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Skin in the Fifties
Secret Key Motion Pictures has released Skin in the Fifties, a two-disc compilation of uncensored, authentic exploitation fare from the 1950s. Featuring a "restored" version of The Flesh Merchant, a 1956 potboiler about a good girl gone wrong, Skin in the Fifties also features some authentic 1950s and 1960s arcade loops, burlesque films and "stags" that might interest the connoisseur of sewer films.
The Flesh Merchant tells the seedy tale of Nancy (Joy Reynolds), a fresh-faced kid straight off Mainstreet, U.S.A., who arrives in La La Land to visit her glamorous sister Paula. What Nancy doesn't know is that Paula is really a good-time girl, a prostitute who's sick of her life, and who desperately wants Nancy to avoid the same pitfall. But pretty, stacked Nancy isn't having any of Paula's caution; contemptuous of her Squaresville, hick-town past, Nancy wants to live, man, and even to a rube like Nancy, it's clear that L.A. is where it's at.
Unfortunately, Nancy is also a bit of a naïve dolt; after willingly posing nude for "art classes" run by smooth, slick flesh peddler Bernie Sokol (Norman Wright), she doesn't seem to understand the implications of accepting an invitation (and money for new clothes) to Sokol's "Colony," a high-end cathouse for high-rollers looking for cheap liquor and fast broads. Nancy, hilariously, thinks she's going to find a husband at "The Colony," but she quickly learns the score when, after refusing the advances of a snap-and-peep perv, she gets slapped around by slimy whoremaster Vito Perini (Marko Perri). Almost immediately, though, Nancy gets into the swing of things when she gets a load of the gifts she received for selling her body; despite the warnings of her over-the-hill roommate "Easy," Nancy likes her work. But the cops are onto Vito's operation, and Sokol, distrustful of the violent Vito, comes in to shake up the operation.
The Flesh Merchant is a speedy little grade-Z exploitationer, with a grimy, cheap pulp to the proceedings that goes a long way towards "authenticity," if you will. Since name actors couldn't be used for a no-budget quickie like this, we get actors who really look the part (particularly uber-sleaze Perri as Perini). The flimsy 2-flat sets and harsh, garish black & white cinematography create a believably gimcrack façade that works well with the squalid tale. And pretty Reynolds, while no actress to speak of, looks believably pert and innocent, morphing into the equally plausible chippy who like diamonds and furs.
The problem I had with The Flesh Merchant isn't with the original film, but with this "restored" edition by Secret Key (which I think is just one more name variation from the same company that releases Retro-Seduction items). There's a fairly informative booklet included in this two-disc set, and I'm going to quote a paragraph concerning this "restoration:""As presented here, The Flesh Merchant is not seen in its original form. In the grand roadshow tradition, nudie "inserts" have been added in an effort to 'spice up' the proceedings. Fifties audiences would have considered themselves lucky, however, to encounter such a "hot" version of the film; so, in spite of augmentations, the cut presented here goes some distance toward recreating an authentic roadshow experience."
After reading that paragraph several times, I'm still not sure what they're trying to say. Evidently, audiences didn't normally get "nudie inserts" with a film like The Flesh Merchant, but then again, this "augmented" version "goes some distance toward" recreating just such an experience. Well, which one is it? Did most audiences get the arcade loops that are ham-handedly inserted into this version, or didn't they? Either way, putting them into this film smacks of a loss of confidence in releasing such a tame little exploitationer; when in doubt, I'd always prefer to see films as close to their original form as possible. I find it far more interesting to see how director W. Merle Connell tried to get around the censors (having Nancy undress while sitting in a high-backed chair, a scene stolen directly from Walsh's Battle Cry the year before, when Dorothy Malone created a sensation doing the same thing), than Secret Key's ideas on how to "juice up" the proceedings.
