Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Sunday 4th July 2010: Dwain Esper triple!

How To Undress In Front Of Your Husband

USA 1937 b&w

aka How To Undress

Director/Writer Dwain Esper

Cast Elaine Barrie Barrymore (herself), Trixie Friganza (Trixie), Hal Richardson (Peeping Tom), Albert Van Antwerp (Narrator)

Sinister Menace

USA 1930 b&w

aka Sinister Harvest

“Presenter”/Writer Dwain Esper


USA 1933 b&w

aka Narcotic Racket

Directors Dwain Esper, [uncredited] Vival Sodar't Writers A.J. Karnopp, Hildegarde Stadie

Cast Harry Cording (Dr. William G. Davis), Joan Dix (Mrs. Davies), Patricia Farley (Mae), Jean Lacey (Lena)

Tonight we revisit an old friend of Schlock Treatment's, the carnival huckster Dwain Esper, whose sleazy roadshow anti-classics – Marijuana The Weed With Roots In Hell, Maniac, The Strange Love Life Of Adolph Hitler, to name a few - were the filmic equivalent of Snake Oil. Esper's films, both as director and distributor, were of the salacious kind, lurid exposes on the darker impulses of his prim yet prurient audiences masquerading as morality plays. Vice, madness, addiction and damnation were all four-walled across Depression-era America by Esper's one-man caravan, and he made a tidy profit throughout the Thirties and into the Forties as an independent filmmaker SO independent, he could be described as outstanding in a field of one.

Tonight's feature is augmented with two of Esper's shorter subjects. How To Undress In Front Of Your Husband from 1937 is a bizarre creature, a burlesque short of pure vaudevillian cheesecake cloaked as a manual for “relief of marital boredom”. In true exploitation style, Esper secured the services of silent star John Barrymore's then-wife Elaine Barry, a scandal on legs who was only too happy to expose said legs (and the rest!) while cashing in on her fifteen minutes of infamy. Esper cuts from Barrie's masterful disrobing – the artistry! The aesthetics! The SUSPENSE! - with the lumbering boudoir ritual of stage comedienne Trixie Friganza, whose elephantine gracelessness prompts our Peeping Tom narrator to heap scorn upon scorn into lines such as “Life is a bowl of cherries for Trixie, and she's the pits!” Leering, snide and hateful, it's nevertheless a thrill-ride for stocking sniffers and foot fetishists of all ages.

The second short takes the word “hateful” to another plateau. An early example of a Mondo Cane-style shockumentary, Sinister Menace from 1930, purports to be Egyptian government footage of the narcotics trade, with a new foaming-at-the-mouth tirade on the evils of drugs that's 100 percent pure vintage Esper. Tales abound of hash smuggled into Egypt on the backs of camels, and of evil pushers lacing their dope with crushed human skulls. These are NOT actors, the film reminds us, “just fellow human beings”, and thus starts the camera's journey along the trail of human wreckage captured, no doubt, by an Egyptian Esper clone. Haggard, haunted faces in hideous closeup, shaking and crawling with flies, are reminiscent of images from Nazi propaganda films such as The Eternal Jew, and as America's War on Drugs was just starting to warm up in the early Thirties, Esper's own propaganda is a similarly cruel and inhuman piece that would warm the cockles of Joseph Goebels' ice-cold heart.

And so to our feature tonight, which proves once and for all that Dwain Esper was the Ed Wood Jr of his generation of roadshow pioneers, and that Narcotic from 1933 is the Glen Or Glenda of the Drugsploitation genre. A bold claim, I hear one or two of you declare, but just wait for Narcotic to unfold. On the surface it's the confessions of one Dr William G. Davis, promising doctor with his own Free Clinic, loving wife, and a caring friend in his former classmate Mr Wu (played with squinted reverence by Caucasian actor and Esper's assistant on Maniac, J. Stuart Blackton Jr!). Wu introduces Davis in garbled Confucian to one of Chinatown's many opium dens and to the pipe's dangerous charms, but warns him that any defect in character will allow the drug to take hold. Before the smoke clears Davis has his own home opium den, is selling tiger fat on street corners as the miracle ointment Wang Fang, and cavorting with socialites and underwear-clad showgirls in a recreation of a dope party which eclipses any scene from Reefer Madness. Davis produces a veritable all-you-can-ingest pharmacopia, from “C” to “H”, snorting AND main-lining (says one girl, “It takes a needle for me to get a bang!”) and some jazz cigarettes for an extra ding or ping or pop, or whatever Harlem lingo was hip that season.

Sadly for Davis he's just one of a million addicts, claims Esper, in the US at the time, and discovers only too late the old adage “you can take it out of the body, but not out of the mind”. For Davis there is only one way out, he writes in a letter addressed to Dwain in the opening credits, a self-reflexive moment very much like Ed Wood's own confessional Glen Or Glenda, and from a filmmaker whose career has more than a passing resemblance to that of Davis' snake oil salesman. And, like Glen Or Glenda, Narcotic is an eccentric patchwork of a film, stitched together from silent car chases, footage of circus freaks, the birth of a baby and rattlesnakes in the wild, and probably the same shots of lightning bolts that Ed Baby used as punctuation. It's an astounding work by one of the Thirties most idiosyncratic filmmakers, and only goes to prove that those Thirties roadshow pioneers were exploitation alchemists – adding a tincture of sin here, a pinch of derriere there – posing as Victorian-era moralists. Dwain Esper, you're not fooling anybody, as we reveal the horrors of Z-grade Drugsploitation in the 1933 Narcotic.

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