I'm going to be making some changes around here.
Pam Grier wears an outstanding floor length dress in this promo image from her 1974 blaxploitation flick Sheba, Baby. The dress would almost distract you from the fact that she's also heavily armed. But she doesn't need the gun—you'd willingly do whatever she said. Sheba, Baby wasn't her best film, but this photo is tops.
Pam Grier was the undisputed ruler of the blaxploitation realm.
The arc of Pam Grier's blaxploitation career is interesting. To us it seems pretty clear that once her studio American International realized they had a true star on their hands the projects they cultivated for her moved toward the cinematic center and became tame and uninspiring. We noted this when we talked about 1975's Friday Foster a while back. Sheba Baby, which was made the same year and premiered in the U.S. today, suffers from the same problem. It's too cute and too palatable, too eager to please in its attempt to draw in mainstream audiences. Grier loses her grit. She plays Sheba Shayne, whose father is harassed by organized crime hoods and needs help to fight their plot to take over his business. Grier leaves her Chicago detective agency and heads down south to Louisville, Kentucky to kick ass and take names. The hoods are black men from around the way, but the real villain is a white guy on a yacht in the river. He's archetypal. He could just as well be a white guy in a mansion on a hill, or in a penthouse uptown. Whoever and wherever he is, he's going down hard and it's going to hurt.
The importance of blaxploitation is that it centered stories on the black experience—family, neighborhood, crime, racism, and the predations of America's two-tiered policing and court systems. This focus on core black issues existed even in films that represented alternate realities, such as horror and martial arts blaxploitation. The eventual sanitization of the genre was due to pressure from two directions at once: from the mainstream to avoid alienating white audiences, and from the black counterculture to avoid caricatured portrayals of blacks. Caught between these two forces, the center of blaxploitation shifted. Meanwhile, inside the subculture, initial euphoria at seeing black stories onscreen evolved into annoyance that the control and profits belonged almost exclusively to white men. It seemed like a plantation system on celluloid, and helped take the bloom off the rose. 1976 and 1977 would remain strong years for the genre, but by 1978 blaxploitation, as it was generally agreed to exist, would all but disappear. Sheba Baby is an important film in the pantheon, but in watching it you also see the genre losing its bite.
2nd Amendment, motherfucker. If you say it's your right, then it's my right too.
Bernie Casey exercises his right to bear a chrome plated Colt Super .38 automatic in this cool promo photo made for his 1972 blaxploitation flick Hit Man. We love Casey. He died just last year, and was pretty much unheralded, but he appeared in a lot of fun movies, including Sharky's Machine, The Man Who Fell To Earth, Cleopatra Jones, Boxcar Bertha, and Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. He also had the good fortune to get naked with both Pam Grier and Claudia Jennings. The Jennings scene is flat amazing, but the Grier scene, which is actually from Hit Man, is hilarious. As Grier climbs atop him and presses her naked body full length onto his the expression on his face reads something like: “Oh. My. Freaking. God.” That's probably the only time in his life he wasn't 100% cool.
Grier goes missing from another foreign poster.
We shared an Italian poster for the 1971 Roberta Collins/Pam Grier women-in-prison flick The Big Doll House, and today we have the Japanese promo. In Japan the movie was called Zankoku Onna-Keimusho, which means something along the lines of “cruel female prison.” Grier doesn't show up on the poster anywhere, though she's third billed. The central figure is Judy Brown, and elsewhere you see Roberta Collins, Sid Haig, and seven other cast members, but no Grier. This is not the only time she was demoted from an overseas poster, and all we can say is it's not a nice thing. The art is still very interesting, though. The Big Doll House opened in Japan today in 1972.
Grier tries to foil an assassination plot.
It's Christmas day, and what is the main thing everyone does today? They go overboard. So in that vein we have more posts for you than you could have rightly expected, though we'll admit we wrote them in advance and right now we're nowhere near a computer. We're starting the X-mas treats with this vintage poster for the Pam Grier blaxploitation flick Friday Foster, a film that opened in U.S. today in 1975. After successes with Coffy, Foxy Brown, et al, American International Pictures steered Pam a bit more mainstream with the PG rated Sheba, Baby and learned from that mistake. So they turned the heat back up, scheduled a Christmas release date, and gave Grier fans a movie with twice the action, twice the humor, and twice the tongue-in-cheek factor as usual, plus three steamy Grier nude scenes rather than the usual two.
