Thursday, May 26, 2016

THE FOX 1967


Films that attempt to dramatize (and, in so doing, comment upon) distasteful aspects of the human condition, set a difficult course for themselves. Pedestrian directors, often in an effort to appear even-handed and avoid offending, tend to oversimplify. In these instances, the nuanced complexities of flawed personality and moral ambiguity are muted in ways designed to confirm audience preconceptions and, by fade-out, restore order and confidence in life's parity.
By way of contrast, artful directors take the risk of being misunderstood and misinterpreted as they eschew easy answers in favor of a little emotional honesty. Invested in examining more than explaining, while at the same time respectful of an audience's ability to extract from a story whatever ideas or themes they wish to divine on their own; this particular genus of film is not often a popular taste favorite, but it's the kind of movie that bears the stamp of creative fearlessness (recklessness?). 

Ellen: "No, I tried. I tried, and I couldn't shoot."
Paul: "Then you didn't want its life."
Ellen: "Yes...yes, I did!"

I can't vouch for movie audiences worldwide, but we Americans have earned a reputation for preferring our films to tell us how we should think and feel about a topic. Otherwise, we seem to get easily confused. Take, for example, when Bryan Forbes' feminist horror film The Stepford Wives (1975) was thought by many to be sexist chiefly because the women don't "win" in the end, and the chauvinistic behavior exhibited by the men wasn't as obviously satiric as some would have liked. Similarly, Samuel Fuller's powerful anti-racism film White Dog (1982) was practically yanked from theaters because many mistook this dramatic parable about the teaching of hatred (a dog is trained by white supremacists to attack black people), for actually being racist itself.

The depiction of objectionable behavior (especially in the absence of punishment or retribution) is not necessarily an endorsement of it. Often, as in the case of the predatory male character in The Fox, a man whose motives and actions can be read as despicable, it is a means of provocation. A sly method of exposing us to the unpleasant things within ourselves we fail to recognize because it doesn't flatter our self-image.
I'm no fan of morally dubious movies that glorify selfish instincts or try to normalize evil (we have reality TV and our current Presidential election to do that); but I do admire films that aren't afraid of ambiguity, are open to interpretation, and resist the impulse to explain the complex.
Sandy Dennis as Jill Banford
Anne Heywood as Ellen Marsh
Keir Dullea as Paul Renfield
As relationships go, few are more emotionally and psychologically complicated as the triangular one at the center of The Fox, director Mark Rydell's (The Rose, On Golden Pond) 1967 adaptation of D. H. Lawrence's 1922 novella.

Jill and Ellen are two college friends living a life of isolated independence on a remote farm in Canada (Lawrence's story took place in WW I England, the film updates to '60s Ontario). Jill (Dennis) is the domestic type, forever fretting over her stove and household accounts ("You and your mixing bowl and your muffin tray have conquered the elements"), while Ellen (Heywood) stomps about in work boots handing the entirety of the farm's manual labor.
One blonde, one dark, this kind of easy, heavy-handed symbolism is something of a motif in The Fox, one I don't particularly mind since the cues are taken from Lawrence's heavily-Freudian short novel. Both are younger than portrayed in the novel, and the film presents the pair's adoption of traditionally feminine/masculine roles as arising as much out of practicality as personality: Jill's verbose excitability, physical weakness, and pragmatic temperament contrasting with Jill's athleticism, protectiveness, and taciturn malleability (her standard response to all questions is "It makes no difference to me"). 
But if Jill's obvious contentment with their domestic arrangement suggests the fulfillment of a desire to cloister herself away from the male (even the animals are mostly female: Edwina the hen, Eurydice the cow- and in a monologue I don't believe is in the book, she recounts a college date-rape incident); Ellen's distracted restlessness hints at something suppressed rising to the surface. Her waking hours are dazed by a kind of sensual reawakening, while in her dreams she is simultaneously haunted and hypnotized by the fox that has been raiding their henhouse.

In spite of their sharing a bed (never even touching or kissing goodnight until a distraught conciliation scene near the end) and evince the relaxed affection of a long-married couple, like the book, the film leaves ambiguous the degree of Jill and Ellen's intimacy. Although the notion of a platonic "Boston Marriage" was easier to accept in 1920 England than in the sexually liberated '60s. 
This ambiguity, whether one finds it maddeningly coy or simply a cop-out, genuinely serves to make what might otherwise be just another romantic triangle more emotionally provocative. Label it lesbianism or bisexuality, whatever is between Jill and Ellen is intensified once their peace is invaded by the fox-like Paul (Dullea), the merchant seaman grandson of the farm's deceased former owner. 

