American province. External. Thirties. Zoom on a car that runs on
the road. Focus on the driver: Dwain Esper. Focus on the passenger: a
woman called Hildegarde Stadie. Focus on the load of the car: a circus
tent, bizarre promotional items, an embalmed corpse and other things.
If you want you can put the police chasing the car.
This is a possible daily scene perfect as the beginning of a movie
about the life of Dwain Esper and dear madam Hildegarde Stadie. Believe
us, they deserve a movie about them. Because these two were two amazing
cinema personalities. Cunning, wangler, the link between the
exhibitions, circus and cinema, as well as being the
exploitation’s father and the mother.
After all Esper called himself “The King of the celluloid
gypsies". And this is his, or rather their crazy story. A story often
obscure and little known to the general audience.
Dwain Esper born in 1893 in the state of Washington and worked as a
barker at exhibitions around the United States, although some say that
instead he was a successful building contractor. We like more the first
version and is almost certainly that he met at one exhibition his
future wife Hildegarde Stadie. Some sources report that also Hildegarde
wanders around the States. She is the grandson of a peddler of
"miraculous" medicines and apparently one of the numbers she was naked,
with a python on her shoulders.
The two meet, fall in love and get married. Esper in the early thirties
buys almost by accident a small production company in debt and then has
an incredible and damned intuition.
Although we are in the years of the Great Depression and people do not
have enough to live on, he understand that if you propose sensational
stories people went to see them.
It is the beginning of a long series of productions, re-editing and
distribution of movies that put the audience in front to the great
dangers and shocking (for the period well of course). Well, if you not
yet understood, the two had no moralizing or educational intentions,
but only to gain as much as possible. And here is the link between the
exhibitions, circus and cinema. Because their movie were not intended
for theaters, but were show in small tents placed in the remotest towns
of the province, often without permits, with the authorities that
realized the fact some time after the show or just in time to chase
two. The places were decorated as exhibition with promotional posters
and later also the mummified corpse of Elmer McCurdy, an American
robber, whose corpse has been used by different people for commercial
purposes. But it's another crazy story.
The "circus Esper" officially begins in 1932 with "The Seventh
Commandment" written by Hildegarde and directed by Dwain and is the
first warning to the population of the two, to the young, to be exact.
This movie is about adultery. Unfortunately the film has disappeared
into thin air.
But it is with "Narcotic" of 1933 that our starts to show their talent.
Ok, the idea will be a bit 'weird but is of great impact. Dwain Esper
buys and exhibits the corpse of McCurdy saying that the visible
problems of the skin of the corpse are due to drug. "Narcotic" wants to
prove, in fact, that the drug can ruin the life and career of anyone.
The protagonist Dr. William G.Davies from excellent and promising
doctor who can save lives end up in drugs traffic that ruins his life,
reaching the apotheosis with a party-based drug that disrupts, in
different ways, all the people.
Esper leaves for some time drug theme, throwing himself in morality
with "Modern Motherhood" (1934). The film is about a couple who must
decide whether to abort or keep the child.
Then, inspired by "The Cat" by Edgar Allan Poe he tries horror genre.
"Maniac" of 1934 is a shocking film, dark and with really shocking
scenes, dealing with mental illness. Perhaps an attempt to raise the
level but it fails miserably. The audience of Esper prefers scandals.
So in 1937 he released "Marihuana" another movie about drug and that
anticipates the first Esper’s "cult", "Reefer Madness." We talk
more about it in our review, but this film is the classic lucky trash
movie that remains forever in history of cinema.
In 1936 a clergyman group asks to the French director Louis Joseph
Gasnier to shot a movie about marijuana considered at the time, the
public enemy. "Tell your children" is the title. Sometime later, Esper
acquires the movie, makes some changes and changes the title to "Reefer
Madness." And here's a dramatic story about how a couple of drug
dealers ruined life to brilliant student Bill Harper, to his girlfriend
and friends. Among murder victims, states of hallucination and
repentances "Reefer Madness" is for us a brilliant (unintentional)
comedy that after having been forgotten for years, is recovered in the
seventies by activist pro marijuana Keith Stroup and politician Karl
Rove that, for different reasons, begin to show it. In 2004, "20th
Century Fox" release the DVD
"How to take a bath", "How to undress in front of your husband" are two
short "educational" as title suggest that anticipate with "The march of
crime" another masterpiece by Dwain Esper: "Sex Madness". Similar to
"Reefer Madness", this film written by Hildegarde, facing the viewers
to the terrible fate for those who have a life too libertine. Syphilis,
the disease famous at the time is in the center of the story. Millicent
Hamilton from the province move to New York in search of success but
she end in the classic bad crowd. She fall ill (syphilis of course) she
comes back home and infected her husband and their future son. Esper
inserts scenes on medical illness and even erotic moments.
Esper's career still has two more shots, coming after the Second World
War. "Curse Of The Ubangi" of 1946 and especially "Will It Happen
Again?" of 1948 real, Esper’s attempt to teach something about
the Nazism. Then he disappears from the scene, apparently live a quiet
life with his wife and children until 1982, year in which he dies.
Hildegarde Stadie died eleven years later.
A bizarre career, daring for the times and we should also remember
other films bought and redistributed, as the Scandinavian film
"Sången om den eldröda blomman" (with Esper became "Man's
Way with Women”), the exotic "Angkor" of 1935 a distant ancestor
of the Mondo Movie or "Hell-A-Vision" re-editing of the Italian
"L’inferno di Dante".
But the most surprising title is "Freaks". Yes "Freaks". That infamous
masterpiece that ruined the life of legendary director Tod Browning.
And this is the story of Dwain Esper and his wife Hildegarde Stadie. A
series of adventures that bring out a question: "Why did Ed Wood was
honored, and it is a cult director and Esper (but also others) has been
forgotten by modern cinema?".
Good question. The most plausible answer, is that Wood's films have
trash and crazy aura in those of Esper are unintentionally comic
but with a gloomy and heavy atmosphere that leads them to only be bad
movies. But we hope the same to see a film about Dwain Esper.