Don't expect an academic critique here

Don’t expect an academic critique here. This is, pure and simple, a love letter to Shanty Tramp. Why? Because there’s no other movie like it. There are certain films that exist outside of any genre, misfits that belong to no club and are all the better for it. Lone wolves. I’m talking about Battle of Algiers. Wake In Fright. Sweet Smell of Success. Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Shanty Tramp belongs to that rarified company, despite the shabby existence it’s endured (the few tattered prints left around made it a restoration nightmare). It is one of a kind, the Ace of Spades in the deck, a comet blazing the night sky. And somehow, like the movies just named, Shanty Tramp--despite its myriad flaws (or maybe because of them)--manages to be timeless.

The iconic gams that open Shanty Tramp

You could never make Shanty Tramp today. We’re too sensitive to wallow in such undiluted hatred. There would be outrage, condemnation, angry tweets. Which is why fifty years (plus change) on, Shanty Tramp still packs a wallop. It points out the sad truth of how little some things have changed.

Shanty Tramp was made on a nonexistent budget with a bunch of unknowns down in Davie, Florida (you can learn the particulars from Daniel Griffith’s documentary elsewhere on this site). Watch the movie, it’s right here for free. See if you share the unsavory feelings it stirs within me.

For years it has been falsely assumed Pietro was an alias for Joseph Mawra. Not true.

From the opening shot of the Tramp sashaying down the street, one dress strap lowered down to signal easy availability, the atmosphere is malevolent, tough. A crass, oppressively exuberant version of “When The Saints Go Marching In” is the soundtrack. Men ogle the Tramp as she walks the street like a piece of meat. She’s got what the men want, they can have it if the price is right, and it ain’t high. As one potential suitor lights a cigarette, she playfully blows it out. Danger ahead…for everybody. Does any of this movie take place in the daylight? It is enveloped in inky blackness, a shoddy noir with sweat on its brow. Imagine you’ve stumbled into a dingy local pool hall, the locals eyeballing you as they plot to take your wallet and your woman. That’s the menace of Shanty Tramp.

The alluring Emily Stryker (AKA ‘Lee Holland’), star of Shanty Tramp.

1967. Humid, crazy Florida. A handful of characters: the Tramp, the Preacher, the Black Man, the Tramp’s drunken Pappy. To share their character names seems beside the point, they’re just archetypes, human chess pieces in a threadbare Shakespearean tragedy. The background wallpaper: a couple of mindless mobs, each as stupid as the other--a biker gang and a tent revival congregation.

Shanty Tramp’s cheap immediacy works in its favor. This is a movie that is rude, crude and in your face, right down to the raw title credit lettering. The jittery soundtrack veers from low-rent rock and roll to jazz to hollow bongos in the night. Yeah, the acting is occasionally odd and off-center, scenes are sometimes hastily directed, the framing haphazard—yet this only enhances the end result, imbuing it with a negative, radioactive glow. A homemade documentary of the damned.

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Conniving Preacher Fallows.

Intentionally or not, everything fits together like a fist coming at your face. Even the manic Shanty Tramp theme song (which, memorably, the Tramp herself dances to) underscores the law of the jungle: “I give my love and all I get is money.” The only other time in the movie that the subject of amour is broached is when the Black Man tries to reveal his feelings to the Tramp, but thinks better of it and stops—a wise move. There is no room for love in Shanty Tramp.

Shanty Tramp Radio Spot
A radio spot for Shanty Tramp

This is a movie of amoral extremes. At one end you have the Shanty Tramp—an on-the-make conniver who moves from man to man, using sex to manipulate and wreak havoc. At the other you have the Preacher, a forceful, narcissistic seller of snake oil who knows how to scare the ignorant into Christian panic. Hers is a hateful portrait of womankind; his, a cynical portrayal of organized religion. In the middle is the Black Man, who passively (and unwisely, as his mother tries to point out) lusts for a piece of the Tramp’s white ass. Perhaps the only sympathetic character in Shanty Tramp, he provides the film’s meager moment of kindness when he offers the naked Tramp his shirt. This act will only lead to his demise. No one gets a pass in this film, no one gets away. Even the Black Man’s saintly mother winds up murdered by the racist whites, her sad, dead mug falling into the camera, obliterating the image.

Things are jumping at the bar. "Dance, goddamn it. Dance!!”


