Valley of the Dolls: Special Edition

January 28, 2012 15 Min Read

Review by: Christopher Bligh

Plot: What’s it about?

A few years ago, the AMC show Backstory had one of it’s most intriguing episodes about one such hit film from the decade of the sixties when studios were at a financial neutral corner and best selling novels were a hot commodity and
when it came to best selling novels, none can top Jacqueline Susann’s classic tale of three women and show business and it’s effects, especially when it came to the Guinness Book of World Records. In the late 1960’s, the book became a hot property for a film and Twentieth Century Fox won out to bring the book to screen. At the time, the film had high expectations (such as The Da Vinci Code) but the big question was would it live up or fall under those expectations. At that time, critically it was a flop, at the box office however it was just the opposite and had gained one Oscar nomination, one made for television epic, and a widespread cult audience today known as Valley of the Dolls.

The film starts with two disclaimers on both the nature and title of the film. It also introduces our main character Anne Welles (Barbara Parkins) into her move from the town of Lawrenceville to the Big Apple for work. Little does she know that NY is ready to take a big bite out of her, especially in the law firm she works for. The main clients are famous, the clientele are female and through one chance meeting, Anne is led into a world where the biz world can be a scary place but at the same time can be a most exciting business.
Within her time, there is young Neely O’Hara (Patty Duke) who has the talent but has most of the pressure when even the older generation, who’s represented by legend Helen Lawson (Susan Hayward), reject her upon the fear of an upstaging.
At the same time, beautiful Jennifer North (Sharon Tate), is in a worse predicament, looking to make it big, but finds pressure from the calls of a money needy mother and the company of older men. All three women in this world co-exist, get along and struggle in the process. Through the struggle, there are consequences to be had and they come at a lingering unexpected time.

The film is truly a product of its time from it’s costumes, the overall sets right down to a flash in the beginning that closely resembles the back and forth one during the titles of the first Planet of the Apes (see it before the opening credits end and you’ll see what I mean). It has the look of a fifties film but the attitude of a sixties film. One of the pluses of this film is it’s great use of montage which covers two of the three characters in the film and all three of them equally part of the time and visually striking with its great blend of no dialogue and a lot of the beautiful score adapted by the great John Williams (which garnered Dolls sole Oscar nomination and the first of many for the scoremaster).

There are a lot of instrumental gems along with songs that make it a semi-musical but in the environment where laughs are unintentional, they come across as addictive and fun (just like the “Dolls” themselves) and no scene is more clearer of that than the sanitarium scene with Neely and the medicated Tony Polar (played by Tony Scotti) which is laughable and far fetched but in this viewers eyes sees a bit on the touching side.

The acting by all is average with some going more over the top than others (Susan Hayward notably) in subtle ways and in obvious ways (like Patty Duke, although there are moments that are quite effective). The real heartstring performance goes to Sharon Tate as the lovely but doomed Jennifer who knows she only has a body and less talent and all she knows how to do is to take off her clothes.

Through it all, the film is not a superior translation of the book but there is a lot there. The acting is good not great (with Duke going up and over the top and looking great along with the other), the storyline is prime for a soap opera but there’s much involvement and its not hard to see why the film has a cult following these days. It’s the guilty feeling that there’s a part of the viewer to hate the film and never go near it when, in fact, there will forever be a curiosity cloud to see what all the fuss was about and then room for plenty of repeat viewing to be had that’s quotable, campy and entertaining afterwards.

There is a lot to be learned from Valley of the Dolls. It’s always winter with snow in Lawrenceville, every place you go has a liquor cabinet for everyone to have a drink at every open door, and there’s a desperate need, a push away and a tragedy that lies ahead when one travels to this particular Valley.

Video: How does it look?

Valley of the Dolls is given its first widescreen presentation since the days of laserdisc with its 2.35:1anamorphic widescreen results exceeding expectations that even this viewer had. Granted, the opening titles with stick figures is slightly spotty but once the film kicks in, there isn’t a scratch to be had through the majority of the picture. The print used comes off very clean and clear and William Daniels’ bright cinematography is given a pristine treatment on DVD. Very good job.

Audio: How does it sound?

