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Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Shotgun Wedding (1963)


Director: Boris Petroff
Writer: Larry Lee, from a story by Jane Mann
Stars: J. Pat O'Malley, Jenny Maxwell, Valerie Allen, Buzz Martin, William Schallert, Nan Peterson, Peter Colt and Jack Searle


Index: Dry Heat Obscurities.

Classic exploitation flicks had a habit of overselling their cheap products but rarely do they come more oversold than this one. It’s a shocking picture, say the various posters, apparently all about child brides in the Ozarks in ‘flaming hillbilly color’. ‘Was she too old at 15?’ one poster asks, with scantily clad Jenny Maxwell front and centre a year after she didn’t land the lead role in Kubrick’s Lolita. ‘She was only 15 and itchin’ for a man,’ suggests another. Of course, such advertising can’t help but remind us of Child Bride, a 1938 film that has become legendary for all the wrong reasons. It aimed to combat the scourge of child marriage in the Ozarks by showing us an underage girl skinnydipping. Shirley Mills was twelve, while her body double, Bernice Stobaugh Ray, was thirteen. That embarrassment of a movie ran for years on the indie circuit, so perhaps the producers of this one had a deliberate eye on its audience, even though Shotgun Wedding doesn’t feature a single thing that would seem out of place on a TV sitcom of its era.

And that’s odd, because Larry Lee, who wrote the script from a story by the director’s wife, Jane Mann, appears to be a pseudonym for one Edward D. Wood, Jr. Now, Wood’s most famous movies were all released in the fifties, culminating with the legendary Plan 9 from Outer Space in 1959, but his career hadn’t yet descended to outright pornography as it would by the end of the sixties, both in books and films. However, I don’t recall anything from Wood’s pen that plays out quite so tamely and it’s surprisingly unsurprising to see Joe Blevins quote the artist Don Fellman, who said in Rudolph Grey’s biography of Wood, Nightmare of Ecstasy, that Wood had written a script for The Beverly Hillbillies which had been ‘rejected at the last minute’. This does feel like Wood distilled down all the component parts of the hicksploitation genre, rendered them family friendly for television and shoehorned them all into an hour. There are no boobs and no deaths and I could hear the nonexistent laugh track over the annoying crackle of my cheap copy.

I watched from a digital rip of a poor quality VHS tape because the film is steadfastly unvailable. Nobody has yet released it on DVD and I’m not convinced that anyone ever released a good quality print on VHS. For all that it feels like a TV sitcom, I’m not sure that it ever screened on television either. Yet, while it’s hardly high cinematic art, its obscurity seems unfair. Beyond the contribution of someone like Ed Wood with his sizeable cult fanbase, many others involved are also notable. The director was the Russian born Boris Petroff, whose career is often tied to Wood’s, as he made films like The Unearthly, with John Carradine, Allison Hayes and Tor Johnson; this was his very last feature. The surf music playing during the ‘wedding shindig’ is by Jerry Capehart, who wrote songs as important as Summertime Blues and C’mon Everybody with Eddie Cochran, whom he managed. It’s utterly out of place here and is clearly not being played on the two acoustic guitars and one banjo that we see, but it’s enjoyably catchy nonetheless.

On screen are many recognisable faces, starting with J. Pat O’Malley, who’s given a rare leading role and lives up to it. He wasn’t a major film actor, being known more for the two hundred TV shows on which he appeared and for the voice work he did for Walt Disney in pictures like Alice in Wonderland, One Hundred and One Dalmations and The Jungle Book. However, he’s still fun to watch here as Buford Anchors, a self-proclaimed river rat who lives on a houseboat outside Mudcat Landing (population 47) with his two sons, Shub and Rafe; his daughter, Lucianne; and his girlfriend, Melanie, who’s of a similar age to his kids. He was doing her a favour at the time, helping her out as she was running from the authorities, having shot the strongman for whom she worked at a carnival back east, but he also seems to have genuinely fallen for her, however shrewish she becomes when he won’t let her know where he hid her $3,000. If there’s a plot here, rather than a string of scenes, it’s sparked by her announcement that she’s pregnant.
Melanie is played by Valerie Allen, one of a trio of gorgeous young ladies who brighten up this film. She’s also the least recognised of the three, even if she met Troy Donohue while filming Come Spy with Me and promptly became his third wife; like O’Malley, she’s a television actress who also made films. Playing Lucianne Anchors, Nan Peterson is a little more recognisable, at least to folk who saw The Hideous Sun Demon, the first of her four features; this was her last. She also appeared on a slew of TV shows, including four episodes of The Twilight Zone. Most recognisable of this bevy of beauties is Jenny Maxwell, the one featured on those outrageously misleading posters. She’s Honey Bee, the daughter of Buford’s neighbour, Silas, and the girl that Rafe has fallen hard for. They get a make out session on the river bank in one scene that reminds of From Here to Eternity, just without waves, though it’s surely a nod to her most famous role, in Blue Hawaii, in which she’s spanked on the beach by Elvis Presley.

