OUISVILLE, Ky.—There’s a reason why nobody watched Lady Street Fighter for forty years.
That’s how long it takes for a trainwreck to become a cult film.
Then, after Exploitation Archeology apparently became a major at Chico State, musty film cans started turning up in every arthouse from Calgary to Bogalusa, and humankind embarked on a quest for the worst movies ever made. But it wasn’t enough just to be poorly written, directed, or acted. To be a true Trainwreck, you needed an alternate universe so bizarre that it makes you question the sanity of the screenwriter. After our Junk Spelunkers got past the obvious titles — Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, Troll 2, The Giant Spider Invasion, Showgirls, The Room — rabid lovers of out-of-focus inanity kept digging down past the Neolithic genre films to the Paleo level, then further down to Trainwreck bedrock. Films that were never seen by a paying audience, or perhaps seen by a few alcoholics in raincoats for one week in grindhouses, were exhumed, given autopsies, and granted redemption by the most forgiving generation in the history of film: millennials. I sponsored one of these myself during the first season of The Last Drive-In on Shudder. We showed an indescribably complex 1990 film called Demon Wind that has since gained a sort of notoriety at midnight shows, not because it’s good, but because it forces you to ask the question What were they thinking?
My point is that every great Trainwreck film needs a good backstory. Here’s how Lady Street Fighter happened:
Renee Schweiger, who would eventually become the Lady Street Fighter, was a bosomy raven-haired German dancer who fell in love with U.S. Army Colonel Evert Harmon right after World War II and soon found herself in the bleak military outpost of Fort Bliss, just outside El Paso, where her husband ran the surface-to-air missile program. She’d abandoned a brief performing career in her native Mannheim, so to compensate she organized all the officers’ wives into a theatrical group and started producing plays that she would direct and star in. As soon as the Colonel retired, she coaxed him into moving to California so she could bulldoze into the movie industry — and that’s exactly what she did.
First she schmoozed her way into a job teaching acting and screenwriting at the College of the Sequoias in Visalia, California, despite having a German accent so thick she makes Marlene Dietrich sound like the Queen of England. Then, using her own makeshift version of Indiegogo, she started casting her films with a rate card. Her students paid to be in each movie — the more they paid, the larger the role — and she would write a screenplay based on the cast she ended up with. Of course, Renee Harmon was always the star — voluptuous, sometimes nekkid, in and out of lingerie and party dresses, tough, resourceful, usually a seductress — but the amount she raised from her classes, with a little tossed in by the Colonel, would determine her budget.
Lady Street Fighter is probably the best of the six movies she made this way, but that’s sort of like comparing the best fried-squirrel recipes in West Virginia. Thanks to a restoration of the last surviving print by the American Genre Film Archive, Renee Harmon is establishing a reputation as one of the few female exploitation-film pioneers, right up there with Doris Wishman and Roberta Findlay. (I’m tempted to add Stephanie Rothman, Rita Mae Brown, Amy Holden Jones, and Barbara Peeters to that list, but they made real movies. If you ask me how you draw the line between Trainwreck as compared to mere Low Budget, I have to resort to the exclamation of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart when asked to define pornography: I know it when I see it! Trainwrecks are not so much movies as cultural artifacts. It’s like those shows they do at the Museum of Modern Art featuring illiterate artists from Third World countries who have never seen another painting and never learned to draw. There’s a certain fascination with the sheer bravado of it, like watching a legless man dance.)
Lady Street Fighter, first released to theaters in 1977, was made possible by the low-rent bottom-feeding world of an El Lay indie-film community that ran from about 1967 to 1985. These were hustlers who put together projects for nickels and dimes — Roger Corman had blockbuster budgets in comparison — and they all used the same weapons when competing for screens in the summertime: a lot of nudity, a lot of violence, and a lot of wrecked cars to make up for scripts so thin they sometimes had to be padded to reach the requisite 72-minute running time. These projects were almost always marketing ploys — it was all about the title and the poster and the gunplay and the sex — and a lot of them were cooked up at Scottsound, a post-production studio in a converted trolley barn in a derelict part of Old Hollywood (on Santa Monica near Gower) where destitute filmmakers could get cheap equipment, cheap library music, and cheap labor. Fortunately Renee Harmon walked in there one day looking for a sound package, and that’s where she met Jim Bryan. Bryan would end up directing Renee Harmon’s masterpiece.
