French Shampoo (1975)

Bill Milling’s inaugural triumvirate already represented the divergent facets he was to explore and elaborate upon throughout his copious career as fornication filmmaker.  All from 1975, When a Woman Calls delved into relationships with both sensitivity and searing sensuality, Oriental Blue (arguably his first movie to deserve the moniker of masterpiece) wallowed in the attendant sleaze that naturally comes with its subject of the white slave trade, something of a ’30s exploitation holdover rarely handled with such aplomb in adult, and French Shampoo first showcased the silly side he was to give free reign during his “Dexter Eagle” phase with the likes of Ecstasy in Blue and Blonde Velvet.  Its action confined to but a few sets, French Shampoo can’t help but feel like a rush job compared to the director’s previous pics.  The reason might very well be that the producers wanted the movie to play theaters by year’s end, both to honor its source of sendup (Hal Ashby’s day in the life of a Beverly Hills hairdresser saga Shampoo, released in the Spring of that same year) and anticipate the heavy duty Oscar buzz for its cast and crew come next year.  In an early attempt by the adult industry to feed off mainstream entertainment, no less than three porno projects based on the Hollywood blockbuster were concurrently in the works.  David Secter’s Blowdry proved the classiest of the lot, its clever screenplay most closely patterned after what has too often been discarded as a mere Warren Beatty vanity project when it remains in fact one of the most incisive social commentaries within ’70s American cinema, while the considerably more conventional Cream Rinse (boldly promoted as “The Next Shampoo” and attributed to one “Dick Cocks“, actually R.J. Doyle) at least offered solid sex with superstars Rene Bond and John Holmes.  Yet neither movie made it onto cinema screens until late 1976, meaning Milling had well and truly beat them to the punch which was probably all that mattered in marketing terms.

Subtitled “Homage to W.B.” in reference to the much maligned Shampoo star rather than Warner Bros, French Shampoo actually retains little beyond the original’s nominal setting, in this case a Fifth Avenue beauty parlor run by the deceptively dainty Diana, convincingly essayed by former sexploitation starlet  Kim Pope (memorably appearing in Doris Wishman’s indescribable The Amazing Transplant) turned early hardcore hussy in cult carnal concoctions such as the 1972 Deep Sleep, the notorious one time only adult effort by Alfred Sole who would go on to direct the highly effective horror flick Communion featuring a pre-teen Brooke Shields amongst its body count, and the following year’s The Whistle Blowers by Victor Milt a/k/a “Tim McCoy” of subsequent Sex Wish infamy.  Faced with her biggest challenge yet, Diana calls in the assistance of the French Francesca (Darby Lloyd Rains) whose arrival at the airport accounts for all the production value this picture can muster.  As in Radley Metzger’s Naked Came the Stranger, the delectable Darby steals every scene she’s in with a wonderfully witty turn even if the movie practically downplays her considerable pornographic prowess to an almost alarming degree.  In tune to the increasingly formulaic star vehicles of the following decade, she has been accorded “bookend” scenes.  Thankfully, her opening lesbian liaison with the passionate Pope is a thing of beauty, shot in the softness of available afternoon sunlight streaming through an open window and scored with Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin panting their way through then still scandalous duet Je t’aime moi non plus seguing into Jane’s solitary Jane B.

Said challenge involves Arab oil sheik Waldo Ibn Sayyid (played to the hilt, and then some, by Bobby Astyr) who wants to have his hideous niece, poor Princess Yolanda (the fetchingly full-figured Nikki Hilton, a veteran of one day wonders that include Shaun Costello’s Kathy’s Graduation Present and Ralph Ell’s Teenage Deviate, although she’s mostly remembered for salaciously relieving herself during the infernal climax to Jonas Middleton’s Through the Looking Glass) whom he describes as “a broad so homely she’s got a fireplace“, extensively beautified so he can marry her off to his friend Prince Omar.  Never stumped for something silly to say for even a split second, a totally unleashed Astyr rattles his way through the part, firing off corny Arab jokes that could have landed him in serious trouble had they been made in today’s touchy humorless “multi-cultural” society.  Oddball character actor Grover Griffith, fresh from his debut as the bumbling Angel of Death in the linking segments of Howard Ziehm’s loop carrier Sexteen, joins in the fun as the oil magnate’s oafish mobster henchman Oscar.  But it’s Yolanda’s fate that is at stake here and Francesca’s methods mostly involve the rumored rejuvenating qualities of semen, as helpfully demonstrated by fellow beauticians Annie Sprinkle and Alan Marlow.  Reliable Helen Madigan, among the hardest working adult actresses of the decade (frequently found as a spaced out hippie chick, she displayed an unsuspected dark side as the female rapist in Claude Goddard’s extremely non-PC Winter Heat), and new slit on the block Cheryl White (in the wake of a single decent part in Carter Stevens’ Highway Hookers, she was relegated to fleeting submissive walk-ons in Joe Davian’s Night of Submission and Costello’s Girl Scout Cookies) are on hand to sidetrack the sheik and his sidekick.

Finding the local male supply wanting, Diana calls on the talents of mythical Mr. Marco (as close to a Beatty bashing the movie ever gets, portrayed with goodnatured goofiness by massively membered Marc Stevens), hilariously explaining to Francesca that science has determined that “Mr. Marco’s sperm contains a higher level of amino acids than anyone who has ever been tested, hence the results” !  Previously “Yo Yo for short, oy oy for real“, Yolanda emerges so irresistible from this treatment, even her uncle can no longer bear for any other man than himself to possess her.  Don’t cha just love a happy ending ?  Requiring payment in kind, Mr. Marco’s serviced by all the female beauticians, save for White who has apparently vacated the premises, with the Sapphically inclined Rains’ surrender an undisputed highlight.  Sex stays solid throughout, even though the dizzying heights of Milling’s previous movies are barely scaled on this occasion.  Friendly is probably the best way to describe much of the fucking here, with the actresses’ oral prowess on Marc’s meat standing out.  Surreptitiously “stolen” soundtrack filled with underrated ’60s girl groups like The Ronettes and The Chiffons and various underrated femme vocalists almost makes the movie more fun to listen to than watch (hey, I said almost), the lyrics from familiar tracks like Maria Muldaur’s rendition of The Swallows’ smutty ’50s standard It Ain’t the Meat, It’s the Motion or Lorna Bennett’s laidback Breakfast in Bed cleverly commenting on the action taking place on screen.

Directed by Bill Milling (as Philip T. Drexler Jr.). Written by S.J. Raschid. Produced by Epis Films. Photographed by Valentine Murana. Edited by Texx Clevinger. Starring Darby Lloyd Rains (Francesca), Kim Pope (Diana), Bobby Astyr (Sheik Waldo Ibn Sayyid), Annie Sprinkle (Little Mary), Helen Madigan (Helen), Marc Stevens (Mr. Marco), Cheryl White (Angela), Nikki Hilton (Princess Yolanda), Alan Marlow (Enrico) & Grover Griffith (Oscar). Running time : 81 minutes.

By Dries Vermeulen

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