Bite Size: Common Law Wife (1963)

Common Law Wife 1963 film Poster

There’s tons of ways to be thrifty as a filmmaker, from using unknown performers to shooting on the leftover short ends of film stock. Most exploitationeers cut a corner or six, but a few bold as brass souls practiced the cinematic equivalent of extreme couponing. Grab some existing footage from older films, stock libraries or abandoned productions, edit it into whatever new footage the crew did manage to shoot, and patchwork an end product that meets the minimum qualifications for being considered a feature.

What became Common Law Wife began its life cycle as a Larry Buchanan (High Yellow, The Naked Witch) project entitled Swamp Rose. The 1960 production was reputedly a melodrama about an old man and his aging mistress, but the final film was never released. A distributor named M.A. Ripps hired an amateur named Eric Sayers to spice up the existing footage with new sequences geared toward the tastes of the drive in circuit.

Shugfoot Rainey (George Edgley) is a rich old bastard who made his fortune in oil. Like many a geriatric lecher, he uses his wealth to attract a much younger mistress, in this case former cocktail waitress Linda (Annabelle Weenick, Don’t Look In The Basement). Shug has decided that after 5 years of living together, Linda should be traded in. Adding incest to insult, the younger model he lusts after is his own niece, Jonelle (sometimes Nude On The Moon‘s Lacey Kelly, more on that later). The young woman is nicknamed Baby Doll (in an obvious riff on the 1956 controversial Elia Kazan helmed hit), and Shug has already sent for her to come back to Texas when she completes her striptease gigs in New Orleans.

Linda, down but not out, heads straight to a lawyer. Her long term live-in status qualifies her as a common law wife. Baby Doll might have wiggled her way into being the beneficiary of Shug’s will, but the newly minted Mrs. Rainey won’t be displaced from her home so easily.

The splices between the old and new footage are clunky and obvious, with wildly varying contrast levels and degrees of damage on the print. There’s the familiar mismatch between characters’ mouth movements and the actual words coming out of their mouths, and plenty of reliance on dubbed voiceover to deliver exposition during otherwise static scenes. This is all pretty standard stuff for movies of this era and deep discount budget class, and isn’t unduly distracting for those familiar with the form.

What is interesting is the brazen bait and switch Common Law Wife pulls out in regards to one of its main players. While Eric Sayers was able to retain the services of Annabelle Weenick and George Edgley from the original Buchanan film , Lacey Kelley wasn’t involved in any of the later reshoots. Depending on which portion of the film you’re watching, an uncredited second actress plays Baby Doll, often disguised in big hair and delightfully oversized 60s picture hats. It’s a bold move even for long shots, but Common Law Wife takes it even further, including tight close ups of each of its two leading ladies. In being so brazen, the film almost tricks your brain into assuming they’re the same person.

For a film with a production history that borders on collage, there’s some impressive Southern fried histrionics found in the liminal space between the two productions. Baby Doll is a scheming slattern for the ages, quickly rekindling a fling with the town Sheriff (who just happens to be her brother in law) and a swamp surfing moonshiner in her quest to oust Linda, stuff the sexually abusive Shug’s money in her suitcase, and run. There are shoot outs, screaming matches, and even a spite fueled strip tease in a honky tonk when the sheriff refuses to assist Baby Doll in her murderous machinations.

Pretty much every character is morally bankrupt, greed and lust running completely unchecked in the down home Texas dust, following Baby Doll’s bump and grind beat. Some poisoned shine finally causes the sleazy house of double crossing cards to come tumbling down, in a way that feels both impressively grim for 1963, and narratively earned in manner that most of these screeching Southern fried soap operas never quite reach. Common Law Wife isn’t a great film, or even a good one. There’s still something eminently entertaining in its down home, downbeat spin on hillbilly noir. Common Law Wife is cinematically a feast of scraps, but the movie still manages to become the swamp rose it was always meant to be, in spite of itself.

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