Jennie: Wife/Child, Robert Carl Cohen and James Landis
Photo: Jennie: Wife/Child (trailer screengrab)

Two Southern-Fried Slices of Sordid ’60s Hicksploitation Films

Angry old men, sexy strumpets, moonshiners, corrupt sheriffs, and dumb farmhands populate them thar hills in these two low-budget ’60s hicksploitation films.

Common Law Wife and Jennie: Wife/Child
Eric Sayers, Larry Buchanan, James Landis
Film Masters
25 June 2024

The cinematic exhumation and restoration of exploitation carries on, and there’s plenty of carrying on in the carrying on. The Film Masters label, in association with Something Weird Video, provides dazzlingly clean 4K scans from 35mm prints of what they’re calling a Backwoods Double Feature on Blu-ray: Common Law Wife (1963) and Jennie: Wife/Child (1968), two Southern-fried slices of “hicksploitation”.

That term might need explaining, and it gets plenty in Disc 2’s one-hour extra, That’s Hicksploitation: The Origin of Southern Sinema. A long history of American Southern and rural stereotypes has been part of US culture in everything from Al Capp’s Li’l Abner comic strip to television shows like The Beverly Hillbillies and The Dukes of Hazzard. White Southerners are reflected as a minstrel-show mirror world of uneducated backwoods, moonshiners, and busty sexpots in family feuds and extra-legal shenanigans.

Hicksploitation has gone through several phases as many independent regional filmmakers exploited their territories with torrid, sordid tales of sex and melodrama. Such movies might have confirmed the worst big-city fears of hillbillies as carriers of inbred depravity, but the local drive-in crowd enjoyed them too. If that sounds distasteful and déclassé, which is part of the point, please recall that the examples in the previous paragraph are solidly mainstream, and add three literary pioneers whose works resonate through the world of hicksploitation: Erskine Caldwell, William Faulkner, and Tennessee Williams.

Caldwell, who can fairly be termed the godfather of hicksploitation’s unsavory subject matter, courted controversy and banning from his very first book, The Bastard (1929). Tobacco Road (1932) and God’s Little Acre (1933) secured his critical reputation. The latter remained too hot to film until a still-controversial version emerged from Anthony Mann in 1958. The poster advertised it as an “explosive, lusty story that 20 million readers said never could be made!”

Faulkner created his own scandalous critical and commercial breakthrough with Sanctuary (1931), in which rape is a chief theme. Stephen Roberts filmed it as the pre-Code The Story of Temple Drake (1933); its title changed because Sanctuary was too controversial. The subject still generated furor when Tony Richardson directed a 1961 film of Sanctuary less impactfully. Faulkner one-upped Caldwell, or perhaps two or three-upped him, by winning a Nobel Prize in 1949 and certifying his melodramas as literature. Critics like to discuss Faulkner’s literary experimentation, but scandal and brouhaha were crucial to his success.

Williams was a commercial power by the early ’60s whose recent films included Richard Brooks‘ Cat on a Hit Tin Roof (1958) and Sweet Bird of Youth (1962), and Joseph L. Mankiewicz‘ Suddenly Last Summer (1959). The most relevant title is Elia Kazan‘s Baby Doll (1956), which has correctly been called one of the ’50s most notorious hits. It was advertised with the image of a scantily clad Carroll Baker sucking her thumb while lying in a crib. She plays a “backwards” 17-year-old whose middle-aged husband looks forward to consummating the marriage when she hits 18. The Legion of Decency condemned it; ticket buyers lined up.

All of this was High Culture. How to condemn, then, an overheated melodrama like Common Law Wife, in which an “old man” tries to dump his live-in floozy to make time with a young stripper he calls Baby Doll? Or Jennie: Wife/Child, which (falsely) implies a theme filmed as far back as Harry Revier’s ripped-from-the-headlines Child Bride (1938)? Indie exploitation movies typically mix and match what’s already in mainstream culture for their box-office purposes.

Another important point to consider is that the salacious, scandalous, and “forbidden” sexual content of mid-century hicksploitation functions as displaced social commentary in the Civil Rights era. Visions of sexual misconduct and official corruption are ways of tapping into the context of Jim Crow transgressions and hypocrisies without mentioning such things explicitly.

Common Law Wife is a perfect example. It doesn’t appear to have a political bone in its body, nor any more non-caucasian citizens than Mayberry in The Andy Griffith Show, yet characters make a point of stressing that the rich old judge is a “hypocrite” who fools people into believing he’s a “God-fearing Christian”, and this contaminates any promise of justice and morality in the region. This taps into what non-Southern viewers think, while white Southerners enjoy titillation and critique based on sex and class.

