Haven tells the story of being cast in China Girl only because she could pronounce “deoxyribonucleic acid” at her audition for the role of scientist Teresa Hartgrave, but during the shoot, Haven and the Browns discovered that they shared a common vision of a more artistic adult cinema and the working methods likely to bring it into being: Haven worked closely with producer Summer, writer and director Edwin, and cinematographer Teru Hayashi to develop a singular approach to the choreography and direction of her sex scenes and to establish key elements of her star persona which would be varied and expanded upon in a range of films for the rest of the decade. Haven insisted that all of the sex scenes, including those of erotic torture orchestrated by the villainous Madame Woo (Pamela Yen) to extract secrets from the kidnapped scientists, proceed in an unhurried fashion and showcase much eye contact and fingertip touching between the performers, emphasizing whole-body sexuality rather than an obsessive focus on the genitals. In addition, cinematographer Hayashi doubled as the film’s body make-up artist, and Haven required thereafter that her films carefully integrate body make-up, lighting, and cinematography to showcase her fair complexion and give her body an alabaster glow during scenes of nudity and sex. China Girl also introduced two elements which would be a recurrent feature of many of Haven’s subsequent films, namely an emphasis on Orientalist, non-western sexual discourses and techniques and a central female character who is an Aphrodite-like “mistress of the dance” orchestrating the procession of sexual numbers and the related emotional journeys of the characters who surround her.
|At first, Madame Woo orchestrates the sexual|
experiences of her interrogation subject
|Impervious to Madame Woos' sexual |
torture, the intellectually and sexually
powerful Teresa seizes control of
the erotic journeys of the other
characters, including that
of Madame Woo herself.
|Shiva casts and choreographs Simon's|
sexual and psychological odyssey
in the afterlife.
1001 Erotic Nights achieved the rare feat of crossing over from the adult film audience to become a hit with moviegoers who were not habitués of x-rated theaters. Throughout the era of theatrical distribution, individual adult movies used a number of strategies to stand out within a genre that the larger movie-going public mistakenly assumed consisted of interchangeable films.
Some porn films used a topical theme from current events, news stories, or popular fads in films such as CB Mamas (1977) and Lure of the Triangle (1978). 1001 Erotic Nights mobilized established conventions of adult cinema’s variations or burlesques on contemporary Hollywood hits, classic films, popular songs, or well-known stories, as did A Coming of Angels (1977) Dracula Sucks aka Lust at First Bite, Sex World (both 1978), Vista Valley PTA (1981), and Urban Cowgirls (1982).
While some of the above films attempted to evoke the doomed Romanticism found in popular plays and novels and their later adaptations by the Archers, Hammer Films, and other mainstream film studios,* 1001 Erotic Nights takes the more common path of exploiting the comic potential in remaking a well-known story as an explicit erotic film. The template for this type of film, which erotic filmmakers employ to this very day in their ubiquitous porn parodies of Hollywood hits, does not come from the adult industry at all but from Tony Richardson's Tom Jones (1963). Richardson’s film constantly uses historical anachronism as a comic device in the musical score, voice-over narration, actors’ performances, and intrusive flourishes of film style while subtly recasting Fielding’s 18th-century novel as a parable of the emancipatory yearnings of postwar youth set against the hypocrisy of their elders.
|Eagle-eyed adult film fans will spot the source for dozens of|
comic motifs and bits of business from their favorite x-rated
costume pictures in Tony Richardson's 1963 hit.
Even more than high production values and a remarkable level of style and wit, the dominant structuring element in both Essex’s publicity and the film itself was the larger-than-life presence of Annette Haven in the title role. 1001 Erotic Nights was part of an early-eighties production trend of higher-budget star vehicles showcasing the adult industry’s most popular and accomplished female performers. This trend also included Rockin’ With Seka, Insatiable starring Marilyn Chambers (both 1980), Deep Inside Annie Sprinkle and Roommates with Samantha Fox, Veronica Hart, and Kelly Nichols (both 1981). Although female stars had been crucial to adult cinema’s crossover from as early as Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door in 1972, for much of the seventies, one-sheet posters and newspaper ads for even the most upscale releases had focused on a piquant title, a barely-printable double entendre tag line, and a bold and eye catching graphic design (see the poster for Lure of the Triangle, above). Commercial designer and adult film director Armand Weston, who helmed the award-winning Expose Me Lovely (1975) and the aforementioned Take Off, also designed the posters and newspaper ads for dozens of porn features, and many distributors considered his work as central to a film’s eventual success as its cast or production values.
|Haven at a personal appearance in |
the early 1980s. She may or
may not be talking about science.
|For the Love of Pleasure|
|F - And Lots of It|
|The Seven Seductions|
|1001 Erotic Nights|
The Fisherman and the Noblewoman
|1001 Erotic Nights|
Scheherazade and the Sultan
|Samson and Delilah (1948)|
|1001 Erotic Nights|
Scheherazade's sexual power reflected in the fire light
|Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1944)|
|1001 Erotic Nights|
but by late-century elements of the paintings had coalesced a genre of their own, and exemplars included Louis Courtat's 1888 painting, "L'Odalisque."
