Bite Size: Shanty Tramp (1967)

Shanty Tramp opens with overexposed black and white photography, the pencil skirted posterior of its protagonist framed squarely across the opening credits. Even without the brass brand bleating “When The Saints Go Marching In” it’s obvious this is somewhere in the American South. Sweat beads on the brows of passerby as the camera pulls out to reveal a toothy brunette doing her best wiggling walk. Dirt floor Marilyn Monroe via a white cocktail dress from the rural route five and dime.

Every night is pretty much the same for Emily Stryker (Eleanor Vaill). The backroads barns or the juke joint, it doesn’t matter. Whereever the men and the money are is good enough for her. On this particular night it’s the revival tent, fire and brimstone Preacher Fallows bellowing at the poverty stricken pious to part with the cold hard cash that the good Lord prefers.

One look at the overflowing collection plate and Emily knows exactly what her offering is going to be. The pair’s innuendo laden exchange is only interrupted by the fact that Preacher Fallows has a midnight tent meeting. He offers her a private “spiritual consultation” afterwards.

She doesn’t even notice the awe struck gaze of Daniel (Lewis Galen), one of the only Black residents of the tiny town. Emily’s gutter glamour is transfixing amongst such a grim backdrop, and he barely hears his mother’s warnings that that “shanty tramp” will be nothing but trouble for him in a town brim full of racists. They’ve already killed Daniel’s father, so she’s keenly aware of what the townsfolk could do to her son.

Emily has time to kill and streets to walk, brushing off her drunken father(Otto Schlessinger) as she struts off into the night. What a night it is, with biker brawls and $5 tricks gone wrong. Violence, murder and chaos trails in Emily’s wake.

Shanty Tramp, when searched on online databases, is shrouded in layers of incorrect information. With a 1967 release date, it’s far from “an early progenitor of exploitation films” —which had arguably existed since the silent era, depending on the definition at hand— nor was it directed by Cuban expat José Prieto (Miss Leslie’s Dolls). George Weiss associate Joseph P. Marwa (the Olga series) directed this and several other films during a stint in Florida, which got credited to Prieto after a conflict with producers.

What separates Shanty Tramp from similar threadbare regional productions is just how many hicksploitation mainstays it manages to pack into a 72 minute run time, with a good ten of that spent on a dance to the (extremely catchy) title tune at a bar. Hypocritical preachers, white trash tramps, racist rednecks, biker bad boys, moonshiners, incest minded drunken patriarchs, the entire catalog of chicken fried exploitable content is here somewhere, with a dash of nudity to garnish the potent trash cinema cocktail.

If anything, the non existent production values and lack of daytime shots help add to the claustrophobic atmosphere of a town where there’s absolutely nowhere to hide, and no one who much gives a damn about anything outside of themselves. Shanty Tramp‘s world is an incredibly bleak one, with pretty much every character in search of sex and/or money by any means necessary. Anyone who believes in even the slightest shred of the less base human emotions finds themselves a rube or a corpse.

Faith in God gets the believers separated from their meager incomes. Daniel attempting to save Emily from both herself and a violent trick is repaid via a false accusation of rape, the murder of his mother, and death. The innocent young man is killed in an automobile explosion when he tries to escape the deadly lynch mob Emily’s lies have brought out.

Shanty Tramp is often a rough watch, but not exactly a roughie. It shares more DNA with the grim Gothic of Common Law Wife than the The Defilers. The film’s violence isn’t a replacement for sex, as carnal desire is omnipresent in Shanty Tramp. There’s not a man in the film who can resist Emily’s pretty poison —including her own father— even though every one of Emily’s toothy smiles is merely a soon to be deadly show of teeth.

In this very specific regard, Eleanor Vaill’s burlesque dancer on Valium disconnected affect becomes an asset. Emily doesn’t know how to be human, so Vaill’s bizarre character choices start making a perverse (and likely unintentional) sort of sense.

It is easy to see how potently scandalous the film would have been at its release, with the death rattle of the Hays code still haunting the cinematic landscape. For decades, the mainstream had dictated that crime and vice must never appear to pay, and Shanty Tramp had the brute force fortitude to wrap up its bitter stew of swamp bred scuzz with a double entendre, a second blast of brass, and a fade to black. Much like Emily’s drunken Pa, Shanty Tramp found itself “a nice warm spot in the gutter” and offered viewers a very dark night without the respite of sleeping it off.