With the sexploitation picture Fanny Hill: A Memoir a Woman of Pleasure (adopted from a somewhat infamous erotic novel of the same name) Russ Meyer returned to two things he was not particularly masterful at: broad, yuck-it-up comedy & favorably capturing Europe on film. Meyer was returning to the continent for the first time since he condemned it as a “highway of vice” & “a cesspool of cheap hotels, tawdry bars, and wanton women” in his laughably xenophobic “documentary” Europe in the Raw. He was lured back to Europe with the promise that he would helm the somewhat pricey production of Fanny Hill with complete creative autonomy as a director. Once he arrived, however, it became apparent that the film’s producer, Albert Zugsmith, was eager to double back on his own word. Not only did Zugsmith annoint himself as an unofficial co-director, undermining much of Russ Meyer’s creative vision, he also banned Meyer from the editing room, where most of the artistry of his best films usually come to life. What’s left, then, is a more or less amusing “erotic” comedy about a European brothel . . . just one with absolutely no trace of Meyer’s eccentric personality.
Set in 18th century London, Fanny Hill tells the story of a rural teenager getting bowled over by some big city reprobates more than willing to take advantage of her small town naiveté. A madame of an upscale brothel appoints herself as Fanny’s honorary aunt & claims that all the other sex workers under her wing are also her nieces, “all daughters of my 12 sisters”. There are some interesting characters mixed in these “women of ill repute”, such as a dominatrix, a woman prone to wear a false moustache during her sexual appointments, and a youthful lollipop enthusiast who is especially attractive older male clients (blech.). The men that frequent this bunch are a mixed bag of annoying European caricatures that spoil a lot of the good vibes with their over-the-top character flaws, including a john that leaves Fanny to drown & a sniveling weakling who begs to be punished for being “a naughty boy.” Even more frustrating is Fanny herself, who somehow does not know that she is working for a brothel for the entire length of the film. Frustratingly naïve, Fanny is the kind of girl who can watch every last one of the brothel’s “nieces” service half the Navy in an open field and still not be exactly sure of what is going on. At one point, she even takes on the job of setting up appointments for johns & somehow believes that she’s merely selling hats. Of the oddly frequent hat deliveries made at all hours of the day & night, Fanny says “The busier girls were wearing out several boxes each week.” The script has a funny way of being cheekily salacious in that fashion, purposefully far more aware of its sexual playfulness than its sex worker protagonist.
Featuring no nudity, no rapidfire editing, and no larger than life personalities, Fanny Hill is unrecongnizable as a Russ Meyer picture. There are, however, a few scraps of the director’s personality to be found scattered throughout the film. His second black & white film in a row (after 1963’s Lorna), the film at the very least fits into the current phase of work in a vague visual sense, even if it in no way can be understood as a black & white “roughie” (the genre he was working in at the time). True to most Meyer pictures, there is a weakling male character who gets continually punished for his supposedly unmasculine affectionate love. Fanny’s main beau’s life is intentionally derailed by the film’s Evil Madame to the point where he’s driven to crossdressing in order to sneak into the brothel & come to his fiancé’s rescue (a gag that was repeated in such respectable films as Leprechaun in the Hood). There’s also a repeat of a gag from Europe in the Raw where a chamber pot is emptied upon an unsuspecting passerby, possibly capturing exactly what the fiercely American Meyer thought of Europe in a nutshell. The film’s very light use of S&M and lipstick lesbianism was more of a telegraph of what was to come in Meyer’s work than a reflection of where it had already been. Otherwise, Fanny Hill has essentially no trace of the madman auteur/pervert’s unique touch.
That’s not to say that Fanny Hill isn’t enjoyable as a broad comedy about the sexcapades of a naïve sex worker that has no idea that she’s been employed by a brothel. In addition to erasing Russ Meyer’s personality from the picture, Zugsmith’s production also bears almost no resemblance to its source material, a novel often credited as the first English language example of pornographic prose, but it does squeeze by as a light romp that finds humor in the simple things: raw fish falling into cleavage, men dressing as women & getting hit on by their unknowing bosses, and an onslaught of cheap sex jokes soaring over the head of an unbelievably innocent protagonist. There are certainly much worse fates than that.