Among the most legendary of all exploitation pictures

Among the most legendary of all exploitation pictures shot in the Deep South is the exceptionally tawdry Shanty Tramp, directed by Jose Prieto (as “Joseph” Prieto) and starring Eleanor Vaill (billed here as “Lee Holland”) as the titular lead, the town hussy who winds up setting her lustful sights on a young black man (Lewis Galen) with predictably horrendous results. Pushing at every boundary and taboo subject along the way, with black and white cinematography that perfectly captures the corn whiskey-stained patina of the town, Shanty Tramp has earned its place among the grimiest of all Southern Gothic melodramas.

But, like so many of the titles byNWR is focusing on, Shanty Tramp is a classic case of a legendary cult film neglected after initial release to the point of essentially disappearing in its original physical form. Its tiny distributor no longer exists, all major participants in the film are deceased, and the original negative is presumed lost. Indeed, for years, its direction has been mistakenly credited amongst its fans, pseudonymously, to exploitation maven Joseph P. Mawra (Chained Girls), but research has proved this rumor to be decisively false. Were it not for the dogged efforts of film collectors and exploitation video labels, it would surely have been all but forgotten in a cloud of confusion.

A worldwide search was conducted to collect the best extant 35mm materials on the film, only to discover that every known print was badly deteriorating from the dreaded acetate film affliction known as vinegar syndrome, which causes the plastic base of the film stock to shrink and buckle, eventually becoming unprojectable. Indeed, in the case of Shanty Tramp, it was discovered that one of the prints which had the least amount of scratches and missing footage suffered so severely from vinegar syndrome that it had to undergo months of arduous chemical treatment, at our partner laboratory in Bologna, Italy, Immagine Ritrovata, to make it pliable enough to even run through a scanner.

This shot of Emily curling her toes lasciviously after the near-rape in the back of the bar, and several surrounding shots, were missing from most previously-circulating versions of SHANTY TRAMP, probably due to enterprising projectionists hacking them out for private collections

But even with these drastic measures, poor Shanty was still so warped that the image and soundtrack had sections which “breathed” in and out like a hallucination, requiring yet more attempts at stabilization through careful frame-by-frame digital work. In the end, a certain amount of unavoidable evidence of deterioration still remains in some sequences, a sort of grim reminder of the fragility of the medium.

One of the more amusing discoveries

One of the more amusing discoveries made by The Restorationists as we tackled this project was the mysterious number of missing frames showing Eleanor Vaill in the nude on one of the three prints used for this current reconstruction. The careful excising of just some frames of her naked body – and a couple shots in their entirety – just didn’t quite resemble the regional censorship you sometimes find in circulating prints. It eventually became clear that these little cuts were the work of an enterprising projectionist, chopping out individual frames for his “private collection” (it was almost certainly a he.) Needless to say, we have made sure that all extant Eleanor Vaill has been preserved in this reconstruction.

Another interesting discovery as we dug into all of the sources for Shanty Tramp was the inescapable conclusion that somewhere along the line, the dialogue was slightly tamed to tone down the most extreme racist references to the Daniel Smith character, no matter which character utters a slur. No less than ten times in the film, careful viewers may note dialogue where a particular word beginning with “n” has either been snipped cleanly out of the soundtrack, or looped over in re-recorded dialogue. And these changes are uniform across every source print, baked into the original negative. Research has yet to indicate whether there was ever a released version which was more vile in tone, or whether a decision was made before the film was put out to the public to soften it, but some of the deletions make for awkward jump cuts, right in the middle of sequences. Arguably, these changes do reduce a certain cringe factor that might have pushed the film over a cliff for most audiences in a fraught period such as the late 1960s. Or today. Or any day. For a film completely devoid of sympathetic characters of any race, even Shanty Tramp had to draw the line somewhere.

Shanty Tramp also presents a somewhat unusual case for The Restorationists and byNWR, insofar as it is a bit of a work in progress. We have long been aware of the existence of at least one other 35mm print – possibly in very good physical condition – which was known to exist amongst private collectors within the past five years. Indeed, this print was being considered by another U.S. archive at one point as the basis for a restoration project that never came to fruition. Unfortunately, the breadcrumb trail on this print has led nowhere, as that print seemed to literally disappear into the ether – possibly shipped to Australia – after leaving the hands of that archive, which has no idea to whom it went after much intensive investigation on our behalf. Just another in a series of mysteries surrounding Shanty Tramp… but the dogged Preservationists aren’t giving up. We encourage anyone who might have leads on this, or any quality materials on this film, to contact byNWR. You might become part of this twisted tale.

Peter Conheim is a film curator and preservationist based in El Cerrito, California. He is also the co-founder of the performing group Wet Gate, which uses only “found footage” and 16mm film projectors to create a live cinema collage, sampling the sound from the film tracks in real time, as well as Mono Pause, a long-running “Situationist rock” group (and its Southeast Asian music spin-off, Neung Phak) and a member of “culture jamming” legends Negativland. His Cinema Preservation Alliance non-profit organization is dedicated to the long-term survival of endangered motion pictures of all stripes.