Thursday, June 9, 2011

Swamp Diamonds, a.k.a. Swamp Women (Allied Artists/American International/Woolner Bros., 1956)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I raided the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 archives for their “take” on something called Swamp Diamonds, made in 1956 — though there’s confusion about the name of the film as well as the studio that produced it. The print MST3K showed identified the film as Swamp Diamonds and the producing studio as Allied Artists, née Monogram, while the page on the film lists the title as Swamp Women and the producers as American International and Bernard Woolner. Be that as it may, they’re clearly about the same movie since the casts and basic plots are the same: the film opens in New Orleans during Mardi Gras (the credits make a big deal over the fact that the entire film was shot in Louisiana, in New Orleans and the Bayou Lacombe), or at least a decorous Production Code-safe version of Mardi Gras. (The 1934 “pre-Code” short Masks and Memories showed a much wilder and presumably more accurate version of the New Orleans Mardi Gras than this!)

Oil multimillionaire Bob Matthews (Touch Conners, who was actually born “Krekor Ohanian” in Fresno in 1925, made a few 1950’s “B”’s as Touch Conners and then, under the somewhat normalized pseudonym “Mike Connors,” starred as a private eye in the neo-noir TV series Mannix from 1967 to 1975) and a red-headed bimbo are out and about during Mardi Gras, while a policewoman named Lee Hampton (Carole Matthews) offers to go undercover to infiltrate a gang of swamp women who are after a cache of stolen diamonds — they were stolen by their former boyfriends, who were busted and went to prison, but the police were never able to recover the loot. The swamp women, who accept Lee surprisingly readily given the usual wariness of criminal gangs towards being infiltrated in movies like this (reference T-Men, in which would-be gang members were literally tortured before they were let in!), are cruising around the bayou in a leaky rowboat when they come across Bob and his bimbo, along with a middle-aged guide, and since Bob’s boat is fully seaworthy (or at least bayouworthy) and has a motor, they steal it and kill the guide.

There are all sorts of complications thereafter, including attacks by alligators (one of the swamp women is menaced by one and at least two other members of the dramatis personae leap in to try to save her, with predictably dire results) and a sort of ongoing strip-poker game throughout the trip as the ladies tear off choice parts of their blue jeans and cruise around in cut-offs, to the point where one of the MST3K crew joked that if this movie ran much longer, none of the cast members would be wearing anything. The MST3K’ers also kidded the rather drab colors of the Mardi Gras parade footage (“just the colors for a festive occasion: yellow and brown” — little did they know that within a few years dirty greens and browns would become the filmmaking world’s default color settings for just about everything) and came up with various alternative first names Mike Connors might have tried out before settling on “Touch,” some of which (like “Thrust Conners”) sounded like porn aliases.

There were the usual annoyances in a movie like this, including the actors’ insistence on pronouncing the word “bayou” as “bye-you” instead of the correct “bye-yo” (Hank Williams, in his song “Jambalaya,” got it right, though not everyone who’s covered it has), but Swamp Diamonds, whatever its deficiencies (as well as the sheer number of great movies it invited comparisons with, from Louisiana Story — if Robert Flaherty showed what could be done with the Louisiana bayou country on film, Roger Corman, whose first film as a director this was, showed what shouldn’t be done with it — to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), is actually not a bad movie and certainly not one of the 50 worst films of all time (as Harry Medved and Randy Lowell named it in their book of that title — though they also picked such great, if flawed, movies as D. W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln and Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible), and doubtless the audience for it in 1956 consisted mostly of horny straight guys who got enough cheesecake they probably felt whatever they paid for their tickets was money well spent.

According to the “trivia” section on this film, Roger Corman had a production schedule of 22 days on it — which was actually a long period for him in those days; he was famous for being able to knock off a whole film in a week or sometimes (as in The Terror, 1963, which he concocted to use up two days’ worth of commitments from Boris Karloff and Jack Nicholson after he finished The Raven two days early) even less — and as cheap and tacky as Corman’s films often were, at least they had energy: though a lot of things could be said against Swamp Diamonds/Swamp Women, one thing it couldn’t be accused of is being boring. The MST3K crew kidded the dire, atmospheric music score by Willis Holman, but actually the music was one of the best parts (even though a lot of it did sound like The Rite of Spring as re-arranged by Martin Denny), and though the antics of the on-screen cast frankly had little to do with acting, the female stars, Marie Windsor and Beverly Garland, at least were convincing in their portraits of tough-as-nails broads who’d let nothing stop them in their pursuit of their ex-boyfriends’ ill-gotten gains.