Fresh off the dizzying success of Lorna, Russ Meyer’s first foray into 35mm narrative filmmaking that cost somewhere around $60K and grossed $1 million, the filmmaker packed up two of the film’s stars and stretched the sparsely cast morality play across a wider area, cloaking it in the skin of Streets Paved With Gold, a novel by R. Friday Locke who, along with W.E. Sprague, adapted the novel into screenplay form. These ingredients created Mudhoney, a bountiful main-course of hedonistic pleasure, wobbly morality, and small-town religious corruption that is even more delicious than Lorna even, as the poster screamed, it “leaves a taste of evil!”
From the outset, Mudhoney feels a lot like Lorna. Not five minutes into the film and we watch Hal Hopper drunkenly break into his own house where he then beats and rapes his wife. And there will be a stranger that descends into this hillbilly Peyton Place who will put conventional mores to the test. But where Lorna was designed as a showcase for Lorna Maitland, Mudhoney is louder, hornier, meaner, and an altogether more satisfying experience.
Mudhoney is the tale of two houses ravaged by the Depression in the dusty town of Spooner, Missouri. On one end is the house of ill-repute run by Maggie Marie (Princess Livingston, an absolute treasure). A romping, stomping edifice of carnal desires and contraband moonshine, Maggie Marie holds court with her two daughters, the deaf/mute Eula (Rena Horton) and oversexed Clara Belle (Lorna Maitland), and a coveralls-clad handyman named Injoys (Sam Hannah). It’s a joint where you’re just as likely to get soaked by an exaggerated spit-take full of corn liquor or have your eardrums blown out by all the shrieking and hollering than you are to get laid.
On the other edge sits the the lonely Wade farm. Run by the good-hearted and decent Luke Wade (Stuart Lancaster), he is assisted by his niece Hannah Brinshaw (Antoinette Cristiani) who is married to the cruel and sadistic Sidney Brinshaw (Hopper). In the middle of these two houses comes ex-con Calif McKinley (John Furlong), an upright and square-jawed drifter who takes an emotional wrong turn on his way to California and ends up in the thick of things in Spooner.
If the film has an uncharacteristic curiosity, it’s that Meyer is not yet comfortable with a Lorna-type female lead carrying such a heavy narrative bulk. Instead, the females in Mudhoney rotate in an orbit around Calif and Sidney, taking turns standing up for themselves and, in the case of Maggie Marie, being the big baller shot caller. But, despite Lorna Maitland’s return and the photogenic Rena Horton, Mudhoney attempts to spread the wealth between the two and ends up lacking a central female character to drive the show, ceding a lot of ground to Antoinette Cristiani who serves as a much more traditional and conventional function in the film.
Mudhoney allows Meyer to stretch his legs a little with the length and the pace. While Fanny Hill takes an unjustifiable chunk of time to reach its conclusion, the vast majority of Meyer’s films up to Mudhoney ran not much longer than 70 minutes on the average. At 92 minutes, Mudhoney feels downright epic in scope, rolling out slowly without ever feeling slack and constantly in a state of construction. Pivotal characters drop in late in the drama and contribute additional action and texture, allowing for more cross cutting that builds with intensity as the film moves to its delirious and violent climax. Why, one could be forgiven if they forget that, by the time the credits roll, this was just a baroque roughie at heart that somehow becomes much more Tennessee Williams than Titty Tuesday.
Mudhoney is an absolute gem of a picture but it proved to be a little bigger production than what Meyer was comfortable with at the time. Mudhoney sports an opening credit sequence packed with more names that are not Russ Meyer than in any non-studio Russ Meyer picture (or Fanny Hill, natch). So upscaled is this production that Lorna Maitland is no longer too much for one man as, in Mudhoney, according to the one-sheet poster, she’s too much for a whole ass TOWN.
Despite handing lensing duties to Lorna-camera operator Walter Schenk, Mudhoney 100% looks like a Russ Meyer picture. With its shimmering, high-contrast black and white photography and the judiciously constructed camera set-ups meant to exaggerate the already exaggerated bosoms of Lorna Maitland and Lee Ballard, it’s not hard to see why Meyer brought Schenk back to shoot Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! the following year.
The film’s resolution aims to be a little neater than Lorna’s in terms of its moral through-lines but it refuses to reduce itself to anything simplistic or cheaply unearned. While the wicked are more punished in this than in Lorna, there is still a lot of collateral damage both physical and emotional. For instead of using the Man of God as a Greek chorus, Franklin Bolger’s shady rural reverend is injected right into the middle of the combustible pile of the backwards town, casting dark shadows in every direction and giving unearned, righteous shade and cover to the malignant Sidney. And the relationship between them is what makes Mudhoney a more crucial and longer-lasting blow to small-minded society than even Lorna. Where that film’s dramatic tension came from sniggering gossip and a casual affair all of which occurred in a vacuum, Mudhoney’s poison comes first from a place of poverty and desperation brought on by the times, or, as Luke Wade puts it, the hate in the heart that grows in a man’s belly.
“The whole town has been cheated,” he says. “Cheated by the times. They’s full of hate and they’re liable to listen to anybody who will give them something solid to use that hate on.”
Despite its grindhouse origins and lurid appeal, the work of Russ Meyer also stood as a full-bodied and colorful testament to the old adage that while times may change, people don’t.
(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain