The film career of Texan director Dale Berry lasted just six years

The film career of Texan director Dale Berry lasted just six years, but in that time he directed some of the weirdest sexploitation movies of the 1960s. His rough-hewn tangles of celluloid are like partially demolished mazes whose structures never seem to lead where they should. The plotting, though threadbare, is bewilderingly incoherent, with information in one scene flatly contradicted in the next. Technically the films veer between glorious accidental lunacy and to-hell-with-it carelessness. If a plot point doesn’t tie up, just insert a five-minute go-go dancing scene--no one will notice! The result is a body of work so incredibly confused that it leaps through incoherence into a warped netherworld of the irrational. Meanwhile, making all the difference in terms of salability are the frenetic performances of Berry’s extraordinary female stars. All of his films feature striking, attention-grabbing women, mostly drawn from Dallas’s downtown strip joints, and their lavishly over-the-top performances prevent the films from simply collapsing due to bad workmanship. It’s no exaggeration to say that while the technical freakishness of Berry’s work is part of its weird charm, the films would never have been booked in a single movie theatre without the star performances of their magnificent women. 

Born in Dallas on 3 September 1928, Berry attended Mesquite High School near Dallas, and as a senior he showed aptitude for music, playing guitar in his own cowboy band and securing airtime both on local radio and on the famous country music show Grand Old Opry. In his early twenties, while working as a radio DJ, he was signed up by the prominent country music label Blue Ribbon (aka Texas Records). Recording under the name ‘Dale Berry and his Texas Blue Bonnets’ he released two 78s: “I’m Doing Time (In a Prison of Memories)” and the self-penned “Varmints in my Garments.” As a result of his musical success, Berry found himself hooked into the mainstream of American entertainment, becoming a personal friend of singing cowboy Gene Autry and his comedian buddy Pat Buttram. But as the 1960s blossomed, Berry was drawn towards the seamier side of life, becoming a purveyor of screen pulchritude in Dallas’s burgeoning sexploitation scene.

Varmints In My Garments
Varmints In My Garments
There’s a Map of Texas On My Heart
There’s a Map of Texas On My Heart
Abe Weinstein

Downtown Dallas in the early sixties was a hotbed of erotic entertainment. Berry embraced the nightlife, especially a venue called The Colony Club, from whose glittering stage came many of the female stars of his films. Owned and operated by Abe Weinstein, the venue opened in 1937 as Abe and Pappy’s, but when Weinstein bought sole ownership after the war he renamed it The Colony Club. Although he booked the usual range of comics, singers and musicians, Weinstein eventually settled on burlesque as the primary entertainment on offer, and by the late 1950s he had one of the busiest nightspots in the city, a regular haunt for horny college boys, out-of-town businessmen looking for wife-free amusement, and off-duty policemen relaxing after a hard day hassling hookers. It was Weinstein who auditioned the girls (although he claimed he never ‘sampled the wares’) and gave the Colony Club’s number one stripper, Candy Barr, her nickname. Barr (real name Juanita Dale Philips) first hit the headlines in 1956 when she shot her estranged husband in the stomach in self-defense. Her subsequent stage act was a smash hit, featuring Candy waving a pair of six-shooters while clad in a gun belt, holster, and very little else… 

 Also nearby was The Carousel Club, run--until 1963--by Jack Ruby, the man who shot Lee Harvey Oswald. Beverly Oliver, the insatiable ‘Myrtle Pennypacker’ in Berry’s Hot-Blooded Woman, was a regular performer at the Colony and got to know Ruby over at the Carousel. Oliver achieved notoriety in 1970 when she claimed to be the mysterious ‘Babushka Lady,’ a headscarfed woman photographed at the scene of the Kennedy assassination. In an interview with a leading Kennedy conspiracy theorist, she claimed to have known Ruby “very well” (“I'd host his after hour parties, mix drinks, sit around and visit, that kind of thing”). She described The Colony Club as “A burlesque club, but I was a singer. It was separated by a parking lot from Jack Ruby's Carousel Club, which was also a burlesque club, but it was rather sleazy. The Colony Club was a very high-class club where people brought their wives. It was a very nice club.”(1) 