Bryan was a roustabout editor/cameraman/sound guy/production manager from East Texas who specialized in sound-alike music tracks—his ripoff of the main theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is used several times in Lady Street Fighter—and he happened to be working in a cramped bungalow at Scottsound on the day Renee Harmon showed up, finishing up his comedic ripoff of Kentucky Fried Movie called Boogievision. (Bryan would later achieve infamy as the director of the painfully inept Don’t Go in the Woods.) Harmon told Bryan she had $12,000 and a script — was that enough to make a movie called Deadly Games? Bryan, who once said “I can’t control the urge to make a bad movie,” immediately replied, “Yes you can, but you have to go along with my program.”
First he told her to change the title of the script from Deadly Games to Lady Street Fighter to take advantage of the martial arts craze of the mid-seventies that began with Bruce Lee and advanced through the Japanese yakuza-fighting films of Sonny Chiba, who broke out as a star in 1974 with Street Fighter and essentially played the same Dirty-Harry-type character for the next twenty years. Never mind that her script had no martial arts scenes — they would change every confrontation into a kung fu opportunity. Lady Street Fighter wasn’t so much an attempt to capitalize on the originalStreet Fighter as a wishful-thinking association with the films of Etsuko Shihomi, star of Sister Street Fighter, which was a spin-off of the Sonny Chiba series. Shihomi was a trained martial artist who had a long career in both films and television. Renee Harmon, on the other hand, had a few weeks to learn how to kick ass in a lace nightgown.
Fifty years old when the movie came out, Harmon added her kung fu teacher to the film as a heavy so that all her fight scenes were with him, and that resulted in just enough kickboxing to justify the tricked-out poster made to look like a Chiba film. (She Makes The Bad Guys Bleed!) More important, she was one of those monomaniacal go-getters who would do anything to get her movie made, including borrowing her husband’s car without permission so they could roll it into a canyon at the climax of a high-speed chase scene. She told Bryan to haul the car up out of the canyon so she could drive it back home to the clueless Colonel—and, remarkably, it still ran. All we know about the aftermath is that the Colonel was not amused.
Since Bryan and Harmon had no money for stars, they resorted to the old no-budget trick of hiring a relative of a movie star with the same last name. (Can’t get Natalie Wood? Hire Lana Wood. Can’t get Sylvester Stallone? Hire Sage Stallone. Can’t get Julia Roberts? Hire Lisa Roberts.) In this case they had two sound-alike stars—Jody McCrea, troubled son of the great Joel McCrea, and Trace Carradine, the least known Carradine family member. McCrea was coaxed out of retirement to give a leaden performance as the hitman/love interest/undercover FBI informant (I think) who rolls around on a bed with Harmon in one of the ickiest sex scenes ever filmed, then decks her with roundhouse punches that would embarrass Moe Howard. Trace Carradine, on the other hand, was summoned from the netherworld. Bryan had been told by a regional sub-distributor that he needed one more “name” actor if Bryan expected a contract. A few days later Bryan called the guy back and said, “Good news. We got Trace Carradine.” The distributor said okay and booked the film.
Of course, there is no actor named Trace Carradine. They just picked one of Renee Harmon’s students to assume the screen name of Trace Carradine. This is what you did in the Trainwreck Jungle of the seventies.
I’m hesitant to describe the plot of Lady Street Fighter, since it’s not really coherent in the first place and it wanders into so many bizarre sub-cultures and locations that I don’t really want to spoil the shock effect when you watch it, but I’ll just give you a few highlights.
During the opening titles, a nekkid woman is strapped to a table, strung up by her wrists and tortured to death with a blow-torch, a two-by-four and what looks like a pole-vault pole, while her tormentor repeatedly screams “Where is the dog?”
It turns out that this is the sister of our heroine, Renee Harmon, who is first seen striding through LAX with a plush-toy puppy sticking out of her voluminous purse while being ogled by every man she passes. A brother in a crocheted skullcap who looks like the guy you hire when Antonio Fargas is unavailable spies on her from a distance — the movie is full of various characters spying on her from a distance — and then uses a pay phone to call a pimp, who in turn orders her execution.
All this happens in the first four minutes—a virtue of shooting on actual film, which makes retakes impossible and cuts down on exposition—and this setup is the last time you’ll completely understand anything going on. Crocheted Skullcap Guy lures her to the parking garage, tries to throw her in front of a speeding car but gets rammed himself because of her fast-thinking kung fu move, creating a disjointed chase scene in which she swings from steel girders to avoid being run down by a pudgy bald guy driving the kill car. She uses a pistol to shoot both of her attackers — we think they’re dead but they come back in future scenes so I guess not — and steals the car they tried to kill her with.