The initial effect of the screenplay's refusal to define the particulars of Jill & Ellen's relationship (or the women's sexuality) is that the audience is placed in the unwanted but self-reflexive position of identifying with the townspeople and Paul. We're forced to ask ourselves, is our desire to KNOW what these women are to one another just part of a need to define them, explain them, and assign roles to their behavior…indeed, to subject the characters to the confining, socially-imposed definitions they seek independence from?  

Secondarily, once Paul makes the shift from welcome guest to predatory intruder, the motives for his actions become less obvious when we don't really know exactly what it is he has insinuated himself into the middle of. Depending on the scene, Paul comes across convincingly as either harmless or sinister.

The Fox, a three-character drama, set, pointedly, in the chilly dead of winter, is something of a war movie. Its vast battlefield encompassing everything from sexuality, gender politics, masculinity, femininity, love, violence, passion, and independence. The weapons of choice: nature (human and animal), instinct (masculine and feminine), self-preservation, domination, and possession.
The catalyst for it all, the fox (the male); an animal functioning out of a natural, violent instinct to dominate, or an animal of cunning?
Ellen: "You know, you do resemble him (the fox), Mr. Renfield. It's remarkable."

The Fox is one of the few "adult" films from my childhood I was unsuccessful in persuading my mom I was mature enough (at 10 years old) to see. Though crushed at the time, in retrospect I'm glad she didn't relent, for not only wouldn't I have understood it, but I'm certain that at the time I would have been deeply disappointed that this intelligent, psychologically intricate film wasn't the risqué, lesbian romp its ad campaign (and my pre-teen imagination) led me to expect.

When I ultimately got around to seeing The Fox in 1979 or so, I remember enjoying it, but somehow feeling afterward that I'd been the victim of a bait-and-switch. Over the years the film had developed a reputation as an LGBT favorite, but when it was all over—with Jill dead by murder/accident, and Ellen whisked away by the domineering Paul—I knew what I'd just watched wasn't a film depicting lesbianism so much as another Hollywood movie using the sensationalistic lure of homosexuality to merely: (quoting Karen Hollinger's book Feminist Film Studies) "validate the superiority and desirability of heterosexuality." A feeling I also got from a similar triangular tug-of-war in the 1984 film adaptation of Henry James' The Bostonians.
It's an opinion I still hold about The Fox, but having read the book and lived a good deal more of life since then, it's now just one of many opinions and impressions I'm left with regarding this fascinating and compelling movie.
Female & Male: Natural Enemies?

I began this essay by citing how difficult it is for films to dramatize distasteful behavior without audiences (me, in this instance) resorting to the knee-jerk response of disapproving of a film because they disapprove of the behavior depicted.
That's precisely what happened the first time I saw The Fox. The character of Paul (his being a fox and all) is supposed to be a disruptive force in the relationship of Jill and Ellen. Instinctively, without malice and without even knowing why, his male sense of superiority compels him to seek dominance over these women; in particular, a need to possess the life of Ellen, the woman most threateningly "masculine" and self-possessed of the two.
His marriage proposal (the least romantic on record, and underscored with ominous music) is more an act of authority and submission than a declaration of love. 
Paul, locking his prey in his gaze
Because I so strongly resented the negative subtext (the "weak" women being easily overpowered, the sexual pliancy of Ellen, the nagging femininity of Jill) and became preoccupied with my expectation of the film offering a conclusive, pro-individualism message. So keenly was I hoping for some last-minute sign of feminist redemption, it went entirely over my head how Paul's assumptive, force-of-will-dominance in the narrative (and seeming victory in the end) is depicted as an ultimately negative destructive force that actually (and tragically) results in none of the characters getting what they want.

The Fox turned out to be exactly the anti-machismo declaration I wanted it to be - an intelligent look of the predatory nature of man in the face of the vulnerable; but because it took the subtle, roundabout route, it took me several years and many viewings to catch it.

