Embracing The Melodrama Part III #2: Common Law Wife (dir by Eric Sayers and Larry Buchanan)

Welcome to Serenity, Texas!

Serenity is the setting for the 1963 film, Common Law Wife.  It’s a small country town, one with a modest downtown and a quaintly innocent feel to it.  As soon as the movie started, I recognized Serenity and that’s not just because I’m a Texan.  No, I recognized it because Common Law Wife was filmed in Forney, Texas.  Forney is known as being the “antique capital of Texas” and apparently, it hasn’t changed much over the past 55 years.  I always like seeing old films that were made locally, even if they’re held in as little regard as Common Law Wife.

Just as small Texas towns rarely ever changed, the same can be said for the way that exploitation and grindhouse films were advertised.  Just look at the poster at the top of this review.  Judging from the poster, you would think that this film is not only dealing with the most important issue ever but that it’s also a realistic look at what it means to be a common law wife.

“You don’t have to say ‘I DO’ to be married!” the poster shouts, “Do you know the law in your state?  Are you a common law wife?  If you’re not old enough for marriage, you should not see this movie.”

On top of that, we’ve got the scales of justice and a key for a room at the State Line Motel.  Nothing good ever happens at a State Line Motel!

Of course, the film itself has very little to do with anything to be found on the poster.  Don’t get me wrong.  There is a common law marriage in the film.  Rich, old Shugfoot Rainey (George Edgley) has lived with Linda (Anabelle Weenick) for so long that they are now legally considered to be married.  Linda and Shug have the type of relationship where Shug keeps himself entertained by throwing darts at Linda’s head.  However, Shug now wants Linda to move out of his house.  His niece, a stripper named Baby Doll (Lacey Kelly) is moving from New Orleans to Serenity and she’s going to need a place to live.  Shug wants Baby Doll.  Baby Doll wants Shug’s money.  Unfortunately, for her, Linda also wants Shug’s money.

While Shug tries to get Linda to move out, Baby Doll gets to know all of the other men in Serenity.  Fortunately, there aren’t many of them.  There’s the sheriff and then there’s a moonshiner.  It turns out that Shug loves his moonshine so what better way to get rid of him than to serve him some poisoned moonshine?  Shug is just dumb enough to fall for Baby Doll’s act but not Linda.  It all leads to an appropriately fatalistic ending.

As in the case of many grindhouse film, the story behind Common Law Wife is more interesting than the story that appears on screen.  In 1960, the notorious Texas-based director Larry Buchanan started to work on a film called Swamp Rose.  For whatever reason, Swamp Rose was abandoned but, three years later, a director named Eric Sayers shot some additional footage and mashed it to together with Buchanan’s footage.  The end result was Common Law Wife.  The majority of the footage is taken from Swamp Rose but all of the dialogue was overdubbed to change Swamp Rose‘s plot.  Whereas the Sayers footage is bleak and harshly lit, the Swamp Rose footage is notably grainy.  Obviously, it makes for a disjointed viewing viewing experience, though it’s really not as disjointed as any other movie that Buchanan was involved with over the course of his long career.

Common Law Wife is currently available of YouTube.  Even by the standards of Larry Buchanan, it’s definitely a lesser film but if you’re a fan of grindhouse and exploitation films — especially ones that have a hillbilly feel to them — you might get a laugh or two from it.

Tomorrow, we continue to embrace the melodrama with the 1968 drug epic, More!

44 Days of Paranoia #7: Beyond the Doors (dir by Larry Buchanan)


While I was researching The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald last week, I came across another film directed by Larry Buchanan.  Beyond the Doors (also known as Down On Us) sounded like one of those truly odd films that I simply had to see for myself.  Fortunately, it turned out that this rare and hard-to-find movie was available (in 13 parts!) on YouTube.

First released in either 1983 or 1984 (sources vary), Beyond the Doors tells the story of a FBI agent who, as the film begins, is out hunting with two friends who proceed to gun him down.  Staring down at the agent’s dead body, one of the assassins sneers, “Rock and Roll is dead.  Long live Rock and Roll.”  The agent’s son then goes through his father’s files and discovers that, during the late 1960s and early 70s, his father was responsible for murdering “the three pied pipers of rock and roll” — Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison.  The film then enters into flashback mode and we discover both why the U.S. government was determined to kill Hendrix, Joplin, and Morrison and how exactly they attempted to do it.

