Backwoods Double-Feature

‘Hicksploitation’ classics

‘Common Law Wife’ | ‘Jenny, Wife/Child’
Film Masters
Two-disc set $29.95 (Blu-ray), $19.95 (DVD)
164 minutes plus special features
Not rated

By Mark Voger, author
‘Zowie! The TV Superhero Craze in’60s Pop Culture


“This picture was not made for everyone to see!”

With come-ons like that, and titles like “Common Law Wife” (1963) and “Jenny, Wife/Child” (1968), who can resist?

Regionally shot, low-budget exploitation films like these were cranked out largely for the rural Southern market, where the grand movie palaces of olde were few and far between, and modest theaters served less-discerning moviegoers — no insult intended. The films’ suggestive titles and movie posters promised something illicit, something you would never see in big-studio productions, with their fancy lawyers and meddling executives.

Moral, upstanding citizens may not have liked these films. Thankfully, modern cult-cinema aficionados don’t typically suffer from morality or upstandingness in their choice of films.

Film Masters is releasing both movies as a special-features-packed “Backwoods Double-Feature” on Blu-ray and DVD, due in stores June 25, 2024.

Owing to the vagaries of guerilla filmmaking that so often mark what has come to be called the “hicksploitation” genre, “Common Law Wife” has two directors and possibly two actresses playing one role. Meanwhile, “Jennie, Wife/Child” has no credited director. As a result, both films suffer from fluctuations in tone.

It comes with the territory — quite literally. The movies were shot “on location” in the sense that there were no, or very few, studio sets. If the scripts called for a barn or a swamp or a farmhouse or a downtown or a tavern or a dark road in the dead of night, what you see is what they filmed.

The incomparable George Edgley as the incorrigible Shug Rainey.

Shot in Texas and set in the ironically named town of Serenity, “Common Law Wife” hits the ground running as wealthy old Shugfoot Rainey (George Edgley) throws darts at his live-in ladyfriend of five years, Linda (Annabelle Weenick). Shug is one of those “I own this town” kinda guys — a nasty, brittle old man in a plaid robe who punctuates his pronouncements with a cigarette, and gulps from a comically large brandy snifter.

Shug looks about 70; Linda looks about 40. But he’s had his fun, and it’s time to trade her in for a younger model. Shug decrees that Linda is to vacate the premises to make room for his hotsy-totsy niece Jonelle (Lacey Kelly), also known as Baby Doll.

Yeah, it’s like Tennessee Williams on a moonshine bender.

Linda is incensed that Shug would so casually replace her — with his own niece, yet. (His thin cover is that he’s been feeling poorly, and needs Jonelle to “look after” him.) Shouts Linda: “I was a stray cat looking for a home!” But after consulting a lawyer, she learns that her five years in Shug’s household, not to mention the time they registered at a motel as man and wife, has imbued her with certain rights. Linda can legally call herself — you knew it was coming — Shug’s “common law wife.”

Ol’ Shug with Jonelle, a.k.a. Baby Doll (Lacey Kelly).

But the fireworks really begin when Jonelle struts into town. And strut, she does. Jonelle clearly has history with some of the menfolk who swivel their heads in her direction. In no time flat, she chips away at the already tenuous serenity of Serenity. Her first encounter with Linda doesn’t go well. “From now on, this is my house,” Linda bellows at her new rival, “and I don’t want any tramps hanging around in it!”

Jonelle soon infiltrates the community, juggling three men. Besides Uncle Shug, whose wealth she plots to inherit, Jonelle carries on with town sheriff Jody (Max Anderson) who is married to her sister Brenda (Libby Hall); and Bull (Bert Masters), a surly bootlegger who lives in a putrid shack with pickle barrels for furniture.

Bull is one of those “I take what I want” kinda guys. His remote shack is only accessible via motorboat, and Jonelle ill-advisedly accompanies him there. Bull forces himself on her, but the following day, she voluntarily returns for an encore.

Now Jody and Bull are exchanging bullets over Jonelle. And Bull has a little notion of how to deal with ol’ Shug Rainey.

