Pretty Maids All in A Row goes where Gene Roddenberry often went before

As a Star Trek fan, I have read a lot of articles and books about Gene Roddenberry. Roddenberry, who (as most know)created the show, is often portrayed as a saintly figure… a visionary and brilliant storyteller with great optimism and hope about the future. Other writers covering Roddenberry’s life highlighted his womanizing, his credit-grabbing, and his adultery… detailing a man who was a deeply flawed human being.

Where does the truth lie? I have no idea, because I never met the man. I know him through his work, through his creations… and what I do know for certain is above all else he was a thinker, an idea man. Like George Lucas a decade later, he had a lot of very distinct notions… ideas that became the key concepts of that thing we know as Star Trek: The Original Series… and for that alone, he is worthy of recognition and praise.

But, like Lucas… Roddenberry needed smart collaborators around him to execute his vision effectively. When he was making Trek, those collaborators were Robert Justman, Matt Jeffries, William Theiss, Herb Solow, D.C. Fontana, and many others. When both were in full control, when they were the only writer as well as the man in charge… well, things don’t go very well.

For Lucas, the example of this is the (rightly criticized) Star Wars prequels. For Roddenberry, it is the 1971 movie Pretty Maids All In a Row.

I had read about Pretty Maids All in a Row many years ago, when I was looking at Roddenberry post-Star Trek history, and before The Motion Picture. Roddenberry wrote Pretty Maids… (based on a novel by Francis Pollini) as well as produced the film, and the movie was a box office flop. Even still, the movie developed a cult following (The IMDB reviews positively gush over it)… and Quentin Tarantino considers it one of the best movies EVER MADE.

Well, I finally saw the film this week… and, sorry, Quentin… this movie is a mess. And the blame falls squarely at the feet of Gene Roddenberry’s script.

Here is a quick plot summary. Rock Hudson plays the alpha-male Vice-Principal of a high school Tiger McDrew (and he’s also the guidance counselor and football coach, for some reason). He is cheating on his stunningly beautiful wife with his female students… as well as grooming a protégé to take his place when he becomes Principal, an insecure sexually frustrated male student who has yet to even “touch a naked breast.”

When a beautiful young female student is killed, Telly Savalas (!) along with his partner James Doohan (!) show up to investigate. Oh, and Angie Dickinson plays a substitute teacher who is as sexually frustrated as Tiger’s protégé and… well, I won’t detail what happens because it’s obvious the moment the two characters meet.

The script is a mess, with dialogue that is cloying, pretentious and often sexist. The female characters are either sex crazed victims-in-waiting or clichés (No wonder Quentin Tarantino loves this movie). Angie Dickinson, as the female lead, is beautiful to look at but the character is insulting to any woman who has an IQ above room temperature.

Gene Roddenberry was rumored to have used his “casting couch” to enjoy himself with many beautiful women when he was making Trek, and it’s seems to me that many of the trysts Tiger has in his office was written by someone who was quite familiar with such subject matter. To go a step further, I think that Rock Hudson is playing a hyper-real version of Roddenberry himself… Hudson’s character in the movie is even a writer! The main character manipulates and uses women to get what he wants and when they threaten the balanced life he has created for himself… he gets rid of them.

I don’t know how much of the plot is from the book and how much came from Roddenberry, but even if the movie is a direct, no-embellishments adaptation.. The fact that Roddenberry was drawn to the material to adapt it tells us a lot about the man. If there is any doubt the sexism that is often present in the original Star Trek originated with Roddenberry… well, this movie confirms it.

There is some good stuff in this film: William Theiss, who did the amazing costumes on Star Trek, does the costuming here… and as a direct result the women look stunning (and Dickinson wears an outfit an hour in that will make all red-blooded men watching… um… stand at attention). It’s nice to see James Doohan act without his Scotty accent, even though he only gets four lines. Director Roger Vadim again demonstrates that, after making Barbarella, his greatest skill is making women look sexy as hell. And the supporting cast is great: Roddy McDowell, Keenan Wynn, William Campbell… some wonderful character actors doing good work with weak material.

Pretty Maids All in a Row is not a BAD film… it’s just not a very good one. I was really hoping to like it, but I was so taken aback by the thin plotting and dialogue that I just couldn’t get into it. Fans call it a “dark comedy” and I question that classification: It’s dark, but rarely funny. But frequently misogynistic.

Roddenberry tried a couple of times to create something after Trek, returning to TV after Pretty Maids flopped… but none of it worked. So, he returned back to the final frontier… and thankfully, he was once again surrounded by talented people were not beholden to follow it. The result: a run of successful films, movies that had very little input or direction from Roddenberry. The next time Gene Roddenberry had anything close to full control over Trek was the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Need I say more?

Joseph Dickerson is a user experience professional and UX Lead for Microsoft based out of Atlanta, GA. He has implemented processes in user testing, design and ethnographic research and provided design and consulting services for many different projects and organizations.

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