Of course, this is just my personal take on a film among whose many virtues lies its ability to be appreciated, interpreted...and even many different ways.
Ellen "What is there here for me, Jill?"
Jill: "Yourself. Something I could never take from you."
"And when he holds me, I feel I'm seeping into his flesh...and there's no more me."

No matter how one ultimately feels about The Fox as a film, it's hard not to credit its three stars with giving vividly realized performances. Anne Heywood - whose honest-to-god real name of Violet Pretty(!) makes me want to hug her - is sensational. I've never seen a single one of her other films, but I think I'd have a hard time seeing her as anyone but Ellen Marsh. Playing the most conflicted, least communicative character, Heywood somehow manages to make us feel Ellen's strength as well as her uncertainty. In the marvelous scene in which she reveals to Jill that she has always felt responsible for taking care of her, Heywood says it with such tender weariness it just breaks your heart.

The beautiful Keir Dullea (I'll do it for you now, so you won't have to: "Keir Dullea, gone tomorrow" - Noel Coward) is well-cast as the living embodiment of the fox. Facially, he's not the most expressive actor, but he's been blessed with the most astounding eyes, and it's they that do all the emotional heavy-lifting. 
Shot in a manner to best emphasize his vulpine features,
Dullea gives an appropriately sly performance

Coming as a surprise to no one, Sandy Dennis (long-rumored to be lesbian in real life, I certainly hope she was) is my favorite in the film. She's the warmth the film needs in the early scenes, but when she turns chilly, she's truly these scenes, the excitable Jill reveals an unexpected sturdiness. Dennis' Jill Banford is one of her least-mannered performances, but given her high annoyance ratio among film lovers, one can't help but feel she serves a purpose in The Fox not dissimilar to that which the casting of Shelley Duvall  served for Stanley Kubrick in The Shining: asked why he cast Duvall in his film, Kubrick gallantly responded: "Well, you gotta have somebody in that part that maybe the audience would also like to kill a little bit."

Lalo Schifrin's beautiful Oscar and Grammy-nominated musical score.

William Fraker's (Rosemary's Baby, Looking for Mr. Goodbar) breathtaking cinematography.
Paul wields his phallic ax
If it is Paul's wish to have Ellen lose herself within him, then it's imperative that he
remove the one person who reminds Ellen she has a self-worth preserving 

For movies to work for me, they don't have to always be about the truth. They can be just as engrossing and engaging if they are about a truth. The Fox is not the triumphant feminist/LGBT love story I thought it would be. But what it is I've seen played out countless times in my life.

You see it in the "mansplaining" phenomenon (which is nothing new). You see it in the way men like Donald Trump can only relate to women by trying to exert power over them; either through sexual objectification or, when feeling threatened, trying to belittle or destroy them in some way. I see it in gyms I've worked in, where men feel the need to exert a subtle superiority over women by being "helpful" and offering unsolicited workout tips.
You see it in the paradox of male fantasy fetishizing of girl-on-girl sex existing side by side with a real-world hatred and fear of lesbians and bisexuals.
The Fox explores how merely the idea of women existing without need for a man
can ignite a primal fear in the male
I've personally listened as scores of bright, accomplished, self-reliant women tell me they're looking for a man who'll boss them around or take control. I've been around when women with loyal cores of loving girlfriends dropped them all like hot potatoes when a fascinating man came along and consumed all their attentions.
Lost or Found?
When Ellen appears in her pink feminine finery, making like a contented, domesticated female,
has she reclaimed a suppressed part of her nature or surrendered herself to what Paul wants her to be?

These things are neither admirable nor desirable, and not even indicative of most people's relationships; but here, some 90 years after D.H. Lawrence put pen to paper, the contradictory and cruel power plays between men and women seem to have changed little.
For me, The Fox is an allegory about a particular kind of male/female dynamic, with the suggestion that what is instinctual and primitive is not necessarily natural.

I've been crazy about the poster art graphic design for The Fox since it came out. The striking poster is one of the most beloved in my personal collection. But I only recently learned that this marvelous work represents one of the very few examples of a Black artist being commissioned for movie poster work. The sublime poster is the collaborative art of Leo Dillion and his wife Diane Sorber, the award-winning illustrators of countless children's books. Apparently, it is the only movie poster they worked on.

