Three young Northerners travel down to the deep South city of Caron’s Landing for Civil Rights improvement on voter registration. Their convertible is pulled over by two sleazy deputies with a hankering to stick the activists with trumped-up charges and accost them with an official arrest that forces them to be before a drunk, aggressive named Sheriff Sonny Lew Wymer, Carson Landing’s very own unofficial head of the municipality between his unwavering loyal kin and those in his pocket with blackmail to gain an indefinite number of favors, for swift money-mulcting and to be the victims of Sonny Lew’s judge, jury, and execution sentencing of segregated injustice. An onslaught of abusive authority sends the lone woman of the three activists to do hard labor on a black chain gang and as she attempts to escape, she must survive Sonny Lew’s hound-led manhunt with intent to shoot-to-kill.
Hard to believe that we still live in a society where the surface level racism has improved over the centuries but systemic racism remains a vein-slithering and venomous asp prevalent still in not only public society but in education, justice system, and, well, just about everywhere you can think of and films like Jerry Gross’s “Girl on a Chain Gang,” though ostentatiously sleazy and exploitative as the title sounds, would still ring smidgens of truth profoundly, yet subtly, engrained across the nation even though the Gross’s film was released over half a century ago in 1966 when that pure hatred and ugliness was at peak efficiency, especially in the deep Southern U.S. The producer from New York City who promoted “I Drink Your Blood” and “Son of Dracula,” with Ringo Starr nonetheless, found a knack in presenting exploitation in his directorial feature debut – “Girl on a Chain Gang.” Originally called “Bayou” before a title and script rework, the Dan Olsen original story was penned by Gross and shot more locally to the auteur in Long Island, New York. Nicholas Demetroules cowrote the edgy-for-its-time script full of malversation under the Jerry Gross Productions banner with a logo that looks the hell of a lot like Warner Brothers.
Part of “Girl on a Chain Gang’s” suffocating sleaze success is due in part to William Watson’s rotten-to-the-core, corruption performance as the devilishly intelligent and despicable Sheriff, Sonny Lew. The “It’s Alive III” actor, who made a name for himself in indie westerns as mostly playing a character on the wrong side of the law, debuted his forte into villainhood affairs with this particular Jerry Gross production by portraying an alcoholic lawman with dirt on the most townsfolk of Carson’s Landing and can persuade them like pawns or like lemmings to exact his will. Watson’s good at what he molds for the cigar chewing Sonny Lew by never letting up his foot off the lewdness gas pedal that drifts around internal state investigations into his distortion of the law and even around his own cronies and county bumpkins with secret banter codes that’s clear to them but ambiguous to the naked understanding. The three young northerners are chosen to reflect the stereotypical justifications to be oppressed by racists eyes just for the way they look in skin and in dress despite their education and suitable for society behavior. Because one man is African American and the other two whites consort with him, the activists become relentlessly targeted by the bigoted brigade led by Sonny Lew, colluded his deputies (Ron Charles and Peter Nevard), the town drunk (Matt Reynolds), the see-nothing, do nothing bar own (James Harvey), and the unlicensed town doctor (Phillip Vanyon) who is too frightened of Sonny Lew to act on his conscious. The woman in the mix, Jean (Julie Ange, “Teenage Mother”) reduces down to being the principal object of exploitation inside the story as the titular girl in the chain gang and out being given illusionary promises of future leading lady roles by Gross yet that undertaking never fleshed out. Between Watson and Ange, a genuine baseline of power over someone else is greatly disturbing and not terribly far from reality. Most of the other performances are a bit ostentatiously cliched regarding small town Southerners complete with cowboy hats, being sloppy drunkards, and take with a gimmicky draw. The cast rounds out with Arlene Farber (“Two Girls for a Madman”) as the town floozy, Sam Cutter as Sonny Lew’s public defender uncle and, also including, Ron Segal, Henry Baker, Horace Bailey, Wolf Landsman, Earl Leake, and Richard Antony.
For 1966, “Girl on a Chain Gang” is pretty dark. Of course, some explicit and taboo subject material that were not acceptable to show on screen back then must be read between the lines, but nonetheless, there’s enough icky and sordid personalities to get your blood boiling and your palms sweaty because of how purely contentious these themes can strike at the heart of a morally conscious soul. The hammy acting in the second half almost makes a joke out of the context and one can become caught up and lost in the blinding caricatures spouting off ridiculous renditions of the ignorant South population that isn’t supposed to have one funny bone in its body. Though the title is eye-catching and provocative, “Girl on a Chain Gang” is selling more sexism than racism. Jean is only shackled with the chain gang for the last 10-minutes or so, just enough time for a whipmaster’s disparaging remarks to be heard and for two black men to form an escape plan. The title doesn’t speak to much of the three Northerners as a whole being subjected to bigot atrocities and without reading the back cover, you’d think the 95-minute runtime would be entirely a woman in prison film of this poor and young fresh meat working the pickaxe, sweating, and chained to a row of harden convicts with both convict and guard having their way against her will. No. Jerry Gross knew how to market this film, to catch people’s attention, by selling savage social representation as dressed sexploitation.
The Film Detective and Something Weird Video unearthed the Jerry Gross debut long thought to be inspired by the murder of three civil rights activists in Mississippi in 1964 and gave it the special edition Blu-ray treatment. A well-preserved transfer is now cleaned-up eye-candy for a high-definition look this black and white feature presented in now the fairly archaic 1.37:1 aspect, aka Academy, ratio with only a few lingering thin scratch marks throughout. Trust me, we’ve seen far worse transfers and the scratches here are evident but only if you’re keeping an eye out for them. The high contrast and detail offer a good, delineated view of events on average, pulling an average of approx. 20 Mbps. Certain exterior scenes are poorer than others with a slightly more washed brightness. The English language DTS track wavers between a muted mono and a lossy 2.0 with the dialogue suffering the most and so will you know if you’re not wearing headphones as you’ll be up-and-down on the volume of your remote control. There’s a rife static hissing that does random clean up from time-to-time. The audio tracks are clearly unstable whereas the video files have fared better with Hi-Def upgrade. The not rated disc does come with bonus features including software material of a short history from genesis-to-death on Jerry Gross hosted by film historian Chris Poggiali and hardware material in the form a 14-page essay booklet by Something Weird Video’s head-honcho Lisa Petrucci and a novelty ticket of certification of jury service where you can fill in your own name to state you sat in judgement and witnessed the trail of “The People of Caron’s Landing vs. Miss Jean Rollins.” “Girl on a Chain Gang” abstracts only a fraction of deep-cutting prejudice but that makes this roughie old-timer no less important and still remains satisfyingly excessive in its violence.