The wonderful Vinegar Syndrome has really been on a tear this year expanding their catalogue beyond erotica to include cult, horror, and even blaxploitation. Over the last few months, they’ve released a number of restored, Blu-ray editions of films starring the late, great Rudy Ray Moore — I’ve also covered Dolemite and Petey Wheatstraw this summer — and have recently turned their attention to the neglected and oft maligned film from Matt Cimber, The Candy Tangerine Man (1975), which they’ve released in a cleaned up, restored version alongside Cimber’s even more forgotten Lady Cocoa (1975). But unlike the generally wild (and much deserved) enthusiasm for Dolemite, Disco Godfather, or even Petey Wheatstraw, a lot of hatred has been lobbed at The Candy Tangerine Man over the years, thanks to its unapologetic use of violence, sexual exploitation, racism, and some wholly unlikable characters… including a protagonist-cum-hero who is a demanding pimp.
Roger Ebert, the popular critic that I hate probably more than any other, called it, “a singularly unpleasant movie that somehow manages to squeeze a few humorous scenes in with the gore, the mutilations and the mass executions.” He was not wrong, but I guess it goes to show that everyone has different expectations when it comes to exploitation films. The Candy Tangerine Man is something that I genuinely find to be delightful — because of its faults, not despite them — but if you aren’t prepared to plumb the depths of ‘70s blaxploitation, then this is not the film for you. In fairness, much of its violence occurs offscreen, there is barely any sex or nudity compared to the majority of exploitation fare, and if you can’t laugh at the spectacular dialogue, then I just don’t know what to say.
The Candy Tangerine Man follows the Black Baron (the dashing and dapper John Daniels of Black Shampoo), who is a take-no-shit, ass-kicking-but-only-when-he-has-to pimp during the week… and a family man on the weekends, who waters the lawn, does minor home repair, and plays with the kids. While his wife think he’s busy roaming America’s highways as some sort of traveling salesman, he’s really out recruiting new girls — who must bring in “$200 a day and I mean every day” — in order to deal with lagging business. Meanwhile, he has competition from another local pimp, as well as the Italian mob, which becomes increasingly violent thanks to the intervention of two crooked cops (Richard Kennedy and George “Buck” Flower of Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS, The Fog, and Escape from New York, among many more) willing to go to any ends to defeat the Black Baron once and for all.
This film belongs both to John Daniels, who constantly swims upstream against the meandering plot, and to the dialogue, which is even more spectacular than Daniels himself — the best line of which is the Baron’s response to someone calling him a motherfucker: “the only mother I ever fucked was yours, and she was a shitty lay” — though anyone who hasn’t seen a lot of ‘70s exploitation fare is probably going to be horrified by the racism. This does hit a lot of blaxploitation greatest hits, including a fabulous car, an amazing theme song from the band Smoke, and opening credits which claim that there are “actual hookers” in the film. There are also plenty of amazingly seedy moments, including a scene where (offscreen) one of the Baron’s prostitutes gets her tit cut off and, in revenge, the Baron cuts off the offending hand from the man who did it (by putting it in a blender). In classic exploitation fashion, he not only gets a fitted hook to replace the missing hand, but has a switchblade attachment that he never gets to use, as the Baron raids a club he’s in and kills every single person on the premises — all while wearing a white suit ensemble with matching white pearl-handled pistols. Clearly a lesson against bringing a knife to a gunfight or coming inappropriately attired to any situation of merit.
The film’s most tasteless scene (not counting the moment when it’s implied that the two cops rape a witness) — which is sort of spectacular in its ridiculousness — is when the Baron goes to visit his main competition, a pimp named Dusty Compton. He learns that Dusty has a new girl, a Native American virgin (though the actress is Feng Lan Linn, who is clearly Chinese). Instead of haggling over price or engaging in fisticuffs, they play a game of pool to see who will win her. When the Baron inevitably wins, he drives her to the bus station, gives her money, and tells her to save herself and go the hell home, because he’s just that kind of guy. Things do seem to work out inordinately in his favor; later, the cops exclaim that the “black bastard’s got a horseshoe up his ass.”
In Lady Cocoa, the titular heroine (Sammy Davis Jr. protege Lola Falana) is released from prison — where she has been held for over a year for contempt of court — to testify against her boyfriend (James A. Watson), who is on trial for racketeering. It’s implied that what she knows can bring down a massive organized crime network. Along with two cops (Alex Dreier and Gene Washington), she travels undercover to the trial; and even though she knows her life is in danger, Cocoa makes the best of the situation and demands everything from room service to shopping and a night of gambling. Largely set in a Nevada casino, this essentially chronicles Cocoa taking a luxury vacation despite the odds, while she tries to figure out if her boyfriend is going to come rescue her or attempt to bump her off.
Not as offensive as The Candy Tangerine Man, Lady Cocoa has a whimsical air despite the crime themes and occasional violence and it’s more open-minded approach to ‘70s racism is a bit less wince-inducing. It’s also has car chase sequence that frankly beats the pants off the one towards the conclusion of The Candy Tangerine Man, thought it isn’t as hilarious (and doesn’t involve John Daniels pushing cops off a cliff). Honestly, the worst thing about it is the use of “Pop Goes the Weasel,” which I hope to never hear again. Couldn’t Cimber have given it a proper theme song like The Candy Tangerine Man? It just seems unfair. There’s a sort of sad attempt with a song just after the opening credits that includes “Lady Cocoa” in its lyrics, but then is immediately derailed right back to “Pop Goes the Weasel” for the chorus.
Regardless, it’s an interesting example of how female protagonists fare in blaxploitation and while Falana can’t compete with someone like Pam Grier, she’s still compelling thanks to a blend of naivete and determination that encourages her to just reach out and take what she feels is owed to her; a character trait that is at the root of a lot of exploitation films. It’s sort of an attitude that expresses that life is misery, suffering, and is inherently unjust or unfair, but that’s no reason you can’t have fun or enjoy occasional moments of hedonism and excess. It’s certainly present in The Candy Tangerine Man, where the Black Baron takes what he wants — precisely because he knows that not only is no one going to give it to him, but there’s also no fair way to get ahead in life.
The Candy Tangerine Man might be an acquired taste, and is probably not the best place to start for anyone new to blaxploitation, but it comes recommended. There are some issues with both prints, but Vinegar Syndrome made the best of the situation they were given (a lack of original negatives) and The Candy Tangerine Man in particular is far, far less distracting than the other available prints you can locate online, which are badly damaged in parts. Unlike the other recent blaxploitation releases from Vinegar Syndrome, this doesn’t have a whole lot of special features; The Candy Tangerine Man includes an introduction from director Matt Cimber, though Lady Cocoa has a commentary track from Cimber that covers the history of both films and is a really nice addition (and includes some hilarious stories). Although I have to admit that the inclusion of Lady Cocoa all on its own makes this release certainly worthwhile. Here’s hoping that Vinegar Syndrome will continue to get ahold of and release more of these wonderful, ignored blaxploitation titles.