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2016

Monday, May 16, 2016

ROCKY 1976

In a first for Le Cinema Dreams, I’ve handed this week’s post over to a guest blogger! I’m pleased to introduce Roberta Steve of Steel Town Girl. A marvelous writer and ‘70s film enthusiast after my own heart. I hope you enjoy as Roberta steps into the ring with the 1976 Best Picture Academy-Award winner, Rocky.

Growing up in a small, dying mill town in western Pennsylvania didn’t afford us many luxuries, so family night at the movies was a real treat.  My dad was a steelworker, and a rather eclectic movie fan.  He cheered for John Wayne in True Grit, and grieved with Sophia Loren in Two Women.  He loved discussing the movies we saw and prodding my sisters and me for our opinions.
Throughout the 60s, the boom years for steel towns throughout the region, there were lots of movies aimed at the family audience.  But by the 1970s, movies were changing.  Swear words, nudity, and violence were things my devout Catholic parents were not going to pay for us to see.  Especially with layoffs looming and money becoming tight.  Paying for five people to see a movie meant not paying for something else.

One night my mother suggested we go to see Cabaret.  It was a musical, so I’m sure mom thought it must be wholesome family entertainment.  We piled in the car and went off to the movie theater at the mall.  I remember sensing my dad’s uneasiness early on in the movie. My sisters and I grew even more uncomfortable with the decadence and sexuality, eventually slinking down in our seats.  My mom was silently praying for Julie Andrews and singing nuns to somehow show up in the Kit Kat Club in Berlin.
The ride home was stony silence.  My dad shooting “what were you thinking” glances at my mom in the front seat, my sisters and I trying to figure out what we had just seen in the back.  I had nightmares of Joel Grey’s false eyelashes for months.

It would be years before we saw another movie all together.

One day, at the dinner table, my dad commented that he’d read about a little movie that sounded interesting. “It’s about a boxer,” he explained.  “It’s called Rocky and I think I want to see it.” Apparently Newsweek magazine had run a blurb about its word of mouth momentum.
The movie hadn’t yet caught on nationally so it wasn’t playing at the big theater at the mall.  Instead, one frigid night, we drove to a deserted downtown to see it.  The small theater was not quite half full.  I was wearing my fake rabbit fur winter jacket with my black and gold Steeler pom pom hat.  I remember being annoyed that my mom wouldn’t buy me Milk Duds or Ju Ju Bees because they’d get stuck in my braces.

After the Cabaret disaster, I was especially tense about whether or not my dad would sit through the movie, let alone like it.  I spent the first part of the movie watching it out of one eye and my dad out of the other.  I was monitoring his reactions, waiting for the first f-bomb or naked breast that would cause him to pull us out of our seats and take us home in disgust.  He not only settled in; he was watching intently.
I relaxed and turned my full attention to the screen. Rocky was sitting in the fight promoter’s office, with people urging him to accept Apollo Creed’s unbelievable offer for an unknown boxer to fight the champ.  The camera stayed on Rocky’s face.  I felt how he was both afraid to take it and afraid not to.
I never looked away from the screen again.
My favorite scene in the film. Perhaps the last time we saw Stallone underplay until Creed.

Rocky is not a great film.  It is a very, very good one. There’s a reason it became a box office smash and a modern classic. It is hands down the most memorable and exciting movie going experience of my life.

The story is simple.  A down on his luck, no-name boxer in Philadelphia is given the chance of a lifetime to fight the flamboyant World Heavyweight Champion.  At the same time he is starting a tentative, tender romance with the introverted sister of his best friend.  He discovers his dignity and realizes he finally has something to fight for.

When the film came out, many sophisticated critics ridiculed it as a derivative fairy tale, some sort of rehash of a lesser Frank Capra movie. Sylvester Stallone, who starred as Rocky, wrote the screenplay and took the brunt of the criticism.  They had a point.  It was 1976, and compared to the cynicism of Network, the paranoia of All the President’s Men and the nihilism of Taxi Driver, this little movie seemed like a naïve fantasy.

