Thursday, March 24, 2016

"With Her, It Would Be Different:" 1001 EROTIC NIGHTS: THE STORY OF SCHEHERAZADE

In the summer of 1982, Edwin and Summer Browns 1001 Erotic Nights: The Story of Scheherazade was released by Essex Distributing to adult film theaters across the U.S. and became a huge crossover hit with a large audience of men, women, and couples.  Essex’s one-sheet poster for the film stressed its high production values and excellent reviews in men’s magazines, touting “the first million-dollar adult X-travaganza” as reigning queen of adult cinema Annette Haven, elegantly and demurely costumed in a flowing patterned diaphanous green gown, towered over critics’ blurbs which included the sine qua non “100% - Hustler’s highest rating ever!”  The film was a hardcore adaptation of The Arabian Nights and starred Haven as the harem girl Scheherazade and John Leslie as the Persian ruler Shahryar (cheekily re-named, as I will detail below) to whom Scheherazade told stories each night to forestall her planned execution at dawn, a result of the Sultan’s bitter refusal to trust a woman after being betrayed by the Sultana (Lisa de Leeuw) and his trusted General Sargon (Herschel Savage).  Scheherazade’s tales are enacted by West Coast adult cinema’s most popular and photogenic performers in a series of very stylish erotic set-pieces which move the film through the genre’s array of explicit and varied “numbers.”  In the figure of Scheherazade, the Browns had found a protagonist around whom to construct a film which could effectively showcase the Annette Haven star persona, mobilize many of the most common conventions of the adult historical costume picture, and use the portmanteau structure of the movie’s source material to motivate an episodic narrative which was often seen as lowering the artistic pedigree of erotic films.

         Edwin and Summer Brown were a married team of adult filmmakers who worked under both their given names and a number of pseudonyms.  In the credits of 1001 Erotic Nights, they appear as “Steven Lucas and Sondra Winters.”  The Browns had produced and directed Haven’s breakthrough film, the espionage thriller China Girl in 1974 for 1975 release, and they had worked with her again on For The Love of Pleasure in 1979.

       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.
Haven’s second project with the Browns, the fantasy psychodrama For the Love of Pleasure (1979) made the connection between these elements quite explicit: Haven plays the spectral character Shiva, named after the male Hindu god who was slayer of dragons and patron saint of yoga and the arts.  Shiva leads the film’s protagonist, the recently-deceased, selfish sociopath Simon (Jamie Gillis) through a series of sexual experiences which eventually sensitize him to the boredom of shallow gluttony and lust so he can experience the agony of their unremitting indulgence for all eternity.

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.
1001 Erotic Nights is suffused with this sensibility from its opening image of a map of Asia Minor with a spot marked “You Are Here” while the narrator informs us that John Leslie’s character is a distant relative of Genghis Khan named Sultan Shaka Khan.  Less than a minute later, the threesome between the Sultana, General Sargon, and the Dancing Boy (Joey Silvera) is scored with a sitar rendition of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” which has been altered just enough to avoid copyright injunction.  A consultation between the Sultan and his astrologer (Sean Desmond) self destructs into a “That’s Good?” / “No, that’s bad” routine from television’s rural variety show Hee Haw, and the noblewoman in one of Scheherazade’s tales (Nicole Black) soothes a hesitant fisherman (Jon Martin) about to climb into bed with her young daughters Alana (Lysa Thatcher) and Helen (Tigr) by telling him, “Take them if you like.  They’re over eighteen.”

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.  

The star-making discourse surrounding adult film actresses largely took place through often-exhausting dance tours and public appearances, photo spreads in soft-core men’s magazines, and in Haven’s case, monthly adult magazine columns in which she answered readers’ questions and shared her thoughts on the adult industry, the changing role of women in society, and the perilous state of sexual awareness in the U.S.  But even Haven’s box-office smashes Desires Within Young Girls (an explicit reworking of 1953’s How to Marry a Millionaire which made Variety’s list of top-grossing films during its April release in 1977) and Sex World (1978) did not feature her image on the movies’ artist-rendered posters and ad slicks.

