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Adolf Hitler saved Meyer from lethargy. The California kid joined the Army and got into the Signal Corps, nirvana for a snap-happy lad with an itch for action. The Army also got Meyer inside a movie studio; he was trained in part at the MGM School of Motion Picture Photography, where his instructor was Joseph Ruttenberg, who'd been shooting stars from Evelyn Nesbitt in the teens to Garbo, Garson and Bergman in the 1940s. Finally ready for the European Theater, Meyer got stuck with an idiot Captain who busted all Jewish Staff Sergeants (including the young Stanley Kramer) to Private. Russ would have been shit-canned too, until it was explained to the Capt. that this Meyer was a German-American Christian.
As RM recalls in his mock-heroic third-person: "The 8mm Univex period and Kitten Natividad notwithstanding, his army tenure must remain the most important / formative plus fulfilling period in Meyer's life." In the Army Meyer met guys he would work and play with throughout his movie career: Bill Abrams, Fred "Fritz" Mandl (cinematographer on Meyer's 20th Century Fox opus "The Seven Minutes"), William Ellis "Bill" Teas (of "The Immoral..." fame) and Anthony James "Jim" Ryan (star of "Eve and the Handyman" and a co-producer on later epics in Meyer's fervid oeuvre). For Russ, moviemaking would be a continuation of war, and war camaraderie, by other means.
A WWII cameraman's job, they say, was "being in the wrong place at the right time." He was a soldier, a propagandist and a recording avenging angel all in one. When Gen. George S. Patton told his troops of a mission that, he hoped, would result in the capture and assassination of Hitler and Goebbels, he turned Russ' way to growl: "And you, Sergeant, be damned sure of your job with that camera." Meyer was, apparently, sure of foot and finger. He escaped alive with some nifty war stories; one exploit, related to writer pal Eric "Mick" Nathanson, blossomed into the novel (then film) "The Dirty Dozen."
Here's another, set in Belgium's snowy Ardennes Forest outside St. Hubert. With his "own photo howitzer," an Eyemo camera with a Long Dong Silverish 20-inch lens, Russ is snapping away at "an innocent church steeple housing a gang of irreligious Nazis." His pal Charles "Slick" Sumners is in a Jeep somewhere out of frame. The shelling begins and, as Meyer tells it:
"five 105mm HEs smashing into The Lord's house . . one smack on target. Bingo! A direct hit on the pointy steeple / exploding within its ancient belfry / doing the job . . rendering anything / anybody yonder sieve-like!! Meyer exultant, but his demonstration short-lived . . incoming Kraut mail shearing off tops of St. Hubert's piney woods! The GI peepers spotted . . tables overturned / the defilers now on the receiving end . . the expiring Jerry soldier doing his job forthwith . . only seconds before, Kingdom Come! The return fire increasing with intensity . . the immediate air black with cordite . . shrapnel-humming / death-dealing . . Russell Meyer roughly forsaking his valuable gear . . tripod still attached / legs splayed out crazily . . face pressed into the cold numbing snow . . whilst, separate from the thunderous explosions, the unmistakable brouhaha of a Jeep's raucous klaxon . . the dedicated Slick just yards away / hunkering down over the steering wheel. Shouting: 'Over here . . and don't take all day!' Russ streaking for the savior Jeep / dragging the clumsy 20-inch lens dominating the Eyemo . . crazy-quilt tripod legs trailing behind / hurling himself head-first into the back of the vehicle . . still hanging onto his accoutrement with Sumners pouring the coals to his four-wheeler / miraculously escaping from that Ardennes hell!"
War bestowed on Russ another consummation: his deflowering, courtesy of a hooker in a Rambouillet bordello a "lush-bodied lady avec le plus grand balcon de monde . . with a contiguous/protuberant bazoom ... with a massive brass-bound rack." And was the encounter worth waiting for? "Well, RM's gotta' tell ya, Adolf . . it was the Scheherezade / Götterdämmerung and The Charge of the Light Brigade all wrapped up in one neat package. Yesss! And you know, bouncy Babette had me up and at it again within thirty seconds. Maybe less. Ah, sweet bird!"