Now we’re at the five-minute mark. We have yet to see
* the stiletto-loving kinky-haired drug-dealing hitman in mariachi outfits who says “Get it?” after every line of threatening dialogue
* the two-man escort service that provides girls with “special skills” for international assassination ring office parties
* the pasty-faced FBI chief searching for the “Master File” (we never find out what’s in the master file)
* the scene in which Renee Harmon lures an undercover agent into her web by licking the phone while she writhes on the bed (the agent somehow knows she’s licking the phone)
* the scene at a “go-go club” in which voluptuous Liz Renay, girlfriend of gangster Mickey Cohen, inmate at Terminal Island for refusing to cooperate with the Kefauver Commission, author of the book My First 2,000 Men, does the same burlesque act she performed for three decades
* multiple scenes at a Spanish mission full of paintings and statuary that seems to be the place you go whenever you want to have a gun battle
* the sequence in which she leads a bad guy on a high-speed chase down winding mountain roads and dirt lanes to a climax in which she bumps him off the road, waits for his car to be soaked in gasoline, flings a lit cigarette onto the wreck, causing an explosion, then laughs as he raises a middle finger that’s still burning
* the kung-fu-in-lingerie scenes (several)
* the bizarre soliloquy of Jody McCrea talking to the photo of the woman he loves, telling her he has to kill her because “You ran into a wall of brotherhood”
* the multiple times Renee Harmon gets interrupted in the shower
* the day-for-night-for-day-for-night cinematography
* various actors walking into scenes from various secret entrances brandishing weapons
* the undercover call girl scene where Renee Harmon goes to a toga party and licks a celery stalk repeatedly to attract the attention of the chief villain, then allows him to lick her feet, then grinds her high heel into his hand for erotic effect, then suddenly starts torturing him with a bullwhip while her eyes bulge out
* the aspiring hooker who puts herself up for sale in a crap game
* the multiple insert images of the cork being popped off a champagne bottle while people are having kinky sex
* girls on dog leashes
* the developmentally disabled hottie with the mind of a five-year-old who skips through scenes and whines
* the off-road dune-buggy-type vehicle that joins a car chase for no apparent reason, then leaves it just as abruptly
* the slowest kung fu fight in history between Renee Harmon, her breasts bulging out of a leopard-skin swimsuit, and Jody McCrea, who either loves her or wants to kill her or both, depending on his mood
* the sniper-in-a-flyover-aircraft scene in which two thugs call in reinforcements
. . . and I’ve only given you about a third of the WTF moments.
So here’s the bottom line on Lady Street Fighter:
First of all, the guys at the American Genre Film Archive in Austin are to be commended for finding the print, restoring it, releasing it and making sure it’s remembered. Movies like this aren’t likely to be noticed by the Library of Congress if they drop off the face of the earth, and that’s a real possibility since they only survive in print collections that end up in some bankrupt sub-distributor’s warehouse. A film like Lady Street Fighter may not have had more than 20 prints to begin with, because these films were typically released region by region. It could take two years for a Trainwreck to make its way all the way around the country, one week at a time, one market at a time.
(By the way, if you believe in the AGFA mission, go to their website and send them a little coin. It’s a non-profit organization that gets most of its operating budget from theatrical film rentals, and of course that business went to zero when the coronavirus lockdown happened. AGFA was founded in 2009 by my buddy Tim League, founder of Alamo Drafthouse, as a way to preserve 35-millimeter and 16-millimeter films that were disappearing through sheer neglect.)
The AGFA DVD of Lady Street Fighter also includes the sequel, which was called either Return of Lady Street Fighter or Revenge of Lady Street Fighter, depending on which print showed up in South Korea, the only country where it was released. There’s no reason to watch the sequel, however, because it was one of those classic exploitation ruses where you film 20 minutes of framing footage and use that to rearrange the sequences from the first movie. Lady Street Fighter is incomprehensible, but Revenge of Lady Street Fighter is incomprehensible told backwards.
Jim Bryan himself is interviewed at his home in Lufkin, Texas, on the commentary track, but it’s one of those commentary tracks where they don’t really pay any attention to what’s going on in the movie and so we’re left with a lot of tantalizingly unanswered questions, such as:
- Did they really film at one of the original 21 Spanish missions in California? Did they have permission to stage gunfight scenes there?
- Did Renee Harmon believe her prolonged tongue-soaking of the celery stalk—in more than one scene—was making her character sexy or diabolical?
- Bryan says at one point that the toga party was a trend in Hollywood at the time, along with “Crisco parties,” in which the participants presumably smeared Crisco all over their nekkid bodies in what I can only imagine was an early version of nude mud wrestling. But he said filming Crisco parties was problematic for filmmakers because the Crisco tended to turn rancid—begging the question, Where are all these movies where he filmed Crisco parties and what are the titles? Bryan used the name “Morris Deal” when he shot porn, but the only movie he mentions is a hippie programmer about politics called The Dirtiest Game.
