A friend of mine once said, as we were discussing Ed Wood’s porn films, that they were sad not only because Wood was reduced to making them at the end of his life to support his drinking, but also because it was almost impossible to be aroused by them. As this thought crossed my mind while watching over four hours of Irving Klaw’s 8mm loops, I was not inspired by the films themselves, which have an odd, almost poignant charm, and certainly give the viewer a window into a simpler time, when it did not take much to arouse the boys at the VFW hall.
Can we say we live in a better time, with everything now so explicit? What would Klaw think? This four-DVD set of the loops Klaw produced in the 1950’s, for grindhouses as well as for various “Stag” circuits, hold up as a peek into a more innocent time, when, nevertheless, people – okay, men – still needed a visual fix. Each volume features a different preoccupation: fetish films, female wrestling, dancing/stripping, and a certain cultural icon.
Of course, his main claim to fame is producing many of the short films that made Betty Page a fetish superstar. Her happy and ironic, yet somehow dominant, persona really makes her stand out, and not only in comparison to the other women Klaw used. Her personality comes through on solo films, whether she is dancing, stripping, topless, and playing peek-a-boo with a wagon wheel (a short that still holds erotic power) – or, most oddly and probably scarring in a Freudian sense, stripping for the benefit of a wooden, or plastic, wizard type doll. I couldn’t help but look at that film and picture a window into the freakish private life of the gnome in those cheap ticket commercials. Nevertheless, Betty Page had a certain something, and it draws one to her to this day. Her independence and sense of humor, as well as her strong sexuality, give her films a power that is always captivating.
The wrestling films are the next most interesting set. Featuring models such as Jackie Lens, Peggy Leer, Honey Baer, and Nora Connors, these are innocent romps, apparently conducted in a motel room – we see only the occasional couch, and that ever-present velvet curtain behind the women. The ladies seem to all be having, if a bit awkwardly, a good time, as they roll around on the floor in their bras and slips and pretend to spank and face-slap each other. A two-part short in which two women shoot each other with squirt guns is almost post-modern, prefiguring Richard Kern by a good thirty years, and retains some erotic appeal. Again, the relative lack of eroticism in instructive for today’s viewer, as it makes one think about how the nature of what turns us on has changed, or how the options for being turned on have changed.
The dancing disc is pure cheesecake tease, the type likely to found in the flesh in strip clubs at the time. The fetish disc is little more than a series of negligees and corsets wrapped around women parading in them and is the least energetic of the set. The women still seem to be having fun but are a more sheepish and tentative than in the other sets.
Overall, this is a worthy set to have, not only for its historic value, but also its humanity. Irving Klaw was responsible for a genre that helped to further the history of sexual cinema. He also respected the women in his films (even when putting them in silly situations for the purpose of men’s ogling), whose dignity, humor, and humanity were every bit as arousing as their bared skin.