Grier plays a photo-journalist who tries to get a sneaky paparazzi shot of a reclusive millionaire only to find herself photographing an assassination attempt-turned-bloodbath. While American International kicked things up a notch, the customary Grier grit is missing, as too many wisecracks and camp moments leave the film without any heft. It almost seems as if, with a full blown international star on its hands and costs rising, American International decided to cut corners in pre-production. Script-wise Friday Foster is too formulaic and self-conscious. Soundtrack-wise, instead of songs performed by a viable R&B artist, it has cheeseball wacka wacka interstitial music, with chick singers trilling, “Hey Friday, whatcha doin' girl, hey, whatcha doin' girl whatcha doin'.” Direction-wise, four-time Grier collaborator Jack Hill has been tossed in favor of Arthur Marks, who came up directing episodes of the television show Perry Mason.
Friday Foster was Grier's last go-round with American International, and a good thing, because somebody forgot she became popular playing a streetwise, ass-kicking, So-Cal soul sister. Her turn as a middle-class photo-journalist might have worked, but not with the support she needed chopped from under her. American International wanted to mainstream her, except it had no idea how to do it. But Grier's still Grier, and even stuck in what feels like a washed out version of her better films, she remains as watchable as any star of her era. After another couple of years the work would come in spurts, a small part here, a television show there, an occasional lead role, and bit by bit, appearance by appearance, Grier would stitch together a career spanning four decades and counting. Friday Foster is isn't the best entry on her résumé, but even midding Grier is worthwhile Grier.
The only rehabilitation going on here is by the poster artist.
Above you see a striking color poster for the Roger Corman produced women-in-prison flick Women in Cages, one of the many sexploitation epics filmed in the Philippines during the 1970s. For an entertaining ninety minutes on that subject, by the way, you should watch the documentary Machete Maidens Unleashed. It's the final word on the chaos of Philippine movie production and covers everything from Savage! to Apocalypse Now. Women in Cages is one of the earlier Philippine women-in-prison flicks, coming after The Big Doll House.
Despite the fact that the poster is signed R. Engel and dated '72, it's actually a piece of modern pulp made within the last several years. The person behind it is German artist Rainer Engel, who put it together borrowing the DVD box cover art from Subkultur-Entertainment's 2013 re-issue of the movie, which in Germany was called Frauen hinter Zuchthausmauern. We ran across the re-styled poster on the artist's website, decided his mock-up beats the hell out of the 1971 original art, and thought it was worth sharing.
When we wrote about the film a while ago we said we thought it was a bit much. Specifically, it's relentlessly grim. Of the trilogy that includes The Big Doll House and The Big Bird Cage this middle entry is the one that forgot the first rule of the 1970s women-in-prison genre—the movie should be absurd and fun. When it isn't—i.e. when it shades into depressing realism—you come away wondering if there's something wrong with you for having watched it in the first place. You can read our post on the film here, and you can visit the artist's website here.
Pam Grier is as refreshing as an ocean breeze.
We have to bring Pam Grier back every once in a while. This breezy shot currently making its way around the internet certainly ranks among the best promo images ever made of a classic figure. Whoever took this photo captured Grier in a seaside mode we've never seen before, and whoever originally uploaded it deserves thanks, but only partially—Grier deserves most of the credit just for being her.
Treat your toys with care or they might break out.
Above is an Italian poster for the American financed, Philippine shot sexploitation actioner The Big Doll House, which starred Roberta Collins, Brooke Mills, Pat Woodell, Pam Grier, and Judy Brown. This wasn't the first women in prison movie—those had been appearing for decades—but it was the one that got the ’70s prison sexploitation ball rolling in the U.S. It offers a full slate of whippings, waterboardings, overheated isolation, and bizarre snake tortures, orchestrated by the evil wardeness Christiane Schmidtmer. Collins leads the beautiful convicts' eventual escape from bondage and hers is the most memorable character in the ensemble, though all the personalities are interesting. Don't get us wrong—the acting is of course atrocious, and the production values aren't high, but that didn't bother us and it didn't bother American audiences either. They made the movie a hit and the women-in-prison conveyor belt quickly cranked out other Filipino bondage productions like Women in Cages, The Hot Box, The Woman Hunt, The Big Bird Cage, and many others. The Big Doll House wasn't the best of the lot, by any stretch, but hey—being a trailblazer matters. We think it's worth a viewing.