Maxwell also got to sadly bring some of what happens here to her real life. The film is entitled Shotgun Wedding, perhaps because it contains both a shotgun and a wedding; we almost get a shotgun wedding during the finalĂ© but that validation of the title is lost in less than a minute. Almost two decades later, Maxwell was actually shot dead, along with her husband, in what is usually seen as a botched robbery attempt. The film revolves around a marriage that features a major difference in ages; Valerie Allen was 27 at the time, while her screen husband, J. Pat O’Malley, was 59. When she died, Maxwell was 39 while her husband, Ervin M. ‘Tip’ Roeder, a criminal attorney, was 60. It’s fair to say that they just avoid failing the creepy test (half the man’s age and add seven), while the film’s fictional equivalent fails it utterly. Yes, the balding Buford and the mellifluous Melanie are too far adrift in age for their love match to be believed, but this is a hicksploitation movie so we should be surprised that they aren’t related to boot.
The closest this film gets to incest is the suggestion that Melanie’s baby might be Shub’s rather than his father’s, as he’s head over heels in love with her too. Then again, he’s the stereotypically strong but dumb hillbilly son, so we can’t even be sure he’s got her into the sack yet. What we get instead is a focus on the classic hicksploitation feud, which found its way into Appalachia with Celts immigrating to the States and is epitomised by the Hatfields and the McCoys. Every hicksploitation tale has to have a feud and this one has neighbour vs. neighbour, Buford vs. Silas, for no reason that we can fathom except that the latter is over-protective of his only daughter, Honey Bee. Writing this, I immediately hearken back to the lack of incest, because it’s not there in the movie. Sure, Honey Bee wears as little as possible at every point, to the degree that she even takes an outdoor shower at one point, but daddy’s upset about the idea that anyone might see his daughter so scantily clad rather than jealous of anyone who succeeds.

Most of the other standard hicksploitation elements included here show up in dialogue, which is occasionally clumsy but delivered well, at least by the adults and the young ladies; the young men are easily the weakest part of the movie. Former child actor Jackie Searl, who was the Dormouse in the star-studded 1933 version of Alice in Wonderland, at twelve years of age, is given some fantastic lines here: ‘Courtin’ and wooin’ brings dallyin’ and doin’,’ he snaps at Honey Bee. As his nemesis, O’Malley gets some too; when the preacher suggests that he take Melanie for better or worse, he quips that ‘Things can’t get much worse so I think I’d better.’ We’re given a great combo when Buford asks Melanie, ‘You gonna kiss me?’ and she replies, ‘You chewin’ tobacco?’ Melanie isn’t passed over for lines; when she tells Buford she’s going to have a baby, she spells it out, with three B’s. My favourite went to Lucianne, as she rushes into the wedding shindig to cry, ‘Pa! The preacher fell in the hog wallow!’ That’s hicksploitation in only eight words.
I’ve left out the preacher thus far, because he’s the other star of this show and deserves special mention. While the story revolves around J. Pat O’Malley as Buford Anchors and the visuals focus primarily on the three stunning young ladies in the cast, it’s fair to say that most of the success of the movie has to do with the subtle villainy of William Schallert as Preacher Parsons. Like O’Malley, he was prolific on television; he actually puts his co-star to shame, having appeared in almost three hundred shows over a strong six decade career, including a long run on The Patty Duke Show. Unlike O’Malley, he was also a notable film actor, racking up almost a hundred feature films and passing that threshold if we factor in TV movies. His first scene here ably highlights that he’s not the man of God he pretends to be, but we find out a lot more as the film runs on; he’s the only character who isn’t a cardboard cutout. This picture was surely never meant to be about the acting, but I got a real kick out of seeing O’Malley and Schallert play leads.

