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.

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.

Bite Size: Moonshiner’s Woman (1968)

No matter what illicit substance you’re selling, it’s never wise to start tapping into your own supply. Claude (Bill Crisp) drinks as much moonshine as he sells, and only puts the jug down long enough to scream at his pretty girlfriend Loralee (Linda Lee) for daring to disturb his libations by taking a walk.

Claude’s alcoholism and his judgement are both at rock bottom. When his big city business partner Mr. Jarvis (director Donn Davidson) notices that Claude’s been skimming off the top, he’s is quickly disposed of. Claude hasn’t even finished his excuse before he’s lying dead in the mountain dust. Mr. Jarvis considers Loralee partial payment for what he’s owed, and takes her away to the big city.

Exploitation was full of slick talking salesman, and director Donn Davidson was one of the hardest hustling fixtures of the deep south. A former stage magician and Yo Yo champion, he had long perfected his pitch in the carny like atmosphere of roadshows and spookshows. His first brush with film directing was in service of same, when he created a cheap set of creature feature like inserts for an unauthorized print of David Friedman’s She Freak, and took it out on the road as Asylum Of The Insane.

Moonshiner’s Woman was his first swing at a (just barely) full length feature, and is a film that was most certainly created in reverse. What plot there is was clearly bolted together after he had taken inventory of the footage he had the resources to shoot. Only a few scenes even attempt to poorly sync sound, and pretty much all of the narrative is delivered via voiceover. At least one music cue is clearly someone idly tapping their fingers on a table, and a meeting of the gangsters is backgrounded by library music that sounds like it was stolen from a spaghetti commercial. Because they’re Italian.

If you give up on the hopes of something that makes any linear storyline sense, Moonshiner’s Woman manages to hit a some tried and true exploitation beats, in its own meandering way. In addition to having a blast hamming it up as Mr. Jarvis, Donn Davidson provides narration that is full of overheated audience warnings, fatherly asides to his own creations, and clucking chastisements to himself for almost providing spoilers. The overall effect is charmingly odd, like a rambling story from a favorite uncle who may have had a few too many drinks.

As for protagonist Loralee, she seems to take the bizarre series of events that tore her away from her mountain home in surprising stride. Mr. Jarvis is initially quite charming, and his suggestion she try on “showgirl” costumes allows the film to show a touch of skin. Loralee seems to understand Jarvis’ offer of a showbiz job as a front for something far less upright, but she doesn’t refuse his demands. Instead, Loralee is dazzled by the big city ways of cosmopolitan Daytona Beach, with a stolen shot travelogue of the races providing the background for her doomed love affair with Mitch (Roy Huston), one of Jarvis’ lackeys tasked with keeping an eye on her.

Soon, all traces of the mousy country gal are gone. Loralee much prefers pretty dresses and plane flights to burlap sacks and bare feet. With dangling earrings and heavy eyeliner, she’s gleefully smoking weed and dropping LSD, with her drug trip a swirl of the camera across landscapes and a patterned floor that seems ripped right out of the Andy Milligan playbook. Things escalate from a “simple country girl is corrupted by the big city” riff to catfights, death by magician’s cabinet and revenge. As this happens rather late in the film, its easier to be in sync with the movie’s jerky rhythm in regards to story.

Moonshiner’s Woman is certainly a dismal failure as a narrative feature. The highly dramatic voiceover account of the plot is never quite at the same tone or pace as the rather inert visual events on screen. Nor do most of those events connect in any satisfying way. Almost in spite of itself, what Moonshiner’s Woman does have is a leisurely, folksy charm. Donn Davidson is clearly aware of how little he’s working with, but everyone involved seems to be having a lot of fun. There’s something to be said for his earnestness in attempting to put on the best show he can with the minimal resources available, a refreshingly less cynical take on the old adage about sizzles and steak.