Sunday, February 12, 2012

The "3 Girl" Formula

The recent Shout!Factory DVD release of three Roger Corman-produced drive-in exploitation films from the early 1970s has reawakened my interest in the "3 Girl Formula" movies that Corman produced during that time.  In an appropriately-numbered triple feature package, the set includes the unique distaff "Spartacus"-inspired "The Arena" (1973), starring Pam Grier, Margaret Markov, and Lucretia Love as a trio of women who are captive slaves in the Roman empire, forced to battle one another in the gladiator's arena.  Next after that is the Philippine-shot comedy adventure "Fly Me" (1973) with Pat Anderson, Lenore Kasdorf, and Lyllah Torena as a trio of flight attendants working the Hong Kong-Tokyo-Manila shift while dealing with romance, white slavery, mystery, and espionage.  The third film in the set is a virtual remake of "Fly Me" entitled "Cover Girl Models" (1975) with the returning Pat Anderson joined by Lindsay Bloom and Tara Strohmeier as a trio of fashion models involved with romance, comedy, mystery, revolutions, and espionage while on a photo shoot that takes them from Hong Kong to Singapore.  The latter two films were part of a series of films that Corman's New World Pictures released at the time that involved a trio of beautiful young women as they juggle romantic relationships, career complications, and action-packed adventure.  The more famous of these films were Corman's "nurse" and "teachers" movies (my favorite being 1975's "Summer School Teachers" starring Candice Rialson, the aforementioned Pat Anderson, and Rhonda Leigh Hopkins as, what else?, beautiful summer school teachers dealing with romance, action, comedy and intrigue while working at a Southern California high school).  I liked "Fly Me" and "Cover Girl Models" even more than those films because it takes advantage of the Asian locations that enhances these colorful, breezy movies. 

I have always loved Corman's "3 Girl Formula" movies.  Actually, I've always loved "3 Girl Formula" movies in any context or capacity.  The genre has always been around in cinema.  1937's classic "Stage Door" is one of the earliest examples of the genre juggling the stories of Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, and Andrea Leeds as three promising young actresses hoping for success on the Broadway stage.  Another good example of the genre was "How to Marry a Millionaire" (1953), with Lauren Bacall, Marilyn Monroe, and Betty Grable as three golddiggers out to land rich husbands.  We also had 1958's "The Best of Everything," with Hope Lange, Diane Baker, and Suzy Parker as three young women vying for success in the New York-Madison Avenue business world.  Later we had "Where the Boys Are" (1960) with Dolores Hart, Yvette Mimieux, Paula Prentiss, and the added bonus of Connie Francis as a quartet of college coeds finding romance, comedy, adventure, heartbreak, and tragedy during their Spring break vacation in Fort Lauderdale.  (Sometimes, the "3 Girl" movies can broaden its canvass and allow for a 4th girl to join the team.)  Then there was "Come Fly with Me," with Dolores Hart, Pamela Tiffin, and Lois Nettleton as three attractive flight attendants and their romantic entanglements while living and working in Europe--a much milder predecessor to "Fly Me."  We next had Ann-Margret, Carol Lynley, and Pamela Tiffin as three roommates living and working in Madrid, Spain in the campy "The Pleasure Seekers," itself a remake of another "3 Girl Formula" movie "Three Coins in the Fountain" (1954) with Dorothy McGuire, Jean Peters, and Maggie McNamara finding romance in Rome instead of Madrid.  The 1960s TV series "Petticoat Junction" featured the adventures of Bea Benaderet's three beautiful daughters Betty Jo (Linda Kaye Henning), Bobbie Jo (Pat Woodell and later Lori Saunders), and Billie Jo (alternately, Jeannine Riley, Gunilla Hutton, and the uncongruously sophisticated Meredith McRae) around the Shady Rest hotel and the Cannonball train in the town of Hooterville. 

"Valley of the Dolls" (1967) is one of the most famous examples of the genre, with Barbara Parkins, Patty Duke, and Sharon Tate as three young women scaling the heights of show business.  Even Russ Meyer got into the act, with "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" (1966), starring Tura Satana, Haji, and Lori Williams as three go-go dancers who embark on a wild sex and crime spree in the desert, and "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" (1970) with Dolly Read, Cynthia Myers, and Marcia McBroom playing a female rock trio seeking fame and fortune, only to find degradation and corruption, in Hollywood.  The "Charlie's Angels" TV series was yet another step in the development of the genre, as it centered on three female private detectives.  Wes Craven's "Deadly Blessing" (1981) with Maren Jensen, Susan Buckner, and Sharon Stone as 3 modern urban women facing discrimination and danger while living next-door to a repressed religious sect in rural Pennsylvania took the genre outside of its light-hearted roots and placed it in a horror/suspense context. 

Why have I always loved "3 Girl" movies and TV shows?  I guess it's because I was always intrigued to see how the filmmakers would juggle three subplots and allow each of the attractive female leads equal screen time to shine.  Just as the camaraderie among men in Westerns and War movies have always held a certain appeal, the friendship in stories involving young women pursuing careers are equally endearing.  The implication of having multiple subplots suggests that these young women enjoy strength in numbers as they face ordinary and extraordinary challenges in their lives.  These films usually depict the friendships these women have with each other in addition to their romantic relationships, as opposed to most films which usually depict typically one woman juggling her career and romantic life.  Female friends exist in these sorts of movies merely to act as sounding boards for the central female lead to complain about what's wrong with her life.

Corman's "3 Girl" Movies were usually made with nudity and sex to appeal to the R-rated drive-in crowd.  However, the typical drive-in sex comedy could have contained these same elements in a film where the MEN were the central characters shown in pursuit of three beautiful nurses (or three beautiful teachers or three beautiful fashion models or three beautiful flight get the picture).  Compare "Fly Me," where the flight attendants are involved with mystery, intrigue, and adventure (Lenore Kasdorf's admirable flight attendant from "Fly Me" even gets to demonstrate her proficiency in martial arts as she investigates the mysterious disappearance of her boyfriend in Hong Kong, and helps to destroy mobsters dealing in racketeering, narcotics, and white slavery in the process), with Al Adamson's lazily pointless "The Naughty Stewardesses" (1975), where the flight attendants truly are stereotypical mannequins only interested in pursuing men, with no other interests and objectives in life.  In "Cover Girl Models," Pat Anderson's character tries to figure out why enemy agents are after the red dress (that has had secret microfilm sewn in the lining) she is modeling, Lindsay Bloom attempts to break out of being a model to become a legitimate actress, and neophyte model Tara Strohmeier is busy gaining the self-confidence she needs to be a success in the field.  None of them are pursuing the stereotypical paths typically set for women in these exploitation films.  What makes these movies truly unique is that, despite their prurient and exploitative elements, Corman told these stories from the perspective of the women, humanizing them, allowing them to set goals for themselves, and be portrayed with sympathy and depth (or at least attempts at depth), rather than being leeringly objectified in a film where the perspective comes solely and narrowly from the men.