Superchick (1973) Superchick (1973) -***

     For years now, I’ve been struggling to put my finger on exactly what makes Crown International Pictures’ 1970’s exploitation movies so special (even the ones that are lousy and kind of boring), and I think I might finally have it figured out. It’s that the movie you get never seems to be quite the movie the advertising campaign was selling— but in a way that never feels like a bait-and-switch, either, because the reality is so much weirder and more memorable than the unimaginative, pedestrian schlock you’d been promised. Consider The Stepmother, which bills itself as a “not technically incest” skin flick, but spends half its running time as a slow-burning crime thriller before springing the affair between the slimebag protagonist’s teenaged son and twenty-something trophy wife as an out-of-nowhere second-act escalation. Better yet, have a look at Malibu High, which seems, from all outward appearances, to be an unremarkable teen sex comedy, but is actually one of the scummiest products of its decade’s neo-noir cycle. Or best of all, check out Superchick. This movie wants you to think it’s something like Cleopatra Jones with a white girl, or maybe “What if Emma Peel had a trashy American cousin?” In fact, though, it’s nigh-plotless picaresque built on the chassis of the contemporary vogue for movies about horny airline stewardesses, and it plays like a four-way head-on collision between David Friedman, Paul Bartel, Russ Meyer, and Stephanie Rothman.

     The setting is the interior of an airport that other movies from this era have taught me to recognize as Los Angeles International, but which I believe is supposed to be standing in for JFK International here. A cute but mousy Crown International Airlines stewardess by the unlikely name of Tara B. True (Joyce Jillson) is just getting off work for an overnight layover after flying in from the opposite coast. As soon as she’s out of sight from any of her coworkers, she ducks into a telephone booth— a telephone booth, you understand— where she undergoes a remarkable transformation. Her shapeless, unflattering, prematurely graying hair is revealed to be merely a wig. Her equally shapeless, equally unflattering uniform goes into her bag, and gives way to a form-fitting (and what a form!), black, hot-pants-length catsuit with matching tights and go-go boots. And out of the phone booth strides a radiant, statuesque, honey-blonde, supremely self-confident superchick!

     It would be a mistake, however, to imagine that Tara’s double life has anything to do with fighting crime, smashing spies, or ferreting out occult conspiracies. It’s just that she leads an extremely liberated lifestyle, and in an era when women could still legally be fired for offending their bosses’ moral sensibilities on their off hours, it’s a smart move for her to fade as completely into the scenery as possible when she’s on the clock. Tara’s routine is a three-cornered shuffle from New York to Miami to Los Angeles and back, and she’s got a guy in each port of call. Her Big Apple boyfriend is wealthy, eccentric neurosurgeon Dr. Ernest De Roy (Thomas Reardon), and when she’s with him, she has mostly the experience you’d expect for a rich oddball’s consort: operas, symphonies, museums, galleries, fine dining, blackjack in bed, training herself to achieve spontaneous orgasm while listening to classical music. (Okay, so maybe those last two weren’t entirely to be expected…) Down in Miami, though, with beach bum gigolo Johnny Harris (Tony Young, from Chrome and Hot Leather and Black Gunn), the vibe is much earthier and more proletarian. Johnny lives in a boat instead of a luxury condo, and he’s into ocean watersports, muscle cars, and dog racing. Then in Los Angeles, Tara really lets her freak flag fly. Her West Coast lover is second-tier rock singer Davy Charles (Track of the Moonbeast’s Timothy Wayne Brown), and although his profession keeps him even busier than Ernest, just hanging out with his friends while he’s in the studio is an adventure. On the first LA layover that we get to see, Davy’s buddy, Sims (Junero Jennings, of Black Samson and The Curious Female), takes Tara out barhopping with a lesbian porno queen (Uschi Digard, from The Black Gestapo and Prison Girls), then brings her to a hippy pot party where she winds up having to change into her dowdy flight attendant guise in order to escape arrest when the cops drop in on a tip from a nosy neighbor. Each of the three men in Tara’s life would marry her if she’d let him, but she just isn’t the type for settling down. A woman can have it all in 1973, in case you haven’t heard— and Tara B. True means to have every last bit of it!

     Even with three steady boyfriends and a full-time job, Tara manages to squeeze in a variety of independent interests, too. She studies karate, for example, which stands her in good stead one night in LA when a trio of bikers foolishly try to gang-rape her. And evidently she rides motorcycles as well, because after she finishes with the bikers, she makes her getaway by stealing one of their choppers. She practices her own unique form of charitable giving, like when she befriends a Marine Corps corporal (James Carroll Jordan, of Slashdance and Dot.Kill) on a westbound flight from Miami in her on-the-job persona, switches guises as soon as she gets a moment alone, and then returns to invite the kid up to one of the first-class bathrooms to show him her idea of supporting the troops. And sometimes, when Tara really feels like a walk on the wild side, she answers personals ads in the urban underground weeklies. Mind you, that occasionally lands her in some situations too seedy even for her. For instance, there’s this one time when the advertiser turns out to be a geriatric S&M freak (John Carradine, from Frankenstein Island and The White Buffalo) who lives in a mansion in the Hollywood Hills with his even weirder mother, and who used to star in cheapshit horror movies when he was younger and better looking.