What can I say about Beyond the Doors?  If The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald seemed oddly respectable for a Larry Buchanan film, Beyond the Doors reminds us of why Larry Buchanan remains a cult figure for bad film lovers.  Everything that Buchanan is known for is present in this film: unknown actors playing real-life characters, melodramatic dialogue, one set continually redecorated to look like a dozen different rooms, and plenty of conspiracy theories.   As is typical of a Larry Buchanan film, it was shot with a lot of ambition but next to no money or actual talent.  Hendrix, Morrison, and Joplin are played by lookalikes who give performances that don’t so much resemble their real-life counterparts as much as they seem to literally be Wikipedia entries brought to life.  Hendrix worries that he’s sold out to the man, Joplin questions what fame’s all about, and Morrison makes pretentious observations.  Buchanan couldn’t actually afford the rights to any songs from Joplin, Hendrix, or the Doors so instead, the soundtrack is full of music that’s designed to sound as if it could have been written by one of the “three pied pipers of rock and roll” even though it wasn’t.  (And yes, the end result is just as silly as it sounds.)  In short, Beyond the Doors is one of those films (much like Tommy Wiseau’s The Room) that is so amazingly bad and misguided that it becomes perversely fascinating.

In short, it’s a film that, like me, you simply have to see for yourself.

44 Days of Paranoia #5: The Trial Of Lee Harvey Oswald (dir by Larry Buchanan)

The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald

Today has been a strange day to live and work in Dallas, Texas.  It is, of course, the 50th anniversary of the day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in my hometown.

As I mentioned in my review of Executive Action, those of us who live in Dallas are still expected to live in the shadow of something that happened before a lot of us were even born.  Today, the city of Dallas did everything that it could to embrace that shadow.  Despite the fact that it was cold and rainy today, a lot of people attended the memorial ceremony at Dealey Plaza.  (Despite the weather, nobody was allowed to open an umbrella during the ceremony.  Having been raised Catholic, I appreciate a little self-punishment as much as the next girl but considering how bad the weather  was, it all seems a bit much to me.)  One of the local talk radio stations spent today rebroadcasting all of its programming from November 22nd, 1963.  I guess the idea was to give people a chance to experience a terrible day in real time.  That seems a bit creepy to me but it does illustrate just how much the Kennedy assassination continues to overshadow life here in Dallas.

Considering just how much my city is identified with it, it’s perhaps appropriate that the very first film ever made about the Kennedy assassination was made by a Dallas filmmaker, the infamous Larry Buchanan.  As a filmmaker, Buchanan specialized in exploitation films that claimed to either be ripped-from-the-headlines or were presented as being lurid dramatizations of real-life events.  Hence, it’s not surprising that, in 1964, Buchanan gathered together a group of local (and obscure) Dallas actors and filmed The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald.

Lee Harvey Oswald

The eyes of a killer?

The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald takes place in an alternative reality in which Lee Harvey Oswald was not murdered by Jack Ruby and, instead, actually stood trial for the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  The prosecution pretty much presents the case that was made by the infamous Warren Commission.  The defense argues that the evidence against Oswald is circumstantial and that, even if Oswald did fire the fatal shots, he should still be found “not guilty for reason of existing insanity.”  The film’s audience is meant to serve as the trial’s jury.

As I watched this film, two things stood out for me.  One is the fact that Buchanan never allows us to get a good view of the defendant.  Instead, we simply see his eyes.  While this was probably due to the fact that actor Charles Mazyrack didn’t bear a strong resemblance to the real-life Oswald, it’s still an occasionally striking effect that allows the character to remain a troubling enigma.

Secondly, and this surprised me as a contemporary viewer, next to no accusations of conspiracy are made during the trial.  There’s no talk of the grassy knoll or the military-industrial complex or any of the other things that one naturally expects when it comes to a film about the Kennedy assassination.  Instead, The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald is based solely on the information that was available to the general public in 1964.  As such, it remains an interesting historical document, a chance to get a genuine look at what people actually knew and thought in the days immediately following the Kennedy assassination.

(Interestingly enough, Buchanan’s later films would often feature shadowy government conspiracies.)

When Larry Buchanan died in 2004, The New York Times summarized his career as follows: “One quality united Mr. Buchanan’s diverse output: It was not so much that his films were bad; they were deeply, dazzlingly, unrepentantly bad.”  For the majority of Buchanan’s films, that’s true but it’s not exactly true for The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald.  Considering that  Buchanan is best remembered for directing a film called Mars Needs Women, The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald feels almost respectable.

In fact, the film is a bit too respectable.  The dialogue and direction are often rather dry and the mostly amateur cast alternates between overacting and not acting at all.  If there was ever a film that could have benefited from some ludicrous melodrama, it’s this one.

That said, I enjoyed The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald because I’m a history nerd and, if nothing else, this film remains an interesting historical curio.   As well, it was filmed on location in Dallas and I can’t complain about any film that features a close-up of my favorite downtown building, the old red courthouse.

Enjoy The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald!