A naughty, mind-opening artifact from a more sexually liberated era? Fuck that. If anything, The Stewardesses proves that the 1960s were hardly a heyday for free love on both sides of the gender divide. And the movie seems to know it, given its proto-Requiem for a Dream finale in which a Zodiacally-misguided hookup ends in death for both (but still the woman’s fault). And damned if men didn’t drag their women to see it; for two weeks in 1971, it was listed in Variety as the top-grossing film in the country.
The Stewardesses is for all but the last 10 minutes a vapid, happy-go-fucky taxonomy of the nighttime rituals of transcontinental flight attendants that feels as though it’s presented in real time. (The cut released on DVD by Shout Factory is probably the longest extant version, combining all the sex scenes of the original X-rated flick and the gratuitous plot points added for the movie’s wider-released R-rated version.) With the added novelty of 3D technology, it’s no wonder the entire segment of the country that felt women were starting to get a little too uppity for their own good flocked to have bush virtually leap off the screen and tickle them on the chin.
The Stewardesses gets the ingredients right, especially for modern nostalgia hounds: pasty skin, beehive-shaped titties, advertising agencies, Aviator-specked flight captains, Mai Tais served in brown plastic tumblers, and so on. And the 3D technology is used to nice effect whenever it shows some girl’s feet thrusting over the shoulders of their sex partner. Maybe it’s beside the point to complain that the cinematographer sometimes forgot to frame with both hands on the camera, or that the editor mistook endurance for stamina—even if the effect is that of an immaculate travel brochure printed backward and sliced down the middle of the page.
But the technical shoddiness has nothing on the film’s woeful sexual politics, which sadly say more about the movie’s contemporary audiences. It’s not enough that they’re presented as sex objects, which would be a forgivable necessary evil given the film’s immediate context, but when the movie widens its scope to suggest things they might be doing aside from renting out their labial vacancies, womankind’s options are revealed to be limited. (One girl memorably opts to hump a lamp.) Worse still are the movie’s dual takes on non-heteronormative sexuality: lesbianism is shown to be laughable but still worth lingering over; gay sex happens off-screen and ruins a man’s psyche for the rest of his life. Which goes a long way at explaining why the male cast members predominately fuck with their clothes on but the women can’t even comb their hair without going topless.
The DVD's extra features make an attempt to show just how much superior their transfer is to all the prints that made the rounds in the '70s, but that doesn't change the fact that it still looks like ass. I got a headache from the 3D versions (one black-and-white, one blue-and-red approximating color) and switched over to the standard, two-dimensional color version. Reds are strong, but everything else falls off into ruddiness and ill focus. The sound mix downplays dialogue in favor of acoustic guitar and flute, and for that I'm thankful.
Aside from the multiple viewing options (and paper cut-inducing 3D glasses included in the case), this two-disc version contains about an hour’s worth of screen tests, "making of" retrospectives, demonstrations of 3D technology, outtakes and, best of all, the SCTV parody of the movie (available, likely, because Shout Factory already released the TV series on DVD). The most telling comments from cast and crew were, first, the fact that the movie was given a wide release as a work in progress and, second, that all the male crew members remember the movie very fondly and speak of its "lighthearted humor" while all the female participants look back with skepticism. (Leading lady Christina Hart, filmed separately from the group of guys, pulls no punches: "The movie was appallingly bad. I really did not expect to be in a film, or know that I was making a movie, that would be this bad.")
In 1971: Jane Fonda’s Klute makes off with the Oscar, The Stewardesses make off with the bank. Draw your own conclusions.