Synopsis: Fearing he would be typecast as a “horror director”, Romero immediately made this bittersweet drama about an affair between a free-spirited dropout (‘Ray Laine’) and a beautiful young model (‘Judith Ridley’ of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD) that remains a provocative time capsule of media and morality in the 1970s.
eyelgihts: its social commentary. its documentary style.
eyesores: its unlikeable male lead. its vacuous female lead.
“I wasn’t looking for anything.”
After ‘Night of the Living Dead‘, George Romero wanted to try his hand at a different genre; he didn’t want to be typecasted. So he shot a light romantic drama. Problem is, like ‘NOTLD’ (and many of his subsequent pictures), the production was severely underfunded. He ended up patching together a film that was shot in spurts, between commercial gigs.
The end result is a motion picture that he disliked intensely and never saw again.
Released in 1971, ‘There’s Always Vanilla’ tells the story of Chris, a young man who returns to his hometown after a stint in the military and having been on the road for years. There he rekindles with his blue collar father, who tries to coax him to join the family business, discovers that he has a young son, and meets and falls for Lynn, a budding model.
It won’t last.
What’s interesting is that ‘There’s Always Vanilla’ is frequently referred to as a romantic comedy, even though it’s neither funny nor romantic. Sure, there are a few droll moments, but they’re rare and certainly not laugh-out-loud funny. And, sure, there’s a love affair, but it’s not the kind of thing that would leave most audiences starry-eyed.
Not a chance.
No, this is a tepid drama at best. But it has a casual, near-documentary style, which is appealing; it gives the picture a naturalistic flair. This approach is probably a product of Romero’s daytime gig, which frequently found him making commercial films. It may also have been influenced by the “make do” production; they were learning their craft on the fly.
Unfortunately, this leads to the film feeling a bit disparate at times. Because it wasn’t coming together narratively, Romero chose to insert “interview” bits with Chris, in which he reflects upon events that we were about to see unfold. He also threw in some shots of Chris doing odd jobs and documentary footage of an art display in downtown Pittsburgh.
Romero was also trying his hand at experimental filmmaking, influenced as he was by some of the ’60s’ masters of cinema. For instance, the opening shot consists of two balloons floating in the sky to a folky ballad. And there are scenes between Chris and Lynn when jarring, unrelated inserts are intercut with them. It doesn’t work, but it’s intriguing.
Now this would probably all pass muster if Chris was at all likeable; with a charmer like George Clooney, for instance, almost anything would work. But Raymond Laine is rough around the edges and Chris is a jerk. Between the two of them, it’s hard to sympathize or relate. Meanwhle, Lynn is a bit vacant, no doubt due to Judith Ridley’s inexperience.
Still, the picture has one notable value that nearly redeems it: its social commentary. As is typical of Romero’s pictures, his story is a vehicle for something deeper: here he addresses commercialization, of the selling of image over substance. I’m not sure how significant this was in 1971 but, looking back, it seems almost prescient; Romero saw the future.
He also briefly discusses abortion. In 1971, abortions were still illegal in United States, and Romero addresses individual responsibility versus the risks inherent in illegal abortions. That this came from the Godfather of the Dead may surprise some, but George Romero has always advocated for a more progressive society in most of his motion pictures.
Even the horror ones.
‘There’s Always Vanilla’ isn’t a terrible film, but it’s certainly not a masterpiece; one can easily see why Romero would be disappointed with it. In one interview he said that he did a demo reel for Raymond Laine before shooting the picture and that it was better than the film itself. I’m not sure if that will ever turn up, but I’d love to see it.
At least it wouldn’t be a 90-minute investment.
Plus which, ‘Vanilla’ isn’t my flavour.
Date of viewing: September 24, 2017