Sunday 1 June 2008

Swamp Women (1955)

After a delightful evening at Chandler Cinemas watching a triple feature of early Roger Corman movies from 1957 and 1958, courtesy of the Midnite Movie Mamacita, I couldn't resist pulling this one out from a Treeline Films box set, Horror Classics. It's Corman's debut, made in 1955, and so is the real beginning of a long and highly successful career. He didn't call his autobiography How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime for nothing. He has 55 films to his credit as a director, a couple of which are uncredited and most of which I've seen, but he stopped directing in 1971 with The Red Baron, and has only sat back in the director's chair twice since.

What he didn't do is leave the industry, and he's successfully produced and distributed a huge amount of movies over six decades. He has nearly 400 movies to his credit as a producer and has started out in the industry what seems like a Who's Who of Hollywood: Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Jack Nicholson, Jonathan Demme, Joe Dante, Ron Howard, John Sayles, Bruce Dern, Peter Fonda, Peter Bogdanovich, Dennis Hopper, Robert de Niro, James Cameron... and probably many more. He put them to work doing whatever was needed at the time: acting, producing, directing, writing scripts, building sets, you name it. And it all began with this one.

Needless to say it's a hokey piece of work with many flaws but it also contains much that points directly at the future. It's apparently shot entirely on location in Louisiana, in New Orleans and Bayou Lacombe, and the serious lack of budget is hidden behind leading dialogue, contrived confrontations and scenery shots. The first few scenes in New Orleans is populated most by what looks like stock footage of Mardi Gras, but we're quickly introduced to the various key characters.

There's a young couple called Bob and Marie, who soon head out into the bayou on a boat. Marie is a dumb little golddigger played by Susan Cummings, whose biggest role would probably come as the leading lady in Sam Fuller's Verboten! Marie is so dumb that she doesn't even realise that there are swamps in Louisiana! Bob is some sort of rich oil magnate, played by Mike Connors, at this point still known as Touch Connors, the nickname coming from his old basketball days in college. This is 1955, twelve years before Mannix and four years before his other big TV role in Tightrope. He's a tough guy, as we soon discover when he does a little bit of alligator wrestling, but he still ends up a surprisingly easy and constant prisoner to the four swamp women of the title.

Three of the four know where some stolen diamonds are, and the fourth is a cop who goes undercover to break them out of prison so that they can lead her to the diamonds. They steal Bob's boat and take him along so that they can all lust after him, which is hardly surprising as they've been locked up in a women's penitentiary for three years. The cop is Lee Hampton, played by Carole Mathews, towards the end of her career which obviously didn't take off the way it possibly should have done. She was Miss Chicago 17 years earlier when she was 18, and at least by this time had learned how to act. She's no great talent but she's not bad at all.

The three jailbirds are Josie the tough leader, Vera the redhead and Billie the sassy blonde. Josie is the statuesque Marie Windsor who had a long career in both film and TV, mostly as a tough dame which she did so well that she apparently often received bibles in the mail with highlighted passages that covered the immorality of her screen characters. Her biggest role came a year later as Elisha Cook Jr's wife in Kubrick's The Killing, film noir being a natural place for her talents. Billie is Jil Jarmyn, a perky blonde who looks great here but presumably faded out of roles, retiring from the screen after an appearance as 2nd Nurse on The Beverly Hillbillies in 1964 at the age of 38.

That leaves Beverly Garland as Vera, and she's the most notable of the bunch. She has a six decade career on both TV and film and began her 'second 50 years in show business' in 2001. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, but probably values more the major first she achieved in 1957: apparently she was the first female dramatic lead on TV playing a cop called Casey Jones for the 37 episode run of Decoy. Her longest TV role was as Dotty West in Scarecrow and Mrs King. She also has a couple of hotels that were named for her by her second husband who built them. She and her family still run the Beverly Garland Holiday Inn in North Hollywood today. She sounds like a fascinating person who would have many stories to tell.

But back to the film. There isn't really much here, to be honest, but it's fascinating to see how Corman and screenwriter David Stern spin it out. As an exploitation film it's nothing special but it's hardly down at the level of some of Corman's worst output. This is a lot of notches above Attack of the Crab Monsters or The Beast with a Million Eyes, to name just two. It may not make a huge amount of sense but it's a lot more consistent and logical than The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent. Mostly though, it's a good excuse to watch a bunch of women in shorts catfight their way around a bayou. That and to see Corman at moment one of his career.

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