1001 Erotic Nights was a star vehicle in the classic sense:  The film was conceived with Haven in mind and mobilizes recurrent motifs from her earlier films and even serves as an allegory of her career in adult cinema:  The character of the harem girl Scheherazade, whose name is chosen at random from a basket of tiles to spend one doomed night with the Sultan, is emblematic of the young Annette Haven, who began her career in adult films in 1973 as just another of many young women who were paid to have sex on camera by Bay Area adult filmmakers but who, in the words of the narrator of 1001 Erotic Nights, “promised herself that with her, it would be different.”  The headlong rush to narrative and sexual climax characteristic of loops, one-day wonders, and program features would with Haven be redirected into a more open-ended, character-focused exploration of human sexuality, and like the Sultan, the male adult film viewer would be offered the chance to slowly move from a position of assumed phallocentric power and privilege to gradually embody a softer and more reciprocal sexual subjectivity.  Scheherazade, steeped in both literature and science as well as “the secret techniques of Kama, the Hindu god of love and pleasure,” is a re-imagining of Haven herself, who
Haven at a personal appearance in 
      the early 1980s.  She may or 
      may not be talking about science.
not only appeared in magazine photo spreads but penned articles on a wide range of subjects in the same magazines and coaxed questions from shy audiences at dancing engagements by talking about chemistry and physics until a fan finally interrupted the lecture with a question about her. Haven’s well-publicized disdain for the ending of every male/female sex scene with a cum shot and her refusal to shoot scenes of male actors ejaculating onto her face are echoed in the temerity of Scheherazade to refuse the Sultan the narrative satisfaction at dawn that would mean the end of her life.

         Haven proved very adept at engaging the film audience in all manner of stories.  She played the female lead in character study dramas such as Visions of Clair, V-The Hot One, Soft Places (all 1978), and Peaches and Cream (1981) for Robert McCallum (the x-business pseudonym of Orson Welles’ cinematographer Gary Graver) and other filmmakers as well as screwball comedies produced by Harold Lime such as Desires Within Young Girls, Co-Ed Fever (1980) and Center Spread Girls (1982) directed by Graver and others.  A third group of films develop and extend many of the motifs from her first two films with the Browns, China Girl and For The Love of Pleasure. Anthropologist Auclaire May in Haven’s sole directorial effort, Once Upon A Time She Was (1977), Ieia the Dream Writer in F - And Lots of It, Janice in High School Memories (both 1980) and Madame Lau in The Seven Seductions (1981) are all teacher, guide or sex surrogate figures, often associated with Asian or non-Western sexual imagery, who orchestrate the sexual adventures of other characters in the film and eventually teach an arrogant, powerful, and selfish man to slow down, pay attention, and be a more present and attentive lover.  
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
Remarking on these recurrent elements, Haven says, “At that point, they were writing parts for me, and I think that was how they saw my personality. . . When they tried to figure out what kind of fantasy I would fit into, a teacher was what must have come to mind.”

1001 Erotic Nights was the richest and most detailed elaboration of these themes and motifs.  After the treasonous adulterous threesome in the first reel, Scheherazade speaks or controls all of the sexual acts that occur for the rest of the film.  Edwin Brown’s dialog mimics the phrasing and restraint of Hollywood’s Production Code-era Arabian epics, enabling Haven to use a very coy indirection in her description of sexual acts that we see in unflinching detail.  Words like “cock,” “pussy,” “fuck,” “suck,” and “cum” are heard nowhere on the soundtrack.  Bryan Costales' production design also modestly but very stylishly imitates Hollywood exotic and biblical films such as Universal’s Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1944) and Paramount’s Samson and Delilah (1949) in its displacement of a powerful female sexuality onto the luxurious and symbolic textures of curtains, veils, drapes, and other aspects of set design and mise-en-scène.

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

Another tradition of erotic display which serves to upscale the sexual spectacle in 1001 Erotic Nights is the 19th century Orientalist tradition in French painting, in particular the recurrent subject of the odalisque or harem girl posing nude in a recumbent position, often next to a servant, musician, or eunuch attendant.  The most famous of these paintings is Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres' 1814 work, "La Grande Odalisque," 

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. 

In the film’s penultimate scene, the Sultan has fallen in love with Scheherazade, and the connection between narrative closure and sexual climax is made explicit when Scheherazade skillfully fellates the Sultan and, just as he nears orgasm, stops her ministrations, smiles, and purrs, “Tomorrow.”  The final lovemaking scene between Haven and Leslie is shot and edited to emphasize the exhilaration of their long hoped-for consummation, and as their bodies writhe with passion, the camera begins a long and slow track out away from them, and the film ends not with the Sultan’s ejaculation but with the tent curtain, which has framed, stood in for, and showcased female sexuality for the entire film, closing in front of the camera and blocking our view of the couple.  
The closing shot.
Here, the endlessly deferred narrative gratification of Scheherazade’s tales and the reciprocity of desire and the mutual exchange of pleasure told within them have subsumed the film in which they are contained and point to a sexuality outside of the hormonal urgency of the male rush to ejaculation to one that is flowing, abundant, and self-renewing.  Through the singular collaboration of its producer, writer, director, and star, 1001 Erotic Nights invites a ticket-buying movie audience to imagine what this form of sexuality might look like and exemplifies an erotic cinema that can portray and celebrate it.

"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.


  1. Great blog post. The poster art for the film reminds me of Cleopatra. Annette Haven is like a Liz Taylor of adult cinema.

  2. Great blog post. The poster art for the film reminds me of Cleopatra. Annette Haven is like a Liz Taylor of adult cinema.