Tuesday, January 31, 2012

KITTEN WITH A WHIP 1964


Ann-Margret in her 1994 memoir, “My Story”:
“My performance in ‘Kitten’ was so gritty and intense audiences were confused. They preferred me as the innocent sweetheart in ‘Birdie’ (Bye, Bye Birdie). The same problem frustrated Elvis; people didn’t want us to change.”

Not so much…

Allow me to qualify the above quotation:
“My performance in ‘Kitten’ was so gritty and intense audiences were confused”
Only if by “gritty and intense” she means “artificial and hyperactive.” 

“They preferred me as the innocent sweetheart in ‘Birdie.’”
We preferred something resembling recognizable human behavior.

“The same problem frustrated Elvis; people didn’t want us to change.”
Diversity was not exactly their strongest suit. Ann-Margret didn’t really begin acting in film until “Carnal Knowledge” in 1971. 
I’m a major, MAJOR fan of Ann-Margret. Like most people my age, the first time I ever laid eyes on her was in Bye Bye Birdie (1963). The staggeringly eye-popping image of her sashaying towards us in a skintight dress (ever-present wind machine blowing her orange mane) in a limitless blue void, singing the title song …well, it launched a thousand puberties.

In this and every subsequent film of hers in the 60s, Ann-Margret mined a paradoxically wholesome/smutty glamour of dizzyingly kinetic female hypersexuality of the sort I’ve literally never seen before or since. Bouncing about the screen in impossibly high heels, wiggling her rump, undulating her bosom, and tossing her hair about in absolute abandon; Ann-Margret was in-your-face, aggressively sexy. She was also resoundingly camp. Cross an over-the-top female impersonator with Lola Falana and Joey Heatherton on speed, and you’re still not likely to get an appreciation of the full-tilt atomic sex-bomb that was 60s-era Ann-Margret.
Energy and star quality personified, Ann-Margret, unlike the sex symbols of the 50s, wasn’t coy about her allure. Indeed, she seemed to so revel in her vivacious (voracious?) sex appeal and took so much bawdy pleasure in her own body that she never seemed to need anyone else. What man could keep up with her?  Other than Elvis Presley in Viva Las Vegas (1964) no other male co-star ever looked like they would come out of an evening with Ann-Margret alive.
As much as I took delight in watching Ann-Margret on screen and on her TV specials, I have to admit that I never quite knew if she was putting us on or not. Her brand of femininity was so far out on a limb that I could never tell if this was Ann-Margret engaging in a subtle form of self-parody (like Mae West), or did she really believe in her exaggerated, tigress/vamp act?

This ambiguity is somewhat cruelly exploited in Kitten with a Whip: one of a rash of black & white, low-budget films released in the early 60s that attempted to capture the gritty neo-realism of Something Wild (1961) or UK’s The Leather Boys; but instead fell into the chasm of B-movie exploitation, exemplified by films like Who Killed Teddy Bear?(1965) and Lady in a Cage (1966). Kitten with a Whip was made in 1964, but it feels like a late 50s Mamie Van Doren castoff.
Ann-Margret as Jody Dru
John Forsythe as David Stratton
Peter Brown as Ron
Diane Sayer as Midge
Skip Ward as Buck
17 year-old Jody Dru, nee Dvorak (Ann-Margret), escapes from a girl’s detention center and seeks refuge in a darkened, apparently vacant, suburban home. Come morning, Jody discovers the residence to belong to aspiring State Senator David Stratton (Forsythe) whose estranged wife and daughter are away. Certain he’s being set up for a political scandal, Stratton decides to call the police but changes his mind after hearing Jody’s tale of abuse and neglect. Resolving instead to help her reverse her fortunes, Stratton offers Jody his assistance, only to discover that there is clearly more to this voluptuous teen than meets the eye. What follows is a black comedy of errors crossed with juvenile delinquent cautionary tale as the woodenly sincere Stratton attempts to extricate himself from the escalating mess his life becomes after crossing paths with the auburn-haired minx.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
With its nervously percussive, espresso bongo jazz soundtrack; Saul Bass-inspired titles; and stark, almost nourish, photography; there’s the nagging sense that Kitten with a Whip is trying to say something deep about teen disaffection in the age of The Bomb. Fortunately for us, director /screenwriter Douglas Heyes’ preference for sleaze over sermons made certain that Stanley Kramer wasn’t likely to suffer any sleepless nights. 

