Judge John Floyd used to think "stag film" meant a nature documentary on PBS.
"There's a very dirty word for what you are!"
In this era of crossover pornstars, celebrity sex videos, and videogame cable network coverage of annual adult film conventions and award shows, it might surprise some to learn that once upon a time, sex and nudity in film were taboo. Before Deep Throat made porn chic, home video and the internet made it available on demand, and Ron Jeremy and Jenna Jameson made it mainstream, erotic cinema was the stuff of penny arcades, bachelor parties, and "cautionary" roadshows. This release is a leering look back at the soft but sordid history of the "sexploitation" genre.
Facts of the Case
Skin In The Fifties is a 2-disc set featuring over 20 nudie "loops" and burlesque reels from the 1950s, as well as a restored print of the classic exploitation film The Flesh Merchant, a seedy tale of a small town girl who steps off a bus to Los Angeles and into a world of prostitution and violence.
Though the title and packaging suggest a documentary-style retrospective of early pornography, Skin in the Fifties is comprised solely of the single feature film and a disparate collection of mostly plotless loops (which can be played individually or all in a row). There is no connecting expository footage or narration on the discs to flesh out (no pun intended) the history of the coin-operated peepshow or its feature-length cousin, the faux educational sex film. More misleading, however, is the claim that The Flesh Merchant has somehow been "restored." Undoubtedly some work has been done cleaning up the video and audio, but the source print was obviously in terrible shape, and there are numerous scratches, splices, and abrupt jumps along the way. The cover art promises that this set features "Uncensored, Authentic Sexploitation from the 1950s," though the tawdry tale of sibling hookers also known as The Wild and the Wicked runs just 55 minutes here, despite being listed in most reputable sources with a runtime of 60. The authenticity of this "Never-Before-Seen Version" is questionable, too, since the distributor has chosen to spice up the proceedings by splicing in nudie shots from a handful of the featured arcade reels. While the practice of cutting in unrelated footage for added exploitation value was common in the heyday of the roadshow, doing so on DVD seems to contradict the implied purpose of presenting this material as it originally played.
Of course, the extra T&A doesn't really hurt the overall camp appeal of The Flesh Merchant, a reasonably well-acted but hopelessly overwrought melodrama produced by men who were probably not that far removed in motive or method from the story's titular antagonist. The story has restless, curvaceous Nancy (model Joy Reynolds) riding into Tinseltown unannounced to visit her "successful" older sister, Paula (Lisa Rack). Though Paula tries to warn her younger sibling that life there isn't as glamorous as it appears on the surface, it doesn't take long (about twenty four hours!) for Nancy to make the leap from innocent country girl to nude model to prostitute at a swanky brothel known as "The Colony." Nancy is befriended by an aging call girl named Easy, who teaches her the ropes but eventually ends up turning on her handlers when they get too violent with her. Meanwhile, Paula arrives at the ranch to take Easy's place, and the two sisters suddenly find themselves working and rooming together in the same whorehouse. Played with deadly earnestness, this ludicrous "little girl lost" tale is great fun for bad movie lovers—even in this awkwardly assembled, bastardized version.
The nudie loops are generally neither very erotic nor particularly well-made, but they are interesting from an historical standpoint. Often cited as the precursor to hardcore porn, these brief clips are more likely to remind modern viewers of the Hot Body videos of the 1980s and the Girls Gone Wild DVDs of today. They're essentially the same thing—one or more girls doing a striptease or simply dressing and undressing for the camera, with an emphasis on bare breasts and tease. "Bumper Lil" (in which a very voluptuous burlesque performer does an energetic, somewhat tongue-in-cheek strip routine on a bed), "Bedtime Hour" (featuring a pretty girl grooming herself and wearing only a crucifix necklace), and "Diamond Lil" (with another bountifully endowed stripper invoking Mae West) are the best of the arcade loops, all three featuring more spirited, sensuous performances, and more imaginative (if no less amateurish) cinematography.
The highlight of Disc Two, however, is the only genuine "stag" film in the collection. In it, two mousy saleswomen try to sell a bachelor (whose face is never shown) a few household items, while he tries to get them to let their hair down and partake of some cigarettes and booze. The loose narrative abruptly jumps ahead to find the girls drunk and half-undressed. They frolic in the house, retire to the pool to play a suggestive game of topless tug-of-war with some very phallic inflatable toys, and return to the house to put the moves on their excited host at which point he flashes back to reality, finding the two ladies fully clothed and holding out their wares for his consideration. Though crudely edited and extremely tame by today's standards, this racy bit of fluff foreshadows the early work of Russ Meyer and other "nudie cutie" pioneers, and is funny and entertaining in a way that 60-second peepshow reels could never be.
Though the material on the discs themselves is presented without any additional contextual or historical perspective, the set does include a booklet giving a nice overview of the sexploitation genre and its post-war origins. Presented in the format of an early men's magazine (complete with 10 cent cover price), this volume also includes a four-page photo spread of the busty Reynolds. In the absence of any video or audio extras, an informative liner insert like this one is a great plus.
Skin in the Fifties is an interesting look back to the adult film industry of yesteryear, before the Sexual Revolution made the bedroom fair game for movie cameras. It's nice to see some of this material made available for the first time on DVD, and equally gratifying to have a neat booklet detailing the background and cultural significance of such material in light of how dated it has become. The only false note in this set is the bogus "restored" version of The Flesh Merchant, though the movie itself is enjoyable with or without extra breasts.
This court finds Skin in the Fifties not guilty of obscenity, in light of the very relaxed contemporary community standards of decency, and of the social and cultural relevance of the material presented. However, the court does find the DVD's suggested retail price of $29.98 excessive, considering the relatively small amount of material included on the two discs. At that price, all but the most avid collectors and fans of vintage erotica are likely to consider this release just a bit offensive.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Secret Key Motion Pictures
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