Sex Kittens Go to College
Films in BOLD will Air on TCM * | VIEW TCMDb ENTRY
If Albert Zugsmith had never gone into pictures, he would retain honorable mention in the pantheon of American popular culture simply for being the first lawyer to represent Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in their profit sharing suit against Detective Comics. Unable to lead his clients to victory in 1948 (the resulting settlement awarded Siegel and Shuster crushingly inadequate recompense and denied them credit for future Superman adventures), Zugsmith drifted to Hollywood, having amassed in his 38 years sufficient wealth to do what he damn well pleased. After backing a couple of movies from the Columbia Pictures' B-hive, Zugsmith landed at Universal-International, where he produced the Joan Crawford dud Female on the Beach (1955), Douglas Sirk's Academy Award-winning Written on the Wind (1956), Jack Arnold's science fiction classic The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), and Orson Welles' expressionistic Touch of Evil (1958). A chance encounter in the Universal commissary brought "Zug" into contact with one Joan Lucille Olander, a former Miss Palm Springs and Vargas Girl who had been discovered by Howard Hughes and renamed Mamie Van Doren.
Over the objections of U-I executives, Zugsmith cast Van Doren in the equivalent of the Grace Kelly role in Star in the Dust (1956), the studio's answer to High Noon (1952). The pair would make seven pictures together, albeit mostly away from Universal City. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had hired Zugsmith to produce a series of films catering to the tastes of teenaged moviegoers. First out of the gate was High School Confidential! (1958), with Van Doren contributing little more than an alluring cameo as protagonist Russ Tamblyn's highly inappropriate aunt. By the mid-Fifties, the predatory Hollywood gossip mag Confidential had accrued such a compellingly nasty reputation even in Middle America that producers began to cash in on the brand, resulting in such films as Phil Karlson's Kansas City Confidential (1952), Russell Rouse's New York Confidential (1955), and Sidney Salkow's Chicago Confidential (1957). Zugsmith chased High School Confidential with College Confidential (1960) and capped the academic trilogy with Sex Kittens Go to College (1960), both of which elevated Van Doren from special effect to star of the show.
Though it was released third, Sex Kittens Go to College was the second school-set film for Zugsmith and Van Doren, shot in November and December 1959 but vaulted for almost a year before being sent out to cinemas in October 1960, two months after College Confidential. The film had undergone a number of title changes, from Sexpot Goes to College to Teacher Versus Sexpot to Teacher Was a Sexpot, before Zugsmith and MGM compromised with the less salacious term "sex kitten." (The film would undergo yet another title change for television syndication, to The Beauty and the Robot.) Taking a tip from Howard Hawks' Ball of Fire (1941), the film posits Van Doren as Dr. Mathilda West, a stripper turned scholar who crashes the groves of academe as the newly-hired head of Collins College's science department. Her curvy corporeality a distraction to the student body, West is snubbed by the college deans but her insight into human psychology allows her to bewitch male colleagues John Carradine and Louis Nye, win the heart of public relations director Martin Milner, and save the school from gangsters Mickey Shaughnessy and Allan Drake, who want the school's master-computer THINKO to find them racetrack winners.
With its focus on teen hormones, organized crime, and weird science, Sex Kittens Go to College anticipated American International Pictures' Beach Party franchise (Annette Funicello would play a sexy biology prof in Ski Party in 1965) and Disney's Medfield College comedies (particularly 1969's The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes). Scripted by Zugsmith and Robert Hill, the film feels improvisational in execution and more than a little half-assed but one would have to have a heart of stone to be left unmoved by its Psychotronic excesses. In addition to the talent already mentioned, Tuesday Weld turns up in an early role (Weld was often seen around Hollywood riding bitch on the back of Van Doren's Vespa), as does Brigitte Bardot's kid sister Mijanou, country singer Conway Twitty, Jackie Coogan, Los Angeles TV horror hostess Vampira, the Westinghouse robot Elektro from the 1939 World's Fair, and the sons of Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. Zugsmith's oddest casting coup was hiring nightclub comic Allan Drake to play the gangster Legs Raffertino less than a month after Drake's wife, former Miss New Jersey Janice Hansen, was murdered in New York in the company of Genovese crime family caporegime Anthony "Little Augie" Carfano.
Conceived to divert the in-crowd out for kicks and entirely unconcerned with critical approbation, Sex Kittens Go to College fared poorly with critics. The film's dismal reputation followed it through the decades, with Leonard Maltin declaring it "shockingly unfunny" and All Movie Guide's Hal Erikson branding it "garbage." Zugsmith would complete one more film in conjunction with a major studio - The Private Life of Adam and Eve (1960) - before going rogue with the comic strip spinoff Dondi (1961) starring a pre-Fugitive David Janssen and Confessions of an Opium Eater (1962) starring Vincent Price, both distributed via Allied Artists. The maverick independent hired on to direct select scenes for the international co-production Dog Eat Dog (1964), starring Mamie Van Doren's bombshell rival Jayne Mansfield, and capped his picaresque career with a diversion into soft core pornography. He co-produced Russ Meyer's Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1964) before testing the waters with his own The Incredible Sex Revolution (1965), Psychedelic Sexualis (1966), and The Very Friendly Neighbors (aka The Outrageous, Un-Believable, Mechanical Love Machine, 1969). Zugsmith's final film was the grade-Z rape revenge tale Violated! (1974), starring hardcore porn actress Rene Bond.
By Richard Harland Smith
Playing the Field: Sex, Stardom, Love, and Life in Hollywood by Mamie van Doren (Starlet Suave Books, 2013)
Atomic Blonde: The Films of Mamie Van Doren by Barry Lowe (McFarland and Company, 2008)
"Albert Zugsmith's Opium Dreams" by C. Jerry Kutner, Bright Lights Film Journal, no. 20, November 1997
The Movies Go to College: Hollywood and the World of the College-Life Film by Wiley Lee Umphlett (Farleigh Dickinson University, 1984)
Engulfed: The Death of Paramount Pictures and the Birth of Corporate Hollywood by Bernard F. Dick (University of Kentucky, 2001)
Russ Meyer: The Life and Films by David K. Frasier (McFarland & Company, Inc., 1997)