Kitten with a Whip is an overheated, flagrantly gynophobic, suburban nightmare about middle-class normalcy turned upside-down by a bi-polar teenage sociopath in French heels. Ergo, it’s an awful lot of fun.
Everything in this film—emotions, dialog, and dramatic situations— are ratcheted up to such absurdly shrill levels that it feels like you’re watching flash cards. Nothing substantive is allowed to land and take root. Like the animated cartoon that plays in the background of one scene, Kitten with a Whip doesn’t allow for the dust to settle between explosions. As soon as one disaster is felled, a new one pops up to take its place. 
All the above would certainly disqualify this film from most people’s must-see lists, but as a fan of the brilliant Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965), I find Kitten with a Whip to be a similar thrill ride. Bad girls are always more fun, and as “Kitten” defies being taken seriously, it’s easy to sit back and wallow in its na├»ve lewdness. There are countless laughs to be had (some even intentional!).
Jody don't take no mess!

PERFORMANCES:
Kitten with a Whip was Ann-Margret’s first “dramatic” role following her star-making turn in Bye Bye Birdie (her manager even turned down Cat Ballou for this film. He was later fired). Sandwiched between Viva Las Vegas and The Pleasure Seekers, Kitten with a Whip was to be the film to show off her range and versatility. Alas, it did anything but. 
There’s a kind of bad acting that is boring to watch and painful to subject yourself to (evident most reliably in testosterone-laden action films), but Ann-Margret’s performance in Kitten with a Whip is so electrifyingly awful, you can’t take your eyes off of her.

If there’s anything jarring about her efforts (she wins us over by being photogenic and histrionically agitated at all times) it’s that Ann-Margret trying to be “real” seems phonier than anything you've ever encountered. It’s like she’s never seen real human behavior and has no idea of how to convey emotions except in the broadest strokes possible.
Hers is a strenuous, muscular, performance that decimates everything and everyone else in the film (particularly the stupendously inexpressive John Forsythe), but it’s the only life the film has. Giving it everything she’s got, Ann-Margret purrs, writhes, gnashes her teeth, pops her eyes, leers, pouts, and glowers;  all in bas-relief, indicating and telegraphing like she’s in a silent movie. She’s magnificent in a "I can't believe my eyes!" kind of way. (Ken Russell would harness Ann-Margret’s ferocity more capably in 1975s Tommy.)


THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
As the film’s star, it’s only fitting that Ann-Margret is blessed with the lion’s share of Kitten with a Whip’s colorful (and comical) dialog.

 Jody: “Ooooh! Everything’s so creamy! Kill me quick, I never had it so good!”

Jody:  How come you think you’re such a smoky something when you’re so nothing painted blue?”

Jody: “Hands off, Buster! Don’t you ever bruise me, David. God knows what I might do to you if you ever bruise me.”

Jody: “You’re gonna think I have an awfully dirty mind David, I change it so often.”

Jody: “You follow all this? You live behind walls here, man. Where I come from it’s outer space.”

Jody: “Put it down! You poke that finger at that dial, mister, and that's when I start screaming rape!"

Jody: “Look, I’m only a girl…I panic!” 
Jody's not that kind of girl
THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
Folks who don’t enjoy camp humor or who lack a taste for cult films with reputations built on their shortcomings may find this post bewildering; does he hate Ann-Margret, does he like her? What gives?

As I stated from the start, I’m really pretty much mad about Ann-Margret, but I’m not one of those fans who needs to take an-all-or-nothing stance about a performer. I'm the first to admit that her performances in Carnal Knowledge and Tommy are phenomenal...but I'm not about to let my affection for this gorgeous lady excuse embarrassments like Made in Paris or The Swinger (whose title sequence alone is worth the price of a rental). I admire Ann-Margret because she is a dynamo, and like Cher, she’s one of those stars whose career has spanned decades and innumerable shifts in tastes and trends. The two are such survivors they’re likely to be the only things left standing after Armageddon.

One of the things I most like about Ann-Margret is her ability to be “good” even when she’s awful. And by that, I mean I admire her commitment. She may give a bad performance in Kitten With a Whip, but you'd have to look far to find a poor performance done with such conviction. She's giving 100% and then some. The results may be artistically uneven, but when accessed by standards of professionalism, dedication, and sheer hard work, she really delivers. I can’t help but admire that... even as I’m looking at some of her acting choices and wondering “What was she thinking?”

The whiny crybabies of today who drop out of plays because they’ve eaten bad sushi,  or deliver half-assed hosting performances on Academy Awards telecasts because they disagreed with the script…well, they could take a lesson.
  
