Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: Common Law Wife (1961)

I don’t think I have ever used the word Hixploitation prior to tweeting about this movie. The Wiktionary defines it as: “A genre of exploitation film that relies on the stereotypical (and often negative) depiction of rural whites of the American South and Appalachia.” I didn’t even know it was a genre, and I certainly haven’t studied it in detail. But then again, I tend to view all movies as being part of a genre – even the ones that are considered non-genre movies. This is one reason it drives me crazy when people talk about genre films as if they are of less value than “regular” films. Or “serious” films. They use terms like “elevated genre”, which I guess is supposed to mean “it’s a genre film, but it’s better than a genre film.” Huh?

The top rated movie on the IMDb is, and has been for some time, The Shawshank Redemption (1994). It also gets 90% on Rotten Tomatoes, so it is clearly a critically acclaimed movie, as well as an audience favourite. It’s classified as a drama. I look at it and think “it’s part of the prison genre,” or the “wrongfully imprisoned genre.” It’s based on a book by Steven King, who is considered a genre writer. A quick look at the top five rated movies on the IMDb reveals The Godfather (1972), The Godfather: Part II (1974) – both part of the “gangster genre”, The Dark Knight (2008) – the “superhero genre”, and 12 Angry Men (1957) – the “courtroom genre”. They are all great movies, and they are all genre movies as far as I am concerned. So, where are these non-genre movies that are so much better?

Common Law Wife (1962) was directed by Larry Buchanan, who made close to 30 movies including The Naked Witch (1961), Mars Needs Women (1967) and Mistress of the Apes (1979). There is some suggestion that Common Law Wife was really directed by a man named Eric Sayers, using footage from an earlier, unreleased film by Buchanan called Swamp Rose. Eric Sayers only has two directing credits (plus two producing credits) on the IMDb. I can’t find any other information about him. Could Eric Sayers be a pseudonym for Larry Buchanan?

Common Law Wife is a strangely structured movie. It starts off by establishing a twisted love triangle involving Shug, “a rich old man,” Linda, his live in lover of five years, and Baby Doll, his “young, sexy niece who worked as a stripper”. Linda learns, through talking to a lawyer, that she is Shug’s common-law wife in the eyes of the state, and as such she cannot simply be tossed out of the house. Baby Doll wants to move in and inherit all of Shug’s money when he dies, but Linda digs her heels in and refuses to leave. It seems, after the first twenty minutes or so, as if the rest of the movie will be a battle between these two women – plus a battle between Shug and the common-law marriage laws that he knew nothing about.

However, the movie takes a strange turn when Baby Doll goes to visit her sister, Brenda, and her husband, who happens to be the town Sheriff. It seems that Baby Doll and the Sheriff used to be an item, before Baby Doll dumped him and left town. It doesn’t take long for a whole new love triangle to be established. And if that wasn’t enough, the local Moonshiner sets himself up as a rival for the Sheriff when he makes a play for Baby Doll’s affections. It seems like a couple of triangles too many for a movie of 80 odd minutes, but it’s all so entertaining that I didn’t mind one bit.

One of my twitter friends (hello @QuandaryMan) summed it all up rather well: “Larry Buchanan was producing the kind of sleaze they really wanted to see in their soaps.” He also came up with a great name for the genre: “Backwater Shakespeare.” I hope he doesn’t mind me sharing that here, but if you think it’s as brilliant as I do, I encourage you to check out his blog.

Common Law Wife (1962) is adult cinema of a bygone era. There’s no hardcore sex, and not much actual nudity, but the story is (or was) intended for adults. It’s less graphic than what a person could see on a current TV series, but it’s a fascinating peek at what once used to pass for shocking and illicit entertainment. It may be #NotQuiteClassicCinema but it features better acting and writing than some of the more respectable productions I’ve seen – and it’s way more entertaining. I look forward to seeing more of Larry Buchanan’s work on a not too distant #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn.