‘Carol Doda Topless at the Condor’ Review: The Cheeky Story of a North Beach Icon Who Broke Taboos

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to identify moments that precipitated significant social or cultural changes. But that doesn’t mean that the people involved in those moments knew, or were actively working to achieve them, as they were happening.

“Carol Doda Topless at The Condor,” which charts the explosion of topless (and eventually all-nude) clubs across the U.S. after the documentary’s namesake decided to go-go dance in a breast-exposing monokini in June 1964, occasionally makes the mistake of conflating intent with her decision’s revolutionary impact. Even so, co-directors Marlo McKenzie and Jonathan Parker offer an absolute treasure trove of vintage film footage shot in, around and about San Francisco’s North Beach as they chronicle the parallel lines of her career and the cultural sea change that it precipitated.

Against the backdrop of the tumultuous 1960s, Doda became a lightning rod for controversy when her performance at the Condor Night Club helped transform the North Beach section of San Francisco into ground zero for the burgeoning strip club industry. Though some of film’s historical experts suggest that the cocktail waitress and dancer was consciously subverting cultural norms, McKenzie and Parker rely on period interviews with individuals who lived and worked in the area, and Doda herself, for the real story: She was given designer Rudi Gernreich’s topless swimsuit by Condor publicist “Big” Davy Rosenberg and asked to wear it while doing her usual dance routine, and the rest is history.

Where previously go-go dancing clubs required performers to wear pasties, Doda immediately popularized, uh, increased exposure, and five years later, added “bottomless” to her repertoire. She would also be among the first women to enlarge her breasts with silicon injections — or at least the first to acknowledge it publicly — which led to a boom in injection and cosmetic surgeries. Though her attitudes in interviews were largely pragmatic, or depending on the audience, cheeky (she passed away in 2015), interviews with her contemporaries, as well as cultural experts, properly contextualize how significant each of these moments were, and why. Her behavior, of course, is part of a larger timeline of female empowerment and shifts in the larger sociopolitical climate, but the film underscores that if she can’t fully be credited for actively instigating many of these trends, she still deserves a lion’s share.

For her part, Doda embraced her overnight celebrity while also distrusting much of the attention it generated toward her — especially romantically. (When you’re famous almost exclusively for your beauty, how can you know if people are drawn to you for a deeper or more meaningful reason?) She was unlucky in love in her private life, though she reportedly had an affair with Frank Sinatra among other famous men. She fielded legal battles for the right to perform topless, and won, becoming the blinking icon on the sign of the Condor for years. But she was also iced out of many of the profits she generated for the venue, and was rebuffed when she tried to buy a stake in it from owners Gino Del Prete and Pete Mattioli.

Addressed but slightly less dwelled upon in the film is the complexity of her effect upon the then-burgeoning feminist movement, which viewed much of what she did as allowing herself to be objectified. Given that women of that time were shedding their brassieres (burning them, one commentator helpfully notes, was more of a myth), she was, essentially, both an embodiment of next-level bodily liberation and a shameful capitulation to patriarchal viewpoints. She exploited male desire for financial success while also, through supporting cosmetic augmentation, giving birth to an industry, and a perspective, that encourages women to scrutinize their perceived flaws — or inadequacies in comparison to a prevailing physical ideal.

Though it lacks that comprehensive, 1,000-yard view, McKenzie and Parker’s film assembles a fairly extraordinary repository of period interview and man-on-the street footage that highlights how wild and shameless red-light districts were even in their earliest days. Even better, it collects anecdotes from other dancers, musicians and club owners from the era, who mostly recall their sex-drugs-and-rock-‘n-roll heyday with a cheerful sense of nostalgia. In which case, was Doda at the forefront of the sexual revolution, or an embodiment of what would become its most harmful values? Again, it’s a complicated question. But the fact that its answer is too big to really countenance in what’s meant to be the story of one trailblazing person speaks to just how important she actually was at this particular moment in American history.

“Carol Doda Topless at the Condor” ably spotlights a woman who in no small way changed the world. It leaves it up to you to determine if that change was by accident or design — and more importantly, for better or worse.


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