In brazen collusion with the warped archivists at Something Weird Video, Kino Lorber offers two more volumes of its series called Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of the Exploitation Picture. This series documents the eye-opening underside of America’s cinema history forged by censor-pushing mavericks peddling social taboos and exposing the naked fears that go with them.
Vol. 11 contains Girl Gang (1954) and Pin-Down Girl (1951), both directed by English-born Robert C. Dertano. The true auteur behind these no-budget melodramas wasn’t really Dertano, although he was somewhere about the premises, but enterprising and prolific producer George Weiss in cahoots with star Timothy Farrell. The pencil-mustached, almost affectless Farrell frequently played the sleazy Bad Influence, the one-man Wrong Crowd who leads innocent middle-class white “kids” on the road to ruin, and these two films are perfect examples.
Girl Gang opens with two pneumatically attired damsels hitchhiking until picked up by a slick customer driving a wood-paneled sedan so shiny you can glimpse the reflected camera crew in this astoundingly sharp 2K mastering from the original 35mm negative. In what may or may not be an attempt at karmic warning, he’s instantly joined by two more “bad girls” who pull up in another car. The four women knock him out and steal his auto, leaving him on the road to a lugubrious library score appropriate for a funeral. It’s a shameless assault upon his manhood and spending power. These hussies must be stopped before civilization crumbles!
This leads to a cold, clinical, capitalist sequence in which the ladies drive directly to the tatty apartment of Joe (Farrell), whom everyone keeps calling “a regular guy” because he takes their cash for “sticks” of “weed” and “joy-pops” for “hop-heads” while arranging robberies and assorted debaucheries. He delivers step-by-step instructions on how to shoot up heroin in the leg or the “mainline”. Nobody can say these films aren’t educational.
Anyway, regular Joe acquires the stolen car for a paltry sum, acting like he’s doing the girls a favor for putting him out so, and then immediately takes back the cash from their hands to provide them the drugs they stole the car for. More practical instruction on free enterprise, almost with a flow chart. Now we hear ethereal harping to indicate the heaven of getting high.
June (Joanne Arnold) lounges in deshabille when she’s not recruiting more “kids” eager to progress from passing out over “maryjane” to bigger thrills. While dressed in very nice early ’50s conservative clothes–women in dresses, men in wide ties and big-pocketed dress slacks–everyone’s as blasé as actors perfunctorily running through their lines, or as if already forecasting the jaded 1980s of Bret Easton Ellis or Dennis Cooper.
One spoiled rich recruit is told that if she wants to join the gang she must have “intimate relations” with all five of the boys, which must be preferable to the five minutes of amateurish boogie-woogie piano-playing and jitterbugging that otherwise constitutes their wild times. While these details set up our suspicion of a pregnancy/abortion plot from a dozen similar movies, this film skips directly to a botched gas-station hold-up with basically the same result.
All this sounds like the plot has a lot to do with the titular girl gang, but as historian Alexandra Heller-Nicholas points out in her eager commentary, this is hardly a girl gang film as such. She calls it “almost proto-punk exploitation” with no pretense of social conscience and thus “deeply perverse and oddly satisfying.”
She points out that, coming between major studio hits The Wild One (Laszlo Benedek, 1953) and Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955), Girl Gang partakes of the media panic about “juvenile delinquents”, a topic that goes back in cinema at least to the ’30s and ’40s, and the gendered skew of concern toward female delinquents. It also forecasts the breakthrough drama of heroin addiction, Otto Preminger‘s The Man with the Golden Arm (1955).
Pin-Down Girl (1951), also called Racket Girls and The Blonde Pick-Up, foregrounds gender roles as aggressively as Girl Gang. This time the milieu is the world of female wrestling, as run by gangster-maestro Umberto Scalli (Farrell). He buys the contract of buxom Peaches Page, playing “herself”, and she does lots of exercising. Film historian Eric Schaefer’s commentary states, based on his extensive correspondence with nonagenarian Dertano, Peaches became a real wrestler.
The women wrestlers exhibit both physical strength and moral fibre, as real-life figures Clara Mortenson (world champion) and Rita Martinez (champion of Mexico) reject any suggestion of throwing a fight. “Wrestling is one of the few remaining clean sports,” asserts Mortenson, while Martinez fumes, “You think because I am Mexican you can take advantage of me but I am no fool!”
Then we sit through their endless bout. Even though the lengthy wrestling matches, both in public and in private rehearsal, are the alleged attraction, I suspect many viewers will find them tedious. This attests to the surprising popularity of 1950s wrestling when it was all over prime time TV, and the female division was a particular subculture within the briefly mainstream subculture.
