Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on May 19, 2016
TCM continues their month-long celebration of American International Pictures tonight with a series of films that showcase their efforts to capitalize on the youth zeitgeist of the 1960s. Movies scheduled to air include the original Beach Party (1963) along with more controversial fare such as the Roger Corman’s outlaw biker extravaganza The Wild Angels (1966), the experimental drug film The Trip (1967) which I wrote about a few months ago, and the political farce Wild in the Streets (1968). Tonight also marks the TCM debut of Three in the Attic (1968), a fairly bleak sex comedy that loosely dabbles in gender politics and became the studio’s highest grossing film of the decade. Despite its financial success and popularity with audiences, Three in the Attic has largely been forgotten and has yet to find its way onto DVD.
The film was the brainchild of Richard Wilson (The Big Boodle; 1957, Al Capone; 1959, Invitation to a Gunfighter; 1964, etc.), a longtime cohort of Orson Welles who had produced and acted in a number of Welles’s films including Citizen Kane (1941) The Lady from Shanghai (1947) and Macbeth (1948) before he started making his own movies. Wilson’s eighth directorial effort was Three in the Attic and it came about after he spotted an article by author Stephen Yafa in a 1967 issue of Playboy where the writer discussed his recent novel titled Paxton Quigley’s Had the Course. In the article, Yafa humorously explains that he wrote the book “. . . out of venomous contempt for all the claptrap I’d ever seen which presumed to examine the sex life of young Americans and succeeded only in vilifying our lower regions.” Wilson was intrigued by Yafa’s off-color sense of humor and he convinced American International Pictures to let him produce and direct an adaptation of the book retitled Three in the Attic.
The script, which was also penned by Yafa, involves a promiscuous college student named Paxton Quigley (Christopher Jones) who conducts clandestine affairs with three female coeds; a cute and clingy blond (Yvette Mimieux), a groovy bohemian brunette questioning her Jewish faith (Maggie Thrett), and a vivacious black southern beauty (Judy Pace). When the women become aware of Quigley’s deeds, the vengeful trio decide to team up and trap him in the attic of their fraternity house where they proceed to sexually exploit him for their pleasure.
Wilson’s film was noticeably influenced by The Graduate (1967) and includes a catchy folk rock score composed by the British due Chad and Jeremy that’s reminiscent of Simon and Garfunkel. It even concludes with a scene involving a bus but Three in the Attic is a raunchier and more playful picture that lacks the emotional and intellectual depth found in Mike Nichols’ work. Wilson’s film avoids the existential angst that nichols evoked and goes for below the belt laughs but its crude (for the period) language, reliance on sexual stereotypes and vulgar depiction of college life appealed to many viewers. Students along with curious thrill seekers flocked to Three in the Attic eager to see an onscreen depiction of the sexual revolution that was infiltrating campuses across the country. In addition, the promise of watching a quirky ménage à quatre depicted on screen made up of four attractive young people raised more than a few eyebrows.
On paper, the subject matter sounds more lurid than it is but besides a few modest glimpses of flesh, the only nudity audiences witness in Three in the Attic is Christopher Jones’s naked backside. This was somewhat of a radical break from convention and more than a few viewers must have wondered why there were no bare breasts on display. There is lots of suggested sex on screen but it’s creatively masked behind an array of filming techniques that include montages, quick cuts and freeze frames giving the film a psychedelic look that implies the characters are perpetually high on all the pot brownies they’re ingesting.
Sex, drugs and rock and roll make up the heart, soul and mind of Three in the Attic and its political aspirations seem muddled and conflicted. The film might dabble in free love and feminism but it resorts to old-fashioned ideas about boy-meets-girl romance that seem totally out of place. It also has some badly dated ideas about rape. Imprisoning a man in an attic and having three eager and willing females essentially rape him into submission was considered subversive and funny in 1968 but in 2016 some viewers will probably find it downright disturbing.