Common Law Wife (1963) – Directed by Eric Sayers and Larry Buchanan

Common Law Wife opens on a cozy domestic scene. Retired judge and town bigwig Shugfoot Rainey (George Edgley) throws darts around the head of his wife Linda (Anne MacAdams) as she sits enthroned in a rattan chair like a blowzy Cleopatra. He asks how she’d like it if he got her “right between the eyes”. “Then you’d be dead,” he clarifies, although it would have to be one powerful throw.

He tells her to look in her mirror and see how old she is, and he says he wants her to hit the road before Baby Doll comes to “take care of me”. Throwing up her hands mightily, Linda shrieks, “She’s your own blood niece! Hell, that’s incest!” The judge replies, “Words don’t bother me.” All the characters indulge lots of high-pitched yelling and hateful repartee. All of it has the echo-chamber ambiance of post-dubbed sound work – the better to shoot economically and then lather in lots of sleazy and intense music.

Baby Doll’s real name is Jonelle. Lacey Kelly plays her, but that’s a controversial statement in itself, so we’ll come back to it. Jonelle is shaking her tambourine in New Orleans (cue location footage of Bourbon Street dives) when she receives her uncle’s letter about feeling poorly. He plans to feel much better when she’s in his lap.

She blows back into town after an absence of five years, and the backstory we’ll pick up here, which involves how she was “pushed out” of town, apparently after getting pregnant at 15 courtesy of high school sweetheart Jody (Max W. Anderson), who’s now the sheriff married to Jonelle’s sister Brenda (Libby Booth). We also gather that lecherous old Shugfoot was Jonelle’s “first”, an event he recalls romantically; Jonelle’s bitter and murderous thoughts toward him suggest a different interpretation.

Jody’s marriage to Brenda doesn’t impede his mind from picking up where he left off with Jonelle. Rival boyfriend Bull (Bert Masters) is another ex-beau who is now a rich moonshiner and steady supplier to the judge. The fact that the male authority figures – a judge, a sheriff, and an entrepreneur – are thoroughly corrupt weasels is par for hicksploitation. More interesting is that three strong women are the plot’s movers and shakers, and they get more done than the men ever will.

That’s the set-up of Common Law Wife, and it will take 75 minutes of highly watchable potboiling, pussyfooting, pugilism and peekaboo-ing before events erupt into their final sub-Shakespearean tragedy. The hateful, vicious, and vindictive Jonelle is a genuinely interesting character, a femme fatale with good reason to be disgusted with every man in town. Equally filled with contempt is Linda, who gets legal advice that as a “common law wife”, she can fight Shugfoot’s dumpage. The times are a-changing.

Credited to Eric Sayers, Common Law Wife is a Texas production boasting its own bastardized origins. The project began as Swamp Rose, a lost 1960 production shot in color on 16mm by Larry Buchanan, a Texas orphan turned indefatigable cinéaste maudit, as the French say. He’s probably best known for direct-to-TV fantastical atrocities like Mars Needs Women (1968) and Zontar, the Thing from Venus (1967).

Buchanan happily courted controversy with items like Free, White and 21 (1963), inspired by a real-life Dallas trial in which a white woman accused a black man of rape, and the alternate-world oddity The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald (1964). Think of mainstream Hollywood making such items in the ’60s, and your brain will explode; that’s why indies are important. Edgley played the judge in both films, which gives an uncanny resonance to his role as an ex-judge in Common Law Wife. More uncanny is that Edgley wasn’t in Buchanan’s Swamp Rose, or if he was, that footage isn’t used.

The unreleased Swamp Rose got picked up by a consortium calling itself Texas Film Producers, and Sayers was hired to cannibalize it while shooting footage for something more commercial. Sayers, shooting in 35mm black and white with much of the same Texas cast to whom he had access, spliced his new footage with bits of the 16mm Swamp Rose, now printed in black and white. Buchanan’s original color film seems lost to time, although we can always hope.

Here’s the really controversial part. All previous scholarship, beginning with statements by Buchanan (whose archival commentary with film historian Nathaniel Thompson is an optional track) and leading to new voices like podcaster Millie De Chirico and TCM programmer Ben Cheaves (who share a second commentary track), have believed that Buchanan’s lead actress, Lacey Kelly, was replaced by an unknown actress in Sayers’ footage. This idea is reinforced by their different styles: hair in a bun in the grainy 16mm footage, hair down her back in new footage, frequently flipping from one shot to the next in the same scene!

However, the liner notes by Lisa Petrucci of Something Weird, the company that almost single-handedly revived lost exploitation films for the video era, floats the theory that the same actress is in both footages. Since Sayers had access to Buchanan’s repertory, it’s not beyond belief that such might be the case and that a somewhat older Kelly simply didn’t bother to match styles. Petrucci insists they have the same facial features and shoulders with different makeup and hair, and she might be right.