     It’s hard to spot at first, but there is a just wisp of coherent plot overarching all of Tara’s ribald adventures. Remember how I said that Johnny, her Miami beach bum, likes dog racing? Well, like most aficionados of sports that involve animals running around in circles, he also enjoys betting on the outcomes of those races. Only he isn’t good at assessing a dog’s likely performance— nope, not at all. Harris is positively drowning in debt to a bookie named Garrick (Louis Quinn, from The Unholy Rollers and Linda Lovelace for President), who has pretty well figured out that he’s never going to see any of the money he’s owed. Normally that would mean Johnny has an appointment with Garrick’s leg-breaker, Pete (Steve Drexel, of Terrified and On Her Bed of Roses), but given that Harris is dating a stewardess, there might be some way that he can square up without a hospital stay. Garrick happens to know the banker for a local mafia casino, and he happens also to know the day on which said banker invariably flies out west to hand over the week’s profits to the higher-ups in his mob. Garrick would like to intercept that handover one of these weeks, by hijacking the plane once the banker is aboard, forcing it to land in the Southwestern desert near some land owned by an ally of his, and smuggling the loot into Mexico. Obviously Garrick and his henchmen could never sneak the guns they’d need for such an undertaking past airport security on their own, but nobody searches the stewardesses. Thus the bookie’s interest in Tara. The question is how to get her to carry the weapons. Is she corrupt enough to be recruited into the conspiracy directly? Is she susceptible to blackmail? Can she be tricked into acting as a mole for the gang under false pretenses? Garrick doesn’t know, but he intends to follow Tara from city to city to city for as long as it takes to find out.

     When I namedropped all those notable exploitation filmmakers of the 60’s and 70’s near the beginning of this review, I had a rather more specific meaning in mind than that Superchick contains echoes of all their work. For my purposes, this movie’s most intriguing feature is that its tone changes markedly each time Tara deplanes in a different city, and takes up with a different man. The New York bits are the ones that remind me of Paul Bartel. They’re the most frankly absurd, for one thing, and also the most concerned with poking fun at the foibles, real or imagined, of the social-climbing urban professional class. Miami, meanwhile, is Superchick’s Russ Meyer territory. Johnny Harris is the kind of weak, morally unmoored, easily manipulated loser male familiar from films like Mudhoney and Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, and the criminal scheme in which he involves Tara against what passes for his will is the sort of thing you’d expect to see in that phase of Meyer’s career as well. Then in LA, Tara might as well be the heroine of a David Friedman youth-culture exploitation flick (except that those bikers would probably have enjoyed more success in raping her if she had been). As for the Stephanie Rothman connection, it’s in effect throughout, because it manifests itself in the character of Tara. After all, if Superchick can be said to be “about” anything more than Joyce Jillson’s tits and ass, it’s about negotiating the heady new possibilities opened up by the sexual revolution and the women’s liberation movement. Of course, there’s an important and very conspicuous difference in how that theme is handled here, simply because director Ed Forsyth and writers Gary Crutcher and John H. Burrows are all men. Tara thus ends up being less an authentic vision of female liberation than an unusual thought experiment in which a bunch of guys imagine how they would react to the sudden broadening of options that confronted women in the early 1970’s.

     The sheer unlikelihood of a such a film being made goes a long way toward getting Superchick over the obstacles created by its nearly formless story, its chronic paucity of forward momentum, and the virtual absence of the sort of action promised by Crown International’s promotional campaign. It gives you something to marvel over whenever the movie is slouching clumsily from one absurdity or erotic set piece to the next. Mind you, both the absurdities and the erotic set pieces are usually worth the wait— the absurdities especially. By far my favorite example of the latter is John Carradine’s cameo as the perverted old has-been, Igor Smith. From the matter-of-fact disappointment with which Joyce Jillson says, “Mr. Smith, the only ‘unique experience’ you could offer me is that you’d be the oldest man I’ve ever made it with” to Carradine’s exaggerated ecstasy as Tara kicks Smith’s ass and leaves him shackled to his own torture rack, the scene offers few real surprises, but plenty of goofy fun. Another source of goofy fun is easily missed at first, but becomes increasingly obvious as the movie wears on. Like a lot of Crown International productions from this era, Superchick has an unexpectedly lavish score, but one that feels weirdly out of step with the film’s mood and subject matter. It reminds me by turns of an early-70’s sitcom theme song and the background music to one of those dopey sizzle reels that the tourism industry used to crank out in the hope of luring middle-class vacationers to Hawaii or Puerto Rico or some such place. Of course, since this is a comedy about an airline stewardess, maybe that’s actually more appropriate than I thought…



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