As part of a new feature here at SE&L, we will be looking at the classic exploitation films of the ‘40s - ‘70s. Many film fans don’t recognize the importance of the genre, and often miss the connection between the post-modern movements like French New Wave and Italian Neo-Realism and the nudist/roughie/softcore efforts of the era. Without the work of directors like Herschell Gordon Lewis, Joe Sarno and Doris Wishman, along with producers such as David F. Friedman and Harry Novak, many of the subjects that set the benchmark for cinema’s startling transformation in the Me Decade would have been impossible to broach. Sure, there are a few dull, derivative drive-in labors to be waded through, movies that barely deserve to stand alongside the mangled masterworks by the format’s addled artists. But they too represent an important element in the overall development of the medium. So grab your trusty raincoat, pull up a chair, and discover what the grindhouse was really all about as we introduce The Beginner’s Guide to Exploitation.
Dream Follies/ Dreamland Capers
It’s hard to imagine it, but there was a time when the striptease artist was considered one of the classiest acts in all of entertainment. Now we are not referring to the joyless jiggler who straddles a metal pole in some isolated dive for a few dollars every day. Mentioning original glamour gals like Lili St. Cyr, Gypsy Rose Lee, and Tempest Storm in the same breath as the trailer trash giving hard-up he-men a preview of their next gynecological exam, is blasphemy. During the ‘40s and ‘50s, a night out to a burlesque show was good, clean adult amusement. There was no question about corrupting youth or affecting the children. There were no suggestions that people were being exploited or degraded.
Big, beefy breadwinners everywhere came home after a hard day of larding the bacon, simply wanting to inhale their all-fat dinner and then take their subservient honeys out for a night of laughs and lighthearted fun. And with its combination of dirty jokes, inoffensive blackout skits, and scantily clad ladies, the local strip show was the swanky avenue of the in-crowd. It calmed and cured what ailed the paternalistic society. It is only in the last few years that the fight for the right to bare all has turned most exotic dancers into militant mercenaries, only in it for the tips and the lap-dance power trip. All the artistry and show-woman-ship is gone. In its place are varying degrees of attractiveness and hygiene.
While still in its infancy, exploitation producers soon realized that the inherent legitimacy carried by burlesque could help heft the reputation of the shamelessly seedy genre. Like its close kin vaudeville and the more mainstream variety show (a television staple that is today as scarce as a dial set), the serious striptease show combated its aura of smutty sophistication with an equal dose of self-effacing farce. Even better, it was deemed acceptable to a society awash in post-War conservatism and age old Puritanical prudishness. But what the men behind the burgeoning industry realized was that everyday people couldn’t complain about the cinematic version of their standard Saturday night celebration. It would be a little hypocritical should the moral watchdogs condemn a film featuring nothing more than the standard pasties and panty spectacle.
Thus the Burly-Q movie was born. Nothing more than a simple recreation of an already open (or, typically, about to close) production, managers would hire local film companies, pay them to come to the club after hours, and set up their cameras directly in front of the stage. Then the entire performance would be filmed – comedians, singers, novelty acts…and, above all, the bevy of beauties with ‘come hither’ nicknames like “The Body Beautiful” and “The Pocket Venus”. Sometimes, the shooting would move to a local gymnasium or high school auditorium when a club owner couldn’t be convinced - fiscally or pragmatically - to let his joint be utilized. Then there were those instances where a clever promoter, hoping to gain an advanced booking or two, would simply ‘stage’ an entire show for the lens. He would gather up gals and other variety acts, dress up a soundstage with a massive curtain, and film the pretend pageant.
Initially, this was all that was required. From the ‘40s through the ‘60s, dozens of features hit local theaters, each one offering nothing more than an hour to 90 minutes of old fashioned pandering pulchritude. There was no attempt to dress up the dynamic, no nonsensical narrative foisted onto the fun. The closest these films came to something original were the differing level of baggy pants comics and soc-called star attractions. Sometimes the level of wit and comedic timing were so spectacular, one wondered how these talented individuals ended up as the buffer for more bump and grind. In other instances the humor was as horrifyingly inept as the ladies losing their costumes. In movies like Varietease and Teaserama, stunt casting was the ruse employed, someone like Bettie Page or Lili St. Cyr prominently featured (and advertised) to bring in the curious crowd. Then there were those times when a filmmaker fidgeted with the format to try and create something new and novel.
This is clearly the case with Dream Follies. The setup for the striptease within the storyline has an office full of female-ogling fools looking for ways to trick the boss into a little time off. Once free from their employment, obligations, they swing down to the local burlesque house and pay to peek through the stage entrance. One of the leering losers is none other than the late, great Lenny Bruce. Uncredited, he also plays the role of a Hitler-like servant trying to help one of the guys impress a client. The comedian wrote the script for this slightly surreal example of the genre, and his presence is about the only truly unique thing about this film. Hardly an actor, Bruce bops around like a beatnik after one too many double espressos, his hands constantly flailing in a Gene Crupa jumpin’ jive manner. His material is limited to obvious entendres and overdone insults. The genius that would later go on to challenge the concepts of stand-up comedy decency is nowhere to be seen.
Not that they would fit in with what is really nothing more than a bunch of ho-hum honeys dropping gaudy evening wear for the mostly male masses. Each gal as part of the Dream Follies (referring to the theatrical company – kind of like ‘Baby Dolls’ or ‘Earth Angels’) has a three-pronged approach to her carefully choreographed routine. She will first flit around the stage, body in a kind of perverted perpetual motion. Arms will swing and sway in the air as hips tilt ever so slightly fore and aft. Then she will steal behind the curtain to end part one. Next up, she removes her sheer brassiere and bottom cover (usually some manner of crinoline drape) and cavorts around some more. Another trip backstage, and it’s time for the big reveal. The remaining garments are removed, and without batting an eye, our dancer finishes up her routine, kicking and clicking in a style that suggests grace and gratuity, art and ardor.