Even worse, there's a weird scene where Nancy goes to pose nude for the first time, where Secret Key poorly mattes in a nude as the subject of the artists' work. Never mind that the whole point of the previous scene was the characters discussing how they didn't have a model to draw (thereby providing an excuse for Nancy to step up to the plate), or that when they do show the artists, they all have pictures of bowls of fruit on their easels. What's annoying is the arbitrary inclusion of another snippet of film directly in the frame, within the scene, rather than just tacking on an insert. That's going too far in the name of "spicing up" a scene, and has nothing to do with Secret Key's stated aim of authentically recreating a "roadshow" attraction (exhibitors would hardly spend all that money to laboriously matte in a nude within an already-shot scene - as if they'd even have the technical know-how to do so; they'd just splice it in as an insert).
Much more honest are the inclusions on disc one and on all of disc two, of original stags, arcade loops and burlesque films from the 1950s. If you've ever wondered exactly what your old man was chortling about when he came home from a company "smoker," or what were shown in those "peepshow" machines that you could either crank for a nickel (or later feed quarters in at an adult theater), here's your chance. The older arcade loops and burlesque films are certainly tame by today's standards, with nudity restricted to bare breasts and nothing more, with the models usually posing outside by a pool or at some suitably deserted location. The stags are a little more explicit (no men are featured with the girls), showing the pubic area which was considered rough stuff at most adult theaters until the 1960s. How you view these various short loops is entirely based on your interests; film buffs (usually lacking in any background whatsoever concerning the simultaneous sub-industry of 1950s pornography) might find it initially interesting to see what passed for risqué in such a context, while those inclined towards modern pornography will mostly likely be bored silly. With a disc set like Skin in the Fifties, it's not hard to figure out whether or not you're likely to be interested in the contents, prior to actually watching the collection.
Here are the names of the extra arcade loops, burlesque films and stags that appear on the two-disc set, Skin in the Fifties. The loops that appear as snippets inserted into The Flesh Merchant, also appear in their entirety on disc one (along with The Flesh Merchant).
DISC ONE:Crisp Beauty
Young Full Nude Previews:
Skin in the 50s
Skin in the 60s
Retro-Seduction Trailer Vault -- The Films of Joe Sarno:
Panels After Dark: Joe Sarno Retrospective
Moonlighting Wives (1964)
Seduction of Inga (1969)
Coming Soon -- Daddy Darling (1970)
Swedish Wildcats (1972)
Confessions of a Young American Housewife (1974)
Vampire Ecstasy (1974)
Girl Meets Girl (1974)
DISC TWO:Blonde vs. Brunette
Cuties & Cocktails
Nudes on a Bed
Danse de L'Ebandan
Girl in a Cage
Her One Desire
Sales Girls Previews:
Topless Tapioca Wrestling
Taylor Wane's Erotic Games
Softcore Divas: Behind the G-Strings
The Breastford Wives
The House on Hooter Hill
The Busty Stag Collection
Dracula's Dirty Daughter
Skin the 50s
Skin in the 60s
Naturally, working with films that no one in their right minds at the time thought would be viewed later as "history," the print quality for The Flesh Merchants and the various loops is pretty dismal most of the time. Big scratches and choppy splices abound, with several scenes in the feature film looking like they were borrowed from second or third generation video copies. Don't expect digital perfection, and you'll be okay.
The English mono audio no doubt recreates the original theatrical presentation of The Fear Merchants, with the loops being silent. Secret Key has added some amusing musical accompaniments to the loops, along with some dead-pan funny applause tracks whenever one of the girls does something memorable (my favorite is when they stick a sound bite of just middling, half-hearted applause - very funny; like the audience is bored).
In addition to the trailers listed above, there's an informative 12-page booklet that, other than the confusing description of The Flesh Merchant's restoration, gives the reader a good overview of the various forms of 1950s exploitation cinema.
I'm not sure what Secret Key was trying to do, splicing in arcade loop nudes into The Flesh Merchant (as well as matting in a totally unnecessary - and confusing - nude directly into a sequence), but the film itself is quick and suitably grimy, and the authentic loops will be a bonus to the vintage exploitation fan. I'm recommending Skin in the Fifties for fans of such things, but if you're just curious (and you know you are, don't you?), I suggest a rental first.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography .