Thursday, April 24, 2008

SKIN IN THE 50s (2007) p. Alternative Cinema, LLC

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

While cinema has always had a fascination with sex and sin, it was only in the late 1970s, but especially in the 1980s, that it became widely acceptable and available. Be that as it may, exploitation films of the 1950s and 1960s show that the manner in which theatrically released sex films were treated so that they would be appealing to movie goers and suitable to the censors was creative and had a sense of amiable enthusiasm that is absent from the screen today. SKIN IN THE 50s takes a viewer back to a time when naughtiness was still naughty, but the girls you were watching and who would quicken your pulse were still as fresh-faced and attainable-seeming as the “girl next door”.

SKIN IN THE 50s is both a compilation and a retrospective 2 disc set. Disc 1 contains the 1956 black & white exploitation gem THE FLESH MERCHANT. There is also a small collection of 4 arcade loops and the ever present plethora of EI Cinema trailers. Disc 2 is a wider collection of arcade loops, burlesque loops and one explicit stag featurette. Once again there is another assortment of EI Cinema trailers. The two discs are all restored and remastered versions of film elements from the 1950s and earlier and come with a SKIN IN THE 50s liner notes booklet which helps to explain the history of the dvd contents.

The “jewel in the crown” of SKIN IN THE 50s is THE FLESH MERCHANT directed by W. Merle Connell and produced by the great Dan Sonney. THE FLESH MERCHANT is the story of 22 year old Nancy, who travels to Hollywood to live with her glamorous older sister Paula. Despite Paula’s protestations that life in Tinseltown is not all it’s cracked up to be, Nancy stays on and is soon sucked into a whirlpool of nude modeling and prostitution where Paula has been trying to keep her head above water for years. Just as the waves seem about to take the two girls to the bottom, they are rescued from the clutches of their Flesh Peddlers.

Despite being exploitation cinema through and through, THE FLESH MERCHANT is a splendid mix of many wonderful elements. On one hand, it is a classic cautionary tale complete with Paula’s passionate moralizing and Nancy’s headstrong insistence on “living the high life her way” replete with thrills and spills but concluding with an almost “Ozzie & Harriet” happy ending. With its careful focus on nude modeling for “art clubs” and “hostessing at The Colony” for Mr. Solok (i.e. prostitution/kept women of wealthy, bored businessmen), THE FLESH MERCHANT very delicately weaves sleazy threads into its tapestry. Unlike many of the exploitation films of yore, the “actresses” Joy Reynolds and Lisa Rack that play Nancy and Paula give fairly inspired “B movie” performances and do a good job of making their characters believable. While Paula is cool and leggy, it is the lovely Nancy who draws all eyes to her. Her combination of lustrous hair, bright eyes, a shining smile and a youthful, hourglass figure would make her just as much a bombshell today. Combined with the actors Norman Wright and Marko Perri who play the underworld sharks of Sokol and Perini, THE FLESH MERCHANT is filled with delightful archetypes that do not devolve into silly caricatures. Having said that, the hysterically laughable character of The Joker, a Bowery-tough with a penchant for Brooklyn-speak soliloquies gives an almost “Three Stooges” appeal to the more serious moments of the film provided by haggard characters like the aging hooker “Easy”.

The restored version of THE FLESH MERCHANT has several “nudie” arcade loops inserted into its sequence to give it a naughtier feel. While this is not the way the film originally ran when it premiered at The Rialto in New York in 1956, it lends an even more decadent feeling. The beauty of the girls in the selected loops helps to make up for the fact that Joy Reynolds is never seen in the nude. The nudie loops also help one to overlook the somewhat splicey nature of the restored version of the film. When one considers how appalling the condition of the original print must have been, what has been achieved is nothing short of a miracle. Finally, with its mix of mid-1950s Chevys, Cadillacs, Mercurys and Nashes, THE FLESH MERCHANT is just as much a car eye-candy flick as it is a girlie movie. Most lovers of 1950s cinema will not be disappointed, rather they will probably delight in this enchanting time capsule, just as I did.

The four arcade loops on Disc 1 are the source material for the nudie inserts in THE FLESH MERCHANT seen in their entirety. One is immediately struck by the loveliness of the girls and the authentic and natural freshness of their beauty. For people today who log onto the World Wide Web and see women who can’t possibly exist, the bouquet of exquisiteness is intoxicating. Disc 2 has a loop collection of 19 short features which have a wide array of film print and “model” quality, but all of which are enjoyable on some level. More than anything else, a viewer can emerge from these shorts with an astounding sense of playfulness and cheer than exude from the screen. While the “models” may not have felt that same sense of lightheartedness when “acting” in these loops, they have left us with an inestimable gift of naughty nostalgia that really isn’t that naughty anymore. It is for that reason that SKIN IN THE 50s is so much fun.

Last but certainly not least, the true exploitation connoisseur will revel in the SKIN IN THE 50s companion liner notes booklet written by the “Secret Key Collector”. I have read every one of these liner notes booklets produced by the Alternative Cinema imprints like Secret Key and Retro-Seduction. They are always a treasure trove of invaluable lore and not to be taken lightly. Without these booklets, the dvd collections would be a marvelous hoard of impressive images, but because of booklets like the one for SKIN IN THE 50s, the entire experience is a little like taking a guided tour of a lost era.

As each year passes and my advancing age leaves me feeling a little less connected to the present, I am increasingly thankful for all the dvd companies who are preserving film and television’s past. Compilations like SKIN IN THE 50s are especially important because so much of the “shadowy” side of the film industry was so thoroughly detested by “morality groups” and even frowned upon by the general public. The resulting financial struggles and narrowly avoided witch hunts left exploitation merchants with few ways to preserve their wares. Much of that film past was lost to us and more could have been lost too if it were not for people like Dan Sonney who held onto what they had and companies like Secret Key Motion Pictures who want to make a buck, but in the end are doing something even more precious.

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