Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Celluloid Gypsy Chronicles: An Introduction

These past few months I have been beavering away hard on a short documentary about Dwain Esper, legendary exploitation filmmaker in the 30's and 40's. Like his contemporaries, he made numerous very cheap and dubious films on taboo subjects expressly forbidden by the Hays Production Code: drug addiction, venereal disease, adultery, prostitution, homosexuality, and other forms of debauchery. Some of these films had nudity in them, while others had various geek-show attractions like filmed births and disgusting VD symptoms. In order to make money without attracting the attention of local bluenoses and censor boards, these movies had to make a claim of educational value. Whatever sick, depraved nonsense they were showing had to be packaged as a decent, patriotic act of educating the American public.

Some of the most famous exploitation films of the day were Kroger Babb's Mom and Dad, William O'Conner's The Cocaine Fiends, and Louis Gasnier's Reefer Madness, which Esper actually bought from him and turned into a roadshow attraction (more on this later.) But the fact is, these films look like David Selznik-produced epics compared to most of the stuff Esper helmed himself. Some have labeled him a 1930's Ed Wood, which isn't far wrong. Esper's movies are so ridiculous, so staggeringly, insanely bad, so genuinely cheap and scuzzy and completely bizarre, that they almost seem to have been beamed in from another dimension.

Esper was a former circus sideshow barker who became a successful real estate agent. He got into filmmaking purely by accident, when a business deal went sour and he got a film processing studio out of the deal. He and his wife, Hildegarde Stadie, collaborated on a number of early, scandalous, envelope-pushing films in the pre-Code erea. The earliest film of theirs that survives is 1933's Narcotic. Unlike most of the drug-scare films that would come later, the protagonist is not some impressionable whelp, but a middle-aged doctor who really should know better. He gets starts taking opium to help with the stress of his job, and begins the downward spiral. The film is actually a pretty accurate biography of Hildegarde's great uncle, a medicine show huckster who sold a miracle cure called "Tiger Fat" in the late 1880's. Part of his act, at one point, featured a prepubescent, completely nude Hildegarde onstage with a boa constrictor wrapped around her neck.

Narcotic is interesting because it's a drug-scare film that features a pretty sympathetic main character, a comparatively well-written script, and an unusually high level of intelligence. The pair's next film, Maniac, from 1934, would be almost the complete opposite. This is a film so bizarre, nonsensical, and utterly amazing that it staggers the mind. The plot, which concerns Maxwell, a mentally unstable former vaudeville actor who kills, then impersonates, his mad scientist boss, segues off onto weird tangents whenever it sees fit. There's a raping psychotic next door who thinks he's the orangutan from Murders of the Rue Morgue. His other neighbor farms cats for their pelts. Two women fight with hypo needles and splintered two-by-fours in a scummy basement. Maxwell pops a cats eyeball out of its head and eats it. He and Professor Miershultz revive a dead woman by giving her a shoulder massage. There's implied necrophilia jokes, rape, naked boobs, and intertitles dropped in seemingly at random that describe the symptoms of mental illness. This film is truly a sight to behold.

When first released, Maniac was a flop, until Esper re-titled it Sex Maniac and played up the more risque aspects of the story. His next two features, Marihuana and Sex Madness, would strike a clearer balance between Narcotic's somberly moralistic seriousness and Maniac's boundless sensationalism and gleeful depiction of bad taste. Esper also found he could make more money if he acted as the booking agent and exhibitor of his films as well as the director and producer. Sex Madness, a sometimes over-the-top but mostly frank portrayal of a young woman who contracts syphilis. This film, and others like it, would've been shown to audiences segregated by gender. There would have been an intermission in the middle where some scamster pretending to be America's foremost sex hygenist (possibly even Esper himself) would give a lecture and sell brochures on maintaining a healthy sex life.

For years, Esper roadshowed films he'd directed and others he'd acquired from other sources; some legally, like Reefer Madness, which was formerly a church group produced feature called Tell Your Children, others, almost certainly illegally, like Freaks, which was also sold under the title Nature's Mistakes and Love Among the Freaks. He retired from directing after unleashing The Strange Love Life of Adolf Hitler onto the public, with which he toured across the country in a '37 Mercedes that he claimed was Der Feurher's car. He retired from the business sometime in the forties; just as the world of exploitation films as he knew it started winding to a close. After World War II, it would seem that audiences' attitudes changed to a darker and more cynical one. It's more than likely that after seeing the outcome of the war, Esper and his ilk's goona-goona tactics ceased to be as shocking and scary as they once were.

In any case, my mini-doc, which will be titled Dwain Esper: King of the Celluloid Gypsies, will illustrate the man's life and work, will feature clips from his movies and a 30's jazz soundtrack including Cab Calloway, Jack Teagarden, Benny Goodman and Jelly Roll Morton. I will report on my progress here and post the occasional little nugget of Esper-related goodness. Below are some links to a number of his pictures which are now in the public domain, and can be downloaded free of charge from the incredible Internet Archive.

Maniac (1934)
Reefer Madness
Marihuana (1936)
Sex Madness (1938)


Blogger J.L. Carrozza said...

Really looking forward to this. Seriously, more so than most of the other films actually coming to theaters in the first half of 2009.

3:58 PM  
Blogger Dr. Criddle said...

Thanks dude!

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Blogger J.L. Carrozza said...


I found out that Sinister Cinema does have it.

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Anonymous Patrick said...

Best of luck with the doc. Should be highly entertaining and should add a valuable chapter to outsider film history.

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