Mae West keeps her eye on the prize in Sextette

This week, Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal looks at a movie he recommends you check out on DVD.

“Why are you watching this?” If you’re at all like me, you’ve been asked this question on more than one occasion in your life. Thankfully, I always have logic and reason on my side: “It’s got Whit Bissell in it.” “I’ve seen all the other Edward L. Cahn films.” “Look, there’s Bronson Canyon!” Or, in the case of Sextette, “Mae West, Timothy Dalton, and Dom Deluise are the leads, and they all get to sing!”

Independently produced and distributed via Crown International Pictures, Sextette attempted to cross-pollinate the magic of Golden Age Hollywood with elements of contemporary pop culture, the end product presumably being an irresistible taste treat for the entire family. The actual result, however, is pure camp on a par with The Village People’s Can’t Stop the Music and Menahem Golan’s The Apple.

85-year old West stars as Marlo Manners, a legendary movie star who’s just acquired her sixth husband, British nobleman Sir Michael Barrington (Dalton), and the story begins at London’s fictional Sussex Court Hotel, where the newlyweds plan to spend their honeymoon. As fate would have it, the Sussex Court is also hosting an international conference led by avuncular American diplomat Chambers (Walter Pidgeon, in his last performance)—and one of the delegates is stubborn Soviet ‘Sexy’ Alexei Karansky (Tony Curtis), an old flame of Marlo’s who refuses to vote ‘da’ on a resolution of tremendous importance to world peace.

State Department official Dockweiler (George E. Carey) approaches Marlo’s manager Turner (Deluise) with a plea from Uncle Sam: can his client somehow entice Alexei into changing his vote? Meanwhile, a cassette tape of Marlo’s memoirs threatens to up-end her new marriage, as does the arrival on the scene of two previous husbands, filmmaker Laslo Karolny (Ringo Starr) and gangster Vance Norton (George Hamilton). Can Marlo help usher in a new era of world peace, whilst also maintaining connubial bliss in the honeymoon suite?

Mae West was a living legend in 1978, a well-preserved model of libidinous, liberated femininity. This film—based on a play written by West and briefly staged at Chicago’s Edgewater Beach Playhouse in 1961—takes full advantage of her reputation as a woman who enjoyed sex and had no regrets about it. Though generally shot in soft focus, West doesn’t look bad, and delivers her dialogue with twinkling eye and ribald tongue.

Playing the straight man (in more than one sense of the word), co-star Timothy Dalton is outstanding, as is a surprisingly svelte Dom Deluise, whose mile a minute delivery and improvisatory riffs are amongst Sextette’s highlights (there’s an unintentional moment of hilarity when Deluise’s character refers to Dalton’s character as “bigger than 007”—almost a full decade before Dalton portrayed James Bond in The Living Daylights!).

Filled with copious double entendres (“in ’69, I coxed with the entire crew”) and badly dated racial and homophobic humor, Sextette neither does Mae full justice nor serves as the embarrassing career footnote it’s long been considered. West basically portrays an older version of the character she always played: a strong-willed woman who likes men.

Unfortunately, the film suffers when old movie stars and modern day rockers are shoehorned into the proceedings via pointless cameo appearances. Starr is awful as director Karolny (referred to by Marlo as ‘The Son of Lubitsch’) and Alice Cooper’s appearance as a bewigged, ballad-singing bellboy is befuddling. Keith Moon does a bit better as a swishy couturier and even manages to work his infamous Robert Newton impersonation into the proceedings, but it’s sad to see Pidgeon and George Raft share screen time with the likes of Regis Philbin, Rona Barrett, and sports announcer Gil Stratton (who, when confronted by the bridal suite, breathlessly announces “oh, if only this bed could talk!”).

Sextette also suffers from poor production values: some exteriors were shot on location in central London, but all the interiors were shot in Hollywood, and it shows—badly. Director Ken Hughes didn’t even bother to crop out the incorrect hotel name (Regency Lafayette) from one scene, and the bit parts are filled with actors who barely attempt to disguise their American accents.

The musical sequences are, however, the real reason to watch Sextette: they’re atrocious but utterly riveting. From the Van McCoy-penned theme tune (‘Marlo/The Female Answer to Apollo!’) to the Love Will Keep Us Together duet tunelessly crooned by West and Dalton and the disco version of Baby Face, to the shoddily choreographed dance numbers (including a wretched Hooray for Hollywood, in which hoofing bellboys waggle bouquets of flowers to disastrous effect), these are once seen, never forgotten performances. A strangely effective version of The Beatles’ Honey Pie by Deluise is actually the best tune on offer, even though it calls to mind another 1978 movie musical, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts’ Club Band.

Sextette was previously available on DVD via Rhino Home Video,  and though it’s long been out of print, you can easily find copies on Ebay. The disc was, however, a bare bones edition, containing a full-frame print ported in from videotape with no extras. What we really need is a fully restored Sextette with a commentary track from the two primary surviving cast members, Timothy Dalton and George Hamilton, who surely have some remarkable tales to tell about their time working on this film. That’d truly be something worth singing about.

John Seal writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.

Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...