Matt Cimber: Grindhouse Specialist
From The Grindhouse Cinema Database
Matt Cimber’s career began in 1968 when he cast his wife, Hollywood sex symbol Jayne Mansfield, in Single Room Furnished, a low-budget exploitation film that he co-wrote and directed (using the name Matteo Ottaviano). A filmmaker with a penchant for the unusual, Cimber followed Single Room Furnished with two controversial Mondo films: 1969’s Man and Wife: An Educational Film for Married Adults (in which a nude couple demonstrate sexual positions) and 1970’s Africanus Sexualis: Black is Beautiful, a titillating look at “the little-known love rights and mating habits of the Dark Continent.”
Cimber expanded on his notoriety by producing and directing three films for the lucrative blaxploitation movie market. 1973’s The Black Six was a good-natured film featuring an all-black cast featuring NFL sports stars trying their hand at acting, while The Candy Tangerine Man and Lady Cocoa (both 1975) raised the bar on the cinematic depiction of sex, violence, torture, obscene language and ostentatious nudity. The Candy Tangerine Man was particularly violent. It told the sordid story of a vicious Los Angeles pimp by night—and loving suburban father by day. Lady Cocoa was a woman-on-the-run-from-the-mob tale created for “The Queen of Las Vegas”: singer/dancer Lola Falana.
When I interviewed Matt Cimber for my book Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide he was not only generous with his time, he was generous with his stories. Although our focus was his work in blaxploitation, Cimber spoke at length about Hollywood, the film industry and the difficult road to success. His many other films include 1976’s The Witch Who Came From The Sea (banned in Britain), 1982’s camp classic Butterfly starring Pia Zadora, and 2006’s wartime historical epic Miriam.
Josiah Howard interviews Matt Cimber
“The Black Six” was your first black-cast film. How did it come about?
I had seen several blaxploitation films at the time and realized that there was a lucrative, albeit, limited market for them. Since the films didn’t call for very big budgets, it made sense for me to try my hand at a few.
What inspired you to cast football players?
The idea came to me both because I knew the market that I was making the films for and because I got a heads-up from a guy named Moss who represented them all. That’s also the way I cast Gene Washington in the lead. His agent contacted me and told me he had this good looking black actor that I should meet. Gene was great, one of the nicest people I met, so we sort of joined forces and did the film.
It's safe to say that the picture is one of very few from the genre that presents a positive image of African Americans.
Well, I was heavily inspired by one of my favorite poems by Rudyard Kipling: “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” I was attracted to the premise in the poem that there is a lesson and a message in every person’s death and that, no matter what, you can’t shirk the basic responsibility you have to your brothers.
Was the “Honky look out…” tag at the end of the film an homage to Melvin Van Peebles and “Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song.”
You couldn’t do enough homage to Melvin Van Peebles. I think he’s a brilliant filmmaker. Yes: that was my mini tribute to him.
“Candy Tangerine Man” was at dramatic odds with “The Black Six.”
Yes, and no. It’s certainly the most potent of my three blaxploitation films, but again, I believe that as strong as all the over-the-top imagery is in the film, the picture makes an equally strong statement about society. With Candy Tangerine Man I wanted to show that this highly intelligent and capable person could be both a Sunset Strip pimp and a loving and caring husband and father of two. Everyone is putting him down for being a pimp but what other opportunities did society offer him? He is doing the only thing that society had left for him to do.
Samuel L. Jackson says that it made a major impression on him.
He’s not the only one: Quentin Tarantino also loves the film. Tarantino told me that whenever he and Sam get together that’s all they talk about—for hours!
I must admit that I don’t really get the title. What does it mean?
Well, it just came to me. I was thinking along the lines of a candy apple. The Baron is a candy man: he’s bright and colorful. There’s no special significance to it; I didn’t want to call it The Candy Apple Man, so I came up with Candy Tangerine Man. I think audiences got it at the time. [Editor’s note: Sammy Davis Jr.’s “The Candy Man” was a No. 1 hit just a few years before.]
The film has everything; comedy, sex, action, gore. Were you trying to outdo all the other blaxploitation films?
No, not really. You must remember that all my films are done a bit tongue-in-cheek and they can be very cynical. I wanted to get my message about society’s injustices across and the sensational approach that I took seemed like the best way to do it.
“Lady Cocoa” came fast on the heels of “Candy Tangerine Man.” How did the project come about?
I was friendly with Sammy Davis Jr. and through him I knew that Lola Falana was looking for film work. At the time she was the biggest thing in Las Vegas—I think she was the highest paid black female performer who had ever played there. Sammy was always bugging me to write something for her to star in, so I did. I think she surprised us all; she did a really fantastic job.
The Nevada locations are a nice change.
Well, at the time, nobody had thought of it. I liked the fact that the backgrounds were really colorful and the terrain pretty raw. I also made a great deal with the King’s Castle Lodge which wasn’t doing that well financially, so they were more than happy to have us. We did the film in about 17 days for $250,000. At one point I ran out of money. I told the cast and crew that I needed a few more days of work out of them but couldn’t pay them for it. I had a little money left and offered to divide it up. Then one of the actors suggested that, since we were in a casino, I should just go and shoot craps. Everyone agreed that if I lost they would perform for free. Don’t you know I won a ton of money and was able to pay everyone more than their standard rate!
There is some confusion concerning the picture’s title. Is it “Lady Cocoa” or “Pop Goes the Weasel?”
We filmed it as Pop Goes the Weasel and had the poster art ready before it was distributed. But when the distributor picked it up they thought “Lady Cocoa” had a broader appeal. Frankly, I didn’t care which title they went with.
Did you ever experience any racism or racist attitudes from the Hollywood community?
Not really. The only time I was ever worried about race relations was on the set of The Black Six. We had hired about 50 real Hells Angels bikers and they had a reputation for being racist. Initially there was some tension but that passed when it became clear that the Angels were big fans of the football stars in the film. That and the fact that both factions were smoking a lot of pot, made the atmosphere on the set extremely relaxed.
Why do you believe the black action movie boom came to a close?
Well, I can tell you that I stopped making the films because CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) asked me to. In fact, they camped out in the hallway of my offices for a while. They were very congenial but they also put the pressure on. I thought it was a shame because so many black people were finally getting a chance to work in the industry. Doors were finally opening up. But CORE didn’t see it that way. As for the studio’s not making them anymore, I think that the idea of making films targeted for inner-city black audiences became outdated. All types of black performers were starting to be featured in mainstream pictures and on television and that rendered blaxploitation films unnecessary.
Why do you believe the films remain popular today?
Because they’re as good as any other films and they’re an important part of film history. I don’t believe it’s just black films that are making a comeback. If you live long enough everything comes around again. There are only so many stories to be told.
Which of the films is your favorite?
Candy Tangerine Man is the best film that I’ve ever made. I’m not talking about, production values, or star performances, but in terms of its feeling, its spirit, and its effect on the viewer. I’m still, personally, very affected by the film. I think it’s a solid piece of work.
How would you like to be remembered?
If I continue to meet people and they don’t curse me out, I’ll be very happy!