Dub Taylor and Leslie Uggams
A vintage rockabilly B-movie that was made in Athens is currently gaining a cult following. Most old-school Athenians thought this movie died 40 years ago. I noticed that Netflix has added some new movies to its site recently, and one of the movies, to my surprise, is one titled Poor Pretty Eddie.
Poor Pretty Eddie is an old drive-in or grindhouse movie that was made here in Athens. The best description of the movie is that it’s a racially charged, disturbing, politically incorrect movie. The movie has been bought and sold many times and released under at least five different titles, and it is now back under its original name. The 44-year-old movie has been categorized as a horror film, a sexy thriller, a redneck revenge film or a black revenge film. One movie critic stated that Poor Pretty Eddie “was not a blaxploitation film as much as it was a hicksploitation film.”
The movie was filmed almost exclusively in East Athens. The bulk of the movie’s scenes take place at Athens’ beloved Charlie Williams Pinecrest Lodge. Other locations in the movie are the Oglethorpe County VFW Hall, a power plant off Barnett Shoals Road and High Shoals in Oconee County.
Most Athenians who are familiar with this movie would rather it not be associated with Athens in any way. When it was released, there was no fanfare in Athens. Poor Pretty Eddie’s premiere was in Hollywood and was attended by a small crowd of insiders that included the last public sighting of Mae West.
Poor Pretty Eddie was made in the fall of 1973. Surprisingly, the movie starred several big-name actors. The leading actor was a young Lesley Uggams, who is currently involved in the mega-hit TV series “Empire.” She started her career as a popular singer and moved to television; Poor Pretty Eddie was her first big-screen attempt. Playing the role of Eddie was Michael Christian, who starred in the popular television series version of “Peyton Place.”
Playing one of the film’s lead roles was famed actor Shelley Winters. Winters’ off-the-set drama while making this movie included a near crash-landing at Athens-Ben Epps Airport, skinnydipping in the Howard Johnson pool and a heated run-in with then-Atlanta Falcons owner Rankin Smith in his box seats during a Falcons game.
Two of the more colorful characters were played by seasoned actors, Dub Taylor and Slim Pickens. Taylor and Pickens both had roots in the old Hollywood Westerns. Ted Cassidy was another key character. He played a 7-foot-tall unlikely good guy. Cassidy later went on to play the role of Lurch in the hit television series “The Addams Family.”
Two other roles were played by Oglethorpe County Sheriff Gene Smith and Clarke County Sheriff Tommy Huff. I’m sure both of these professional law enforcement officers wished they had never been talked into making this movie, which did not reflect positively on them. The worst embarrassment was the University of Georgia’s head basketball coach, “Red” Lawson, who played a sleazy traveling salesman. Red shared an unseemly scene with Uggams that took place in a car parked at High Shoals.
The mystique of this movie comes from who produced it. The original executive producer was Michael Thevis. Thevis was an Atlanta businessman who owned over 300 adult bookstores and was said to have been the country’s largest pornography distributor. It was stated in 1973 that 40 percent of the porn sold in the U.S. came from Thevis’ Atlanta operation. Thevis also had a production company that made pornographic movies for his theaters and peep shows in his adult bookstores.
It was rumored that Thevis was connected to a major New York crime family. That rumor was not helped by several of Thevis’ pornography competitors dying mysteriously in unsolved violent deaths. Both the FBI and the IRS were investigating Thevis’ operations. In an attempt to launder less-than-clean money, Thevis started several legitimate businesses, including the General Recording Company. General produced Sammy Johns’ hit song “Chevy Van.”
Thevis also started making non-porn movies. He had made a couple of B-movies before Poor Pretty Eddie that did not do well. Poor Pretty Eddie was his first mainstream film using well-known actors. Christian tells about how Winters was paid weekly with suitcases of cash delivered by some of Thevis’ people from Atlanta.
Poor Pretty Eddie’s director was Richard Robinson, and the film’s cinematographer was David Worth. Robinson and Worth had been making movies for Thevis for several years. Robinson and Worth purchased the script, written by B.W. Sandefur, a small-screen writer who wrote episodes of “Barnaby Jones,” “Little House on the Prairie” and “Charlie’s Angels.” The edited movie was purchased by West America, a Denver-based distributor, which released Poor Pretty Eddie in 1975.
In a couple of years, West America went out of business, and Christian and Worth, along with a group of investors, purchased the film. It was re-edited, with the graphic sexual and violent segments removed to make the film more suitable for television. The name of the film was then changed to Heartbreak Hotel. The film enjoyed very limited success, after which the movie was sold to Group One Films. Group One replaced the graphic segments that had been removed, first naming the restored movie The Girl in the Web and then The Victim. It was finally dubbed Redneck Country and released it in 1979.
Eventually, Group One sold the film to Gold Key Entertainment. The movie was then released on home video as Heartbreak Hotel in 1986. It was also named Black Vengeance and released in targeted urban markets by Bedford Entertainment, a Manhattan-based sub-distributor. HD Cinema Classics and Film Chest have recently released the widescreen transfer on a DVD/Blu-Ray combo. The film looks better now than it did when it was new.
But the warning that I leave you with about this movie is this: Once you see it, you cannot un-see it. Poor Pretty Eddie is the Athens movie, whether we like it or not.