But Rocky is full of anger, grittiness and sadness.  The story’s innate sentimentality is grounded in  drab, raw realness.  Nothing is “pretty” in Rocky.  The movie looks lived in.  Characters wear clothes, not costumes. People yell at each other.  A lot.  
The street where Rocky lives. He may have been from Philadelphia, but his story
echoed with working class folks on the western part of Pennsylvania too 

Because he was an unknown, and his script had made the rounds in Hollywood for a while, Stallone had to fight to get Rocky made and fight to star in it. The trade-off was the studio insisted on a low budget and quick filming schedule.  The entire movie was shot in 28 days.
Perhaps the two best things that happened to the movie were the budget restrictions and the studio bringing in a journeyman director, John G. Avildsen.  One reviewer called Avildsen “lazy.”  He wasn’t.  He simply got out of the way of a great story and cast the movie with actors who were either unknown or barely known to audiences.  It’s telling that the biggest “name” in the cast was Burgess Meredith.  (“Well he’s always good in movies, isn’t he?  He wouldn’t be in a dirty movie, would he?” my mom sweetly asked my dad on the way to the theater.)

There is a plainness and lack of self-consciousness in the performances that made me feel I wasn’t watching actors, I was somehow eavesdropping on real people at the most dramatic moment of their lives.  Stallone is undeniably appealing.  He wasn’t handsome, and in truth, he looks meaty, lumpy and pale.  You can believe he is a third-rate fighter.  Rocky was his creation, and he brings genuine humility, humor and heart to the role.  One wonders how Avildsen was able to reign in the self-reverential preening that Stallone displayed starting with the first sequel and perfected over his 40 year career.
The Rocky who won our hearts, before faux tan, hair mousse
and plastic surgery turned him into a robotic imitation 

Rocky’s love interest, Adrian, is the repressed, frightened, old maid sister of his best friend, Pauly.  Talia Shire, who was cast after Carrie Snodgrass turned the part down, brought both sensitivity and ferociousness to a woman who had never been valued in her life.  Her bitter confrontation with Pauly is achingly painful to watch.  Even her “makeover” is believable.  It looks like a prettier, younger cousin took her to the beauty counter at Wannamaker’s in downtown Philly and then bought her some new clothes.  The pantsuit she wears at the end of the film doesn’t even fit her properly.  Similar to Bette Davis’ brilliant transformation in Now, Voyager, Shire’s Adrian blooms from within.

Talia Shire was one of the last principals cast.
Susan Sarandon was screen tested but deemed “too attractive.”

Burt Young, as her loser brother Pauly, is used mainly for comic relief, until jealousy of his friend’s luck begins eating him alive.  He knows he may soon be abandoned by both Rocky and Adrian, and erupts from years of frustration, loneliness and hurt.
Burt Young's Pauly ruins the holiday.
I can still hear my mother muttering "poor Pauly" for days after the movie
every time she passed the Christmas tree

A former professional football player turned actor, Carl Weathers, plays the champion Apollo Creed, who Stallone obviously based on Muhammed Ali.  Weathers’ handsomeness, athleticism and crisp diction make him not only Rocky’s opponent, but his better in every way – he looks better, fights better and sounds better. Rocky knows he’s outclassed not just in the ring, but in life too.  Creed could have easily been a “villain” of sorts, but Stallone and Weathers make Apollo smart, savvy and completely in control of the “spin” surrounding the fight.
Apollo Creed looks for a small time fighter to face in an exhibition bout. He finds "The Italian Stallion."
Real life boxer Ken Norton turned the Apollo role down.

If there is any false note in the film, it’s the veteran Meredith as Rocky’s trainer, Mickey. Maybe it was because he was the biggest “name” in the film that the familiarity makes him seem less “authentic” compared to the revelatory turns by Stallone, Shire, Young and Weathers. When he first appeared in the film, my sister was waiting to hear him do the Penguin laugh from Batman. It’s the one performance in the film that, well, feels like a performance.
The producers wanted Lee Strasberg for the role of  Mickey but couldn't meet his asking price.

Avildsen cast the supporting roles with meat and potato character actors who looked like he grabbed them off the street in Philadelphia.  He generously gives Thayer David (the fight promoter), Tony Burton (Apollo’s manager) and Joe Spinell (Rocky’s small time gangster boss) moments that do much to create the gritty, small, ordinary world where Rocky knows his place.  It’s a harsh, grimy place, as are the people who populate it.
Spinell had an asthma attack shooting his first scene, and used his inhaler.
Avildsen used that take in the final cut.

