Casually flying us back to an era when cheapo sleaze movies were, above all, passive, we now have the Blu-ray release of the 1969 hit The Stewardesess.
“Hit,” you ask? Oh yes - this amateurish 16mm skin-flick held the distinction of being the all-time top grossing 3D movie for decades running. Apparently by no small margin, either. It took James Cameron's Avatar in 2008 to unseat this stinker.. Though lightyears apart in tone, intention and probably appeal, any pause in answering which is the better film - Avatar or The Stewardesses - remains understandable. Of course, back then, when you could go to the theater and see the nudity-free On Her Majesty's Secret Service or this. Bond still proved to be the sexier choice. And that’s George Lazenby Bond.
Lest anyone mistake this for a "real movie," The Stewardesses is essentially a haphazardly strung-together chronicle of the amorous adventures of a bunch of young, virile flight attendants on leave. It's not a documentary, but it's not quite a narrative, either.
Apparently, nothing makes a girl hornier than serving peanuts and cocktails at 30,000 feet. Once the plane lands, the crew of young ladies in matching mini-skirts pair off with the captain, male passengers, servicemen who have to go back to Vietnam (topical!), each other... they don't seem particularly choosy. This is, in an airline nutshell, the story. The first girl to get some action takes some acid and proceeds to make love to a lamp for five minutes. A lamp. The lamp is mostly a sculptural male bust, if that's any consolation. (It’s not.)
The girls may not have much in the way of personalities, but at least they don't have ugly fake boobs either. For all the naughtiness on display, there's a dirty innocence about the whole thing. Welcome to male-gaze escapism, 1969 style.
The Stewardesses was written, directed and produced by - and this is true - someone called Alf Silliman. Alf Silliman, Jr, to be precise. According to the internet, this silly man (sorry) went on to create two more films (seemingly not unlike this one) before calling it a day. As he was only in his late twenties when he made this blockbuster, it’s no surprise that he’s still out there somewhere, no doubt basking in the riches of this honest to goodness tremendous box office smash. Make no mistake, this certainly made some people quite rich. And now their grandkids have a shiny Blu-ray as a testament to where their college funds came from.
The Stewardesses is the kind of movie that Christopher Walken's SNL character The Continental would loop at a party, if anyone would come to such a thing. Not to be confused with later imitators The Naughty Stewardesses (1974), Blazing Stewardesses (1975), Stewardess School (1986), or the international Die Stewardessen (1971, aka The Swingin Stewardesses), or SCTV’s Dr. Tongue’s 3D House of Stewardesses, The Stewardesses certainly launched a trend.
Curiously, the film doesn't even try to wrap itself up in another genre. There's nothing in the way of awkward comedy or half baked crime, and only at the end, does it take a suicidal turn – a seemingly obligatory inclusion for drive-in films of the era. The Stewardesses simply is as advertised. The title is the plot, the story, and the cast.
Everything surrounding the sex scenes is almost spectacularly inert. It's all draggy, mundane moments with "actors" trying to remember their brief lines. A man and a flight attendant (Christina Hart, who would actually go on to a respectable career as a playwright years after this debut) leave a fancy restaurant, saunter on over to the coat check, go through the whole rigamarole there, put their coats on, not tipping the coat check girl (low budget movie!) then walking out the door. It's all shown in real time, lest we have any doubt that these characters ever left the restaurant. But then, after devoting precious running time to that, the film cuts to other characters.(!). Earlier, on the plane, a stewardess on the intercom makes her standard announcement introducing the flight crew, and clearly, for just a moment, can't remember her own name. This is the kind of charm that most movies relegate to the editing room floor.
In terms of its own morality, the film clearly comes from a tamer if not more sexually frisky time. The characters are never aggressively forced or humiliated. That said, there's an awful lot of oh-all-right coercion leading up to some of the intimate scenes. (The one girl-on-girl scene starts off with aquatic role playing: "You have to take your panties off! How can you pretend to be swimming with your panties on?"). There's a lot of thrusting shown from the torso up, but no graphic detail. Although it was rated X when it was released, The Stewardesses has since been re-rated R by the MPAA. That said, it's a pretty boob-laden R.
The Stewardesses lands on Blu-ray courtesy of boutique label Jezebel, and includes both 3D and 2D versions of the film. Due to tech restrictions, I was only able to view the 2D version for this review, but, with the caveat that once is enough anyhow, this montage of sexual shenanigans in badly lit apartments set to elevator muzak doesn't exactly strike one as prime 3D material. The print doesn't begin to approach pristine quality, but for what's it's worth, the glorious high definition transfer allows for the detail in every tape splice, every rear-end pimple.
Also included is a 1977 thirty-minute 3D softcore short film, Experiments in Love. Unlike the feature presentation, it's actually trying to be funny. The biggest commonality might be that in both films, the 3D gimmick is exploited when someone grabs one of those wooden folding wall-mounted coat racks, and distends it back and forth into the lens. A dopey reminder, both times, that gimmicky movie technology is just as ridiculously exploitable as willing young women. As the only bonus feature on the disc, I suppose its inclusion makes as much sense as anything.
As a $25 million dollar hit on a $100,000 budget, The Stewardesses proved an odd tastemaker for its time. It has its own weird place in cinema history, even as there's nothing cinematic about it. Spurred on by this entry, the flugelhorn & film grain school of titilating moviemaking is something pervasively jokey in our cultural consciousness, whether one has ever actually seen such a film or not.
For this non-fan, The Stewardesses is merely confirmation that such movies only ever amounted to a cheap bag of peanuts. The film never takes off, but, it must be said, remains a curio for devotees of vintage sleaze that time has otherwise (understandably) forgotten.