Looking back at George Weiss’ Not So Classic Girl Gang
By Don Stradley
"If George Weiss had been Louis B. Mayer, then I would've been Spencer Tracy." - Timothy Farrell, star of Girl Gang
Film Masters' YouTube channel offers a slice of vintage exploitation with Girl Gang (1954). It could be considered the middle section of a trilogy from producer George Weiss, who also gave us Racket Girls (1951) and Gun Girls (1957), though it is doubtful if Weiss thought in such grandiose terms. In those days he disguised his films as crime dramas or educational fare, but his true métier was entertaining moviegoers of a particular nature, those with, shall we say, kinkier interests.
Weiss worked in the heyday of 1950s exploitation, when filmmakers operating outside the studio system made quickie films on micro budgets. Weiss’s specialty was in the warped and weird, whether it was women’s wrestling, lesbian gangs, bondage scenes, whips, drugs, and anything else he could sneak into his mini-budgeted features. Those who knew him were divided: some thought Weiss made his type of movies because he understood what lurked in the hearts of degenerates. Others thought Weiss was simply a dirty old man playing out his obsessions. As for Weiss, he didn’t seem to care what anybody thought, as long as his movies came in under budget and were playing on a screen somewhere.
Working steadily from the days of roadshows to the heyday of 42nd Street grindhouses, Weiss produced such notable trash as Test Tube Babies (1949), the abysmal Dancehall Racket (written by and starring Lenny Bruce, 1953) Ed Wood's Glen or Glenda (1953), and a dozen or so interchangeable titles where women were tied up and abused in some way. The infamous Olga movies of the 1960s were his, too, about a vicious brothel owner who enjoyed torturing her employees, her clients, and just about anyone who gets out of line. According to Ed Wood, Weiss was "a delightful, gutsy little fellow," who operated out of a "small, barn-like studio affair just off Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood." In Weiss' films, there was usually a villain, male or female, plying their unsuspecting victims with drugs. There's not much outright sex in a movie such as Girl Gang, but female figures are often seen in drug-induced stupors, semi-clad, lying intoxicated on a couch just ripe for someone to take advantage of them. The Weiss films were usually shot in a week or so, and with no money for retakes, there would be plenty of botched lines in the final product. It was always full speed ahead, mistakes be damned.
Actor Timothy Farrell spoke about Weiss in an interview with author Rudolph Grey that appeared in issue 14 of the Psychotronic Video Guide. "Whenever George Weiss was about to do a movie he called me," Farrell said. "These things cost about $10,000 or $20,000 to make. We worked hard on some of those, shot 'em in a week or less. Of course, I didn't make much money on those things, $100, $150 a day." Farrell recalled Weiss' escalating nerves as the production costs mounted, pacing around the set, unable to contain his impatience. "George was a pacer and he wore a towel around his neck because he sweated profusely."
Girl Gang has all of Weiss' favorite tropes. The plot involves a bad guy who offers heroin to a bunch of girls, and once they're thoroughly addicted, he commands them to commit robberies for him. They're soon hitting liquor stores and gas stations, all to help satisfy their need for this fellow's special dope. The girls are all sturdily built, wearing tight white sweaters, dark skirts, and white sneakers, the standard teen-girl uniform of the day. There's a fetish of some kind here, something about healthy young girls brought down into a world of vice, but Weiss and director Robert Dertano can go only so far with it. These were the Eisenhower years, after all.
You might wonder how Russ Meyer or Quentin Tarantino would've approached similar material. But the curious thing about Girl Gang is its sleepy pace. It moves sluggishly from one moment to the next, as if not only the characters are on drugs, but also the entire film crew. An impromptu boogie-woogie dance number seems to go on forever, and actors recite their lines as if they're nodding off. The movie might seem like one of those "so bad it's good" features, but it is humorless, and the action is tepid, each scene more static than the next. A fight between two of the girls feels like they're rehearsing it without really wanting to do any damage. It's obvious that neither of them had ever been in a fight, and had never even seen one. Cut, print, good enough for exploitation!
Farrell plays "Joe, the Big Boss." We know he's a bad guy because he wears loud neckties and has a mustache. He patiently helps the girls shoot up, a kindly father figure coaching them towards a life of larceny and illegal kicks. He injects the girls in the thigh so the needle marks won't show. The camera lingers on the bare thigh and the dripping needle for a long time, taunting us before the eventual penetration of the skin. This, Weiss must’ve felt, was the film’s sensational highlight, the moneymaker. After their first shot, the girls look at Joe sleepily, hungrily. Quicker than Bill Burroughs could shoot an apple off his wife’s head, the girls are committing armed robbery and taking up sex work, all in hopes of scoring another "joy pop."
Eventually Joe's gang of female felons becomes trigger happy, engaging in full-blown shootouts. This leads to the movie's climax, bur Weiss and Dertano seem happily clueless. Rather than having Joe the boss get his comeuppance, the cops simply arrest him, while an unwitting doctor who has helped Joe winds up running for his life, shot down in the street. It is as if Weiss and Dertano had already fulfilled the needs of the film, with plenty of needle scenes and hints of sex. An ending? Just shoot somebody. Anybody.
But here's the trick about Girl Gang. As dreadful as it is, the movie just might stick with you. You'll start thinking about the silly dance number, the ridiculous fight scene, the wooden acting. And then, you'll find yourself wanting to see it a second time, just to be sure it was as bad as you thought. And strangely enough, it doesn’t seem as bad the second time around, and you'll actually like the shootouts, as hokey as they may be. Some of the gang girls start to look sort of cool, in a 1950s gas station pinup sort of way. And you'll notice the cinematography is serviceable — it was shot by William C. Thompson, whose career started in 1914 and included most of Ed Wood's films. The strange harp music playing underneath the drug scenes is a good touch, too. You might end up thinking there's a lot to like in Girl Gang.
Weiss' movies aren't meant to be studied or glorified. Whether or not they reflected his own fantasies, Weiss’ main goal was to cash in on the headlines of the day, whether it was the teen delinquent scare, drug use, or the topic of men changing their sex. As the censors loosened up in the 1960s, Weiss moved from exploitation to sexploitation, producing such oddities as White Slaves of Chinatown (1964) and Olga's House of Shame (1964). One wonders what Girl Gang might've been like had it been made during the psychedelic sixties, rather than the rockabilly fifties.
Weiss’ films became grindhouse staples during the 1970s, but his keen knowledge of America’s sordid side eventually drove him into seclusion. According to Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford’s Sleazoid Express (2002, Fireside Books), Weiss retired to Florida in 1980 and hid from the public. He was tired of fetishist dorks tracking him down to buy rare stills and the like. Such was the burden of being a master of deviant entertainment. Weiss was not a great filmmaker, but he produced 22 quirky features that had a way of delighting the perverted types in the audience. Girl Gang was one of them.