Spectral Jayne Mansfield in Newark: Single Room Furnished (1966/1968)

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It’s like 24 Edward Hoppers per second as Jayne Mansfield takes a late-night urban stroll here. I’d love to locate this scene in Newark, to use it as an argument for a romantic approach to the city that is almost never taken by its various cultural representations. IMDB even lists a sole location for Single Room Furnished, and it’s the ol’ NWK.

Alas, I don’t think this is Newark. Single Room has a convoluted production history, sutured into the very structure of its bizarre opening, in which one distributor logo (Crown International, they of the delightful “drive-n cult classics” full of suburban lust and ennui, and occasional straight-up surrealism) is followed by an awkward introduction from the ever-slimy Walter Winchell (!!), and then after that another logo, before the opening credits.

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Most of the film is a mutating kitchen-sink drama in which Mansfield plays three roles, or perhaps rather some multifaceted Eternal Feminine thing of the sort that always seems to be projected by male authors: a working-class teenager, a sultry Southern belle gone to seed, and what kinda seems like Mandy Moore circa 2004.

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All of this transpires in the settiest of all sets, a series of drab sterile backdrops conspicuous only in their lifelessness, like the movie was shot after hours at a third-rate TV studio with most of the set props locked in storage. Which, maybe it was (it was based on a play, and remains trapped in stage-to-screen stiffness); as far as I can put together the backstory, it was filmed in 1966 but interrupted by Mansfield’s tragic auto-accident death, after which it was clumsily padded out with . . .

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. . . a nearly unbearable 20-minute sequence at Port Newark.

I was so excited to hit verifiable Newark, and a rarely filmed section of the city too, that I jammed a five-minute clip from this into the Newark Movie Mixtape last year, and you could feel it suck the life out of the crowd. Charlie and Flo, two characters who bear the narrative weight of having suddenly and jarringly displaced Jayne Mansfield mid-movie, make painfully awkward and protracted attempts at flirtation with a level of ineptitude unseen since my own adolescence.

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Highlights include Charlie qualifying a statement about the effects of saltwater on the skin with “not that you got a leathery face, Flo, not at all.” When they make goo-goo eyes over the question of whether fish stink, he notes, “maybe we don’t smell so good to them either.” “I bet you coulda been a poet,” Flo swoons. Well, maybe a guest on Dr. Demento, at least.

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We reach a fever pitch of desire when Flo asks, “Charlie, where do clouds come from?” It’s like Marty crossed with the Insane Clown Posse’s “Miracles.”

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In any case, the film’s Newark coverage is limited to the port, Newark Bay Bridge in the background, and “Rock Point,” which I’m not sure about. Later Charlie and Flo try a date, sort of, at which she gifts him…

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…a dead fish. Which does indeed stink. “Guess it defosted in my purse,” Flo sheepishly explains. I got nothin’.

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I won’t spoil the outcome of their blossoming smelly romance, but at one point Mansfield walks by. Or rather “Mansfield,” since it’s like a less convincing version of the posthumous Bruce Lee in Game of Death, head turned rigorously away from camera, driving home the space between Jayne Mansfield and the Newark shooting (though Mansfield herself was a regular in town back in the 50s, before urban renewal razed the swinging nightlife scene she partook of with Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Gleason, Abbot & Costello and other stars, as documented in Michael Immerso’s book about Newark’s Little Italy, the “Vanished First Ward”).

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This is where things get a bit unclear to me–even Wikipedia can’t piece together the film’s chronology, claiming it was briefly released in 1966, pulled, then “officially” distributed in 1968, in one of those classic “citation needed” moments. I assume it was doctored in the interim, with the Newark stuff crammed in; this shot sure looks posthumous. It’s presumably a solvable question, but not one I have the mojo for right now (further info welcomed, BTW).

Things get all intense, or at least tragic, back in the star’s narrative, after this grueling interlude. We even get a gun.

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Then it’s finally over—a long 93 minutes.

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Though poor Mansfield would of course depart the Silver Screen with her untimely passing, director Matteo Ottaviano, something of a grindhouse Gatsby, would refashion himself Matt Cimber and leave a zany cinematic legacy. We’re done with Newark here, but if you’ll indulge me a quick survey:

After Single Room Furnished, he first helped bring hardcore pornography to American screens, with some of the pioneering “white-coaters,” Man and Wife and He and She (both 1970). I find the genre unspeakably dull, but it was a necessary framework in establishing the (totally non-prurient!) “socially redeeming value” that obscenity doctrine of the era mandated. From there, Cimber backslid into softcore, with a now-lost 1971 VD-comedy (!) adaptation of La Ronde that’s documented on the always-reliable Temple of Schlock. Another lost film (maybe never finished) from a few years later brought Harrad Experiment author Robert Rimmer back to the screen. But by then, Cimber had moved into the blaxploitation market, like Candy Tangerine Man (1975), tale of a Hollywood pimp with a double life as a middle-class suburbanite, which has fantastic location shooting in the dirty old Sunset Strip and would make a great double-bill with The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (which was shot right down the street and nearly concurrently, in what Cimber calls “sleazetown” in an interesting little interview).

His dreamlike 1975 psychological horror film The Witch Who Came from the Sea has striking scenes of female desire that still leave a certain breed of grindhouse-lulz bros uncomfortable (I walked out of a screening at Exhumed’s annual 12-hour marathon a few years ago when the opening scene of Millie Perkins seriously scoping out exercising men on the beach generated too many loud yuks from the crowd, who were clearly going to watch it as camp and thus kill its mood; still irritated by that–and from a generally respectful crowd, too, which is hard to read as anything but an expression of some gendered dude-anxieties {which the film helps amplify–the beach scene is merely a start}). Definitely recommended.

Anyway, by the 1980s Cimber took a turn for the turgid—dreary fantasy/action flicks, and a drab bid for the mainstream with the Mario Puzo adaptation A Time to Die (1982), which has all the panache of a TV miniseries and a score that Ennio Morricone might have composed in his sleep. I will rep for the notorious Stacey Keach/Pia Zadora/Orson Welles incest bomb Butterfly (1982), which I can’t help but enjoy (based on a James Cain novel, after all), and also the same year’s pairing of Zadora and Telly Savalas go-nowhere Vegas flick Fake-Out (Nevada Heat in its dollar-store DVD incarnation), an unlikely remake of Cimber’s own blaxploitation film Lady Cocoa (1975).

At a certain point, Cimber turned his attention to TV, where he created GLOW, the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, before returning to film for the 2006 Holocaust drama Miriam, which earned a few unfavorable reviews (check the opening line at the Village Voice!), before apparently disappearing from the face of the earth (yes, I tried to see it; probably for the best that I failed).

And to think that it all began (sort of) in Newark!

Postscript: this film seemed to haunt me for a while, as when I went into a random South Philly thrift store last year and saw this. RIP, Ms. Mansfield, clearly you left a mark on this world…

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