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By Phil Hall | September 8, 2006

If you were a gay guy in the 1970s, New York’s Continental Baths was your paradise. That uninhibited mixture of a health club, nightclub and sex club offered entertainment at every imaginable level.

Or at least that’s what the establishment’s reputation insisted. The return of the long-unseen 1975 indie “Saturday Night at the Baths” shows the Continental Baths as being something of a tacky bore. For an establishment celebrated for its showmanship (Bette Midler gained her first level of stardom for her raucous performances on its stage), the Continental Baths of this movie is like a gay equivalent of “The Gong Show”: clumsy interpretative dance performed by men in tight white underwear, flatfooted cabaret ripping off the Bob Fosse stylebook (complete with the derby headgear), an anemic female pop crooner, and third rate drag queens miming to the music of Carmen Miranda, Diana Ross, Shirley Bassey and (no surprise) Judy Garland. That’s entertainment?

While the Continental Baths seem as giddy a cold bath with Mr. Bubble, “Saturday Night at the Baths” is actually a strange discovery. Although it is a wobbly endeavor which often wallows in the stereotypes it supposedly deplored, it earns points for acting as an advocate for gay tolerance, which was no mean feat for 1975.

The focus of the story is the blonde young Montana studmuffin Michael, who is trying to get work as a pianist in New York. For someone who is barely working, Michael seems to be doing okay: he has an uncommonly large apartment and a photographer girlfriend who thinks it’s funny that he’s auditioning for the job as pianist in the Continental Baths’ Saturday revue. Michael gets the job and the venue’s manager, Scotti, gets the hots for Michael.

For a while, there is a strange triangle with Michael very much in love with his girlfriend and Scotti tagging along as their new gay best friend. Michael, more from rank stupidity than deliberate cruelty, makes comments about Scotti’s sexuality that creates friction both with his gay pal and his gal pal (she’s very liberal minded, after all). Michael isn’t a bad guy, though – his crassness is explained away from a stint with the butch flyboys of the U.S. Air Force – and Scotti actually appreciates him. Though perhaps Scotti appreciates Michael a bit too much.

It is fairly obvious where “Saturday Night at the Baths” is going to wind up, although to its credit it doesn’t offer a neat polishing of the bisexual love triangle’s rough edges. If the acting is earnest-bordering-on-flat (unknowns Robert Aberdeen as Michael, Don Scotti as Scotti and Ellen Sheppard as the eventual odd-woman-out), then the screenplay by Franklin Khadouri and director David Buckley tries to avoid the obvious by giving the characters surprisingly rich dimensions that complicate the harsh emotions they are feeling.

While the film champions homosexuality as just as normal as heterosexuality, it pulls its punches in not actually showing the all-male fun. There’s plenty of talk about gay love, but there are only two very brief shots of the boy-on-boy play: a shower rendezvous with two men embracing amidst a soapy lather and a quick kiss where the camera is a good half-block removed from the action. Oddly enough, a hetero erotic session with Michael and his girlfriend is very graphic and seemingly endless.

Sadly, the film also indulges in some queer camping that was probably old-fashioned in 1975. The Continental Baths inexplicably fields a sandlot football team to challenge a straight guy’s team for a Central Park match. Needless to say, the Baths boys can barely keep their hands off the straight guys and their tackles go on a little too long and strong. There is also an art gallery sequence where the exhibition is nothing but photos of beefy bodybuilders in full flex glory (Bruce Weber shot those stills). The gay men at the exhibit, of course, go ga-ga for the beefcake display; a couple of lesbians milling about the event aren’t the least bit impressed.

Only a single print of “Saturday Night at the Baths” exists, and it is not in the best shape (the colors are faded and the picture is sometimes scratchy and splicey). The fact this rarity was rescued and brought to DVD is worth cheering about (kudos to the Jenni Olson LGBT Film Archive for preserving the print). Still, it is a shame the film is just a curio and not a once-lost classic.

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