When Russ Meyer voluntarily adopted the “X” rating for his first “hard sex” picture (read: softcore porn) Vixen!, he thought the distinction would serve as great free press. In a lot of ways he wasn’t wrong. Vixen! turned a huge, multi-million dollar profit for Meyer & opened a lot of doors to successes he wouldn’t have enjoyed otherwise. Unfortunately, not all of the attention of being the first American-made, X-rated release brought Vixen! was positive, though. A lot of moral policing followed the film across the country, resulting in, among other complications, arrests of projectionists & audience members at multiple screenings in the Deep South. In response, Meyer opened his next “hard sex” picture with the following rant:
“IN THE FACE OF RECENT EVENTS, SOME OF WHICH THREATEN OUR VERY EXISTENCE, THERE ARE STILL THOSE WHO CONCENTRATE THEIR PUNY EFFORTS IN AREAS WHERE NO CONCERN IS NEEDED. THEY CALL LOVE EVIL . . . THE HUMAN BODY OBSCENE . . . WHERE THEY CAN NEVER BE ANYTHING OTHER THAN BEAUTIFUL. OUR LAKES AND RIVERS FILL SLOWLY WITH DEATH. THE AIR WE BREATHE STRANGLES THE MIGHTY OAK. LITTLE BY LITTLE WE CAN SEE HUMAN COMPASSION AND LOVE GROWING LESS. AND STILL THERE ARE THOSE WHO HAVE THEIR TOY BANNERS OF PROTEST. THEY ATTEMPT TO THINK FOR THE REST OF US. DICTATE OUR FREEDOM OF CHOICE. THEY, THE STRONG AND PURE OF HEART, MUST PROTECT THOSE OF US WHO “THEY” HAVE DECIDED ARE WEAK. WE DO NOT QUESTION THEIR RIGHT TO PROTEST. BUT LET THEIR DECISIONS BE FOR THEMSELVES, FOR NO MAN HAS THE RIGHT TO DECIDE FOR ANOTHER. THINK ABOUT IT!”
Cherry, Harry, and Raquel! opens in this way, with that full rant scrolling in ALL CAPS on top of a frantic montage of pornographic & industrial imagery, announcing that Russ Meyer’s id was back in full swing. In a lot of ways, Vixen! felt like a toned-down Meyer trying to reshape his bizarrely straight-laced perversions into a marketable commodity, his weirdo tendencies only showing at the fringes. Cherry ditches that pretense & lets Meyer’s freak flag fly. Here, the chaotic montage work of Mondo Topless meets the soap opera, soft crime machinations of Common Law Cabin to reveal a new, fully-realized Meyer aesthetic that would soon reach its full potential in the Ebert-penned Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.
Not wasting any time in unleashing its madness upon its victims . . . I mean audience, Cherry, Harry, and Raquel! opens with no less than three separate introductions. After the contextless, anti-censorship rant transcribed above, the film’s second opening rails against the “Evil of Marijuana” that “caresses all it comes in contact with.” Adopting some of Europe in the Raw‘s xenophobia (now directed at Mexico) & the industrial narration/pin-ups-in-motion formula of Meyer’s nudie cutie work, the film immediately launches into a second rant, this time against recreational marijuana use. The narrator flatly intones, “Pity the poor potheads, innocent victims subjugating their own free will at the mercy of the pusher, the real predator. Scant sympathy can be given to the parasites who would profit from the weaknesses & fragilities of the ill-informed.” Unfortunately, the film that follows is not exactly Meyer’s version of Reefer Madness. In fact, it has very little to do with marijuana at all. The best I can guess of what he was trying to accomplish there was in saying that just because he was willing to cash in on hippie counter-culture & “free love”, he in no way condoned the drugs that accompanied the scene. That’s Meyer in a nutshell. He’s willing to rail against censorship in one breath, but then chastise the youth for their recreational drugs in the next. To him, an unnatural, fetishistic obsession with gigantic breasts is wholesome & American. Marijuana? Not so much. That egotistical moralizing about What is Right & What’s Not often provides some of Meyer’s most fascinating work. For instance, the director’s new-found love of boobs-touching-boobs lesbian scenes wasn’t nearly as interesting when it was introduced in Vixen! as it is when paired in Cherry, Harry, and Raquel! with lines like “I don’t like women messing around with women. It’s un-American.” Meyer’s films work best when you can see his own self-contradicting moral core battling itself on the screen.
If you’re wondering why I’ve only touched on the film’s introductions so far, without even mentioning its central narrative, it’s because they’re relentless. Reportedly, actress Linda Ashton (who played the titular Cherry) stormed off set mid-production, leaving Meyer with a half-completed picture. Perhaps this is what saved Cherry, Harry, and Raquel! from Vixen!‘s made-for-TV-esque mediocrity. After a third introduction sequence (keep in mind this film is only 70 min long) that features a psych rock theme song, Cherry, Harry, and Raquel! finally launches into action, telling an absurdly thin story about Harry, a corrupt, drug smuggling sheriff at the Mexican border, who’s ordered by his higher ups to take out a mysterious whistle-blower/assassin named Apache. Oh yeah, and he’s involved with a red hot nurse named Cherry. And other beautiful women are around also, including a prostitute named Raquel. And these women like to have sex. Some people die. It’s all very loose, as Meyer filled in the gaps of his half-finished scraps with his infamous sign & landscape montages, a naked mystic character named Soul (who recalls Haji’s distinctly similar role in Good Morning . . . And Goodbye!), and levels of sex & violence previously untouched in Meyer’s oeuvre. It’s a beautiful mess.
There are very few innovations brought to the table in Cherry, Harry, and Raquel!. It’s the first Meyer film to graphically suggest fellatio (which is pretty racy for him), the first to feature full-frontal male nudity, and the first to feature a black actress in the raw (a nice change of pace after the racist rants of Vixen!). Instead, Cherry is more remarkable for the way it brings all of Meyer’s old-hat tropes together for a single, incomprehensible picture. The lesbianism & food-fellation of Vixen! (this time it’s a celery stalk, not a dead fish) are back. Reaching further in the past, the violence of Meyer’s black & white roughies like Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! return here in full color this time in the form of decapitations & bloody gunfights. Also present are the strange back & forth cuts between the sexual & the innocuous, this time mixing the image of the titular Cherry & Raquel making love with Harry fighting Apache over possession of a rifle. There’s also the aforementioned industrial montages, naked frolicking, Wild Gals of the Naked West‘s cowboys & Indians cosplay, and misguided, far-reaching statements about women like a closing monologue that calls them “bi-products of our society, pretty toys to play with, superficial in their make-up, but so necessary to our way of life.” It’s all there.
At the time of its release, Cherry, Harry, and Raquel! was the most Meyerest Meyer picture, a huge improvement upon the largely personality-free Vixen!. It’s a distinction that would be immediately surpassed in his next picture, but it still made for an interesting slice of over-sexed chaos nonetheless. It ended up being a blessing that Meyer had to piece together a half-completed picture in the editing room. I doubt the film would be nearly as fascinating if it were filmed as originally planned.