Here’s a funny thought: more than a few moviegoers–many of them, I’m guessing, under the age of 30–may only know cult filmmaker John Waters as one of the people behind that charming, upbeat musical from a few years ago, Hairspray. It’s even funnier to imagine those same people bringing home some of that charming, upbeat Mr. Waters’ earlier works, and the looks on their faces after settling in with their families to watch, say, A Dirty Shame or Cecil B. Demented or Serial Mom or Polyester (a thought that is, sad to say, funnier than most of the first two films I mentioned). And don’t get me started on what would happen if they came into contact with the self-proclaimed Prince of Puke’s 1970s oeuvre: Desperate Living, Female Trouble, and his 1972 midnight movie classic, Pink Flamingos.
Yes, Baltimore’s favorite film-making son (sorry, Barry Levinson) has come a long way since his earliest, ultra-low-budget beginnings, shooting guerrilla-style in the streets of “Charm City” with an eccentric ensemble that included David Lochary, Edith Massey, Cookie Mueller, Mary Vivian Pearce, Mink Stole, and everyone’s favorite 300-plus-pound transvestite, the one and only Divine. The problem is, shock cinema fans, you’ll never know how far Waters has come, because none of his work prior to Pink Flamingos is currently available on home video.
That early body of work started very early for Waters, who crafted his first film while still a teenager in 1964. Made for a budget of about $30 (it helps when your leading lady steals film from her photo supply store job for you!), Hag in a Black Leather Jacket was shot at John’s parents’ house–on the roof, in fact–and depicted the rooftop wedding of a black man to his white ballerina girlfriend (played by Waters’ light-fingered pal Mona Montgomery), with a Klansman performing the ceremony. Waters himself described this 15-minute black-and-white short as “terrible,” and while it did manage to make its cost back at its first and only showing at a Baltimore coffeehouse, it sits today in the director’s closet…where, he says, “it belongs.”
Following a very brief spell at NYU in which he spent most of his time skipping classes to attend underground film screenings, Waters returned to Maryland and began assembling his friends into the repertoire company known as Dreamland Studios. Divine, Lochary, Pearce, and Stole joined Montgomery (who once again “donated” the film stock, this time color) and actress/doomed free spirit Malecum Soul for the 1966 short The Roman Candles. Inspired by Andy Warhol’s split-screen experiment The Chelsea Girls, Roman Candles featured three 8-mm reels playing side-by-side to an accompanying score of rock songs and radio ads on tape recorder (sound movies were still in John’s future). The triple footage was merely unconnected footage of religious figures drinking, smoking and making out, a woman being attacked by a man with an electric fan, and Divine playing hide and seek. Roman Candles had three shows at a downtown Baltimore church before its flame was snuffed out.
After starting and abandoning a Wizard of Oz parody entitled Dorothy, the Kansas City Pothead, Waters’ first 16-mm work would also be the first to play up his passion for linking beauty and violence on the screen. 1968’s Eat Your Makeup starred Soul as a deranged nanny who, along with boyfriend Lochary, would abduct young women and force them to…well, eat their makeup as they “model themselves” to death. Another part of the film featured Divine playing Jacqueline Kennedy in a re-creation of JFK’s fatal car ride through the streets of Dallas. It was a typically outrageous Waters scene, but the assassination of Robert Kennedy that summer put a pall on the film, a mood that worsened when Soul died of a drug overdose a few weeks after Eat Your Makeup had its Baltimore church debut.
The one short from this period that has been released on video, albeit in unauthorized form, was 1969’s The Diane Linkletter Story. Called by Waters an “accidental” improvised film made to test sound-synch equipment, it was shot the day after talk show host Art Linkletter’s daughter (played here by Divine) took her own life, allegedly after taking LSD, and featured dialogue from an anti-drug “message record” the Linkletters released.
Dreamland Studios finally made the jump to feature-length movies in 1969 with Mondo Trasho. This dialogue-free detour into dementia found blonde beauty Pearce left dazed and confused after an encounter with a toe-sucking foot fetishist in the park, only to be run over by a 1959 Cadillac convertible driven by Divine, who was distracted by a hunky hitchhiker that Divine imagines in the buff (It was this two-second nude scene, shot one Sunday morning on the Johns Hopkins University campus, that got Waters and his crew busted on indecency charges that were eventually dropped). Divine, clad in a shimmery halter top and Capri pants, puts the unconscious Pearce in her car and tries to find help, but the trip leads the pair into a laundromat encounter with the Virgin Mary, a police shoot-out at the office of quack doctor Lochary (who cuts off Pearce’s feet and transplants monstrous replacements), and a muddy session in a pig pen, where a wounded Divine dies and Pearce kicks her deformed heels together three times to leave (there’s that Wizard of Oz hang-up again). Mondo is an interesting look at the nascent Waters sensibility, his love of the lowest elements of Baltimore life, and his willingness to do whatever it takes to shock an audience. John makes up for the lack of dialogue with a few recorded lines and a non-stop soundtrack of ’50s and ’60s pop tunes.
The success of Mondo Trasho’s showings in Baltimore, Los Angeles, Provincetown and Boston helped Waters secure the needed funds (from his father) for his first true “talkie,” 1970’s Multiple Maniacs. With a title inspired by gore film pioneer H.G. Lewis’ 2000 Maniacs, this “celluloid atrocity” (John’s own term) featured Divine and Lochary as the husband/wife owners of a travelling freak show known as the “Cavalcade of Perversions.” Luring gullible suburbanites in to look at such acts as a woman licking a bicycle seat, two gay men “kissing each other like lovers on the lips,” and the self-explanatory Puke-Eater, the duo and their charges would then rob their customers at gunpoint. Divine learns that Lochary is cheating on her and sets out to kill him, but is raped by two glue-heads. Dazed, she is then led by the Infant of Prague to a church where she has a very unholy encounter with a rosary-obsessed Stole. The increasingly bloodthirsty Divine eventually does get a violent vengeance on her unfaithful spouse, only to be assaulted again–this time by a giant lobster named Lobstora!–and, driven mad, meet a bloody end at the hands of the National Guard. A key Mondo moment is the debut of the always lovable Edith Massey, essentially playing herself as a chatty bartender at the dive saloon where the Dreamland gang hung out.
The Time-Warner-owned New Line Cinema, which distributed Multiple Maniacs and most of Water’s later works, seems to have its video rights, but are not currently releasing it. Meanwhile, the Mondo Trasho soundtrack, whose songs the filmmaker couldn’t afford to pay for the rights to, are apparently what keeps it from coming out for home viewing. As for John’s 1960s shorts, they’ve been occasionally shown in art galleries and museums in conjunction with his “Change of Life” photography exhibition (which I was fortunate to catch in New York some years ago). It is, to borrow the title of his most recent directorial effort, a dirty shame that these raw and revealing looks at the origins of the twisted cinematic worldview of John Waters aren’t available for the public to marvel–and perhaps be sickened–at. Dear John, it’s time for you to give your less-attractive offspring their chance to shine!
For a listing of the John Waters titles that are available, click here.