Rocky was just the second film to use a Steadicam, which enabled the breathtaking shot of Rocky mounting the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art as well as the climatic fight scene.  For the famous training sequence, much of the footage, including Rocky’s run through the street market and on the quay by the boat, were shot on the fly – Avildsen and crew couldn’t afford to pay for the film permits.  Instead, they drove around in a van filming Stallone in improvised locations. That type of montage is now such a staple in movies, it’s hard to remember how fresh it was in Rocky.  So many post-Rocky “underdog” films have copied it (including Avildsen’s own Karate Kid) that you can’t believe it was never a cliché.
The inventor of the Steadicam first tested it with his girlfriend running up the steps of the  Philadelphia
Museum of Art. Avildsen saw the footage and it inspired the movie's most famous image.

Many film critics grumbled when Avildsen won the Oscar over other more well-regarded directors.  They blamed the win on the out-of-touch Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (sound familiar?)  The fact is, though, that the hipper Directors Guild gave their prize to Avildsen too.

Avildsen collects his Oscar.
He beat Ingmar Bergman, Sidney Lumet, Alan J. Pakula and Lina Wertmuller

Whenever I talk movies with fellow movie buffs, I see them roll their eyes when I bring up Rocky. Their perspective of the original film is skewed by its association with the sequels that followed. If only the story of Rocky ended when the film ended, with Rocky and Adrian frozen in a triumphant embrace.  Instead, Stallone, the producers, and the studio cashed in and pimped the characters out.  The newly trim, bronzed and blow-dried Stallone made Rocky into a cartoon, and threw the supporting characters to the side.  The sequels were overacted, overproduced, overblown, yet strangely underpopulated.  Rocky now lived in a vacuum. He was the only character that mattered. And don’t even get me started on the red sweat band in Rocky II.  It’s more frightening than Joel Grey’s false eyelashes.

Just all kinds of wrong.

It’s a shame that the sequels exploited and cheapened what made the original so stunning, and such a visceral experience 40 years ago.

It was deep in the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, Jimmy Carter administration malaise. We were worn down by inflation and oil embargos. In small towns like mine, an entire industry was collapsing.
Steel mills, coal mines and manufacturing plants were lumbering dinosaurs on their way to extinction.  Anti-heroes and emancipated women were the darlings at the box office.  Hard-working, decent guys like my dad were just looking for a break.  They weren’t seeing who they were – or who they wanted to be – on the screen.
The night before the fight, Rocky sees that a banner has the color of his trunks wrong.
(An actual mistake made by the props department.)
"Does it matter?" says the fight promoter, in a line that Stallone wrote on the spot.

Back to my parents and my sisters and I in a small theater on a freezing western Pennsylvania night. My dad and mom likely entered the theater that night with lots on their minds – car payments, mortgages, saving to send three girls to college, the nasty chronic cough my dad had from smoking too many cigarettes.  They were probably prepared to have another movie disappoint them, and embarrass their daughters.

With Rocky clutching Adrian in freeze-frame (it was the 70s) and the strains of Bill Conti’s iconic score playing over the final credits, someone in the audience began clapping. Soon everyone was on their feet applauding, which then turned into cheering.  I heard the man behind me tell his date “I feel like I could lift this theater on my shoulders right now!”  I did too. More importantly so did my dad. He was literally out of breath and invigorated when the movie ended.
Walking to the car, my family was excitedly replaying scenes and dialogue.  They were already planning on telling others at work, at church and at school to be sure to see Rocky.  I wasn’t.  In some strange way, I didn’t want Rocky to be a hit. I wanted it to remain something special that had happened just to us. No one will ever know or love these people like we did, I thought. Somehow, keeping the movie a secret meant being able to hold onto the joy forever. One of my sisters suggested that we come back the next night and see it again.  For a moment my dad considered it. I’m glad we didn’t.  While I’ve enjoyed seeing the movie again over the years, nothing will ever top that first time.

As we were driving home, my mom, sisters and I were arguing about whether or not Rocky had actually won the fight.  “What difference does it make?” my dad said from the front seat. “He was a winner either way.  All I know is when he ran up those stairs, I was right there with him.  What a movie!”
Yo, dad, you were right.  Rocky was a winner.  And a knockout.

