Common Law Wife (1963)

US / 76 minutes / bw / Texas Film Producers, Cinema Distributors of America Dir: Eric Sayers, Larry Buchanan (uncredited) Pr: Fred A. Kadane Scr: Grace Nolen Cast: Anne MacAdams (i.e., Annabelle Weenick), George Edgely, Max Anderson, Lacey Kelly, Bert Masters, Libby Booth, Norman Smith, Dale Berry.

Sometime in the early 1960s, schlockmeister Larry Buchanan got halfway through an exploitation movie called Swamp Rose when, for one reason or another (perhaps someone spent the project’s budget on a busfare), he had to abandon it. A while later, director Eric Sayers was hired to cobble together Buchanan’s existing footage with newly shot material and make of the result what he could. That result was the assemblage of continuity errors released as Common Law Wife.

A major problem that Sayers had was that he couldn’t obtain the services of all the same actors Buchanan had used. In most instances the resemblance is close enough that you’re not really aware of the difference. What makes the movie truly confusing, though, is that the two actresses playing the central femme fatale, Jonelle, look nothing like each other—not only that, but they don’t walk the same, they have starkly contrasting body language and manner, their voices, their enunciation and even their word-choices are utterly different, and so on. In the early stages Sayers makes a token effort to disguise the fact that Jonelle transforms so completely between one scene and the next (or even within a scene), but later on he doesn’t bother.

The acting credits given here are the ones on the movie as it was released. I haven’t been able to find out who the “other” Jonelle was, alas.

Shug (George Edgely).

Linda (Anne MacAdams/Annabelle Weenick).

Oil millionaire Shugfoot “Shug” Rainey (Edgely) and ex-waitress Linda Farnham (MacAdams) have been living together as man and wife for five years in the small Texas town of Serenity, but now Shug wants to trade Linda in for a younger model—his stripper niece Jonelle (Kelly), to be precise. After all, when Jonelle was just a girl, Shug had his wicked way with her.

The two faces of Jonelle — one of them’s Lacey Kelly, probably the top one.

Or she had her wicked way with him—it’s not entirely clear. She’s certainly had her wicked way fairly extensively, both in her leisure time when professionally engaged—under the stage name “Baby Doll”—in all the nation’s stripping capitals, from Las Vegas and New Orleans on down. Before she was run out of Serenity five years ago for unfettered trampdom she had her wicked way with Jody (probably Anderson), who’s now the town sheriff and married to Jonelle’s schoolmarm sister Brenda (Booth), and Bull (uncredited), who’s now the town moonshiner. And with, it’s implied, plenty of others.

Jody (Max Anderson, I think).

Jody’s wife and Jonelle’s sister Brenda (Libby Booth).

Jonelle’s all keen to move back in with Uncle Shug because she wants his money. But Linda, on discovering that under Texas law she’s now Shug’s common-law wife, ain’t planning on making way: unbelievable though it may seem, despite the fact that she initially shacked up with the old buzzard just for the comfortable life, and despite the fact that he treats her abysmally, she’s grown fond of him.

Bull (uncredited).

Jonelle makes whoopee with Jody and then, after he comes off second in a brawl with Bull at the local boozeteria, the White Rock Terrace, makes whoopee with Bull out in the bayou at his illicit still . . .

It all ends in tears, of course—in fact, the ending wouldn’t shame a Jacobean tragedy. Even though the movie was quite obviously made solely with exploitation/sleaze in mind, its final nihilism, coupled with the absolute despicability of most of its principal characters, qualifies it as a piece of rural film noir. Z-grade rural film noir, to be sure (you can guess why the cinematography remains uncredited), but rural film noir nonetheless.

Jonelle occasionally wears a lampshade.

In case you’re worried, the movie’s perfectly safe for work: Jonelle keeps her matronly underpants on and her back to the camera even when climbing into the shower.

Lacey Kelly was apparently a stripper in real life. Anne MacAdams, whose first role this was, went on to become, latterly under the name Annabelle Weenick, something of a cult figure in schlocky movies of this sort; I’m not sure why her acting career started so late—she was approaching forty when she made this—but she was fairly prolific hereafter, not just in front of the camera but sometimes behind it, as dialogue director or working on continuity.

Jonelle (probably Lacey Kelly) ain’t happy about Brenda getting between her and Jody.

Linda (Anne MacAdams/Annabelle Weenick) gets to scream a lot before the end.

I don’t know if she influenced the dialogue in Common Law Wife, but some of it is—startlingly—not at all bad, with the occasional neatly turned phrase. Plus the occasional quite mystifying line:

Jonelle: “You need target practice, Jody-boy. You couldn’t hit a bull with a bass fiddle, let alone that cap gun.”

 

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6 thoughts on “Common Law Wife (1963)

    • It really is just about worth the effort. Unless you’ve been warned in advance, the switching from one Jonelle to the other is really quite confusing. “Who’s this person who’s all of a sudden entered the plot?”

    • I’m not sure where I found it — it was a fair while ago. If I remember tomorrow I’ll go have a look — slogging for a deadline tonight.

      I imagine it doesn’t turn up on TCM very often. 🙂

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