The Alamo Drafthouse is a brand built on weird. Beyond being situated in a town that has long aspired to remain eccentric in the face of all normality, it’s easy to forget that the original Alamo started as something of a private screening club, running prints of the odd and obscure into all hours of the night*. Though the company has obviously grown into an internationally recognized chain of first run movie palaces, the Drafthouse Ritz in Austin, Texas remains committed to showcasing genre repertory programming, namely via its Terror Tuesday and Weird Wednesday showcases. This column is a concentrated effort to keep that spirit of strangeness alive, as programmers Joe A. Ziemba and Laird Jimenez (often pulling from the extensive AGFA archives) are truly doing Satan’s bidding by bringing ATX weekly doses of delightful trash art.
The seventh entry into this disreputable canon is exploitation legend K. Gordon Murray’s Shanty Tramp…
“Shanty Tramp, I’m as sweet as honey
Shanty Tramp, to you it may seem funny
I give you love, and all I get is money”
K. Gordon Murray was a man who dealt in vice.
Growing up in Bloomington, Illinois (which served as an off-season rest stop for traveling circus performers), Murray set up a "corn game"; a back alley bingo house that operated in the corpse tents of his father’s funeral parlor. After spending most of his youth taking change from jugglers and clowns, he was actually invited to go on the road with West’s World Wonder Shows Carnival, where Murray proceeded to part poor fools from their money in numerous small towns across the Midwest. The kid was a natural huckster; so it only made sense that, once he discovered film and filmmaking, he’d become something of a lesser-known king in the exploitation arena.
Murray got into moviemaking by utilizing his circus connections to help cast the munchkins in The Wizard of Oz (you read that right), before being hired by Cecil B. DeMille to promote the Old Hollywood icon’s circus epic, The Greatest Show on Earth. But Murray didn’t stay put in California long, opting to move to Miami and team up with smut pioneer, Kroger Babb. The collaboration helped the blossoming drive-in maven launch K. Gordon Murray Productions, which found him peddling medical films (the only legal way to publicly project nudity, as pornography was still illegal in the late 50s), as well as risqué burlesque shorts. However, the increasingly notorious distributor’s real break wouldn’t come until 1959, when he decided to release René Cardona’s Mexican Christmas film, Santa Claus.
This was the first in a string of South of the Border pictures put out by Murray, who would buy the rights to the films for almost nothing, perform a quick, crude English dub, and then release them as matinee children’s fare across the country. Amongst his wackier contributions are LittleRed Riding Hood (1960), Little Red Riding Hood and the Monsters (1962), Rumpelstiltskin (1955), and The Golden Goose (1964), all of which featured garish colors and over-the-top, bug-eyed recreations of characters from Grimm’s Fairy Tales, repurposed as live-action slapstick Disney knock-offs.
Despite his success, Murray wasn’t content with toiling away in the world of kitschy kiddie kino. Instead, he hired a crew of Miami locals – non-actors and an ex-pat Cuban director (Joseph G. Prieto) – to make Shanty Tramp, one of the most lurid, sleazy and downright contemptuous pieces of cinema of any time. Like all of Murray’s endeavors, it was a massive success, as he had already mastered the art of selling folks’ sins back to them, all while keeping them entertained the entire time. Yet where Shanty Tramp may initially appear to be nothing more than cheap schlock, intent on titillating and shocking, the film is also the culmination of the man’s career in vaudevillian filth. Without breaking a sweat, Murray transitioned from distributor to creator, and caused a furor (including obscenity hearings over his film’s content) in the process.
Shanty Tramp doesn’t so much follow a narrative as it does a rhythm; a va-va-voom Betty Boop brand of sexuality that’s fully aware of how unacceptable it is in the eyes of its times. As the opening credits roll, Lee Holland saunters and shakes to “When the Saints Go Marching In” with such shameless verve that it’s impossible for any red-blooded male in the audience not to squirm in their seat; all while her fictional masculine counterparts struggle to keep their tongues in their skulls. Holland’s titular succubus utilizes her near elemental sexuality to corrupt every man she encounters with a disturbing ease. Trigger Warning: women are the root of all evil in this sticky backwoods ‘burgh (which seems to be situated one county over from the swamp community in Harold Daniels’ Poor White Trash). The entire male population becomes slanted and enchanted just before Holland slices and dices the pitiful pissants who do her wrong.
First there’s the preacher (Bill Rogers); fire and brimstone underneath his revival tent, but goo when the eyes of this venomous vixen fix their gaze on him. Then there’s Daniel (Lewis Galen); a poor, strapping black boy whose mama warns him to stay away from that white devil and her enticing cleavage. The rock-and-roll bikers (portrayed by a local legion of police officers, some of who lost their jobs for performing in the picture) are merely objects for her amusement, as when their leader (Lawrence Tobin) tries to rape her after she won’t “put out”, the half-naked hussie kicks him in the cock before allowing Daniel to clean up the rest. Even her drunk as a skunk daddy (Kenneth Douglas) wants a piece of the action, beating her with his belt before begging to taste her flesh, the scent of his own scandalous seed too much for the old hooplehead to handle.
Murray (who co-wrote the script) and Prieto undoubtedly judge these poor bastards for being the reflexive hounds they are; lured by their dicks whenever a woman unafraid of her carnality is present. All men are dogs, but the meat they crave is sentient, wanting to pervert and discard their carcasses at will. Holland’s performance (along with all of the other untrained thespians) is strange and affected, a dead-eyed China Doll with nothing but lust on her mind. Yet the non-actress recognizes the moments when the temptress appreciates how she can wield her sex like a weapon and use these mindless motherfuckers to her advantage. In the end, she even wiggles her way up to God himself, using the ultimate Male Image for shelter as she flees the aftermath of her devilish deeds. In this way, Shanty Tramp becomes a chicken and egg type moral parable, as Murray reveals the one thing he’d known his whole life: every person on this planet enjoys iniquity; it just takes a proper manipulative mind in order to exploit each individual’s unique perversion. But which came first: the sin, or the schemer?
Sadly, it seems as if Murray wasn’t exactly handling his books in the most satisfactory fashion, as the spoils from his “Mexiploitation” run and subsequent dabbling in feature production were never fully presented to the federal government. The Internal Revenue Service seized nearly sixty motion pictures he helped bring to America over a fifteen-year period as they pursued him for equity crimes. Before he could take the IRS to court to reclaim his seized artistic property, Murray died of a heart attack at fifty-seven. Truly a sad end to one of the United States’ great carnival barkers, whose “step right up” mentality helped cement how we view exploitation cinema nearly fifty years on.
*For an oral history of the Drafthouse’s beginnings, I’ll refer you to Zack McGhee’s wonderful “My Favorite Movie” Podcast, where he interviews old school DH programmers Lars Nilsen and Zack Carlson, as well as current Wednesday night ringmaster, Laird Jimenez. They’re GREAT listens, full of knowledge, wit and insight.
Tonight on Weird Wednesday: Coffy