That’s another reason why the clarity of a 4K scan becomes important to disreputable trash, which suddenly looks much better than it used to. However, if you possess Something Weird’s 2003 DVD of this same double feature, you might hold onto it because of one decision I question. The aspect ratio on Film Masters’ Blu-ray fills the 16:9 screen at 1.85:1 when it should probably be 1.33 as on the old DVD. This Blu-ray’s presentation cramps the headspace on several occasions, most obviously in the opening sequences of Common Law Wife.

As for the punctuationally problematic Jennie: Wife/Child, the onscreen title gives us a colon, while the video packaging gives us a comma. I’m going with the colon.

Jennie: Wife/Child (1968) – Directed by James Landis

Despite the exploitive title, Jennie: Wife/Child isn’t about a child bride. As Jennie explains, she’s 20. After 20 years of marriage to his late wife, her husband is a widower, but he picked up Jennie from “the river bottom” four months ago. He’s the only man she’s ever made love with, and she dislikes intensely her “wifely duties”. She looks with longing at the strapping hired hands, which is why they get fired.

Thus, Jennie’s sexual dissatisfaction, sublimated into a desire for money and goods, becomes the driving motive. What seems like a backwoods variant of James M. Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice crossed with Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” becomes a rare melodrama in which the characters evolve for the better after flirting with psychopathic behavior.

A crucial catalyst for that change is Lulu Belle, the “town floozie” who’s almost a mystical figure, a curative angel of sex. She seems to materialize when needed to express unbridled hedonism, and she’s never punished for it. She’s equivalent to Terence Stamp’s role in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema (1968).

Such are the odd, compelling qualities in the scenario of Jennie: Wife/Child. Beverly Lunsford plays Jennie, a well-known child actress, and perhaps that vibe factors into the title. The film’s poster bluntly promises, “Jennie is Lolita and Candy wrapped up in one!” If you fall for that come-on, you deserve what you get.

Jack Lester is creditable as the “old man” she marries, Albert Peckingpaw. As shirtless farmhand Mario Dingle, Jack Reader seems a dull-witted, muscle-bound Jethro of The Beverly Hillbillies. Virginia Wood is the bomb as Lulu Belle. But the true star is black and white cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who devises lovely shots. The Hungarian refugee’s work graced many ’60s exploitation indies before he broke into Hollywood’s mainstream. For example, he shot John Boorman and James Dickey’s Deliverance (1972), a big studio example of hicksploitation.

Zsigmond’s US feature debut was The Sadist (1963) by James Landis, who later directed Jennie: Wife/Child. To be more accurate, Landis’ version was Tender Grass, a serious two-hour drama that couldn’t find a distributor; it certainly doesn’t sound like exploitation. Landis’ name isn’t on the final product (not unlike how Buchanan’s name isn’t on Common Law Wife); instead, there’s a credit for Robert Carl Cohen in charge of production. Cohen shortened the film, added the comic campy touch of the silent-film title cards, and perhaps added Lulu Belle to make it sexier. These are good decisions.

One possible comic touch dropped uneasily into the continuity is when Jennie and Albert are about to have a session of “wifely duty” against a stark, empty background while a clock ticks loudly. For those who get it, this is a self-conscious reference to Ingmar Bergman‘s films.

Easier for most viewers to grasp is the soundtrack of original songs by Davie Allan & the Arrows (who appear onscreen at the honky tonk), songwriter/producer Harley Hatcher, and vocalists Don Epperson, Jan Sweet, Jimmy August, and Lydia Marcelle. Marcelle sings a charming ditty called “My Birthday Suit” over a skinny-dipping scene that harks back to Child Bride, and it’s relevant because Jennie will later receive a birthday dress.

Apart from that moment at the swimming hole, this isn’t a very sexy film, and most of the action consists of Jennie and Albert brooding. Still, the songs, the photography, and the resolution make Jennie: Wife/Child a memorable exercise in hicksploitation that, like Common Law Wife, cashes in on Baby Doll associations.

The bonus documentary on hicksploitation is a lecture by historian C. Courtney Joyner in which he traces the popularity of Southern stereotypes in films and television, starting in silent films and going through Monogram’s Snuffy Smith series, Republic’s Judy Canova vehicles, Elvis Presley items like Kissing Cousins (1964), regional exploitation films like Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Two Thousand Maniacs (1964), moonshine dramas like Robert Mitchum’s Thunder Road (1958), television sitcoms like The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres, the cornpone antics of Hee Haw, Burt Reynolds’ outlaw chase films, and The Dukes of Hazzard.

Joyner makes the valid point that no matter how broad and cartoonish such things seemed, they were always big hits in the Southern market, sometimes surprisingly so to their studios. Instead of feeling offended by Hollywood stereotypes, Southerners got the joke and enjoyed it, perhaps more than outsiders. This point is worth thinking about.