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!