Cult-movie auteur John Waters, who turns 70 today, generally makes his living these days as an author, artist, and public speaker. Not counting 2015’s Kiddie Flamingos, a filmed table read of his 1972 classic Pink Flamingos, this time with an all-kid cast, the one-time Prince Of Puke has not made a feature film since 2004. On his birthday, then, it might be nice to go back to those crude black-and-white films he made in the late 1960s and early 1970s, back when he was still establishing himself as a filmmaker. These movies contain many of the themes and motifs that pop up in his later, more heralded movies, such as Female Trouble, Polyester, and even Hairspray. And they contain appearances by the core members of Waters’ repertory company, collectively known as Dreamlanders, including Divine, Mink Stole, David Lochary, Mary Vivian Pearce, and Edith Massey. Unfortunately, due to Waters’ rampant use of unlicensed music in these films, they’re not currently available in any official way. Luckily, YouTube has a bunch of them, seemingly ripped from decades-old VHS transfers.
True Waters aficionados will want to see 1969’s Mondo Trasho, the director’s first feature-length narrative motion picture. This is a surreal, dreamy affair about a vacant young woman (Pearce) who staggers in front of an El Dorado Cadillac (driven by Divine) after an encounter with a foot fetishist in a public park. The plot then follows Divine as she drags the unconscious Pearce from place to place. It was while filming a brief male nude scene for this film that Waters was arrested and charged with “conspiracy to commit indecent exposure,” leading to a highly publicized trial. Shot without sound, Mondo Trasho employs a staggering variety of prerecorded music on its audio track, including selections by Little Richard, Mae West, Link Wray, and Igor Stravinsky.
The very next year, Waters finally got a camera with the ability to record audio as well as video. He tested it out with an improvised short film called The Diane Linkletter Story, based on the real-life drug-related death of TV personality Art Linkletter’s daughter. Tasteless as it is, with the plot ripped from very recent headlines at the time, the movie offers a bravura performance by Divine in the title role, as rebellious hippie Diane cycles through all the clichés of the generation gap while squabbling with her parents.
That same year, 1970, brought Waters’ first movie with both synchronized sound and something like a linear plot. Multiple Maniacs is a rancid saga of crime, Catholicism, freak shows, and rape by giant lobsters. Once again, Divine is the focal point. Here, the cross-dressing actor leads a sleazy traveling show called the Cavalcade Of Perversions, featuring such dubious acts as the Puke Eater and the Bicycle Seat Sniffer. It’s all an excuse to rob and murder patrons. The plot takes a turn when Divine’s relationship with long-time boyfriend Lochary goes sour, leading to a series of bloody revenge killings. Ultimately, in its final stages, the film becomes a twisted parody of monster movies in the King Kong/Godzilla tradition, except with human-sized Divine as the creature. This is also the Waters film with the infamous “rosary job” scene in which Divine has a clandestine sexual encounter with “religious whore” Stole in a church, all while dreaming about Christ’s crucifixion. Religious imagery would remain a fixture of Waters’ movies, but he never again attempted anything this audacious.