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.
The ‘60s were a literal godsend for the exploitation business. Thanks to a liberated libido, and a social acceptability to explore same, the demographic that kept the grindhouse going was sampling the twisted taboos that the genre was designed to explore. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the growing swingers scene that seemed to define the era. Beginning as part of the white flight colonization of the suburbs, the notion of bored marrieds trading spouses for the sake of forbidden pleasures had all the makings of considered cosmopolitan cool. It was a sign of sophistication as much as sexual revolt, and the overriding mantra of “if it feels good, do it” became a carnal clarion call for an entire meat and martini generation.
Perhaps the best cinematic explorer of this ribald realm was, and remains, Joe Sarno. Before moving on to softcore pseudo-porn (where he made his biggest impact), the king of conservative kink made several outstanding films, naughty narratives providing as much social commentary as abundant bared flesh. With titles like Sin in the Suburbs, The Swap and How They Make It, Passion in Hot Hollows and Flesh and Lace Sarno’s efforts saw everyday people exploring the outer regions of erotic acceptability for the thrill of something new and nasty. In addition, his distinctive style, filled with static tableaus, evocative dialogue, and languid scenes of inferred desire, became a benchmark for those hoping to match his highly charged efforts. Sadly, few could follow in his footsteps, not only because they lacked Sarno’s talent. In fact, the problem was much more complicated than mere mediocrity.
Case in point – the Something Weird Video release for June 2006. A dandy double feature, both Unholy Matrimony (1966) and My Third Wife, George (1968) want to blow the lid off the entire multi-partner paradigm of those successful explorers of the arousing. Matrimony actually uses the swinger underworld as the basis for its investigative journalism storyline, while George is merely a comedy of couplings. All digital context aside – and here we get wonderful archival and educational shorts, a collection of terrific trailers, even a sneak peek at the Florida film industry of the time – these films generally fail to fully explore the potential sizzle of the scenes they are reflecting. But what they lack in wanton wickedness they more than make up for in delightfully dated diversions.
After getting his behind handed to him by a hired goon, magazine editor Jim Bremmer decides that there must be more to the whole ‘wife swapping’ idea than meets the eye. He determines that there’s blackmail involved, and where there’s extortion, the ‘syndicate’ can’t be too far behind. He convinces his ace reporter Al Gentry to take on the story (with the help of a healthy $5K bonus). Bremmer wants the dirt on the couples who let boredom beget even stranger bedfellows. Of course, he’ll need a gal to go along with the ruse and, ever the gentleman, Al offers up his apparently willing paramour Janice. Things start out fine as the newly named ‘swingers’ pose for provocative photos (with Bremmer acting as position coach!), but when the first couple they contact takes things a little too far, Jan wants out! It takes a weekend at the beach before she’s willing to move on to the next perverted pair. Eventually, all risqué roads lead to an overweight Texan who uses his various inside sources to prove that your typical husband
and wife are involved in some very Unholy Matrimony.
Taking itself more seriously as a story than a skin flick, Unholy Matrimony is like a late comer to an orgy already well past its date stamp. It acts shocked at risqué antics that have long been explored (voyeurism, group gropes) and feels the need to justify its actions in the name of journalistic integrity and the people’s right to know. Granted, the blackmail angle is something rather original – more of an outgrowth of the entire notion of sex as a secret shame than actual reality – but once Al and Janice hit the road as our carnal couple, each set up is like a limp low rent rationale. Besides, there has to be a better way to flush out the criminal element in a nationwide muscle racket than getting an oily middle aged reporter and his bosomy babe to play sleaze seekers. Remember – all of this was supposed to seem novel, perhaps even disturbing, to the regular raincoat crowd. Unfortunately, like those long ago talks about the birds and the bees with your parents, the patrons probably knew a Helluva lot more than the players on the screen.