By 1945, "the wondrous war (was) grinding down for Meyer, regrettably." Back in the U.S., Russ found it hard to bust into movies. The cinematographers who'd been at war, and the ones left behind, filled up all the slots; there was no G.I. Bill for cameramen. And the union made it tough for newcomers.
Back in Oakland, Russ married a woman named Betty and, when she got pregnant, he promptly insisted she get an abortion just like dear old dad. The couple's only dependent was old Army buddy Teas, who bivouacked on the living-room couch for months and stifled any marital congress in the nearby bedroom. Russ and Betty divorced a year later.
By now Russ was into "tittyboom," shooting semi-revealing sessions with some of the era's reigning burlesque divas: Tempest Storm (née Annie Locke); Miss Lilly LaMont, the Alaskan Heat Wave ("a socko twin pair of casabas with corralling-cleavage capable of hiding Johnny Bench's catcher's mitt"); and a certain Miss St. Louis, in whose memory Meyer stirs himself to frenzies of violet verbiage. "Nearly indescribable voluptuousness . . top-lined by a lush balcony deeply cleaved ... her huge hooters projecting thirty degrees both left and right / high-perched and pointing straight-forward from the lady's sleek shoulders." Said RM to self: "God! I must have that woman . . first on film / then a platter!" Soon enough, they did torque torsos, though it was Miss St. Loo in charge: "brashly bawling out orders. Not unlike a boot camp top kick."
He had other dalliances: with the cashier at Peter DeCenzie's El Rey Burlesque, with the chili-pepper-blooded Ysobel Assunscion Marti. But when he met Eve Turner Flores, it was love-lust at first sight, and for a good while thereafter. Russ writes that from the start he wanted Eve's "large / creamy / rose-tipped breasts to knead and nurture." Well, he got them. On August 2, 1952, they were married the beginning of a long, fruitful-fractious personal-professional relationship.
In photos, Eve looks not the most fabulous of Meyer's ?50s camera subjects. That, of course, would be Diane Webber, the hazel-eyed brunette who blended Jeanne Crain's fine, soft, American-girl features with Lana Wood's delicate voluptuousness. A two-time Playmate of the Month (as Marguerite Empey, May '55 and February '56), Webber was a cover girl for magazines as varied as Esquire, Classic Photography and Nudist Yearbook; she appeared on LP covers for Nelson Riddle, Les Baxter and Xavier Cugat; she did a few movies and TV shows; a proselytizing nudist, she published a book of family photos; she also taught belly dancing at Every Woman's Village in Van Nuys. Meyer did some shoots with her and appended a short film of Webber poses ("This Is My Body") to "The Immoral Mr. Teas." But he's a bit curt to her in the book, complaining that her body was never the same after she had kids. Guess her husband didn't demand she have an abortion.
In life, Russ gave himself to his blond Eve she of the harsh mouth, the large pores, the aura of a lamp-post lady. (In a bio-pic of their lives, she'd be played by Uma Thurman.) He was sufficiently smitten with her to remain faithful, amid many temptations, for more than six years. But by then, they had become a Playboy pair: Eve (now Eve Meyer) as the Playmate of June '55, Russ as the photog. Meyer was now getting good gigs. In Europe, he photographed "large-breasted Anita Ekberg / pregnant-breasted Diane Webber / melon-breasted Ingrid Goude / cantilevered-breasted Greta Thiessen / conically-breasted Cleo Moore / while hardly to ignore beehive-breasted June Wilkinson."
Some of these early photos, and other later ones, have been on exhibition this summer in a small (21 images) but choice show at the Manhattan gallery Feigen Contemporary. It gives anyone long-familiar with Meyer's work an odd feeling. Pictures taken for girlie magazines naturally have a different meaning and impact when seen in an art gallery in 2002 as they do when seen, not by the teen me of the '50s, but the geezer me of today. (That is the shock, and the joke, of context.) The models have inevitably become artifacts of their time, they are upstaged by other objects in the shot: a pink bed and bedspread, a red sports car, the grillwork on a door. And when we shift our gaze to the women's faces and bodies, at the light and shadow rendered on paper 25-50 years ago, we see the skewed vision that men, especially Meyer, had of the women they watched.