Strange Bedfellows

JUNE IS SUMMER MOVIE MEMORIES MONTH

For the third year in a row (doing a column I originally thought to be a one-off), Supervistaramacolorscope kicks off a month-long series of pictures I remember from my adolescent summer vacations…with a movie I never saw!

Yep, you read right.  We begin this year’s Catskill crop of celluloid with a title so notorious that we kiddies were banned from even talking about it:  the 1963 “shocker” THE BALCONY, now on Blu-Ray from the flesh peddlers at Kino-Lorber Studio Classics, in cahoots with Continental Distributing, Inc.

An indie with undies, THE BALCONY first captured my attention from the enticing duo-tone poster which adorned the Coming Soon side of the Onteora Theater, in the upstate village of Flesichmanns, NY.  From the graphic graphics (half-naked ladies peering over a balcony), I figured it was a dirty movie.  Well, that and a banner pasted across the diameter of the poster with the block letters “NO CHILDREN ALLOWED.”  Of course, I wanted to know why. My mom was very evasive.  I previously had similar conversations with the grown-ups over the no-no rules for Never on Sunday and Lolita

One thing fer sure.  With the husbands all working in the city (their two-week vacays were usually relegated to the last half of August), all the moms were going to partake this nasty show.  It was a babysitter’s bonanza, and it was only playing for one night.

So, what is THE BALCONY?  What were the moms going to get?  Lasciviousness aside, it was an all-star, low-budget adaptation of Jean Genet’s play about the fat cat fantasies of war.  And where better to let unspool a totalitarian wet dream than in a whorehouse?  From the gruesome opening, featuring unedited news footage of revolutionists being beaten by military goons, THE BALCONY immediately moves into the confines of Madame Irma’s (aka Shelley Winters) bordello, the most popular spot in the besieged city (the brothel is a dressed up soundstage because it’s all a play-game, this thing called fascism – especially for the S&M fetishists).

The Madame’s/Winters’, occasional lover is the hothead hawk Police Chief (the only name he’s known by), a particularly agitated Peter Falk, who constantly rants and raves about bitches and whores (two words rarely, if ever, spoken in American movies at the time; remember, it took another five years before Rosemary’s Baby allowed the word “shit” to be uttered on U.S. screens).  The biplay between the two is occasionally interrupted by The Madame’s dealing with Carmen (Lee Grant), a former ho’, now upgraded to executive assistant (but who yearns for the good old days).

The joint really gets jumping when the number one revolutionist ends up in the place, and pitted against a violent Falk.  This particularly gave the movie post-1960s cult legs, as the young man in question is portrayed by Leonard Nimoy.

Falk’s deranged idea that three meek johns who strut their stuff as authoritarian figures (in order to get pleasured) be pushed out to address the masses in their alter egos (the uniforms will make the idiots believe anything) becomes a reality, and sets in motion the final act.  And it was these fellows’ introductions that gave the moms what they paid to see:  three elongated sequences of sex fantasies enacted by a bishop/milkman, a general/CPA and a judge/gas man.  All three men are renowned and respected character actors (Jeff Corey, Kent Smith, Peter Brocco); the women who service them ain’t chopped liver either.  Corey is satisfied by the great Joyce Jameson, and Brocco by Ruby Dee (“lick it, lick it!” she commands the “magistrate” toward the direction of her footwear).  The most erotic of the trio features the least known actress who cavorts with Smith (in Patton-esque riding regale, whipping the equine-tailed lass), and is listed only as “Horse” (Arnette Jens, delivering the most sensual performance in the show).

THE BALCONY was likely the most successful production ever made by the Walter Reade Corporation (they usually distributed pics), even though it was banned in several states; it was quickly filmed at KTTV Studios in L.A. by director Joseph Strick (later to gain greater Bijou fame as the force behind the equally infamous Ulysses and Tropic of Cancer).  The legendary d.p. George Folsey (last seen here as cinematographer on The Harvey Girls) shot the pic in stark black-and-white.  The score essentially uses cuts from the library of Igor Stravinsky.  In short, a very liberal movie made by and starring very liberal folks.  And that ain’t bad.

The widescreen Kino-Lorber Blu-Ray looks near pristine, and comes with the fetching extra comprising an interview with Lee Grant, the only surviving member of the cast (with the exception of the amazing but still obscure Ms. Jens).  Other supplements include audio commentary by Tim Lucas and a gallery of trailers.

Super tame by today’s standards (it could play the morning run on TCM), THE BALCONY was an ultra-notorious offering in 1963 – not so difficult to fathom when one considers that TWO Billy Wilder movies – Irma La Douce and Kiss Me, Stupid –  also got the “ADULTS ONLY” tag, as well as George Roy Hill’s Toys in the Attic.

I can’t imagine what the hopeful maters made of the promise of sinematic sex and getting a massive dose of Jean Genet, certainly more deep dish than deep throat.  I do recall asking my mom if the undressed ladies on the terrace caught cold.  “Yeah,” she replied, before snorting into a case of the giggles.

THE BALCONY. Black and white. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Continental Distributing. CAT # K24726. SRP: $29.95.

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