Swank's Video World Reviews
July 1996

Life Beyond X
Provocative Reviews of non-explicit films!

by Neil Wexler


Back in the late 60's and early 70's, I attended a small liberal arts college which as about thirty miles southwest of Cleveland, Ohio. Being a city-boy from Chicago, I had a hard time adjusting to the slower pace of small-town life, and so I'd make regular bus trips into Cleveland for a fix of urban atmosphere. As I got familiar with Cleveland's particular offerings, I would browse in Kay's Bookstore on Prospect Avenue which had the greatest selection of old and new books, and then I'd check out the softcore skin-flicks at the Standard Theater across the street.

Riding the bus in, I'd gaze at the ad for the Standard in the Cleveland newspaper, and my mind would reel in anticipation of seeing movies that actually contained naked women, unlike the sanitized majority of mainstream films at that time. In retrospect, my favorite softcore flick was TEENIE TULIP, about a psychiatrist who had unusual methods for treating his sexually perverted patients. It had a groin-churning sequence of a girl sucking on a banana that probably did serious damage to my chromosomes.

The old days of softcore, and the cavernous theaters that showed such fare, are long fone. Enough essays and memorials have been written about this vanished era that, having indulged myself in the pleasure of nostalgic time-traveling for a couple of paragraphs, I will belabor this point no longer. But I recently had the pleasure of watching a new film TEENAGE TUPELO, which among it's numerous accomplishments, artfully captures the atmosphere of those old nudie flicks not just with the right amount of fleshy titillation in the classic softcore style, but also through it's evocation of the rhythms of visual and sound editing peculiar to the genre.

But TEENAGE TUPELO is not merely a recreation of those old flicks. Made by JMM (J. Michael McCarthy), a Memphis-based comic book artist, illustrator, and filmmaker, it tells what is actually a very personal myth. An adopted child in real life, JMM imagines the life of his biological mother circa 1962, with her getting impregnated by an Elvis-like singer and being told by her domineering mother to give the child away to McCarthy's parents. In actual life, JMM was adopted; in the movie, his mother keeps him. What makes this film remarkable is how it utilizes the garish imagery of 60's sexploitation, complete with go-go girls shot from a low-angle, partial nudity, tight foundation garments, and playful kinky fantasy, to relate what is essentially the filmmaker's tender meditation on the mother he never knew. Without exaggeration I can say that in certain moments he visualizes her - particularly n scenes set around an abandoned school bus or isolated treehouse - as an amazing archetype of sensual beauty and bruised innocence. Don't get me wrong, however. This is not a pretentious film. It's mostly light-hearted, fun, and sexy.

Set in Tupelo, Mississippi, hometown of Elvis, the flick spotlights buxomy "Starlet" D'Lana Tunnell (as JMM insists on calling his acresses in sexploitation style) as his young Mother, also called D'Lana in the story. After having a treehouse tryst with her lover, washed-up rock 'n' roller Johnny Tu-Note (Hugh B. Brooks), she discovers she's pregnant with her second child out of wedlock. Her Mother (Wanda Wilson) arranges to give the newborn away. Johnny, who doesn't want the baggage of a baby to weigh down his career comeback, acts like a heel and denies that it's his. To add to her woes, D'Lana gets fired from her new job as waitress in a barbeque joint, which leads to a catfight between her and a bitchy co-worker (Cindy Blair). Disgusted with everything, D'Lana walks through the streets of Tupelo in one of the flick's sexiest sequences, stripping off her waitress uniform and parading down the sidewalk simply in her black bra, panties, and stiletto heels.

Hollywood, you can keep your Sharon Stone; I'll take D'Lana Tunnell.

Something else happens in town: a stripper named Topsy Turvy is making a personal appearance to premiere her new "nudie cutie," TRASHUS TRAILERIS. D'Lana runs into a lesbo girl gang named Thee Madd Madd Manhaters (composed of starlets Dawn Ashcraft, Kristen Hobbs, and Sophie Couch), and they convince her to join theire ranks. Not only that, but when they all go to the movies for the Topsy opening, D'Lana discovers that she looks like the famous peeler. We get to see clips of Topsy's movie, which is a loving recreation of the old nudie-cuties that used to show at places like the Standard. We see Topsy (who is D'Lana in a blonde bouffant wig) in a tight white girdle and stockings, rolling around in bed with a bare-breasted brunette (Margo Gone) while a French maid (Dallas Derringer) dusts the premises. A few minutes later, a postman (Neil Shapiro) delivers a package for Topsy - but instead of "edible panties from Paris, France" that she was expecting, there's a tinfoil covered "atomic bomb"! This makes Topsy playfully angry, and she and her cohorts chastise the ultra-meek postman. In a great sequence that will turn the knobs of anybody who has a "giantess" fantasy, they give him a potion that shrinks him down into a little snake, and then they stomp on him in his new reptilian form and drop the bomb on him!! I replayed this scene several times for both its artistic and entertainment value, something I could never do back at the old Standard with that banana scene - so there are some advantages to progress, I guess. Topsy/D'Lana looks INCREDIBLE in her tight white girdle, white bra, and strappy platform heels!

Okay, where was I? In another memorable scene, D'Lana reveals to the Manhaters that she has a Johnny Tu-Note tattoo on her butt. She does this while they're driving around, simply pulling down the waistband of her tight black capri pants to reveal her snowy left cheek. The atmospheric black and white photography makes this brief moment feel more titillating than a full strip ... it's another moment worthy of instant replay! The Manhaters tell her she should get the thing changed, and in a bizarre color sequence D'Lana ends up with a masked tattoo artist, lying on a bed naked (except for black panties pulled down her butt) while he paints all over back. Once again, this is stimulating because we get to see D'Lana's considerable beauty lovingly framed and posed. This is the essence of softcore arousal: show enough to set off the imagination, and then move on.

There's so much going on in this film that you have to see it. The Elvis angle is exploited through the Tupelo setting, as the story takes place in many of the sites he spent his childhood in (JMM has speculated in print that the King could actually be his father; since he never learned who it was that actually impregnated his mother! Johnny Tu-Note in the story in an Elvis stand-in.) There's plenty of T&A as the Manhaters either fantasize about or actually try to seduce D'Lana; and good garage rock by the instrumental group IMPALA underscores all. Johnny Tu-Note and the Scopitones make a lively appearance in a sequence straight out of every bad 60's rock and roll movie. And, as if to cover all bases of the exploitation genre, there's also an actual scene of a baby being born as D'Lana daydreams of her new child - a scene which, presented in black and white at just the right moment in the story, is really beautiful. And last but not least, just to pay the ultimate homage to the schlock genre, there's one character named Harry, a moniker which seems to pop up in more pulp fiction (both written and filmed) than any other.

But for all fans of pretty girls in film, TEENAGE TUPELO is in the final analysis a Showcase for a Starlet - D'Lana Tunnell. Though Dawn, Kristen, and Sophie ain't small potatoes.) Photographed by Darin Ipema with lighting that called to my mind such diverse influences as Josef Von Sternberg, old silent films, as well as the bounced light of a 60's urban nudie, this flick is a visual feast. Just try to forget D'Lana's big beautiful sad eyes or luscious lipsticked mouth ... or her lovely breasts or warmly evoked thighs. You won't be able to! Ah, the naked girl movie has triumphantly returned, so order it today. The catalog number is #5523 and tell 'em VIDEO WORLD sent you.