- The interviewers talk about Jody McCrea’s performance and his reputation as “Bonehead” in the Beach Party movies but don’t even mention his famous father, the Hitchcock favorite Joel McCrea, who would have been co-starring with Barbara Stanwyck and Mariam Hopkins the year Jody was born!
- Even worse, Bryan tells a story about Jody McCrea having a psychotic breakdown in the middle of filming after taking some powerful recreational drugs and spending time in a mental hospital that refused to let him out to shoot his scenes. (Yes, Bryan begged the hospital director to release him so they could finish the film.) When McCrea finally did come back, his mother insisted on being on the set at all times, never more than a few feet away from her son, because she had to make sure he didn’t take any more drugs. What’s not mentioned is that his mother was Frances Dee, who goes back to the 1920s and the great Josef von Sternberg film An American Tragedy. You had the equivalent of Hollywood royalty doing addiction-recovery duty on this ten-cent movie, and the irony was apparently lost on Bryan and both of his interviewers.
- Why did Renee Harmon want Liz Renay’s striptease act in her movie?
- Bryan says he traded sound-alike music libraries with Bill Rebane, director of The Giant Spider Invasion and the Tiny Tim classic Blood Harvest, but this rather fascinating deal between two denizens of the deep is not explored any further.
- Bryan says one of his favorite movies was his fellow Texan Gordon McLendon’s Attack of the Killer Shrews, begging the question, Did these two guys know each other? There are only three Trainwreck Era directors from Texas — McLendon, Bryan, and Larry Buchanan, of Naughty Dallas, Curse of the Swamp Creature, and Mars Needs Women fame. It would be interesting to know if these guys were pals.
- Why not ask Bryan why some kind of dune buggy joins in on a high-speed chase for no apparent reason, then leaves the chase for no apparent reason?
Still, the stories that Bryan does tell are priceless. His soundman on the movie was a former private detective — “that’s how he learned to do sound” — who was pressed into duty as the resident firearms expert, teaching Harmon how to hold her weapons and how to shoot. While Bryan was shooting the torture scene, Don Coscarelli was in the room next door at Scottsound editing Kenny and Company. And the mansion used to represent Mr. Big’s residence had pet lions living in the basement.
Renee Harmon and Jim Bryan would collaborate a couple more times, on a biker film called Hell Riders and a serial killer movie called The Executioner, Part II (there was no part one), but Jody McCrea would retire to a cattle ranch in Roswell, New Mexico, and never act again. Jim Bryan’s money job for many years was working for Sunn Classics in Salt Lake City, the infamous four-wall company that made fake docs like In Search of Historic Jesus, but he was also responsible for the sound design on many eighties classics like Wolfen, Return of Swamp Thing, and Chopper Chicks in Zombietown. To pay the bills, he continued to direct porn, but it was always goofy porn (Sex Aliens, Bizarre Encounters, Whatever Turns You On, Thanks for the Mammories).
Renee Harmon would also write more than a dozen books. Half of them were “how to” tomes on low-budget filmmaking and the rest were murder mysteries. But perhaps nothing else in her long career compares to the many sex scenes she wrote, including this bedroom chat from Lady Street Fighter:
Pollitt: You look delicious. Think I’ll have you for lunch. Wonder if it should be a morner or a nooner?
Linda: What’s a morner?
Pollitt: That’s a nooner only sooner.
Linda: Hmm . . . and what’s a nooner?
Pollitt: That’s a matinee in the middle of the day.
The result of this erotic exchange is that Linda agrees to go away for a wild weekend at Pollitt’s Malibu beach house.
But my favorite Renee Harmon story, which Bryan alludes to on the commentary track, involves the Colonel. Apparently her husband was very demanding and always got his way — which is one reason they lived three hours away from El Lay in rural Tulare County. (Harmon’s achievements are even more impressive when you calculate the six-hour commute.) The Colonel had a favorite hunting dog, and when the dog died, he had him cremated. He saved the ashes because he loved the dog so much he wanted to be buried with him. But when the Colonel finally did pass away in 2005, the officials at the San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery said it was against military policy to place animal ashes in a soldier’s grave. Renee Harmon died one year later, at the age of 79, and she instructed her children to cremate her body but to secretly mix the dog’s ashes with her own. That meant that when her ashes were placed in the same grave with her husband, he got to be reunited with the dog as well.
She may have totaled his car, because that was in the service of Art, but she was taking care of her Colonel right to the end.
Since 1982, Joe Bob Briggs has been the drive-in movie critic of Grapevine, Texas. Season 2 of The Last Drive-In with Joe Bob Briggs premieres on April 24, only on Shudder.