Jack Ruby and his strippers

Another star of Berry’s films that worked at the Colony Club was Bubbles Cash. Bubbles, who appeared in Hot Thrills and Warm Chills and Hip Hot and 21 [Editor: Or did she? See accompanying interview], would entrance the Dallas press in 1968 when she announced she was standing for office as Governor: her gubernatorial platform, she declared, would be “built on a firm foundation.”(2) Touting banners emblazoned “Bubbles Cash for Peace” she generated a few photo opportunities, and a pitch invasion during a Dallas football match, but sadly failed to make a big impression on the political landscape…  

The front of the Colony Club on the evening of November 22, 1963. Beal, Bill, University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza.
The front of the Colony Club on the evening of November 22, 1963. Beal, Bill, University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza.

Dale Berry died on 20 October 2011, having never been interviewed at length about his films. This is a great pity, as he left behind five shambolic but fascinating movies: Passion in the Sun (1964), Hot Blooded Woman (1965), Hot Thrills and Warm Chills (1967), Hip Hot and 21 (1967), and the most obscure of the five, a stitched-together hybrid using offcuts from the others called Mondo Sexo (1967), which was credited, appropriately enough, to ‘Dale Berrystein.’(3) As Harry Epstein, Berry also directed The Hot Bed (1965) and he also wrote The Sadistic Lover (1966) for George Gunter, as well as acted in four more sexploitation features: Beauty and the Cave (1961), Common Law Wife (Eric Sayers and Larry Buchanan, 1963), Naughty Dallas (Larry Buchanan, 1964) and Strange Compulsion (Irv Berwick, 1964). 

In 1967 Berry quit filmmaking

In 1967 Berry quit filmmaking, and never returned to the director’s chair. Two of his films (Hot Thrills and Warm Chills and Hip Hot and 21) had been produced under the banner of Trans Continental Artists Corporation, a Houston-based company run by Charles M. Martinez, Berry’s director of photography. The two men kept the Trans Continental Artists banner and in September 1968 they moved from film production to film exhibition, opening a new cinema, Studio III, in Corpus Christi, southern Texas. A small but plushly upholstered theatre seating 150, it specialized in, of course, ‘adult’ movies. Studio III began trading on 1 September with Russ Meyer’s Mudhoney, and to publicize the new venue a champagne gala was held on 23 September, to which the trade magazines were invited. Much was made of the theatre’s stereo sound, the ‘development’ of which was credited to Enrique Madariaga (the writer of Berry’s Passion in the Sun). 

 Within three months, however, the business was in trouble. A damages suit for unpaid construction work set the company back, as did police raids, film seizures, and tax difficulties. Judging by a gap in the newspaper listings between January 1969 and July 1970 it seems the cinema was actually forced to close for eighteen months. When it returned it was still showing adult material, including a smattering of Berry’s own films, but business remained turbulent. A shift to 16mm ‘underground’ films presaged the decision to stop advertising individual movie titles, but this didn’t prevent another raid taking place in February 1971. By this time, management was reportedly in the hands of a Frank J. Adams, so it’s possible that Berry had moved on. Studio III finally closed on 23 January 1974, by court order. Berry’s earlier film company, Trans-American Pictures Corporation, stayed active in film distribution into the mid-1970s, handling such delights as The Female Response (1973) and Miss Nude America (1976). In his latter years he made a few TV appearances in episodes of Walker, Texas Ranger and turned up in the Texas indie production 4th and Goal (2009), but in general his show business interests revolved around his frequent guest spots at Western conventions where he spoke to convention audiences and performed as a ‘singing cowboy.’(4)

