ACIDEMIC Journal of Film and Media

The Social More Prying Fingers of Essy Persson

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Steve Tweed

In 1965, a visit to Times Square in Manhattan offered old school sordidness at its best. With a giant Camel cigarette billboard actually puffing real smoke rings from the mouth of a giddy looking man looming over the roiling crowds, a boy could walk the sticky sidewalks and see a carnal world in action everywhere. Nasty little stores sold switchblades, gibbering vagrants wobbled along in feculent pants tucked with ass pocket whiskey, and, of course, there were the nudie-cutie movie joints for addicted voyeurs. If you didnt mind stepping over a buzzed out sot in a canary yellow suit, laying prone, eyes rolled back, arms flung out, to get into a smut joint, Times Square offered the fix. Still, until the release of I, A Woman, a Swedish subtitled film directed by Mac Ahlberg, erotica had really not gone main stream, or hit the respectable theaters.

I was sixteen at the time, a product of Norwegian culture in Brooklyn, based along Eighth Avenue with over 100,000 children of immigrants living amidst stores, churches and solemn homes where the native tongue still survived. There was even a Norwegian newspaper called Nordisk Tydende. And even though a shocking number of the girls who attended my church reminded me of Inger Stevens, sex was flat out repressed. So much so, that I covertly learned about Jane Mansfields nudie shots in Promises, Promises from the mandatory hidden Playboy and therefore, instantly acquired a preposterous double life.

Before I, a Woman reached the media, the public and theaters like the Rialto, I had already taken one shameful excursion to Times Square, at around age 14. Anne Coreo, an aging striptease legend, was starring in This Was Burlesque, a pretty legitimate production but, complete with its bump and grind band and vaudeville comedians, it also promised real, live, big, tall, buxom dancers with pasties. And it delivered. Even though I somehow was admitted into the theater, it wasnt lost on the ticket guy that I had created a humiliating, fake moustache with Times Square kit that included spirit gum.

Boys have always liked to look at girls, but you have to understand that in the first half of the sixties, actresss fantasy bodies featuring pointy cantilevered brassieres, were actually worshipped by we children of Hefner. But these fantasy figures were mostly covered up, however scantily, in feature films.


Then came I, A Woman (or Jeg en Kvinde, in Swedish) starring the luscious Essy Persson. The ads were everywhere, in all the newspapers, and on posters festooning Times Square. There she was, an evil babe to be sure, with black bangs and a head tossed back in suggested ecstasy. Essy Persson, who would take it all off and even touch, or be touched by, the loathsome men in the cast. The plot was simple: A young nurse from a rigid, stifling home leaves her epicene fiancée for a series of sexual adventures, starting smack dab in the hospital where she works. In one of the most disturbing and memorable scenes to ever slam into my young mind, I saw the aging, bed ridden patient, leering like a Devil in Haxan: Witchcraft Through The Ages softly grasp the thigh of Essy as his fierce pagan eyes hold her in a Dracula stare. He was abominable in the sense that to me, a Sunday Schooled Norwegian, he represented the brazen, atheist Danes and Swedes. More troubling still, he was getting what I wanted.

I watched this filthy old man, played by Bengt Brunskog, his floppy, liver spotted hand inching its way up her thigh, and felt myself grow sick from outrage and passionate fascination simultaneously. She stands there, in the furtive hospital room, allowing this eerily silent lecher to finger and probe upward inch by inch. Damn! Ida Lupino would never allow that, I thought. Nor would Ann Margret, or Natalie Wood, or even Angie Dickenson! The nurses blouse falls away and we see the first big money shot (for that era, anyway) as the camera probes and leers from the firm breast to the pulsating neck to the orgasmic, beautiful face. I was lost forever.

Today, this is daytime soap opera material, but back then the Catholic Legion of Decency condemned I, A Woman in the strongest possible terms, more franticly even than Gods Little Acre (below) roughly a decade before (because of Tina Louise's heaving under stomach-tied shirt). But what I, A Woman accomplished was momentous. Danes and Swedes had marketed a worming intrusion of their sullen sexual freedom right into American theaters.

Yeah, there had been other European films that we knew were a little daring, but they always had genuine narratives and were made by respected directors. I, A Woman was dark and dirty, with scene after brazen scene in which Essy Perrson exhibited what voyeurs really longed for, lingering pans of the female form. Seem quaint in our present world? Yeah, daddy. Thanks to Essy.

Still, the voyeurism of the Danes and Swedes in their sex films was a one-sided affair, like every titillating movie of the day. The idea was to expose women pouty pin-up types, who posed like Betty Page, confident in their brazenness to eager audiences of men. That was it. The rain coat slobs saw a parade of sex scenes in the black and white I, A Woman, inflicted by flaccidly pale, out-of-shape, morbidly depressed Scandinavians. The male cast members were not memorable (except for the lecherous monstrosity in the hospital bed) because they were incidental to Essy Persson taking her clothes off.

The movie was a hit. Guys took the train from Queens, the Bronx, and Brooklyn to see Essy Persson over and over. I know. I was one of them, a teen aged kid who just wanted to look at Essy Perssons perfect body as long and often as possible. I began to suspect that the Norwegian church girls were closet Essy Perssons themselves. In a way, that fantasy proved to have some validity, later. But being an insecure little movie nut with zero self confidence, that didn't help me much. To boost my self image, I decided to copy old movie stars like Errol Flynn, or the currently popular Roger Moore, from the British TV show, The Saint. I paraded a fake Hollywood chivalry and it got me nowhere. All I could do was wish that the smiling Inger Stevens types at church would change, like werewolves, into Essy Persson.

The less inhibited European Nordic view of sex opened doors to taking shame out movies. I, A Woman knocked it out of the park, but from Karl Dreyer to Ingmar Bergman, I never felt that the Scandinavians got steamy romance to the screen. Instead, the chronology of many Nordic films seemed littered with pretty girls chased by creeps who looked like Julian Assange. And so I found the Norse movies disturbing. That's maybe because I knew the Viking face all too well. I'd seen it throughout childhood, like watching the close ups of old men in Karl Dreyer's Joan of Arc (below). See, I loved the old sailors who showed up in church when they were ashore. In the innocent atmosphere of Lutheranism, they seemed noble and even saintly. They looked like Richard Widmark or Curt Jergens and had kindly wrinkles around their eyes.

But at sea, or in foreign ports, they were possibly very different. At sea, in a world of chaos, the Lutheran sailors may have morphed into lurid I, A Woman, prototypes. Their kindly faces may have gone Swede, or Dane, heaven forbid! Their eyes may have emitted the glare of Dostoyevsky's terrible suggestion that everything is permitted. Yes, their gaze may have taken on godless Swedish lechery at its nastiest, who knows? I saw them sailing out, out to the black beyond, where the grandfatherly countenances contorted into something blasphemous and indecent. My teenaged mind couldnt accept them licking their lips, like the white haired reptilian thing in the hospital bed, and furtively probing Essy Persson.

Steve Tweed is an actor, radio personality, book publisher and former owner of TVAI, an archive source for hundreds of little TV stations that ordered movies like The Hideous Sun Demon. His career as a live performer finally led him to the middle west, where he decided the best place to ride out the apocalypse with 3,000 movie dvds was remote North Dakota. As a blues guitarist, Steve has shared the stage with Luther Allison and Charlie Musselwaite.

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