There is a velocity at work here, an urgency, as if those involved looked around at the turmoil and upheaval of 1967 America and said, “This is a story we must tell.” Actually, no—it’s more immediate. That suggests there was thought involved, some tender loving care. Shanty Tramp is a Devo gut feeling, a heat-seeking missile shot out of a Sunshine State void. There are certainly bigger, more familiar movies you can name which contain all the trademarks of a counterculture movie. In retrospect, many of those choices feel as thin as cardboard—products of their time whose time ran away with them. Shanty Tramp feels relevant now. Race, religion and sexuality are its subjects, and it provides zero solutions, only questions--questions we are still asking today.

The racism on display is matter-of-fact and omnipresent. The townsfolk speak of “black madness” and “black stink.” “Them whites in this town--thems the same ones that strung up your pa,” the Black Man’s mother tells her son. The Tramp is no better and baits him at every turn. “Don’t call me boy, you hear me? I’m not your boy,” the Black Man snaps at her. She initiates the sexual encounter with him, then cries rape: “I’ll be back with every white man in town.” Find him they do. Sex of any kind of is a vicious transaction in Shanty Tramp. “C’mon big man, you promised me a fin-- I want to see it!” the Tramp hisses to her biker gang ‘date.’ “Shut up, baby, and put out!” he spits back.

The Preacher’s noxious sermons punctuate the movie, and they are as violent as anything else in it. He berates and threatens the tent crowd, telling them to get right with God—or else. They stare blankly, silently, swallowing every last drop. The portrayal of Bible-thumping revivalists is brutal to say the least—all the Preacher cares about is the loot they take in under the tent and the loose women that happen by.

Ebony and ivory. Trouble ahead.

Family is viewed no better

Family is viewed no better. The opening dialogue between the Tramp and her daddy, whom she encounters weaving down the street on a bender, could’ve come from a Hubert Selby, Jr. novel:

“Emily baby, where ya headed, Emily baby?”

“If I told ya, Pa, you wouldn’t remember--and if you remembered you wouldn’t give a damn.”

“Emily baby, that’s no way to talk to yer pa.”

“You stinkin’ old souse! Why don’t you go on home--or find yourself a nice warm spot in the gutter and sleep it off.”

“Aw, Emily baby…”

“Oh, drop dead!

Caught!

The film’s climax remains shocking. The Tramp returns home after her disastrous encounter with the Black Man only to be preyed upon by her own father, who berates and mocks his offspring. “Like the preacher said, you play games with the devil. Well, I gotta little game you can play with your pa.” Pa pulls off his belt, whipping, then stripping her. Topless, terrified daughter; raping-in-the-name-of-Jesus Daddy. Once the defilement ends, the Tramp retaliates by sticking a knife in his gut. Victimized, victimizer…what does it matter. Pa collapses on the floor, a bloody mess. Then comes another death: the Black Man, on the run from the white mob, steals a car only to die in a fiery crash. Shanty Tramp never lets up, never pulls a punch. It’s unrelenting.

And it saves its last blow for the final scene. Now a murderer, the Tramp is out of options and on the run, frantically chasing after the Preacher and his right hand man as get ready to tow their trailer to the next town.

Father and daughter have a heart-to-heart talk

The Tramp had tried to hook up with the Preacher earlier on in the film, their proposed liaison couched in queasy, pseudo-religious terms that are returned to once more in the film’s end.

“Brother, you are my only hope of salvation.”

“Well, if it’s strictly spiritual help, I’m afraid…”

“Anything you say, Preacher. Anything you say.”

As the Tramp makes the inevitable climb into the trailer, the Preacher lights up a cig and smirks to his crony: “I’m gonna show that Shanty Tramp the power and the glory.” He saunters back to the willing flesh awaiting him in the trailer. That the two most manipulative, destructive forces in the movie finally join forces seems the only ending possible for Shanty Tramp. These two deserve each other.

The movie’s last shot is the Preacher’s white ’66 Impala towing that trailer off into the dark night, leaving us to contemplate the ugly action within. “When the Saints Go Marching In” blares on the soundtrack, just as it did in the opening. It’s a loop of pain, destruction, despair.

It’s human nature to want to believe in the goodness of people, in life, in the future. That the good guy wins in the end. But Shanty Tramp reminds us: as much as we aspire to do the right thing, evil triumphs over all more often than we’ll ever admit.

Fort Worth, 1968: Shanty Tramp at the drive-ins on the left, Bubbles Cash at the Theater Lounge on the right.

Fulvio Visconti is a former busboy and sometime bartender who worked at such landmarks of New York City nightlife as Danceteria and Save the Robots. Italian royalty in his bloodline, he writes poetry in his spare time. Fulvio is working on his first novel.