So what are we to make of his five movies as director? There’s certainly a commonality between the four we can currently see.(5) When a filmmaker’s work appears so similar across multiple projects it’s tempting to identify these echoes as the mark of an auteur, but this can seem ridiculous when dealing with the sort of cinema made for bluntly commercial purposes. Berry’s films were made quickly and cheaply to meet the demands of a particular market. More than anything else, they exist to present beautiful women in (softcore) sexual situations. Dancing, undressing, having sex, being ravished, roughing up guys, acting like tramps, acting like ballbreakers. These are the elements in a Dale Berry film. Nuances of style and presentation are mostly side-effects of the haste with which they were made. The films are slathered with fantastic music, all booming drum-beats and hysterical horn sections, but it’s drawn exclusively from library records and stuck onto the images so recklessly you can almost hear the studio clock ticking, and Berry telling the editor to hurry up. The films always run for the bare minimum required for a feature (70m, 69m 68m… only Hip Hot and 21 ventures past the 80 minute mark) and the scripts show no sign of revision or consideration. It seems that Berry was determined to convert the minimum amount of celluloid into the maximum amount of money, but nevertheless there’s something so consistently peculiar about his films that it’s tempting to put them under the microscope, looking for clues to the psyche of their maker. No matter how rough the technique, no matter how mercenary the initial motivation may have been, something of the disposition of the director inevitably bleeds through, pulling these films into a particular shape. Crudeness of technique doesn’t stop an old garage punk record from being exciting, so let’s not be too critical of Berry’s haphazard skill-set, because from it something weird and wonderful emerged…

“The Crown of King Sex has been stolen!”
Notes on Hot Thrills and Warm Chills

On the day before carnival, three glamorous young jewel-thieves – Toni Romano. Dodie Marselli and Kitten – get together in Rio De Janeiro. They chat for a while about husbands and boyfriends – their lousy behaviour, their sexual failings, their pathetic infidelities – before Toni reveals what’s really on her mind. Money is getting tight and she wants her friends to come out of retirement and join her in an audacious robbery: the theft of a jewel-encrusted millionaire’s bauble known as The Crown of King Sex, which is due to be worn at a post-carnival shindig the next day…  

Hot Thrills and Warm Chills is the best movie John Waters never made. Rita Alexander, who plays blonde bouffant catwoman Toni, even sounds like Mary Vivian Pierce, and her hair and eye make-up would scarcely shame Divine. Swanning around her tiny living room, twirling a taffeta-fringed dress and waving her arms around madly, she’s a burlesque queen from outer space whose diet pills have definitely kicked in. Alexander is, quite simply, one of the great exploitation divas of the sixties; as compelling a screen presence as Tura Satana. With her wild appearance and extravagant manners, she’s a study in camp screen magnetism. As for her sisters in crime: if you’ve ever wanted to see more of Divine’s shoplifting friends Chicklet and Concetta, from Waters’ masterpiece Female Trouble, you need look no further; their spiritual forebears are right here.  

Structurally the most bizarre aspect of the film

Structurally the most bizarre aspect of the film is that the flashbacks never agree with the preceding dialogue. For instance, after Kitten tells the others about her lackluster husband Harry (“Oh he meant well alright, with his little tender kisses, but somehow he just didn’t give me the effect I wanted”) we see a flashback of Harry making out with a different woman entirely. After the liaison ends, we return to Kitten saying that Harry “just couldn’t make the scene”, as if the cutaway illustrated what she was saying. The same thing happens when she talks about seducing a hunk who came to her door selling insurance. “We sat there making small talk,” she says, “Talking about annuities and premiums. Here’s how it went…” But instead of cutting to Kitten getting off with the insurance man, Berry shows us a different woman making out with him. (Meanwhile a voice-over tries to retrieve the situation by claiming that Kitten has stepped out to buy some booze!) Next up is Dodie, who bitches about her boyfriend ‘Lester P. Chester’: “Book-keeper, bookworm, and bookend as far as I’m concerned.” This time our frustration is total. We expect to see why ‘Lester P. Chester’ is such a washout; instead the girls just put on some music and dance. We never even see Lester (I guess he was double-booked). The result is a film that does for flashbacks what Luis Buñuel’s Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie does for dinner parties. 

Director of photography Charles Martinez is a dead loss when it comes to driving a scene with the camera, so it’s just as well the girls are always on the move within the frame. Any given shot of the three of them sways and ripples with their movements: a hand to the hair, a caress of lamé pants, a raised glass of wine, a flourish of the wrist to emphasize a catty remark: drag queens, get your notebooks out, your study aid is right here. Who cares if the scenes are too long? So what if the cameraman seems frightened to move the camera in case a piece of it falls off? With girls like these in the frame, you have your movie. When Toni is attacked and raped, apropos of nothing, by a man who simply bursts into shot from stage left and shoves her back on her sofa, one’s distaste as she’s shown ‘loving it’ is forestalled by the way she conducts intricate invisible orchestras in the air with her silver-painted fingernails. “Did you get what you came for? Now get out,” she snarls, once the jerk has had his way.

