And is she developing romantic feelings for the nudist camp’s bronzed and hunky director?
Understandably, director Doris Wishman (1912 -2002) is often likened to her b-movie contemporary, boob-fixated trash maestro Russ Meyer (1922 - 2004). Thematically and stylistically their careers overlapped during the atomic-era while both were working in the disreputable realm of low-budget grindhouse and drive-in sexploitation titillation. But by any standards Meyer was a virtuoso filmmaker: his absolute mastery of composition and editing ensure his films zip-along fast and are always exquisite to look at. By comparison, the endearingly clunky and pedestrian style of Wishman – responsible for lurid titles like Bad Girls Go to Hell (1965) and Another Day, Another Man (1966) - is more like “the female Ed Wood Jr.” Like Wood, I’d describe Wishman as a genuine naïve outsider low-brow artist. (Note: Wishman makes a fleeting cameo appearance as one of Starr's agents. Her acting ability pretty much equals her directing ability). Wishman's approach to storytelling and film-making is painfully literal and plodding. Wishman’s insistence on never “cutting away” when any other sane and competent director would is borderline avant-garde. (If you’re feeling generous, you’d describe it as “attention to detail”). Starr does loads of uninterrupted walking back and forth. For example, we repeatedly see Starr drive up to her mid-century moderne bungalow, get out and walk to the front door in real time. My boyfriend Pal pointed-out her house has a perfectly good paved driveway – why does she park on the curb and do the lengthy pointless journey? On plus side, this means we get to see Starr do her ultra-femme Jayne Mansfield-style hip-swaying, mincing bombshell sashay – breasts thrust forward and hobbled by her skin-tight clothing - over and over.
About that clothing: because of the film’s el cheapo budget, I suspect Starr is wearing her own personal wardrobe onscreen. And what a wardrobe! Think extreme fetishistic silver stripper heels, mink stoles, conical bullet bras, waist cinchers, sheer peignoirs and negligees, painted-on cocktail dresses with plunging necklines and best of all, a sensational pair of gold lamé Capri pants – in fact, seemingly the exact same pair Starr wore when Diane Arbus photographed her in that famous 1964 portrait.
/ Burlesque entertainer, Blaze Starr, in her living room, Baltimore, 1964 by Diane Arbus /
The stark early 1960s interior décor is gorgeous too. And once again, due to budgetary restraints this would have inevitably been filmed on location in someone’s actual home rather than in a studio. Watch for the curving wrap-around sofa and kidney-shaped Formica coffee table in the living room, and Starr’s powder-blue boudoir. At one point a fraught Starr calms herself by mixing a stiff drink and the ultra-desirable swanky cocktail bar (with a mural on the wall behind it) will make you gasp.
/ Check out Blaze's minimalist living room. Is that a Klaus Nomi doll on the bar stool? /
Blaze Starr Goes Nudist belongs to the “nudie cutie” school (a genre which John Waters has affectionately reminisced about, a precursor to porn), but like most nudist films of its period, seen today it is resolutely un-erotic. The ultra-tame antics at the nudist colony include picnics, archery, splashing and frolicking in water, picking fruit and wildflowers, playing chess, sunbathing and the inevitable volleyball game. There is seemingly one man for every ten women at the Sunny Lodge: Wishman clearly knew that her target audience (horny hetero men hungry for female nudity) had zero interest in viewing naked flesh of the male variety. For example, Andy the camp director keeps his shorts on throughout. (Bob Mizer of Athletic Model Guild had the homoerotic baby-oiled beefcake / posing pouch market sewn-up anyway). Female boobage and buttage abounds, but no full-frontal, pubic hair or reproductive organs – which means everyone must always unnaturally contort their bodies to ensure there is never a fleeting glimpse of genitals.
And to make the film feel even more stilted and weird, Wishman’s technique was to film without audio and then “dub” dialogue in afterwards. (To compensate for this, one of her trademarks is to cut to the person being spoken to during dialogue scenes rather than the speaker, which presumably made dubbing easier. In one hilarious instance, Starr makes an urgent telephone call and angles the phone to conceal her mouth while she talks the entire time. The effect is jarring).
/ Hell-o? Yes, this is Blaze speaking! /
Voluptuous showgirl deluxe Starr (whose measurements at the time were reportedly 38-24-37) is undisputed burlesque royalty, possesses star quality and charisma, and certainly looks gorgeous (albeit a bit heavy-handed with the powdered blue eye shadow). Like her peer Liz Renay, Starr resembles a Frederick's of Hollywood catalogue illustration come to life. It’s a pleasure to watch her disrobe (her flesh has the texture of white marshmallow), swivel her hips, pout and luxuriate in bubble baths. But as an actress she is gloriously wooden and inept. Called upon to emote, she grimaces, rolls and bulges her eyes in the broad style of a particularly pungent early silent movie star. Things reach a kind of zenith (or nadir, depending on your point of view) in a scene where Starr and two female fellow-nudists stop to “converse” at a clothesline. Except none of them bother to even pretend to talk or even mumble “rhubarb, rhubarb” in the accepted style, so Wishman cuts back and forth between the three of them standing and smiling at each other awkwardly and silently for an interminable amount of time. The purpose of this sequence is for Starr to indicate how joyously abandoned and liberated she feels at the nudist colony, worshiping the sun naked. Starr expresses this by throwing her head back, roaring with life-affirming laughter, and stretching her arms outward. You must see it for yourself! Suffused with innocence, Blaze Starr Goes Nudist is an oddity with genuine charm.
Postscript: Starr was long synonymous with The Block (Baltimore’s gritty neon-lit red-light district) since the 1950s. In 1968 she bought The Two O'Clock Club where she regularly performed until retiring in 1975. John Waters has spoken and written with great fondness about skipping school to sneak-in with Divine when they were both still underage teenagers to watch Starr’s routines (when I attended Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekender this April, Waters emceed the Burlesque Showcase and in his introduction he reminisced about being fortunate enough to have seen old-school legends like Lily St Cyr, Irma the Body and Blaze Starr perform in the 1960s). Starr was a beloved figure in Baltimore (in her obituaries Waters described her as "the best tourist attraction Baltimore ever had"). Asked later in life if she regretted anything, Starr concluded "Not a thing. I would just do a lot more of it and try a lot harder – and seduce a lot more men."
/ Note: all of the screen grabs above are via /
/ Below: the trailer for Blaze Starr Goes Nudist /
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