Then there’s the issue of the performances. Allan Delay, who essays our intrepid newshound, is like a bottle of vodka-laced Vitalis come to life. Hair slicked in a strange cake frosting coiffure and face apparently carved out of near-beer cheese, his smile resembles an eel’s slimy surface. More times than not, he looks more perverted than the people he’s investigating. On the other hand, the actress playing Janice is given a one note performance pattern – complain while playing extremely hard to get. At first, we figure she’s going to be a nice nubile edition to the story. Pendulous in all the right ways, the minute she drops blou we’re in mammary heaven. But she then starts the uncomfortable whining, and it’s not long before we never want to see her topless again. Besides, she signed up for a job playing swinger with a man she regularly rogers. What part of the set-up didn’t she understand? In the hands of unknown auteur Arthur John, there’s a freakish flatness to the entire proceedings. The only inventive element is a series of underwater shots during a nude poolside cavalcade. It helps to mask the mostly mediocre dialogue. As a look at elicit loving between consenting couples, Unholy Matrimony has its moments. As a pure proto-porn extravaganza, it’s missing some important bawdy beats.
My Third Wife, George
Ralph Higbee is a real sexual mess. Repressed by his domineering mother until his mid-‘40s, he’s a novice in the ways of guy/girl groovin’. When his wealthy mater finally passes, leaving him her massive estate and Florida mansion, Ralph decides to make up for all his non-erotic indiscretions. But things just haven’t turned out right. Sitting at a bar late one night, drowning his obvious sorrows, Ralph tells a couple of interested listeners about his sexual woes. First, while desperate to wet his wick, he ended up the main course in an all girl hippy pot/pill party. It really blew his mind – among other things. Then, in a stab at respectability, he married his former maid, Josephine. The only problem – she’d rather play around with her swimming instructor, and some dude dressed up like a gorilla. After her ‘accidental’ death, Ralph hitched up with his second spouse. But she was so sure he was having an affair that she hired a private eye to catch him in the act. Now on his third significant other, Ralph is miserable. His latest live-in lover is a green eyed monster. And if he’s not careful, our hero is convinced he’ll truly suffer at the hands of his Third Wife, George(?).
A real staple of the exploitation scene, William Kerwin (who plays the horny, henpecked Ralph) was a unique presence in the ‘50s and ’60s. Balancing a career as a legitimate actor with his gratuitous grindhouse efforts, he could play straight (Blood Feast) or seedy (the nudist romp Sweet Bird of Aquarius) with ease. Working frequently with the legendary Herschell Gordon Lewis, he remains the perfect illustration of the leering, longing Establishment male. Even when he tried to act cool or overly sophisticated, he came across like a cartoon cocktail napkin come to life. So his presence here is a perfect panacea for what is, in essence, rather half-baked bawdiness. Helping out his brother Harry (and, from the credits, what appears to be the entire Kerwin clan), wild Willy gives the kind of bug-eyed goofball performance that’s more vaudeville than viable. Indeed, we are witness to one sloppy slapstick sequence after another. If Ralph isn’t getting hit in this hinder with a saber (during his daily fencing lesson), he’s running around like an idiot trying to capture his companions in compromising positions. In between, there’s lot of double entendres, suggestive repartee, and outright carnal come-ons. Indeed, the script could be studied for ways of suggesting sex without actually calling it same.
Too bad the rest of the movie is so routine. The minute Ralph steps into the hippie chicks den, we know we’re in for one overlong bout of fake fornication – no matter if its one girl or three. Apparently recorded without sound, we are left with Kerwin’s incessant narration to drain all the sizzle out of the sequence. There’s plenty of perky pulchritude on display, but everything in My Third Wife, George is played for laughs, not lewdness. Similarly, the sections with Josephine are all tease and very little sleaze. Actress Erika Von Zaros is capable, but the filmmaking foils her at every erotic avenue. By the time we get to the title twist, we’ve decided that it really doesn’t matter. We’d prefer to see more of slick private dick Brad Grinter (the notorious mastermind behind the killer turkey treasure Blood Freak) relaxing at the bar with an everpresent Kool in his mitts. As a comedy, My Third Wife, George is occasionally funny, but it’s diddling is far from definitive. Indeed, as with its companion piece in double feature presentation, there is more excitement in the premise than in the eventual follow through. Perhaps in the hands of big bad Joe Sarno, these movies would moan as good as they groan. But for the most part Unholy Matrimony/My Third Wife, George are second tier pseudo-smut at best.