Today the movie is best remembered, if it’s remembered at all, as being the second film the late Christopher Jones made for American International Pictures after starring in Wild in the Streets playing a rebellious rock star who becomes president of the United States. Jones was a good-looking young man with a natural charisma who developed a cult following due his memorable roles in a number of counterculture films that benefited from his distinct presence. At the time he was often touted as the ‘James Dean’ of his generation and in Three in the Attic he seems particularly conscious of the critical comparison as he mumbles and slouches his way through the film but he also exhibits some genuine talent. His line delivery is always sincere even when the dialogue is ridiculous. In one particularly poignant scene, Jones challenges a group of frat boys belittling a stripper and displays a profundity for the material that the film doesn’t really deserve.
Jones’ romantic interests in the film include Yvette Mimieux, Maggie Thrett and the black American actress Judy Pace who was singled out by critics at the time of the film’s release for her beauty as well as her acting abilities. Pace really is a standout here due to her commitment to the character as well as her innate wit, sensuality and intelligence. She plays a smart college girl named Eulice, a budding artist and teacher who exhibits a strength and independence that the other women in the film lack. Eulice is the only woman on screen who seems to be in complete control of her sexuality and she seduces Christopher Jones’s character before he can seduce her.
It’s worth pointing out that one of American International Pictures greatest gifts to film audiences was its promotion of black actors. AIP provided many black performers including Pam Grier, Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, Marki Bey, William Marshall, Denise Nicholas, Vonetta McGee and Gloria Hendry with career defining roles that challenged prevalent Hollywood stereotypes at the time and deify easy categorization. Today we tend to use the term “blackploitation” when describing the majority of AIP’s output that put many black actors languishing in Hollywood to work but that term can undermine the accomplishments of those involved.
Judy Pace, who was discovered by B-movie maestro William Castle, was one of the first black actors that found regular employment with AIP appearing in three of their productions including Three in the Attic as well as its sequel Up in the Cellar (1970) and the eco-thriller Frogs (1972). In Tom Lisanti’s Fantasy Femmes of Sixties Cinema, Pace explains her working relationship with AIP defending them from critics who insist their films were purely exploitative fluff explaining that, “AIP took the the place of the B-movies after the studios started changing the star system. There were no longer contract players and starlets and a whole staff of people to put out all those B-movies. During the late sixties, everyone went freelance. You had no choice once the studio system collapsed. There was never a mention of race in regards to my characters in their movies. It was the time of the Civil Rights Movement and my color was never an issue. It was a very forward move for AIP.”
Pace goes on to express how much she enjoyed working with AIP and how important and progressive her role in Three in the Attic was adding, “This was the first time a black female was being romanced by a white male and they were equals. My character was neither a slave or a maid. She was a college student and he was a college student . . . Those kinds of characters were not on screen at that time. They didn’t exist.”
Three in the Attic may not be a forgotten masterpiece but it is an interesting cultural curio with some surprisingly progressive notions about race. It also has the distinction of being one of the first films to depict a sexual relationship between a white man and a black woman and their sexy entanglement, as well as the unexpected complexity Pace and Jones bring to their roles, is worth the price of admission. The movie also deserves a place in film history as one of the earliest examples of a sex comedy aimed at youths and its campus setting makes it, for better or worse, an important predecessor to films such as Animal House (1978), Porky’s (1982), and more recently the American Pie (1999-2012), Harold & Kumar (2004-2011) and Neighbors (2014-2016) film franchises. To its credit, Three in the Attic is a hell of a lot more interesting, innovative, forward-thinking and self-aware than many of its ‘modern’ descendants.
As I previously mentioned,the film was so popular that AIP decided to produce a sequel in 1970 titled Up in the Cellar that was written and directed by funny man Theodore J. Flicker (The Troublemaker; 1964, The President’s Analyst; 1967, etc.) but Judy Pace is the only original cast member who makes an appearance. The plot involves a student (Wes Stern) who seduces the daughter (Judy Darling), wife (Joan Collins) and mistress (Judy Pace) of the college dean (Larry Hagman). It didn’t garner the kind of attention heaped on Three in the Attic and sunk at the box office. By 1970, the film’s sexual politics appeared even more dated but in some regards it’s a funnier and more edgy film.
Catch Three in the Attic late tonight (or early tomorrow morning) when it makes its debut on TCM at 3:15 AM EST / 12:15 AM PST.
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