Joe Marzano, Lew Waldeck, Lou Campa, George Weiss and…
By Nathan Schiff
Above: Joe Marzano (holding camera), Barbara Ellen and Beverly Baum in Cool it, Baby; click to enlarge.
.Contrary to what’s listed in the opening credits, the picture was not directed by Campa. (On the posters and publicity, the nonexistent ‘Louis Champion’ is credited.) Marzano was asked if he’d like to do it, but declined when told that the camera (for whatever reason) needed to remain stationary on the tripod. The film ultimately had no director, and screenwriter Lou Palisano delivered an unfinished script which was fleshed out by Marzano. Joe stayed on as an actor and directed some sequences, Waldeck directed others, and Campa reportedly lounged on a sofa throughout. Few of them cared about who got credit for what, Joe later recalled, because they simply had fun doing it, feeling as if they were making a Monogram or PRC picture back in the 40’s. Cool It Baby opens as a no-frills blackmail melodrama, with static introductory footage (the camera’s nailed to the floor) accompanied by a droning narration. But it develops into a Rashomon courtroom drama, as characters relate their testimony through flashback. With each story comes a new character, and consequently the scenario ingeniously dovetails sadism, white slavery, vice, Satanic rituals, suicide and murder, while the dialog gradually amplifies to a crazed state of delirium. (Joe claimed that George Weiss acted as a kind of technical advisor during the S&M scenes, by coaching an actress how to beat someone realistically.) Against all odds, the picture’s a success. Other than help write and direct it, Marzano brought most of the cast onboard himself. All of which impressed Campa, who entrusted Joe with $10,000 for another picture; and Joe, given his proclivity for the classics, thought Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novel, Venus in Furs, would make ideal sexploitation. At first glance, the film is a professional and artistic advance over Cool It, Baby. Now able to control the lighting, Joe was also free to experiment with the photography, and had two cameras at his disposal. With Lew Waldeck off shooting another picture, George Cirello stepped in as cinematographer, but Marzano did a lot of the photography himself. He brought back several of his friends from the earlier cast, and completed the post-production work, editing and sound mix on his own — taking a tremendous burden off producer Campa. Given that money and a five-day shooting schedule, Joe got together with his friend Barbara Ellen to write the screenplay. The first dialogue sequence follows the novel verbatim, but after that the only connection between the book and the film is the title. Hired to make sexploitation, Joe instead seized the opportunity to put his personal demons and desires, pent-up disillusionments, failed relationships and fetishes all on 35mm for worldwide distribution, using Venus in Furs (1967) to create an art film that sacrifices boobs for Bergman. For an idea of how pretentious and self-indulgent it gets, Joe, playing a supporting character, wrote more dialogue for himself than the two leads, and keeps the camera fixed on himself during a very awkward dinner table recitation of Oscar Wilde. (The scene may have been intended as an homage to Welles’s “Marx wasn’t a German, Marx was a Jew” diatribe in The Stranger, but here it’s a digression without purpose.) Add to this an interminable part with a woman taking a milk bath, plus the unexpected obstacle Joe faced when trying to wheedle his ‘Venus’ out of her clothes. Barbara Ellen was having problems with her husband at the time, and felt that doing nude scenes would stir up trouble at home. Incidentally, Joe’s first choice to play Venus was the young Warhol actress Mary Woronov, who appeared in Chelsea Girls a year earlier. Although she’d expressed interest in doing it, Joe decided against hiring Mary because the Warhol crew had a reputation for being unreliable. In retrospect, casting her as Venus would’ve been inspired.
.Perhaps puzzled by what Joe was filming or jealous of the attention he’d been getting, Campa began interfering and economizing. He wanted to change the title from Venus in Furs to the senseless “Cherished Women.” For a scene set on the grand stairway outside the New York Public Library, Joe had a Fellini-esque vision of dozens of girls running toward the camera. Campa agreed and lined up the talent, but on the day of the shoot he arrived with just three women. (After making a few phone calls, Joe rounded up two more for a total of five.) As Cool It Baby had lap dissolves and fades, Joe wanted to use these effects but Campa refused to pay for them. He also wouldn’t allow Joe to shoot some necessary expository scenes, and instead had him pad a rambling, un-erotic orgy sequence. And when the film was completed, Joe, realizing Campa would try to shaft him, threatened to destroy the picture unless he got paid. Despite its shortcomings, Venus in Furs is a fascinating example of an artist at odds with exploitation, commerce, and mainstream values. If placed alongside some of his best work of the 50’s and 60’s — Erostratus, When They Sleep, You Or I, Hang Up, Man Outside — a portrait emerges of creative genius depressed by stifling business and financial concerns. Given the opportunity and freedom, Joe could have easily been a respected, major American filmmaker. Eventually released on DVD, Cool It, Baby and Venus in Furs were joined on a single disc by a picture which was written, produced and directed by Lou Campa, Miniskirt Love (1967). Its thin plot concerned with an aunt seducing her thirteen-year-old nephew (played by a guy in his thirties), it’s sloppy, inept and artless. The DVD distributor would have done better by instead digging up C. Davis Smith’s surprisingly morose To Turn a Trick (1967), in which Joe Marzano acted and worked on the sound. (While it’s Smith’s best film, he’s said he has no recollection of making it!) Campa made a few more of these (with titles like Sock It to Me, Baby) before his descent into mob-financed hardcore. Joe, on the other hand, never directed in 35mm again. Making the rounds, he met with the sexploitation distributors Sam Lake and Joseph Brenner, and used Man Outside as an audition to no avail. He photographed Lloyd Michael Williams’s experimental Line of Apogee (1968), and worked as an assistant director on Jack Glenn’s unreleased House of the Seven Gables (1967). He even went back to Campa and sold him a script called The Leather Girls, about an all-girl biker gang that may have been sparked by Russ Meyer’s Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (and predated Herschell Gordon Lewis’s She Devils on Wheels by a year). Campa never shot it, but Joe made an abbreviated version in the late 70’s in super-8mm. He continued in super-8 with Pounds Of Love (1980), a Hugo Haas-style feature about an overweight, insecure man driven mad by a young, attractive girl. But even super-8 became unaffordable, and Joe went on to make a proliferation of short films on videotape up until his untimely death in the summer of 2000. Just weeks before, he’d finished another short. Passionate and dedicated to the end, Joe could never stop filming.
Above: Trailers for Venus In Furs and Cool It, Baby, both narrated by Joe Marzano.
Text copyright © Nathan Schiff