By Mary Sollosi
June 05, 2020 at 09:00 AM EDT
Stephen Rebello, Dolls! Dolls! Dolls!
Credit: Gregg DeGuire/WireImage; Penguin

The following is an excerpt from Dolls! Dolls! Dolls!: Deep Inside Valley of the Dolls, the Most Beloved Bad Book and Movie of All Time, by author, screenwriter, and journalist Stephen Rebello. The book traces the high-drama history of Jacqueline Susann’s best-selling 1966 novel Valley of the Dolls and Mark Robson’s now-cult-classic trash-masterpiece 1967 movie adaptation of it.

The gossipy tome opens with a delicious tease: a snapshot of the film’s fittingly disastrous premiere aboard the Princess Italia cruise ship, attended by Susann, the cast and filmmakers, and the international press. Read on for all the details in this exclusive excerpt from the prologue of Dolls! Dolls! Dolls!, which is now available for purchase.

Dolls! Dolls! Dolls!
Credit: Penguin

As the Princess Italia set sail, twenty-one months had passed since the publication of Valley of the Dolls, and Susann’s book still rode high on the New York Times bestseller list. Mocked gleefully by the press and the literary intelligentsia as sudsy, poorly written swill, the book would eventually go on to be cited in the Guinness Book of Records as what was then the single bestselling novel of all time, moving thirty million copies. That’s bigger than Gone with the Wind and topped only by the Bible, the Quran, and, decades later, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The book’s runaway success was a sweet victory for the relentlessly driven, hardworking Susann, who had been struggling unsuccessfully since the 1940s as a model, TV personality, stage actress, and playwright. It was a more personal vindication for Susann who, in 1962, underwent a mastectomy to try to stop the spread of a malignancy.

And on this November night, along with members of the British, French, German, Italian, and Swiss press; the moviemakers; and the cast members, Susann was about to view what was predicted to be one of the year’s most unmissable movies. Susann told the press that not only had she not yet seen the film, but she also hadn’t even been shown the shooting script. But she took heart from the relentless drumbeat emanating from the 20th Century Fox publicity department and from the studio’s decision to launch Valley of the Dolls with splashy Old Hollywood publicity hoopla—a first-ever twenty-thousand-mile, one-month roundelay of catered shipboard parties and screenings. Some on both sides of the camera believed that their personal and professional fortunes were about to hit the sky.

Then the houselights dimmed, and the projector whirred.

Fade in on a portentous white-on-black title card—held for almost fifteen seconds—reading: “The producers wish to state that any similarity between any persons, living or dead, and the characters portrayed in the film you are about to see is purely coincidental and not intended.” Knowing murmurs ripple through the crowd. The famous 20th Century Fox fanfare sounds out, the logo fades, and over a credit sequence featuring Alberto Giacometti–influenced abstract figures and tumbling pills, Barbara Parkins begins to intone in her alluring purr, “You’ve got to climb Mount Everest to reach the Valley of the Dolls . . .” and when she’s done narrating, then Dionne Warwick begins warbling Dory Previn and André Previn’s wistful, haunting title tune. So far, so good.

But then something goes terribly wrong. The sound begins to boom and echo weirdly around the hall. The action and sound go wildly out of synch, speeding up and making the cast members sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks and move like Keystone Kops. Quiet titters build into raucous laughter that ricochets around the auditorium. What is happening? It turns out that 20th had lavished a fortune on food and finery but had provided only one 35-millimeter projector and a makeshift film screen a journalist later described as “no larger than one a film but might use for showing a home movie.” To avoid the inevitable lengthy delays that would have been necessary if the projectionist had to change one of the film’s twelve reels every eleven minutes, all 123 minutes of Valley of the Dolls had been loaded onto a single unwieldy reel of film.

Up go the house lights. While the Italian projectionist labors frantically to fix the snafus, veteran film-editor-turned-movie-director Mark Robson rises and begins to speak in a style a reporter described as “soothing, patient as if he were explaining his latest scientific experiment to all the boys and girls out there in TV land. Golly, Mr. Wizard.” Robson, a man given to bow ties and inscrutable expressions, delivers glib apologies and attempts to stall by inviting questions from the audience. Few take the bait. Finally, the beleaguered projectionist restarts the show from the beginning, but everything sounds even worse—and funnier—than before. The laughs and guffaws grow so loud, the dialogue becomes inaudible. All that time and money the studio spent on vocal coaches for the leading ladies, and they wind up sounding like Minnie Mouse on helium. A reporter in attendance commented, “Remember that scene in Singin’ in the Rain where they’re having a sneak preview of a silent movie with sound and dialogue added, The Duelling Cavalier, and everything that could possibly go wrong did? This Valley of the Dolls premiere was like that—an unmitigated disaster.” The projectionist eventually resolved the mechanical issues. But the rancid dialogue and over-the-top performances got the audience laughing louder than ever.

Barbara Parkins recalled that she and Sharon Tate saw an “appalled, angry, hysterical” Jacqueline Susann leap up in the middle of the screening and say, “They’ve ruined my book!” Later the writer cornered director Mark Robson to tell him, “You’ve made a piece of shit!” Refusing to honor her commitment to stay aboard the Princess Italia to meet the press and critics in different ports, Susann somehow got herself and her husband off the ship and had them both whisked to the Canary Islands and back to New York where, according to songwriter and radio-and-TV reporter Ruth Batchelor, a friend and colleague of Susann’s, “she stayed zonked out on pills for two weeks.”

Susann wasn’t alone in expecting that the movie had every reason to be stylish, sexy, provocative, powerful, attention getting, even important. What went so wrong? The backstory of the making—and unmaking—of Valley of the Dolls reveals how that disastrous screening was only the latest in an epic series of mishaps, betrayals, broken promises, blood feuds, and acts of vengeance involving virtually everyone involved. It all began with . . .

From DOLLS! DOLLS! DOLLS! by Stephen Rebello, published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Stephen Rebello

Related content: