I’ve always been fascinated by the duality of Pre-Code cinema, which is talked up in classic film circles as a sin-fueled dungeon of excess, but in most cases simply uses outlandish scenarios to moralistic ends. Baby Face might be about a woman sleeping her way to the top of society, but Barbara Stanwyck still has to realize love is more important than all the riches she’s accrued. Scarface might glorify violence, but Paul Muni will still get his in the end. Indulgence and retreat; enjoy the highs, but shape up or be doomed. Similarly, in the 1970s, after the Motion Picture Production Code was shattered and a wave of sex-fueled odysseys came rushing to the screens, they tended to strike out familiar territory, using their exploitative qualities to reinforce the status quo. So it is with The Swinging Cheerleaders. Jack Hill’s 1974 cheapo gets high on its topless women and under-the-table groping, with a dash of feminist empowerment to balance the scales of gendered justice, but it is ultimately about a handful of radicals learning to quit being outsiders, join the team, and win the big game.
We’re no sooner introduced to the cheerleading tryouts than we are the school’s newspaper reporter who’s trying to infiltrate their league and expose their hypocrisy. Kate (Jo Johnston) has all the bona-fides of what an early-70s movie thinks a feminist is – she doesn’t wear a bra (and doesn’t care who sees what as a result), does wear the pants in her relationship (with a faux-intellectual journo-bro), and loves to call out the ways jock culture subjugates women…at least until the right jock comes along. And come he does. Buck (Ron Hajek) isn’t just the star quarterback. He’s practically being groomed for post-collegiate success by marrying into a prominent local family by way of their lovely daughter Mary Ann (Colleen Camp), who’s as culturally repressed as she is socially capable. She’s the captain of the cheer squad, and rooms with its other two leaders, Lisa (Rosanne Katon) and Andrea (Rainbeaux Smith). Lisa and Andrea know their romantic problems – an affair with a married professor and stress over maintaining virginity, respectively – but Mary Ann has no idea that Buck’s doing anything more than lightly flirting with new-recruit Kate. The movie’s steamier scenes detail everything more he’s doing with her.
Unless teacher/student dynamics and implied gang rapes are your thing, though, there’s not a lot else to get excited over, at least not in that way. Indeed, for as much as Andrea is encouraged to take control of her body and sexuality, the moment she stands up for herself and tries to take control of that arena, in come the beatings. Don’t worry, she’ll shrug them off before becoming too much of a buzzkill; what kinda movie do you think this is? It’s not that I’m saying a movie called The Swinging Cheerleaders needs to be a positive example for young women, but the film has exactly that push-pull I’m talking about where it wants to espouse progressive, sex-positive, feminist values only to knock down everyone who steps out of and elevate those who fall in. Movies don’t have to advocate for social justice – it’s just preferable to not pass off conformity as radicalism. Unite behind your regressive ideology!
Luckily, the film comes together considerably better behind its actors. Camp is the only one of the kids to go onto a semi-major career after this (most notably for all of us in Peter Bogdanovich’s masterpiece, They All Laughed), and she handily steals the show here, but Johnston – who never appeared in a single other film or television show – is not far behind. As saddled as she is with making a lot of stereotypes credible, she goes in the opposite direction to make them near-iconic. She swaggers in and out of scenes (and clothes) with incredible confidence and just a pinch of the amateur’s unease that lends Kate the awkwardness most college students silently possess. Her efforts as an actor to remain cool, calm, and in control reflect her character’s. None of the rest of the cast is as remarkable as these two, but they follow similar leads, toeing the line between a youthful earnestness with the demands that come with making a film in twelve days with a relatively-untrained cast. The adults take on more boarish roles, and perform them well.
Arrow’s releases feature such exemplary visual quality almost as a matter of course that it feels odd to keep calling them out, but suffice to say their new (region-free) Blu-ray edition of The Swinging Cheerleaders is par for the course. Considering how quickly and cheaply it was shot, it’s little wonder that the lighting they’re working with is a little all over the place, but their high-definition transfer features strong depth, detail, and a very rich celluloid texture. They don’t bury detail in the few times the frame leaves a great deal of black, and the color contrasts in particular look fantastic on this pretty colorful film. Damage is minimal. Interestingly, the film is presented in the 1.66:1 aspect ratio, which was extremely unusual for American films (it was the European standard at the time). All evidence I can find suggests Hill swears by this, but maybe he’s just screwing with us, I don’t know. At any rate, it’s not far off from the normal 1.85:1 in which it would have been presented theatrically, so it’s all good by me. (screencap via DVD Beaver)
And, you know, if you thought there was some dearth of thought to be had about The Swinging Cheerleaders, Arrow provides hours and hours of supplements just to prove you wrong. Feature-length commentary with Jack Hill? Check. A whole other interview with Hill? Absolutely. A Q&A at the New Beverly with Hill, Camp, and Katon? You’d be crazy NOT to include it? The real fun for me was an excerpt of an archival interview with cinematographer Alfred Taylor, who discusses frankly – but joyfully! – the production challenges of shooting a movie so quickly. I don’t want to say no one has ever put so much thought into this film, or certainly that the film is undeserving of it, but kudos to Arrow for culling and creating so much content for this disc.
I have my share of issues with the film, but I understand it has quite the cult audience (Hill is not shy about counting Quentin Tarantino among its more illustrious fans), and you know what? Why shouldn’t The Swinging Cheerleaders get a big deluxe Blu-ray edition anyway? Indeed, it is the age of miracles.