In between, the martini and male pattern baldness master of ceremonies interacts with dirty joke dodging comics, introduces blousy ‘broads’ whose sole purpose is to belt out a filth-inferring song (usually something about their “first time” or love of “hot nuts”) and more or less keeps the proceedings prancing along. In the case of Follies, it’s Bruce and his bunch of amateur actors taking the place of this black out material. In a film like Dreamland Capers (a DVD companion piece to Follies, found on a recent Something Weird Video release), the authenticity of the in-theater experience is maintained. We only get goofy skits about bad restaurants, desperate dames selling damaged goods, and the ancient art of making belly dancers materialize from behind the stage scrim.
Capers is the kind of burlesque picture that most exploitation film fans are aware of – a decent collection of nubile nakedness, the odd variety act or two (in this case, a ‘body movement artist’ – read contortionist – and a female rodeo rope trick dancer???) and loads of prehistoric as dino dung comedy bits. Oddly enough, when compared to Bruce’s bumbling, unfunny filler, Capers’ anarchic asides are really quite humorous. In fact, Bruce would only make one other movie (something called Dance Hall Racket) and its clear from watching said film that he was destined for a life outside of cinema. The movie, made by Phil Tucker (also responsible for Follies and the abysmal Robot Monster), is like a collection of crime tips looking for a police blotter to plotz on. It’s worth seeing, if only to experience early talent being tainted by bad (or desperate) career choices.
In Racket, Bruce is Vincent, the kind of mobster mook who talks fast, carries a switchblade, and offs mugs just for looking at him wrong. He works for Scalli, played by b-movie favorite Timothy Farrell. Here he’s essaying the same shifty lowlife who runs the Racket Girls (a film about female wrestling) and pimps The Devil’s Sleep (a late ‘40s expose on drug peddling). Also along for the ride are Bruce’s mother Sally Marr, and wife Honey. That being said, Farrell is the only actor here capable of creating a convincing criminal element. In addition, the dime-a-dance setting of this film offers the only truly differing dynamic. When customs learn that Scalli is buying smuggled diamonds, they send a reformed crook into his club to gain information. Lots of illogical hijinx ensue, as women cut the rug with rejects, all for the sake of a 12 cent ticket. Eventually, Bruce blows his top and starts a criminal coup. Luckily, the police are around to aerate him with a little well placed ammunition.
As baffling as Follies feels, Racket is that much more confusing (it too is part of the SWV release). The movie appears to walk the fine line between exploitation (we frequently find the female workforce “changing” in the club’s backroom, and there is even some minor erotica as the clientele ask for a “trip to Hawaii” - a private lip lock with a dancer). But for the most part, this film is a flimsy excuse for wise guy dialogue and incoherent action. One moment, a sidekick named Icepick is preparing for a score. The next, he is asking to be let out of the gang to get married (!?!?). As a complement to Bruce’s time as part of the grindhouse, Racket is a rarity. But when set alongside the pure pleasures of the burlesque films, you’ll be at a loss for wanton words.
Now, before you run out to buy any of these films thinking you’re about to grab a few dozen dreamy dolls dropping their dungarees for the sake of some epidermis exposure, you better be a little more savvy in your understanding of stripping. Burlesque was never about the flesh only. It always focused on the overall package, the gals and the guys, the singers and the silly men. Unless fashioned into a loop for private or peep show viewing, the actual exotic dancing was incorporated into the complete flow of the show (sometimes in all aspects of it). And the title “striptease” is actually a very accurate statement about how these dance numbers functioned as flesh feasts. If you consider modern stripping as the equivalent of the sex act itself, then the old-fashioned bump and grind is all harmless foreplay. Taking it a step further, it corresponds to heavy petting. There is very little “bare second,” and everything is above board or reproach.
Watching examples of this theatrical taunt teaches you that there were certain aesthetic elements always included in an act. Unless they were ethnic, the women almost all wore elaborate ball gowns, flashy with sequins and glitter. Long, luxuriant arm gloves were optional, but usually part of the ensemble. Multiple layers of ever-revealing lingerie (perfect for suggestive covering removal) helped to elongate the final reveal (and the routine). There was never any pelvic nudity. Indeed, the farthest the ladies would ever go is a g-string and pasties. In keeping with the stage show mentality, there were very few if any close-ups in the filming, and the medium shot was held static to make sure all the dance moves were recorded.
Every one of these caveats covers Dream Follies/ Dreamland Capers. As a historical artifact to a long-lost entertainment art form, they shimmer with golden moments and incalculable pleasures. And strangely enough, when you cast aside all the camp value and the kitsch appeal, you’ll see just how talented and tough these glamour gals really were. Remember that the world of amusement was far more localized in their time. No national stage existed for them to perform on (not like the fledgling field of television would have given them a crack at the big time), so reputations needed making the hard way; by hitting the road and playing the circuit over and over.
Fame came at the price of five shows a night, drunken, disrespectful audiences and a less-than-flattering personal reputation. These women were ripe for ogling and objectifying, but that’s really where the mainstreaming ended. For all their grace and showmanship, for all the fashions and features they used to highlight their femininity, the public still saw them as strippers. If people back then had a crystal ball capable of seeing the pole jockeys of today’s “gentleman’s clubs,” they may have thought twice about branding these beauties as wanton women. But just like with most things in our society, when it comes to sex, the puritan beats the prurient every time.
Image Entertainment’s‘s DVD of Dream Follies/Dreamland Capers was released on 20 February, 2007. For information on this title from Amazon.com, just click here
// Notes from the Road
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