As for the men, it’s hard keeping track of them, thanks to Berry’s disdain for close-ups. When dashing young blade Eddie Newman invites himself to the girl-gang’s nightclub table, he seems quite the charmer. “You’re not a sex maniac, are you?” asks Dodie. “Yes, my lady, of course I am,” he replies. Eddie persuades Dodie to leave with him, and we expect to see the two of them make out: instead we cut to a different bequiffed fellow chatting up a different girl and jumping into the sack with her instead. Afterwards, in a twist as perplexing as a David Lynch noir, the man known as ‘Eddie Newman’ seemingly splits into two different characters: ‘Eddie’, a meathead cop who gets sacked for dallying with broads, then reinstated second later when he’s needed on a case; and ‘Detective Newman,’ who accompanies Chief Masterson (Berry himself) to investigate the theft of the Crown of King Sex. (Yes, sorry, the robbery’s already happened, and no, we didn’t get to see it. Too expensive.) To make matters worse, I don’t believe either of these actors played Eddie in the bar! Also splitting into two distinct but nominally related entities is the location setting: for the first two thirds of the film we’re supposed to be in Rio de Janeiro, but when the crown is stolen, the cops state repeatedly that they’re from Reno! When you factor in that the film was actually lensed in New Orleans, with Mardi Gras substituting for the Rio Carnival, it’s even more confusing. Why did Berry even bother pretending that the story was set in Brazil?

Let’s conclude by discussing the ending – as weird and wild a sequence as Berry ever shot. Toni and Dodie are chased by a cop but they stomp him senseless and keep on running. At this point the film heads deep into delirium. Dodie disappears like a dementia victim’s promise, while Toni seeks refuge in a marble mausoleum. As she does so, strange blurry lights coalesce around her. Although the mausoleum has glass doors, through which she can see outside, for some reason she can neither escape nor raise the alarm. Clawing at her face in spasms of horror, she watches through the glass as a gravedigger digs a nearby grave. What’s going on? The name on the grave is ‘Bertha Woods.’ Why does Toni find the sight of it so distressing? Is Toni really Bertha Woods? Homely spinsterish Bertha Woods, trapped in a limbo between life and death, who’s been fantasizing another life as a glamorous vixen jewel thief? Just one of the many questions it would have been fun to ask Dale Berry, whose crazy and unpredictable oeuvre I advise you check out immediately!    




Shots of the entrance to the Colony Club from the evening of November 22, 1963 were taken by Bill Beal, courtesy The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza/University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu


After writing for the seminal British horror fanzine Shock Xpress, Stephen Thrower launched the film periodical Eyeball in 1989. His books on the cinema include Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci (1999), Murderous Passions: The Delirious Cinema of Jesús Franco (2015), and Nightmare USA: The Untold Story of the Exploitation Independents (2007). With his partner Ossian Brown, Thrower is also the founder of the avant-garde music group Cyclobe. As a solo artist, Thrower scored Pakistan’s first gore film, Zibahkhana aka Hell's Ground (2007), contributed electronic music to Down Terrace (2010) by Ben Wheatley, and was commissioned by the BFI in 2012 to score three silent short films by the pioneering director of gay erotica Peter De Rome. Thrower’s idea of heaven is his very own time tunnel: destination 42nd Street, dateline the 1970s.


FOOTNOTES

1 “Beverly Oliver (‘The Babushka lady’) Interview,” by Gary Jame

2 “Entertainer Enters Politics”: The Odessa American, 3 February 1968.

3 Mondo Sexo is currently unavailable for home viewing and is not even listed on IMDb. Mondo Sexo is probably much of a piece too, being made up of out-takes from The Hot BedPassion in the Sun and Hot-Blooded Woman edited into a new story about a female vigilante squad hunting a rapist.

4 Bob Hinkle, “Call Me Lucky: A Texan in Hollywood” and the Dallas Producers Association