Oh, and for the record:  Fans didn’t stay away from Kitten with a Whip because they didn’t like seeing Ann-Margret acting bad; they stayed away because didn’t like seeing Ann-Margret acting badly.
In a review for the 1968 musical Star!, Pauline Kael observed of British stage personality, Gertrude Lawrence: "She was what drag queens want to be."
I can't think of a sentence that better encapsulates Ann-Margret's uniquely enduring charm.
...for the literal-minded.
(I swear, this is a legitimate piece of promotional artwork for the film!!)

Copyright © Ken Anderson

8 comments:

  1. Brilliant piece and you've really nailed Ann-Margret's strange, campy berserk sex kitten charisma (I tried myself when I blogged about seeing A-M perform at The Stardust in Casino a while back). Believe it or not, I've somehow never seen Kitten with a Whip -- it's not available on DVD in the UK and never crops up on TV here, either. I also seriously need to read A-M's memoirs! Unsurprisingly, Kitten with a Whip is a favourite of John Waters.

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    1. Thanks very much, bitter69uk! I read your post on Ann-Margret and loved it. I actually saw that show you wrote about when she appeared in the LA area. You capture the feel of it perfectly.Especially the odd costume choices, diverse song selections, and great movie clips. I couldn't decide if it was erratic or eclectic, I just loved it. You've GOT to get your hands on "Kitten with a Whip." Her memoirs are not illuminating as you'd think.

      Oh, and I've never heard of "A Cold Wind in August"...had to look it up on IMDB. Lola Albright! Now I HAVE to seek it out. She was great in "Lord Love a Duck." Thanks very much for your comment(s)

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  2. Never seen Something Wild (I'd love to -- I love Carroll Baker, another great sex kitten same vintage as Ann-Margret), but I totally love all those films you list: The Leather Boys, Who Killed Teddy Bear?, Lady in a Cage -- strange hybrid of lurid, gritty black and white art / exploitation films. I'd also add A Cold Wind in August to that list. Saw that once as a teenager, never forgotten it.

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  3. Ah, Kitten With A Whip a film that on paper looked (at least to her managers at the time) to be the perfect vehicle for Ann-Margret's dramatic film debut.

    The end result was anything but and it almost de-railed her promising film career. Was this the same girl who just the previous year charmed her way into movie goers hearts as the effervescent ingenue in BYE BYE BIRDIE?

    Critics were so troubled by the image this film projected that they took to writing open letters out of concern for her.

    Fox quickly released the breezy semi-musical THE PLEASURE SEEKERS to counter the backlash that KITTEN WITH THE WHIP stirred up.

    Her performance in 'KITTEN' is brave, brazen and way over the top. The first time I saw it I sat there the whole time and thinking, "What the hell was she thinking?!!"

    I have to admit though that it is one of my all time guilty pleasures...

    I love the scene where she is sitting at the vanity table, stares at Forsythe's wife's picture with utter disdain, whips out a tube of lipstick and smears it across the picture's mouth and snarls, "Go ahead, SMILE! You think YOU got it so MADE!" PRICELESS!!!

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    1. I had no idea about the critics being concerned for her at the time! It totally stands to reason; had "kitten..." been a better film it really would have been an amazing display of range. Like you, I'm just not sure what she's going after with her performance here. In her memoirs she claims the director worked closely with her on her characterization, but really...she needed to have been reined in a little. none of this stops it from being a real hoot of a film that is very fun to watch. And yes, that scene you point out is pretty good, all indicating that, yes, on paper "Kitten with a Whip" must have looked a lot more promising than the end result.

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  4. Update! I am finally getting to see the 1961 film Something Wild starring Carroll Baker (which John Waters has likened to Kitten with a Whip as belonging to the “When a Sexpot Emotes” genre) when it’s screened at The British Film Institute later this month. I wrote a bit about it for the online magazine Beige

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  5. Hey Graham
    I couldn't get the link to work, but I found your piece on "Something Wild" anyway. I haven't seen this film since I was a youngster and it aired on late night TV. Would love to know your thoughts on it when you do. Thanks for updating! Now you have to get out and see "Who Killed Teddy Bear" (although you guys have it on DVD there, so you probably have).

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  6. Yes! I meant to comment under your Who Killed Teddybear? blog that I have indeed already seen it. It was a few years ago when the DVD was issued in the UK. Couldn’t agree with your assessment more: a genuinely creepy and unpleasant exploitation film that packs a real whiff of sleaze! A particular low point is when the tough lesbian nightclub proprietoress played by Elaine Stritch is casually murdered and there is the hint the film implies she had it coming. It’s a real curio, though, and the highlights are the documentary-like glimpses of sordid neon-lit Times Square and its porn shop windows and the loving, lingering shots of young Sal Mineo’s sinewy olive-skinned physique!

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