The Autobiography of a Flea (1976)

After expanding their erotic exploits to epic proportions with the ill-fated Sodom and Gomorrah, the notorious (and ultimately tragic) Mitchell Brothers continued their bid for mainstream acceptance with this lavishly mounted – no pun intended – adaptation of the illustrious Victorian novella, like so many of its ilk published anonymously as the 19th century drew to a close. As its literary source dealt with the sexual and moral corruption of a previously pious 14-year old maiden, and not particularly desirous of being considered dirty old men (an in-built risk of their chosen profession as pornographers), the Mitchells had the good sense to leave directorial chores to their close friend and confidante Sharon McNight. A talented Tony Award-nominated torch singer, as her rendition of the cryptic titular standard previously warbled by the likes of Frankie Vaughan, Bill Haley and Crystal Gayle in their vastly underrated Behind the Green Door : the Sequel amply proves, she was a former girlfriend of Jim’s who remained a loyal companion up until his death in 2007. This female presence at the helm, extremely rare at the time with former sexploitation sirens Ann Perry and the cryptic “Joanna Williams” (presumably erstwhile sexploitation siren Maria Lease, better half of permanently present producer Dan Cady aka “William Dancer”, under whose auspices she would perpetrate the early ’90s sleeper slasher Dolly Dearest after a decade doing dirty movies) the only women directors of note, effectively removed the sting of scandal from its subject matter.

As with most lusty literature from its period, The Autobiography of a Flea provides as much in the way of contemporary social criticism as it does in graphically detailed descriptions of dirty deeds, an aspect indeed not lost on McNight who lifted generous amounts of its florid frivolity right off the written page as tongue firmly planted in cheek narration for the little critter, magnificently voiced by “Warren Piece”. Nestled in the warm wet nether regions of nearly nubile young Belle, portrayed with credible innocence by Jean Jennings (allegedly under age when she starred in the previous year’s The Defiance of Good for Armand Weston), it observes in a state of constant – and shared – bemusement the hypocrisy of those she comes quite literally into contact with and how she acquires affluence by pragmatically adapting to their wicked wanton ways.

Caught in the act with fumbling boyfriend Charlie (Mitch Mandell, one of several “proper” actors – only simulating sex – the Mitchells cast to add critical cachet) by outraged Father Ambrose, played by Paul Thomas in one of his earliest adult movie appearances following a moderately successful stint on and off Broadway which led to his being signed to reprise his role as Peter in Norman Jewison’s film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar, Belle is summoned to perform penance at the priory the next day. Coaxing the naive girl into carnal concessions with the master’s hand of a true lecher, the priest proves but the first in a long line of salivating predators preying on Belle’s rapidly receding ignorance. Maidenhead barely sacrificed, she is already pounced upon by PT’s massively membered fellow friars Ken Scudder and John Holmes. The latter also figures prominently in an amusing midnight mix-up of mistaken identities with the girl’s love-starved mother, a youthfully glowing Annette Haven whose tender teenage years were just behind her even though voice-over claims her character to be a matronly 32 !

When Ambrose informs him of Belle’s tantalizing transgressions, her satyr of a stepfather (a monumentally scene-stealing turn by incomparable character actor Dale Meador, the reprehensible rapist uncle from the Mitchell Bros. classic Resurrection of Eve) starts chomping at the bit to become her next ravisher. Increasingly well-versed in the ways of the flesh, Belle becomes instrumental in the initiation of her lily-white cousin Julia (achingly gorgeous one shot wonder Joanna Hilden) at the hands of her unwitting widowed father (John Leslie) in a roundabout ruse, concocted by devious Father Ambrose, to insure her prolonged participation at the private parties thrown by the perverted clergy.

Painstakingly detailed in both set and costume design, belying its modest budget clearly well-spent, the movie benefits enormously from Mitchell regular Jon Fontana’s sparkling cinematography and flawless editing skills which, along with the witty narration, keeps up the pace so essential for such comedy of ill manners. What strikes perhaps as most astonishing of all, at least from a mainstream judgmental point of view (and many such sources actually took note of the film, coming at the height of Porno Chic), might be the fact that once the wheels of Belle’s delectable downfall have been put into motion, the sex becomes virtually non-stop (albeit – granted – not always explicit, as evidenced by the decidedly strange episode involving retarded rapist father and son farmers John Rolling and Mike Dolan, played for laughs and getting away with it) yet boredom never sets in, largely thanks to the intelligence and integrity of the literate approach favored by its one of a kind directrix.

Directed by Sharon McNight. Written by McNight, based on the anonymous Victorian novella of the same name. Produced by Jim & Artie Mitchell for the Mitchell Brothers Film Group & Cinema 7 Film Group. Photographed & Edited by Jon Fontana. Music by Steven Schuster. Starring Jean Jennings (Belle), John C. Holmes (Father Clement), Paul Thomas (Father Ambrose), John Leslie (Delmont), Annette Haven (Madame Verbouc), Dale Meador (Monsieur Verbouc), Joanna Hilden (Julia), Ken Scudder (Father Superior), John Rolling (Farmer), Michael Dolan (Farmer’s Son), Mitch Mandell (Charlie), Artie Mitchell (Parishioner) & Warren Pierce (Voice of the Flea). Running time : 93 minutes.

Jean Jennings, who sadly passed away in late 2011, had a brief but memorable adult career as well as “real world” notoriety as the underage paramour of notorious Jason Russell and subsequent spouse of Maniac‘s Joe Spinell (still from Bill Milling’s Virgin Snow)

By Dries Vermeulen

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