It's strong and bold and might be just the wake-up you need.
Coffy is not a movie we planned to write about, due to the fact that it's been covered by so many websites. But then we came across this French poster made for its release in Paris today in 1973—where it was called Coffy: la panthère noire de Harlem—and we changed our minds. The movie possibly falls into the category of those everyone has heard about but few have seen, so we gave it a run for the first time in some years. The story is straightforward—a teen girl is in the hospital suffering from the effects of an overdose, and her sister, played by Pam Grier, goes looking for revenge. She kills the dealer who sold heroin to her sister, but soon learns there's another dealer behind that one, and so forth. In a world that's corrupt to the core, revenge is a maze where the center is impossibly difficult to find.
Coffy isn't well acted, but those who go in expecting Oscar worthy performances are setting up false standards. Blaxploitation was about telling stories from a new point of view, one lacking in American cinema. Trying to round out a black cast, as well as find compelling black leads, meant taking chances and bringing novice performers into the fold. The message is what mattered in these movies, and the message was that something was seriously wrong in America. Those who paid attention learned one of the most basic lessons anyone can learn—your reality is just one of many. Other people live entirely different lives governed by different, equally valid truths. Mainstream Americans who understood this concept learned plenty from blaxploitation. Those who denied this most simple of life's facts learned nothing—and are the same people who today look at what happens in America's inner cities with bafflement or scathing contempt.
Coffy was really an envelope pushing film. We'll just highlight one scene to make that point. Pam Grier's title character has sex with her boyfriend then heads toward the bathroom. On the way there, but off-camera, we hear her say, “Oops! Oh, you shouldn't have made me laugh.” What do you supposed happened? Here's a hint—it involves spillage, and not from a glass. It may well have been the first movie ever to hint at post-coital drainage. Later it does another off-camera bit with oral sex when Grier pours wine in her boyfriend's lap and proceeds to clean it up. Coffy may not have been well acted, but it had moments of earthy realism that were almost microscopic in focus. You also get plenty of action and a fierce, single-minded heroine you can root for. Coffy opened in France today in 1973. Check out a rare U.S. promo poster for it here.
Hah hah—you can only wish you knew me.
Pam Grier was one of Pulp Intl.’s first femmes fatales so it seems only right to bring her back every once in a while. This shot of her appeared on the May 1975 cover of New York magazine and is probably one of the best images of her ever made. The accompanying text called her “a new kind of Hollywood star.” That was true of her and several other women who came up through the blaxploitation ranks, but Grier was really top of the heap—she was the best, the bravest, and by far the most famous. She's had steady success for more than forty years, but we really enjoy those old movies of hers, and this photo captures her at the peak of that period.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1942—Blimp Crew Disappears without a Trace
The two-person crew of the U.S. naval blimp L-8 disappears on a routine patrol over the Pacific Ocean. The blimp drifts without her crew and crashes in Daly City, California. The mystery of the crew's disappearance is never solved.
1977—Elvis Presley Dies
Music icon Elvis Presley is found unresponsive by his fiancée on the floor of his Graceland bedroom suite. Attempts to revive him fail and he's pronounced dead soon afterward. The cause of death is often cited as drug overdose, but toxicology tests have never found evidence this was the case. More likely, years of drug abuse contributed to generally frail health and an overtaxed heart that suddenly failed.
1969—Woodstock Festival Begins
The Woodstock Music & Art Fair, which was billed as an Aquarian Exposition, takes place on a 600 acre dairy farm in Bethel, New York. It would run for three sometimes rainy days and feature thirty-two acts performing at all hours of the day and night. Today the festival is regarded as one of the greatest events in popular music history.
1977—Radio Signal Arrives from Deep Space
An unidentified radio signal, nicknamed the WOW Signal for the notation a scientist made on a computer readout, is briefly detected by the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) project's Big Ear radio telescope. Despite a month of searching the same section of space, the signal is never found again.
1912—U.S. Invades Nicaragua
United States Marines invade Nicaragua to support the U.S.-backed government installed there after José Santos Zelaya had resigned three years earlier. American troops remain for eleven years.
1936—Last Public Execution in U.S.
Rainey Bethea, who had been convicted of rape and murder, is hanged in Owensboro, Kentucky in what is the last public execution performed in the United States.
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