Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 121: 'Love Making U.S.A.' (1971)

The respectable narrator of a not-so-respectable documentary.

I've been seeing the title in Ed Wood filmographies for years, but until very recently, I had not actually sat all the way through director Joe Robertson's 1971 sex documentary Love Making U.S.A. Why? Well, I guess I never found the movie particularly appetizing, since I knew it simply contained recycled footage from Love Feast (1969), an earlier collaboration between Robertson and Wood. But it was always there—an itch begging to be scratched. When I saw that Something Weird Video offered a download of the film for only $5.99, I took the plunge.

My background knowledge of Lovemaking U.S.A. was minimal. Philip R. Frey's The Hunt for Ed Wood referred to it as "a 'documentary' about the porn industry. There are scenes from early porn films, as well as footage of contemporary productions." David C. Hayes' Muddled Mind: The Complete Works of Edward D. Wood, Jr. (2001) had a vivid but somewhat misleading description: "This is a very, very sad period in Wood's life. The film is a XXX hardcore porn that stars John Holmes, Joe Robertson in drag and Ed. Luckily for everyone involved, Ed isn't naked... he just conducts 'sexy' on the street interviews." Neither Frey nor Hayes had claimed to see the film, but both were seeking a print for review.

The plain title card for Love Making U.S.A. 

Then there is Something Weird Video's own description of the film, written by porn blogger Prince Pervo. Since he definitely has seen the movie, Pervo's capsule review is more accurate: "Love Making U.S.A. isn't just another porn film," he writes. The critic explains the grab bag nature of the movie. It contains, among other things: a "prehistoric stag film" called A Free Ride (1915); some behind-the-scenes footage from Tomatoes (1970) (another Robinson film) with Anna Travers; a few minutes of John Holmes making love to the strains of Ravel's Bolero; and a documentary segment shot in Griffith Park at an event called Gay-In III. Pervo notes that director-producer Joe Robertson himself appears in this segment as "a tough gay-basher who turns out to be wearing nylons and high heels." As for the Ed Wood content in Love Making U.S.A., Pervo writes: "Then — surprise! — we watch the infamous Edward D. Wood, Jr. take pictures of smut-star Casey Lorrain [sic]!" 

Viewers will remember actress Casey Larrain from her roles in two Joe Robertson sexploitation flicks, the aforementioned Love Feast (aka The Photographer or Pretty Models All in a Row) and Nympho Cycler (aka Misty) (1971), both of which costarred Ed Wood. Casey is also one of the prostitutes at Madam Penny's Thrill Establishment in Ed Wood's Take It Out in Trade (1970). When she spoke to the authors of The Cinematic Misadventures of Ed Wood (2015), Casey stated that she had only worked with Ed once for "a week and a half to two weeks" and that the footage had been spread out over several films. "I only worked with him the once," she said, "but he apparently cut that footage up and used it in all kinds of different projects."

Reader Rob Huffman shares this anecdote about his meeting with Casey Larrain:
"When I spoke with Ms. Larrain, she thought Take It Out In Trade, Nympho Cycler, and Love Feast were are all one movie. Bear in mind she was thinking back 50+ years ago. She has specific memories of a screening of dailies for Nympho Cycler, though. She said Wood was there and he was indeed the director of the film. She did two hardcore scenes with [John] Holmes before calling it quits. Her whole approach to the films was that she was a hippie who was unashamed of her nudity. She knew she was attractive, and was already modeling. It was just a gig."
I cannot confirm that Love Feast, Nympho Cycler, and Take It Out in Trade were all shot at the same time, but the footage in Love Making U.S.A. is definitely recycled from Love Feast. Those of you who have seen that 1969 sex comedy will remember that Ed Wood portrays Mr. Murphy, a drunken sot who summons young women to his home by pretending to be a fashion photographer. Casey Larrain plays Linda, the very first model to show up at Murphy's doorstep, only to be steered into his bedroom.

Casey Larrain and Ed Wood in Love Making U.S.A. (But they don't know that!)

At the very beginning of Love Making U.S.A., we again see Mr. Murphy with his arms around a nude (and somewhat shy) Linda. The lecherous photographer convinces the model to sit down on his couch while he steps behind a camera on a tripod and takes pictures of her. She smiles and carries on a conversation with Murphy that we do not hear. All the while, a serious, deep-voiced narrator is heard, sounding not unlike Jack Webb on Dragnet:
"This is Los Angeles. It is the center of the illustrious motion picture industry. Some of the most attractive girls in the world come here to get into the exclusive motion picture business. These are nice girls, the girls next door in your town. Having been brought up on the movies, most of us have gotten our ideas and notions about love and lovemaking from motion pictures. Home and school rarely provided this information. Hollywood has always cashed in on this hunger for knowledge. Even today in so-called pornographic material, love and lovemaking is still misrepresented, exploited, and falsely glamourized."
Wood may not have had a hand in writing the script, but the tone of that narration is remarkably similar to many of his articles from this era. Robertson then cuts to some pornographic still images while the narrator assures us that "Hollywood makes the best smut in the world." That's the last we'll see of Ed Wood in Love Making U.S.A., unfortunately. The film has another 50 minutes to go, but Mr. Murphy and Linda do not reappear.