I’m not going to delve deeply into the plot because there really isn’t one. Rafe is in love with Honey Bee and she returns that love; his brother Shub is in love with Melanie, who’s clearly stringing him along. She’s stringing Buford along too, even though he’s not kidding about falling for her, because Melanie is in love with the three grand that he hid for her and she couldn’t care less about a one of them. Sister Lucianne is clearly fond of Preacher Parsons; the preacher likes all the pretty little things who keep smiling at him throughout and leaving him with not so subtle come ons like ‘I ain’t hard to find.’ Then again, that was Lucianne’s response to the preacher’s query, ‘Young lady, are you a milkmaid or an angel in disguise?’ This is more soap opera than plot and the feud has little to add. Sure, Buford rails at Silas and Silas rails at Buford, but we really don’t buy the escalation to shotgun wielding posse in the slightest. Hicksploitation needs more than fluttering eyelids, shotguns and Daisy dukes and this movie is the proof.
While I enjoyed The Beverly Hillbillies and The Dukes of Hazzard, hicksploitation was always meant to be a more adult genre and this feels lacking because it plays it so safe. Other prominent exploitation filmmakers of the day played in the genre and avoided such safety with abandon. Russ Meyer was one year away from Lorna and one more from Mudhoney, both of which make this seem like kindergarten viewing. Herschell Gordon Lewis was similarly a year away from both Moonshine Mountain and, my favourite of his, Two Thousand Maniacs!, the latter of which adds a further element to the sexual violence of Meyer’s films. Frankly, Shotgun Wedding isn’t as wild as something as studio safe as Swing Your Lady, Humphrey Bogart’s most embarrassing film, in which he’s a wrestling promoter touring the Ozarks with dim-witted talent who promptly falls in love with the hillbilly amazon he’s supposed to battle. And that one has authentic old time country music! Even The Beverly Hillbillies had Flatt and Scruggs!

Swing Your Lady was a movie set in the Ozarks but shot on the Warner Bros. lot in Hollywood. This one was at least shot on location out in the countryside but it’s hardly the right countryside. The Ozarks sprawl across Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma, which is Osage country, but, for some reason, Boris Petroff Productions chose to shoot it in Apache Junction, Arizona. The town of Mudcat Landing, a sprawling metropolis for a population of 47, is really the original Apacheland movie ranch in Gold Canyon, not far from where the Arizona Renaissance Festival thrives today. It was built in 1959, capitalising on interest in the area after Paramount had shot the Clanton ranch scenes in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Gold Canyon two years earlier. It opened in 1960 and immediately saw success as a location for western TV shows and the odd movie, like Charro! and The Ballad of Cable Hogue. Most of the town burned in 1969, but it was rebuilt and remained in operation until it burned again in 2004. The last film shot there was Blind Justice in 1994.
The other location prominently used here was much harder to track down and I have to thank Charlie LeSeuer, Arizona’s western film historian, for being such a fount of knowledge. We start in Mudcat Landing and we go back there at points, but most of this is shot on and around the houseboat of Buford Anchors somewhere outside of town. There’s a bridge nearby, which looks rather like the Sheep Bridge which crosses the Verde river northeast of Carefree, but it isn’t that one. It’s actually a different Sheep Bridge, of a similar design but in a different place, which crossed the Salt River in the Usery Mountain Regional Park east of Mesa. There are few details online, but it seems that it was washed away in 1966. We do joke aboout Arizona knocking buildings down as they reach ten years of age, but Shotgun Wedding does appear to have been shot in a town that burned down and by a bridge that was washed away. Perhaps that’s appropriate for a movie that’s become rather forgotten, even if anyone really paid attention to it on release.
Important sources:
Joe Blevins - Shotgun Wedding at Dead 2 Rights.

Key locations in the film on Google Maps.

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