Bill’s Bizarre Bijou
by William D. Carl
This week’s feature presentation:
COMMON LAW WIFE (1963)
Welcome to Bill’s Bizarre Bijou, where you’ll discover the strangest films ever made. If there are alien women with too much eye-shadow and miniskirts, if papier-mâché monsters are involved, if your local drive-in insisted this be the last show in their dusk till dawn extravaganza, or if it’s just plain unclassifiable – then I’ve seen it and probably loved it. Now, I’m here to share these little gems with you, so you too can stare in disbelief at your television with your mouth dangling open. Trust me, with these flicks, you won’t believe your eyes.
In the wild, wild world of exploitation films, bits and pieces of one movie can often make a ‘guest appearance’ in another film, spliced into the new film as padding for the running time, or as a way to save on the budget. Most of the time, this created annoying sequences that have nothing to do with the movie you’re viewing at your local drive-in, distractions to the main plot. Other times, the footage was inserted so well a casual viewer never noticed he’d been duped. A lot of film buffs, such as me and you, my fans in the dark, take great pleasure in noticing such scenes and shouting out, “Hey, that was stolen from INVASION OF THE STAR CREATURES!” It’s a fine, old exploitation tradition, and we at the Bijou salute the filmmakers who managed to pull it off.
In 1960, Larry Buchanan, the infamous director of such sublimely awful fare as THE NAKED WITCH (1961), ZONTAR, THING FROM VENUS (1966), MARS NEEDS WOMEN (1967), and THE LOCH NESS HORROR (1981) started shooting a hicksloitation epic called SWAMP ROSE. Starring Lacey Kelley (NUDE ON THE MOON – 1961, THE DEAD ONE – 1961), the unfinished film dealt with a moonshiner obsessed with a woman of easy virtue. This footage was purchased by M.A. Ripps, who wanted to make it into a hit drive-in feature, as he so famously transformed the movie BAYOU into POOR WHITE TRASH (1957). New director Eric Sayers used many Buchanan regulars: (Anabelle Weenik (going by Anne MacAdams) of CREATURE OF DESTRUCTION (1967), A BULLET FOR PRETTY BOY (1970), DON’T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT (1973); Max W. Anderson of HIGH YELLOW (1965), IN THE YEAR 2889 – (1967); and THE NAKED WITCH herself Libby Hall (as Libby Booth)). Sayers shot a whole new storyline with these actors, including an unbilled woman to take Lacey Kelley’s role (and they don’t look much alike) using only bits and pieces of Larry Buchanan’s SWAMP ROSE. There is a scene with Lacey Kelley walking down the street, her boom-boppa-boom stride mocked by a little girl, some scenes in a park, and a chase between a crazed hillbilly moonshiner attacking Lacey that make up most of the old footage. Everything else is newly shot with actors from other movies. Confused yet? You won’t be once you watch COMMON LAW WIFE (1963), Sayers’ adults-only white-trash melodrama set in Texas. It’s easily one of the greatest exploitation films from the period. Other than a few film stock mis-matches and a character that switches actresses several times, you’d never know this was once two films edited into one trashy grindhouse gem.
But what about the story of COMMON LAW WIFE?
The film opens on a typical night at the Raineys’ rather tacky abode. Old man Shug is playing darts in his bathrobe before drinking the biggest damn glass of wine in existence. When his live-in mistress, Linda, tells him he’s not supposed to drink, he throws five darts at her head, embedding them into the wicker chair behind her. He asks, “Do you want me to put one right between your eyes?” Turns out, she’s lived with him for five years, and it’s taken a toll on her beauty. He wants her to get out so his niece Jonelle (“Call me Baby Doll”) can come live with him. “What’s she got?’ she shrieks. Shug answers, “My attention right now, which you haven’t.” Linda, shocked says, “Why she’s your own blood niece! That’s incest!” He replies, “Words don’t mean much to me. I’ve already sent for Baby Doll. Go pack your things.”
In New Orleans, we are introduced to Jonelle, a gorgeous stripper in a nightclub who resembles Traci Lords. She packs her dresses and heads for rural Texas to stay with her uncle (Eww). Turns out, Jonelle’s sister, Brenda, is married to the Sheriff, Jodi, who was having flings with both sisters during high school. Jodi’s more than a little interested in rekindling his torrid affair with Jonelle, while good wife Brenda stays at home.
Meanwhile, Linda consults a lawyer and discovers she’s lived long enough with Mr. Shug Rainey to be his common-law wife. Mrs. Rainey buys herself a wedding ring and informs Shug that she is his legal wife, and if he wants his niece serving him in his house (Eww), he has to divorce her and pay alimony or give her the house. Secretly, though I have no idea why, she loves the old dude.
Jonelle kick-starts her affair with Jodi (what a nice sisterly thing to do), but she throws a hissy fit after he says he doesn’t want to help her murder Shug for the old man’s money. In spite, she gets up and starts stripping and dancing in front of what looks like several farmers and their wives who are either shocked or bemused. She leaves with another old beau, Bull, who takes her out to the swamp to see his moonshine still. Ah, romance in Texas! When he gets fresh, she runs away through the swamp. This whole part is Larry Buchanan’s, and it’s a bit rougher and grittier than the newer footage.
She runs all the way back to her sister’s house (the actress changes here), but Brenda has figured out what’s happening between her husband and Jonelle. She tosses her sister out of her house, but not before Jonelle steals the booze. With nowhere to go, Jonelle hunts down Bull and they return to the swamp (wait, wait, didn’t he try to rape her the previous night? Ah, romance in Texas!)
Jodi goes after her (the heel!) and tracks her to Bull’s house, where a gunfight erupts over Jonelle. He abducts her to his home, where the cold facts about their past relationship come to light. Brenda catches them together and holds them at gunpoint!
Will Jonelle get one over on Linda? Who will get old man Shug Rainey’s money when he dies? What about the cyanide-laced bottle of whiskey? Will we ever get to see a full print of SWAMP ROSE? Probably not, but this common-law version is a real hoot!
COMMON LAW WIFE is filled with great, hateful dialogue delivered in authentic, delightful accents. It was Grace Nolan’s only writing credit, and I wish there’d been a lot more. Some choice cuts of the nasty, mean-spirited dialog include:
“I was a stray cat lookin’ for a home, and I took it however I could.”
“Folks around here might think the circus has come to town.” “They might be right!”
“From now on, this is my house. And I don’t want any tramps hangin’ around it!”
“The only way I’ll see any of that old man’s body is over his stinkin’ dead body.”
“You couldn’t hit a bull with a bass fiddle. Let alone that cap gun.”
“I met a couple of strangers in town today, and they claimed they didn’t know you. You want their names so you can bat a thousand?”
“You’ve put on weight. City food must be good.”
“A girl can learn a lot of lessons in the dark.”
The black and white photography is crisp and full of noir shadows. The music is great jazz, heavy on the sax and trumpet, but the composer is unbilled. Who knows where that great score came from? The acting is campy and over-the-top, as it should be in a swamp melodrama like this one. And the ending is brutal and shocking in a way few films of that era ever were. COMMON LAW WIFE may be confusing sometimes, what with actresses switching and film stock not matching, but it’s loads of fun. It’s like Douglas Sirk on tainted moonshine.
I give COMMON LAW WIFE three and a half revolving actresses out of four.
© Copyright 2013 by William D. Carl