B&W, 1963, 74 mins. 41 secs.
Directed by Eric Sayers and Larry Buchanan
Starring Annabelle Weenick, George Edgley, Lacey Kelly, Max Anderson

B&W, 1968, 82 mins. 21 secs.
Directed by James Landis and Robert Carl Cohen
Starring Virginia Wood, Jack Lester, Beverly Lunsford, Jim Reader
Film Masters (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Image Entertainment (DVD) (US R1 NTSC)

Among the many Something Weird double feature DVDs released by Image Entertainment in the first decade of the 21st century, few were more appropriate than the Common Law Wifepairing of Common Law Wife and Jennie: Wife/Child. Both were seedy looks at Common Law Wifethe more outdated and now bizarre aspects of American marital practices as filtered through the sensibilities of exploitation filmmakers, and both were significantly altered from their original intentions by the distributors who ultimately ushered them to the big screen. Now that duo is back in glorious high-defintion on Blu-ray from Film Masters,and they're still quite a sight to behold for fans of '60s sexploitation.

A ripe and often baffling slice of backwoods sleaze, Common Law Wife started life as a scruffy 16mm production by Texas drive-in specialist Larry Buchanan (Mars Needs Women) entitled Swamp Rose, but it was given a serious overhaul when it was acquired by Cinema Distributors of America, Inc. for a 1963 release when extensive 35mm black-and-white footage replacing much of the material. "How much do you want to get out?" queries creepy rich geezer Shugfoot Rainey (Buchanan stock player Edgley) when he tells his distraught, much younger girlfriend Lina (Don't Look in the Basement's Weenick) that it's time to hit the pavement. Since Linda's been around for five years and aged herself out of the gig, it's now time for Rainey to replace her with his own niece, Jonelle, a.k.a. Baby Doll (The Dead One's Kelly), a stripper on the New Orleans bar circuit. Linda starts exploring legal options she might have as a common law spouse, while Baby Doll seems to be starting something up with Common Law Wifeher own brother-in-law, former flame, and current town sheriff, Jody (Anderson). Believing nobody else is in the picture, Baby Doll has her sights set on getting Common Law Wifeher paws on uncle's estate -- and as you can imagine, nothing good can come of all this.

What really pushes Common Law Wife over the edge into full-tilt insanity is the fact that the reshoots by decidedly unskilled Eric Sayers had access to all of the actors except for Kelly, who's replaced here with a completely different actress who looks nothing like her. At first they try to cover up the ruse courtesy of sunglasses and wigs, but pretty quickly the film just gives up and hopes you won't notice the switcheroo happening throughout. It's the kind of crazed decision already employed to have Bela Lugosi "star" in Plan 9 from Outer Space, and later repeated with the magically transforming Ernie Hudson in The Human Tornado or the infamous Bruce Lee impostor(s) from Game of Death. Given how little of Buchanan's material remains here (and it sticks out like a sore thumb due to its rougher grain and softer resolution), you have to wonder why they didn't just go ahead and reshoot the entire film top to bottom.

Meanwhile, 1968's Jennie: Wife/Child started life as a hillbilly melodrama Jennie: Wife/Childcalled Tender Grass, then got reworked into a comedy Jennie: Wife/Childcalled Albert Peckingpaw's Revenge. Under that latter title it even got a soundtrack LP release featuring its surprisingly strong roster of original songs including the catchy "Gonna Have a Good Time" by Davie Allen and the Arrows and "My Birthday Suit," an ode to skinny-dipping covered later by the Catanooga Cats(!). The final film (which was also briefly promoted as Wife Child) is essentially the work of director James Landis (The Sadist) with his usual cinematographer, future Oscar winner Vilmos Zsigmond, but producer Robert Carl Cohen did some editorial tinkering including the addition of silent movie-style text cards commenting on the action. Despite the skeevy current title, this is nothing like, say, the infamous Child Bride, as the titular Jennie is well over legal age and 20 years old as played by actress Beverly Lunsford (The Crawling Hand) in her last big screen role. Jennie is stuck in a miserable marriage to the much older farm owner Albert Peckingpaw (busy voice actor Lester), and she's more than tempted by beefcake farmhand Mario (Reader) who's too thick to realize she's hitting on him. Jennie decides to cook up a plan to seduce and run off with "Mary-o" (as they call him) with her husband's savings, but they severely underestimate Albert's jealous streak. Meanwhile the scheming is peppered with hot roadhouse numbers featuring the cast shaking like crazy including a scene-stealing Virginia Wood (Lady in Cement) as local firecracker Lulu Belle.

Tons of fun if you're in the right frame of mind, this genre-bending oddity offers plenty of backwoods melodrama, country comedy, noir-style intrigue, and a climactic detour into borderline Gothic Jennie: Wife/Childhorror before a sudden humanistic and weirdly delightful switcheroo yet again at the end. Despite being sold as a throwaway exploitation item, it still bears the stamp of its skilled creators and has better acting than you'd expect. Apart from the fairly discreet nude swimming scene, it isn't all that salacious for a film released in '68 (albeit shot as much as three years earlier) but has plenty of that Jennie: Wife/Childseedy, charming Southern sleaze that would go into overdrive in Harry Novak's country cutie softcore epics the following decade.

As mentioned above, both films hit DVD as a double feature in 2003 from Image along with a third film tucked away in the bonus features, Moonshine Love (which clocks in at barely over an hour). Presented at 1.33:1, both films looked perfectly fine at the time and were big improvements over the Something Weird VHS editions that had been around for a few years. Common Law Wife also featured an audio commentary with Buchanan and yours truly recorded at the Image offices, with the filmmaker talking about his original film, the challenges of getting a career off the ground in Texas, and the lessons he learned that he put to good use in his more famous later projects. Also on the DVD were the incredible trailer for Common Law Wife (a wild one-man pitch with no footage from the actual film) and the usual radio spot collection with roadshow art. The Blu-ray release splits the films onto separate discs (as does a simultaneous DVD edition), with new scans now framed at 1.85:1 with some image info added to the sides and a bit sheared from the top and bottom. Generally the new framing works better, giving the second feature in particular a real sense of style in many shots. The archival Buchanan commentary is ported over (as is that great trailer), while film historian Millie De Chirico does commentary honors for both films -- one with Ben Cheaves for Common Law Wife, and solo for Jennie. The latter is the stronger track by far as she has a lot more info to work with and has valuable insights about the soundtrack and production, while the Common Law Cabin one is more general and has a lot of dead space as they mostly react to the film and chat about Southern exploitation directors. Both films have DTS-HD MA 2.0 and Dolby Digital 2.0 English mono tracks with optional English SDH subtitles, plus subtitles for all of the commentary tracks. Also on the second disc are a new trailer for Jennie: Wife/Child and "That's Hicksploitation" (50m30s), a Ballyhoo featurette with C. Courtney Joyner walking through the history of backwoods dramas from the silent Tol'able David through the sound era and popular characters like Snuffy Smith. Also included is a liner notes booklet with a new essay by Something Weird's mighty Lisa Petrucci about the history behind these films, their target audiences, and the ins and outs of distributing titles like these during a transitional sexploitation period.


Common Law WifeCommon Law WifeCommon Law Wife Common Law Wife Common Law Wife


Common Law WifeCommon Law WifeCommon Law Wife Common Law Wife Common Law Wife


Jennie: Wife/ChildJennie: Wife/ChildJennie: Wife/Child Jennie: Wife/Child Jennie: Wife/Child


Common Law WifeCommon Law WifeCommon Law Wife Common Law Wife Common Law Wife

Reviewed on June 6, 2024