Brown and Hayashi introduce Scheherazade in a similar recumbent pose. In a moving Odalisque painting with symphonic sound, the camera pans slowly across Haven's body, from her bare feet to the back of her head while Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade" suite plays on the soundtrack. When her name is mentioned at the end of the violin solo, Scheherazade turns her head to face the viewer. Even Vincent Fronzcek's publicity photos of Haven promoting the film evoke Orientalist French painting.
Understatement and stylization also characterize the device of framing the sexual numbers through Scheherazade’s narration, which helps distance a diverse audience of women and couples from sexual scenarios which might otherwise seem regressive or indulging a puerile male sexual entitlement, such as the Prince (Paul Thomas) initiating sex with the sleeping Mariko (Mai Linn) or the fisherman’s dalliance with the noblewoman’s young daughters. In fact, even within Scheherazade’s tale of the poor fisherman, the noblewoman instructs the fisherman on the technique and direction of their sexual encounters. Their first meeting consists of mutual masturbation from across her bedchamber, and in an unusual tonal accent for an erotic film made for a predominantly straight male audience, Hayashi’s camera lingers quite lovingly on Jon Martin’s masturbatory strokes and invites the viewer to see his self-pleasuring through the noblewoman’s eyes as a fascinating object of contemplation. In almost every scene, erotic touch and attention are focused on the whole body, male or female, and the scenes proceed at a languid, almost entranced pace. Hands are by far the most active and expressive sexual tools on display in the film, and the array of genital touch which the women provide to each other in many scenes and which the noblewoman teaches the fisherman to give resemble more the practices of a skilled and sensitive lover than the stylized and formulaic groping seen in much conventional moving-image pornography. Other than the fisherman’s masturbation to orgasm for the visual pleasure of the noblewoman and General Sargon’s ejaculation onto the back of the Sultana, the cum shots in the film are what the contemporary adult industry calls “female completion,” in which the women control the men’s pleasure and bring them to orgasm with their hands.
|The closing shot.|
"Eddie loved women," Haven recalls of Brown, "and he loved beauty. . . When he and Summer put a project together, they always knew exactly what they wanted to capture, and they had everything planned out and ready to go." Haven retired from the adult industry when home video led to lower budgets and both producers and talent seemed to be in denial about the risk of HIV. In the mid-1980s, the Browns, who had retained the rights to their Essex films and signed a distribution agreement with VCA, produced another cycle of couples-oriented adult films under the various names Edwin Brown, Edwin Durell, and Sondra Winters. The success of the Ladies Own Erotica series of books by the pseudonymous Kensington Ladies Erotica Society inspired the Browns to produce two portmanteau adult films based on a women's erotic storytelling group, Every Woman Has a Fantasy (1984) and Every Woman Has a Fantasy 2 (1985) as well as a sequel to the Scheherazade story, 1001 Erotic Nights, The Sequel: The Forbidden Tales (1986). While these films were well-made and stylish and proved to have wide erotic appeal (John Leslie is in peak comic form as Ben, the husband in the Fantasy films), VCA's production budgets were noticeably lower than those provided by Essex, and the lack of a charismatic female star at the center of the proceedings made it more difficult to keep the the story-within-a-story from becoming a mere pretext to carry sexual vignettes, however compellingly staged and performed. Still, their films stood out for their sophistication and couples appeal and were huge hits in the rental market. 1001 Erotic Nights represents the prestige hardcore costume picture designed for theatrical crossover on the eve of its extinction, and it both points toward some of the strategies which would be widely adopted in the home video era and serves as a meditation on the career of star Annette Haven, the Browns' muse and key collaborator.
*An indispensable study of 1970s hardcore adaptations of Gothic novels is Laura Helen Marks, Porning the Victorians: Erotic Adaptions and Gothic Desire, forthcoming.
Thanks to Larry Revene for explaining the shifts in marketing adult films in the 1970s and to Casey Scott for providing background on Essex Distributing. This essay could never have been written without the gracious and generous cooperation of Annette Haven, who patiently answered detailed questions about her work with the Browns, Gary Graver, and other filmmakers and who consulted her own detailed records on many aspects of her career.