The “common law wife” of the title, Linda (Annabelle Weenick), takes aim.

The film was initially directed by Larry Buchanan under the title “Swamp Rose,” but never distributed. The property changed hands and much new footage was inserted, hence the second director (Eric Sayers) and the second Jonelle. Or is that still Lacey Kelly beneath a wig? The commentators on Film Masters’ new release, Millie De Chirico and Ben Cheaves, think not. But the writer of Film Masters’ accompanying booklet, Lisa Petrucci of Something Weird, has a theory that Sayers enlisted Kelly to reprise Jonelle. Given the dearth of documentation typical of these under-the-radar productions, we may never learn the truth.

In any case, the film stock sometimes changes from scene to scene. It’s part of the game of watching vintage low-budget films.

Unhappily ever after

Albert Peckingpaw (Jack Lester) and his young wife Jennie (Beverly Lunsford).

Earnest performances, a soundtrack album, and the thoughtful cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond make “Jennie, Wife/Child” a cut above your usual hicksploitation flick. The aforementioned tonal shifts sometimes sink the film, or sometimes save it. Just when the movie gets intensely dark, something goofy will happen.

This is because “Jennie, Wife/Child” began life as “Tender Grass,” by all accounts a serious drama directed by Jack Landis. The production then fell into the hands of Robert Carl Cohen. Neither gentlemen is credited as director; Cohen is credited as “in charge of production” in the film released as “Albert Peckingpaw’s Revenge” and finally, “Jennie, Wife/Child.”

It’s the story of aging farmer Albert (Jack Lester) who is married to pretty young Jennie (Beverly Lunsford), who says she is 20. Albert is a cruel husband who keeps his wife a virtual prisoner in his home and is tightfisted with money. When Albert tells Jennie that it’s time for his “nap,” we know what he really means.

Jennie conspires with her husband’s hired hand, Mario (Jim Reader).

Desperate for human contact, Jennie turns to Mario (Jim Reader), Albert’s dimwitted hired hand. She becomes jealous of Mario when he ventures into town to drink and dance with brassy blonde Lulu Belle (Virginia Wood). Jennie plots with Mario to steal Albert’s money — the farmer doesn’t trust banks, and keeps his cash locked in the house somewhere — and run off. But Albert, weakened by a heart attack, hears his wife carrying on with his employee.

Cinematographer Zsigmond cut his teeth on exploitation fare like this, and later shot bigger productions such as “Deliverance,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (for which he won an Oscar) and “The Deer Hunter.” Zsigmond’s work on “Jennie, Wife/Child” undoubtedly pulls the film together as a viewing experience. The silly stuff inserted by Cohen includes “silent movie”-style title cards; Mario and Lulu Belle’s antic motorcycle ride; and Jennie’s skinny dip (closely observed by Mario) accompanied by a song titled … “Birthday Suit.”

Albert gets a new outlook on life from Lulu Belle (Virginia Wood).

Which brings us to the music. There are lots of original songs of varying quality. Some have lyrics so reflective of onscreen developments, you wonder if “Jennie, Wife/Child” is a rock opera like “Jesus Christ Superstar” or “Tommy.”

One of the groups on Tower Records’ soundtrack album is Davie Allan and the Arrows. Perhaps you remember them? Their spare, fuzz-guitar-driven instrumental “Blues Theme” enhanced Roger Corman‘s biker flick starring Peter Fonda, “The Wild Angels” (1966), which was a harbinger of “Easy Rider.” As a 45-RPM single, the Arrows’ “Blues Theme” rose to the #37 spot, clinging to the Billboard charts for 17 weeks. The Arrows can even be seen in “Jennie, Wife/Child” as the (incongruous) house band of the local watering hole. Just one more weird thing.

Film Masters’ release features newly restored prints; archival audio commentary by Buchanan (who died in 2004); the fresh commentary by De Chirico and Cheaves; a 24-page booklet; trailers; and Ballyhoo Motion Pictures’ short doc “That’s Exploitation: The Origin of Southern Sinema.” Order HERE.