Before Easy Rider changed the way Hollywood looked at 1960s youth culture, filmmakers–most of whom were senior citizens at the time–created bizarre works that tried to capture what kids were into. Enter The Swinger (1966), starring Ann-Margret and Tony (“The Finder of Lost Loves”) Franciosa and directed by George Sidney, who was responsible for some of the great musicals of the ’50s and ’60s, including Viva Las Vegas. This movie tries so hard to be subversive and risque, yet, like most such movies of the period, its message is ultimately conservative and chaste.
After a fantastic opening credit sequence with triple-threat Ann-Margret singing and dancing to the theme song, the film establishes its edginess with an opening montage of seedy L.A. culture (porn theaters, strip clubs, etc.), narrated by the lecherous Sir Hubert Charles, owner and publisher of the men’s magazine Girl Lure. Sir Hubert’s office is the reason why sexual harassment became illegal, and the place makes Sterling Cooper look like, I don’t know, a monastery? Little House on the Prairie? A purity ring ceremony? Something like that. The office is equipped with a siren to let people know when he’s “busy,” a completely automated wet bar, remote controls for the stereo and fireplace, and a bed that pops out of the wall.
Ann-Margret is Kelly Olsson, a young writer from St. Paul (shorthand for “Virgin Town”) who wants to break out by writing short stories for Girl Lure. Her stories, however, are rejected because they’re too chaste. But before she’s rejected, she gets offered a nude modeling gig by editor Ric Colby (Tony Franciosa). “I’m not a nudie,” Kelly responds, “I’m a writer.” Obviously, she’s not aware she could be both, like the great Edith Wharton.
Kelly returns to the crazy hopping commune where she lives with hippies making generic protest signs in case something to protest comes up and a middle-aged vice cop who likes to paint. Kelly decides that if she’s going to get published in this sleazy men’s magazine, she will have to stop writing her Ladies’ Home Journal stories. Why she’s not trying to get published in Ladies’ Home Journal instead, we never find out. She does some research in “lurid paperbacks” with names like Rape Girl Rape and Sex-Girl. She also manages to dance while she reads, which is pretty amazing.
During this research, Sidney gives us a great photo-montage where Kelly imagines herself as a character on a pulp novel cover. The movie uses this technique a couple of more times, but never quite to this effect. She then begins her writing, amalgamating all the trashy fiction she just read. She composes the novel Kerouac-style–on a long scroll in a single, feverish fit of composition.
Kelly submits her novel to Girl Lure by confronting Ric in the magazine’s men’s room, which includes a sauna and steam bath (interestingly, this is also how Edith Wharton got Ethan Frome published). Ric, however, rejects the novel less on its content and more on his own prejudice against youth culture. He also claims that the novel lacks verisimilitude, which leads Kelly to claim that her “Swinger” character is based on her own experiences!
In order to prove that she is as wild as her fictional self, Kelly stages a bacchanal for Sir Hubert and Ric, where her commune buddies use her as a paintbrush for their giant abstract painting. This scene can best be described as “gooey.” They also stage a vice raid with the help of their cop roommate, since the L.A. vice squad really has nothing better to do.
From here on, Ric believes that Kelly really is the swinger, so he decides to straighten her out, Pygmalion-style. Much to the chagrin of his fiancee (and Sir Hubert’s daughter), Ric lets Kelly crash at his bachelor pad. From there, hijinks ensue as Kelly tries to sabotage Ric’s relationship. Some of her seduction techniques include luring Ric into the shower fully clothed (good idea!) and feigning alcohol detox (not so good!).
Kelly also has to fend off the advances of Sir Hubert in his office/sex dungeon. He chases her around the office, just like he does with his own secretary, until he collapses from exhaustion. In this scene, the movie proves that attempted rape can be hilarious when shown at comically high speed. This technique also works for the pinball machine scene in The Accused.
Ric eventually figures out that Kelly is a fake, and in order to expose her, he puts her through a photo-shoot meant to recreate some of “The Swinger’s” exploits: dealer in an illegal gambling den, street walker, stripper, etc. She proves that she’s not very good at any of these jobs. He then takes her to a sleazy motel and chases her around the room, Sir Hubert-style. This scene is even shot with a hand-held camera to give it an extra-uncomfortable sense of creepy realism.
Things get really crazy from here, and the plot defies easy summary. The movie, in fact, goes completely off the rails in a final chase scene, where Kelly on a motorcycle and Ric in stolen police car crash head on and apparently die. I am not kidding about that. Then, in what might be some kind of nod to the magical realist works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez (but probably not), Sir Hubert in voiceover states that this is a terrible ending, and the film rewinds so that the crash never occurs. Instead, Ric and Kelly rush into each other’s arms.
Ann-Margret’s sexy performance carries things here, and the filmmakers were smart enough to let her sing a couple of times. Also, she completely outshines Franciosa, who was always a subpar Burt Lancaster impersonator. This movie was released mere months before Easy Rider changed the way youth movies were made, but it’s a fascinating artifact of a time when Hollywood was trying desperately to grasp what kids wanted. The film is quaint in its weak attempts at subversiveness, and George Sidney even takes stabs at some unconventional filmmaking techniques. But it’s also a movie that feels like it was dated the moment it hit the streets.