Within that first minute, however, Love Making U.S.A. establishes itself as a classic "white coater," i.e. a pornographic or salacious film that masquerades as an educational documentary in an attempt to assuage the censors. While Robertson's documentary does not contain an actual doctor in a white coat, it is nevertheless hosted by a sober-looking, respectable gentleman who wears a conservative suit and provides his dry commentary from behind a desk in a wood-paneled office with framed abstract art on the wall. This subterfuge fooled no one, judging by an article in the June 9, 1978 edition of The Honolulu Star Bulletin. Educational or not, Love Making U.S.A. was still one of several X-rated films "seized by vice squad officers" from an adult movie theater in Hawaii.

Love Making U.S.A. is busted in Honolulu.

Since the Wood content in Love Making U.S.A. is so brief, what other pleasures does the film have to offer? The narrator tells us that "it is the aim of this report to give a more down-to-earth view on love and an informative, realistic look at lovemaking."

To that end, Joe Robertson includes A Free Ride, now considered the earliest surviving pornographic film, in its entirety. Historically interesting as this material is, I don't know if lusty '70s businessmen on their lunchbreaks were thrilled to sit through 10 minutes of flickering, sepia-toned footage scored with ragtime piano. "It can hardly be considered glamorous," the narrator admits, "but it is certainly down-to-earth." A mustachioed motorist, looking eerily like a character in an R. Crumb cartoon, picks up two female hitchhikers (ID'd in the credits as "The Jazz Girls") along a country road. Things get amorous quickly. That's about it. Viewers might be amused by some of the pseudonyms in the credits: A. Wise Guy, Will B. Hard, and Will She.

"Years ago, America didn't make pornography very well," the narrator concludes after screening A Free Ride. Robertson contrasts this with a contemporary pornographic film starring John Holmes. Our narrator rhapsodizes over the "marvelous color tones" and the "beautiful finished print." He also suggests the film is Oscar-worthy. "The way they're giving Oscars these days, maybe we should submit this one," he says, apparently referencing Midnight Cowboy (1969), the first X-rated film to win Best Picture.

As Holmes and his lady friend enjoy each other's company, the narrator tells us all about the current state of the porn business. He estimates that the industry brings in $5 billion a year, in spite of some hypocritical laws that allow the filming and ownership of pornography but not the distribution. He also notes that X-rated color films are rare because the authorities monitor the processing labs. The Holmes sequence continues, underscored by Bolero as I indicated earlier. This was well before Blake Edwards' 10 (1979) made such iconic use of that music.

We now switch to the filming of Joe Robertson's hardcore feature Tomatoes. Sporting that magnificent mane of hair we know from Look Back in Angora (1994), Joe sets up a shot with his cinematographer, although the dubbed-in dialogue makes it seem as though Joe is the name of the cameraman, not the director. As it happens, Joe and his crew were filming an orgy scene that day (helpfully noted on a clapboard as August 4, 1970). The narrator tries to pass this off as a study of "group marriage." Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiight.

Our host tells us he has dispatched his assistant, Dr. Watson, to the Tomatoes set to interview the actors. I'm pretty sure—like 80% certain—that this portion of the film was intended as a comedy sequence. Watson is a jovial, rotund man whose dark suit and white tie make him look like either a Catskills comedian or a mid-level mobster. "Notice the dignity that prevails," he says as the unclothed actors around him copulate in every conceivable combination. The intrepid assistant wanders around the room, trying to strike up earnest conversations with the obviously distracted performers. When he quizzes one young lady about smog, she gives him a long diatribe about the Santa Ana Winds. Another friendly lass offers Dr. Watson fellatio, and he gladly accepts, ending the scene.

Up next is more John Holmes sex footage, this time accompanied by a sprightly, almost jazzy version of The Beatles' "Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da." Apart from the music, this scene is nothing too remarkable. My colleague, Greg Dziawer, might have something to say about the colorful bedspread beneath Mr. Holmes and his blonde female costars.

An ad for Gay-In III. This exact ad appears in the movie.