Because they’re incorruptible, unlike the eager thrill-cats of Girl Gang, the women have little to do in terms of drama. The story concerns Scalli’s shady dealings with “the mob”, all handled with a clumsiness that makes one yearn for the subtle finesse of Girl Gang. The visible boom shadows are persistent enough to make you wonder if it’s a stylistic choice, while jumps from missing footage don’t help the rocky flow.
Both films are shot by William C. Thompson, who has some claims to being his own trash-auteur. He also shot the two films in Volume 12, so let’s get to them. Peek-a-Boo (1953) and “B” Girl Rhapsody (1952) are documentary preservations of burlesque shows at Los Angeles’ New Follies Theatre, an institution owned by ex-performer Lillian Hunt, who created the shows and effectively directed these movies.
Both employ the technique of planting the camera front and center to encompass the whole stage, cutting in medium shots to follow the women’s dance routines. Peek-a-Boo, for example, boasts only 17 shots in the whole film. That’s structuralism a go-go.
The fact that Hunt was a driving entrepreneurial and creative force in American burlesque, and that several of the featured ecdysiasts (that’s strippers to you) were also smart businesswomen who promoted knowledge and preservation of the form, with one of them (Jennie Lee) founding the Burlesque Hall of Fame Museum involved as a co-producer of this disc, should give us pause when considering exploitation and entertainment.
We’re reminded that the era’s most famous playboy and “glamour” photographer was Bunny Yeager, promoting everyone from Bettie Page to Ursula Andress and that nudist epics like Hideout in the Sun (1960) and Nude on the Moon (1961) came from Doris Wishman. Such pioneering examples of exploiting the topless female form may have been intended for a largely (though not exclusively) male gaze and were created by women, a fact often overlooked or obscured by cultural assumptions. Not only that, they were rare successful women in male-dominated industries. Their sex probably facilitated the process of working with model-performers, and their professional eye is revealing. No pun intended.
Frankly, of all exploitation subgenres, the ones that cross most forthrightly into tedium are the striptease films, even though they’re more “active” than films of nudists playing volleyball. Of course, it’s a matter of taste, but as the next dancer steps on stage to parade her costume gimmick, you might yearn nostalgically for the gripping drama of female wrestling. Pun intended.
One ingenious aspect of these censor-baiting burlesque concert films, which could only be presented to “adults only” crowds on a flat-rental-fee “states’ rights” basis, is that if you’ve seen one or two examples, you’ve seen a hundred. This can be true literally, as their modular structure means segments could be mixed and matched according to need, as per time requirements or the provisions of local censor boards.
In any form, these “canned burlesque” films celebrate what Schaefer calls disruptive presentations of gender. The mix of “humor” (risqué skits between dances) and titillation plays with assumptions and expectations of sexual norms. In the postwar context of demure contented housewives in popular culture (Ozzie and Harriet, June Cleaver, etc.), these films present an alternative of the “undomesticated female body” whose uninhibited women “meet the gaze of the spectator” while flaunting their sexuality.
“By making a spectacle of herself,” asserts Schaefer, “she was also kind of making a spectacle of gender identity. She was calling attention to the performative aspects of gender.” This is what happens when academic theorists go to a strip show. The point is that even though such spectacles are calculated to appeal to heterosexual male viewers, these “low class” and pretension-puncturing shows fall on “the radical side” of their conservative era.
Schaefer discusses Peek-a-Boo while Heller-Nicholas treads much the same ground on “B” Girl Rhapsody, pretty much the same film, and she’s more enamored of these films. She’s especially amazed that Hunt made at least ten features and remains almost completely ignored in film history, and she offers various reasons for it. One must be the low critical regard of such films, which function as snapshots of a moment in baggy-pants comedy and terpsichorean art already considered nostalgic and old-fashioned even as they bumped and grinded along.
When Something Weird began excavating these long-forgotten films on VHS in the ’90s, it encouraged the beginning of what’s now called New Burlesque or Neo-Burlesque, a movement of performers self-consciously incorporating political awareness, inclusive and alternative identities, and sexual positivity into the cabaret-style reinvention of older forms of entertainment. Everything old is retro again.
Some of these exploitation films are less interesting to sit through than to think about afterward, and that too is valuable and informative. We continue to look forward to these Forbidden Fruits of yesteryear, for their real subject, unwittingly, is today.