Russ Meyer in the Archives

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A few years ago, I thought it would be fun to post some short archival-encounter quickies, but alas, my enthusiasm sometimes snowballs into verbosity, the ostensible quickies took as much effort as full posts, and I guess it trailed off, after an expose of a night with Fassbinder, the gay-leather mag Star Wars review, antigay jerks with eggs in 1980s Wisconsin, and some unearthed 1970s New Jersey lesbian cat poetry.

So, to flare that old archive fever back up, and tersely at that:

Russ Meyer has never been my favorite sexploitation filmmaker. I admire the craftsmanship and wit of his early work, not to mention the pivotal role it played in opening cultural space for sexual expression, but it doesn’t emotionally resonate with me the way the freaks and oddball gutter auteurs do, from Wishman to the Findlays to the Ameros. But still, respect (at least, until the mid-70s, at which point his last few films feel belabored, sluggish, and often pointlessly cruel).

Scholars haven’t paid a ton of attention to Meyer, but information’s not hard to find. Kristen Hatch’s essay “The Sweeter the Kitten the Sharper the Claws: Russ Meyer’s Bad Girls,” from the collection Bad, is the only formal scholarly piece that comes to mind (I’ve assigned it in a class on “trash cinema,” and it played well), but David Frasier wrote a heavily bibliographic bio of sorts in the 90s, and Jimmy McDonough, one of my favorite biographers and author of the remarkable Andy Milligan bio The Ghastly One, superseded Frasier’s book with his own 2006 volume. And for the maniacally devoted, Meyer wrote his own outlandishly expansive decade-in-the-making three-volume memoir, which looks completely unreadable but would surely satisfy the hardcore devotee.

And yet: if you’re looking for archival material on Meyer, there ain’t much. A WorldCat search offers 13 hits, but most trail off into nothingness (a Russ Meyer Collection at Cornell sounds promising, until you notice that it only contains 14 items—though admittedly, one of them is a mysterious unproduced script, The Pornies of Payton Junction !!).

One of those hits, however, is the Elmer Gertz Papers at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. I was there a few years ago, during research for what became Obscenity Rules, and one methodological tip I have as an historian who deals with the poorly-preserved terrain of the obscene—not quite a secret, but clearly not as widely recognized as it should be—is that legal archives can be amazing repositories for otherwise lost material. Both case files in court records, and especially the papers of defense attorneys, are goldmines for financial records, correspondence, rare books/magazines/etc., and more.

I wasn’t even looking for Russ Meyer here, I just happened to notice a Citizens for Decent Literature file, and since in some ways I built my entire academic life on chasing CDL around the country in every archival nook and cranny I could find, I thought I’d take a quick glance. Turns out Gertz’s CDL file was right in the middle of a pretty enormous 19-box heap of Russ Meyer files—Gertz defended him in cases around the nation, for years.

So this small assortment of documents isn’t even the tip of the Gertz/Meyer iceberg, but it’s what I idly browsed and shot while skimming through, so as a heads-up to future researchers, voila: Russ Meyer in the archives (this set has mostly to do with the Ohio Vixen obscenity case spearheaded by CDL founder Charles Keating in 1969):

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This one’s my favorite: Meyer outlining his legal strategy (point 7!!!)

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CDL makes unimpressive, crudely sexist effort to stop Beyond the Valley of the Dolls:

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Heck, this was just folded-up in a file!

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Anyone looking for “adults only” thrills with Putney Swope must have come away disappointed. And a confession: I completely love Mad Doctor of Blood Island.

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Some financial insights:

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So, that’s it–though for more on the Vixen case:

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Read its thrilling conclusion before the Ohio Supreme Court here, if you dare.

The rest is in the hands of future researchers–have at it!

 

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