Halfway through the movie, we arrive at the Gay-In III documentary footage, filmed near the Griffith Park Merry-Go-Round on Saturday, September 5, 1970. This was an all-day event sponsored by the Gay Liberation Front and featured live music, body painting, and "gay guerrilla theatre." At first glance, this could be any outdoor music festival of the era. We see a lot of hippies dancing on the lawn as a middling rock combo plays a song called "Gotta Get It On Today." Only the ubiquitous balloons emblazoned with the "GAY POWER" and "I'M GAY AND I'M PROUD" slogans tell you what this event is.

Our indefatigable host is on the scene, conducting interviews. He chats up a middle-aged lesbian couple— a cheerful, grinning blonde and her profoundly intoxicated, butch girlfriend. The blonde seems to be sailing through life without a care, while her beleaguered paramour is constantly being arrested for wearing men's clothing in public. I can't help but be reminded of the legal problems facing the cross-dressing characters of Glen or Glenda (1953). The host then interviews a young gay couple. These men are 22 and 17 respectively and are polite and rather soft-spoken. The younger one feels that topless bars are "a debasement of the body" and says that the only harassment he receives comes from his parents.

While the previous interviews seemed real and spontaneous, the next one is definitely staged. Director Joe Robertson is dressed as a biker and leans sullenly against a tree as the host approaches him. Joe mutters some anti-gay slurs and brags about his litany of sexual conquests. When the interview wraps up, the camera pulls back and reveals that this macho biker is wearing pantyhose and high heels. He sashays away as the host looks on in befuddlement.

The film now returns to the wood-paneled office set for a lecture on "the mechanics of making love." The host somberly informs us that women almost never achieve orgasm through "normal" vaginal sex alone. This sets up some female masturbation footage as the host drones on about clitoral stimulation, vibrators, and dildos. All this is underscored with gentle Spanish guitar.

A final vignette shows Tommy Toole as a census taker and Patti Snyder as an extremely eager respondent. She answers the door fully nude, and the two begin making love to the sound of strings. This would be boilerplate '70s pornography if our host weren't there to narrate the events with all the gravity one might summon for the Zapruder film. Sample quote: "He initiates the lovemaking by performing an act of cunnilingus. This man is muff diving." This leads to a lengthy, scholarly digression about the joys of "oral copulation." Our host has lots of fun facts at his disposal, including this gem: "Semen measures approximately 90 calories per ejaculation."

As the music builds in intensity, so does the onscreen lovemaking. The end is now in sight. The "wet shot" is the traditional climax of the adult film, and Love Making U.S.A. is no different from its peers in this respect. Once Tommy Toole has ejaculated on Patti Snyder's lower abdomen, the film is essentially over. But our host has one more philosophical monologue to deliver:
"There you have it. Love making U.S.A. Some people call it a spiritual release. I call it love. So go to it, boys and girls, whether you're 16 or 60."
Joe Robertson then cuts abruptly to a very plain title card reading "THE END." Another porno film in the books. 

Ultimately, Love Making U.S.A. is little more than a jumble of random footage, barely tied together by its pseudo-educational narration. Were it not for the inclusion of the already-familiar Ed Wood footage, there is no way that I would have even watched this, and Eddie disappears after the first minute. As a supposed documentary about sex in America, Robertson's film is rather flimsy and scattershot. Even as smut, it is dubious. The voice of the droning male narrator might serve as a serious distraction for men in the audience, and horny viewers may not find the Gay-In III footage or A Free Ride particularly arousing.

But is the film worth watching anyway? Obviously, yes. Like so much of what I've covered in this series, Lovemaking U.S.A. is a valuable artifact of the era in which it was produced. I know I use the "time capsule" label rather too often, but this movie truly qualifies. You want to know how Americans felt and talked about sex in the early '70s? Look no further than this wonderfully dated, blessedly obsolete movie. (Another memorable line: "The bigger the boobs, the better the butch.") You even get to see a relatively young, fresh-faced John Holmes, back when he wore his curly hair in a chin-length, quasi-pageboy style. How could he know what the future held in store for him?

I'll leave you with this mini-gallery of newspaper ads for showings of the film. As you'll see, they all come from 1978-79. I couldn't find a single one from the first half of the '70s. From these ads, I learned that Love Making U.S.A. (or Lovemaking U.S.A.) was often used as a supporting feature in double and triple bills. But it occasionally headlined, too, and was frequently paired with something called Blue Yonder, which is apparently lost to time. Whatever its flaws, Joe Robertson's film certainly managed to get a lot of bookings during the Jimmy Carter years.

Detroit Free Press (January 30, 1978)

Miami News (March 9, 1978)

The Hackensack Record (November 14, 1979)

The Indianapolis Star (September 29, 1978)

The Kansas City Times (August 10, 1978)

The Lincoln Journal Star (July 26, 1979)

The Miami Herald (March 6, 1978)

The Tennessean (Nashville) (January 7, 1978) 

The Oshkosh Northwestern (January 13, 1978)

The Tampa Times (February 24, 1978)