The Dolby Digital Stereo track is impressive for small effects and the notable John Williams score and can be heard on most of the outer channels while the dialogue comes through the majority of the center channels and balance nicely for a nice mix. No film from the sixties (unless given a preservation rehaul) gets a track of today’s clarity and suffer from slight mutedness (as this does) but overall the results are slightly better than expected.

Supplements: What are the extras?

After a long while being out of print on VHS and Laserdisc, it’s taken a while for this film to see the light of day on DVD and Fox gives the title the 2 Disc Cinema Classics Collection treatment and a few things are worth noting. One is the beautiful packaging of a white case with a sixties-esque poster in a pill along with the now famous 3 girls on the bed pose on the back with the same design inside on a pink case. On the inside are liner notes, descriptions and a select number of Fox Cinema Classics Collections titles have Lobby Cards in a special small envelope and the audience is treated to four in beautiful color.

As for the DVDs, we start on Disc 1 in extras and are treated to two commentaries, the first being an audio commentary recorded together with actress Barbara Parkins and E! correspondent Ted Casablanca and both are a joy to listen to both being informative and having fun in the company of watching this film. There is self congratulations to be had but this is one title that ,unlike some others, is welcome to hear and there’s hardly a gap to be had.

The second is a text commentary entitled Trivia Overdose: A Pill Popping Guide to Valley of the Dolls and for those familiar with the film playing in the production notes segment of the Fox Movie Channel, this track would be a familiar sight stating facts as the film goes along. For those who don’t have that channel, this comes across as informative, with a few surprises along with way accompanied in titles with a few “dolls” of their own.

Rounding out the extras on Disc 1 are Still Galleries and the documentary Gotta Get off this Merry-Go-Round: Sex, Dolls and Showtunes which covers a few experts describing a bit of the film along with some stories on the making of it and life after the big screen adaptation and it’s followings on stage and on the re-release circuit and the looking back of it today. Its over fifty minutes and is a very entertaining ride

Onto disc 2, there are three featurettes, starting with The Divine Ms. Susann which covers the author and her life up to the release of Valley of the Dolls until her death in the seventies and friends and fans are there to go into her life in a short but sweet way,

Next is The Dish on Dolls covering the fans, some flaws, and following of the big screen Dolls from the cameos featured of some later knowners and covers the other adaptations such as a 1981 miniseries and an attempt at a nighttime soap, which both are quite intriguing in the casting (a shout out to those with the web address at the end and use it after this DVD’s release, bring on the miniseries with any extras that there was no room for here…)

Certain films of this fine Cinema Classics collection that were episodes on the AMC channel have the moniker of “Hollywood” instead of AMC and the last featurette, Hollywood Backstory: Valley of the Dolls is taken from that very episode that drew this viewer to this movie in the first place. Unlike the other Fox title that did the same Backstory treatment (Tora Tora Tora), the Valley episode retains almost everything except one key piece of music and none of the “When Backstory returns…” breaks either. Strange to see that the key piece is a song from the film and the film clip remains but the alternate version doesn’t. It’s a good featurette but the entire episode would’ve given the featurette section a big finish.

Next is From The Medicine Chest which has a secret stash of archival footage from trailers and tv spots (2 of each) and screen tests with Sharon Tate and Tony Scotti (2 of them and one test with a distorted audience member–this viewer wonders who it is too) along with Barbara Parkins testing for the role of Neely which would’ve been quite intriguing judging from the test here. Along with those are 2 long documentaries in decent to shaky condition covering the big premiere aboard a ship with the stars of the film and the author herself with the development from book to big screen.

After that is Karaoke with the bouncing doll and three songs from the film and finishing off this fun filled disc is a section called “Musical Numbers” from the Valley of the Dolls soundtrack. At first this viewer thought it was a selection of scenes with the music. Much to the delight of yours truly, they are musical selections from the movie of John Williams score by themselves without clips and is the closest to an isolated score this film can come. At the same time much note should be made to the menus of stills and scenes with the score playing out on each submenu along with that.

There are other participants (John Williams and any of the surviving actors of the film) that would’ve been great to hear from along with their take on how they see the film warts and all but with every DVD you can’t get everything. In retrospect, this represents one of the better Cinema Classics Collection titles with anything any fan of Valley of the Dolls can appreciate and even those that are the least bit curious of what the fuss was all about that time. Valley of the Dolls comes very well recommended and while being a guilty pleasure, is a worthy addition to any DVD viewer/collector.

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