Roberta Steve is a writer and blogger. A native of Pittsburgh, her Steel Town Girl blog details coming of age in the 1970s.   She is also writing her first play and advocates for mental health awareness. A film buff, sports fan, fashionista, and sometime actress, you can find her on Facebook at Steel Town Girl, or follow her on Twitter @Bertie913.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016


 “There’s no such thing as a bad girl.” – Mother Veronica, head nun and CEO of Girls Town

Well, happily for me and producers of low-budget “girls reform school” exploitation flicks, the above is not altogether true. 

When I was growing up, late-night and weekend afternoon TV overflowed with 1950s juvenile delinquency movies (“black-&-white-shoe pictures” as they were known in our house, in reference to the two-tone saddle oxfords favored by bobbysoxers of the time). With their jazz/bop musical scores, sound-alike titles, and interchangeable casts of superannuated teenagers; these films were near-identical in their faux, anti-social emphasis—faux because no matter how extreme the civic insubordination, by fade-out you could be sure yet another blow had been struck for conformity and middle-class conservativism—and preoccupation with drag racing, leather jackets, tight sweaters, rock & roll, switchblade skirmishes, and beat generation slang.

Mainstream movies only occasionally touched on the phenomenon of 1950s youth culture. It was a time when population (the sheer number of teenagers), rock & roll music (anarchy with a beat), autonomy (car culture), and economic independence (postwar prosperity), all converged into a marketable and exploitable social force that Hollywood couldn't ignore.

In those rare instances when mainstream films paid attention to teen culture at all (1956s The Girl Can’t Help It, for example), young people and their distractions were either satirized or held in derision. Most films about teenagers were made with the adult gaze in mind. Only the Drive-In market (independent B-movies and exploitation films) made movies specifically FOR the teenage market that were intended to actually celebrate the teenage revolution. 
Ain't No Party Like A Girls Town Party
But even these films made middle-of-the-road concessions to propriety. Almost as a public service, these films took it upon themselves to prove that the national surge in juvenile delinquency was merely due to a few bad apples, and that outside of the need to occasionally blow off a little steam (growing up in the shadow of the Bomb and the Cold War was stressful, man), American teenagers were basically good, decent kids who wanted the same things their parent's wanted out of life.

The success of Marlon Brando’s The Wild One (1953) and Blackboard Jungle (1955) launched a spate of male-centric juvenile delinquent knockoffs, but movies about gangs of lawless teenage boys have been around since at least 1938 -- the year Spencer Tracy sought to prove to Mickey Rooney “There’s no such thing as a bad boy” in Boys Town. Far more interesting were those movies about girl gangs and female reprobates. A teen knockoff of the '40s Women's Prison picture, these films were not only a lot more fun, but given the narrow image of womanhood promoted in movies at the time (girlfriends, mothers, housewives, or objectified objects of the male gaze), the emergence of the tough-talking, no-nonsense gangster girl: choosing to live life on their own terms—flouting both authority and social mores—looked to me to be the only social archetype to genuinely embody the characteristics of the true rebel.
As I was raised in a household with one television set and four sisters, all of whom reveled in the feminist subtext of these low-rent opuses, I saw a great many women in prison/reform school girl flicks growing up. One of my enduring favorites is Girls Town.
Mamie Van Doren as Silver Morgan
Paul Anka as Jimmy Parlow
Margaret Hayes as Mother Veronica
Gigi Perreau as Serafina Garcia
Mel Torme as Fred Alger
Elinor Donahue as Mary Lee Morgan
After being falsely accused of the accidental death of a former boyfriend (a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him appearance by Harold Lloyd Jr.), overdeveloped and underachieving high school senior Silver Morgan (the name a gender-switch tip of the hat to Mickey Rooney’s Whitey March), a peroxide punkette with attitude to spare, is sent to Girls Town, a youth correctional facility run by stern but tender-hearted nuns.
Silver, precariously balancing a mountain of platinum hair and prodigious curves on a pair of high-heeled, open-toed mules, is a gum-popping, slang-spewing hellcat who doesn’t take well to authority figures or being told what to do. Although she resists rehabilitation at every turn and frequently butts heads with the nuns and several of the other, surprisingly compliant, Girls Town detainees; we all know that, at heart,  Silver is more a hard-luck case and victim of circumstance than a genuinely "bad" girl. 
Hulking, Big Ethel-ish Peggy Moffitt and B-movie queen Gloria Talbott play Flo and Vida,
the inseparable pair who maintain Girls Town order

Personally, I’d have been perfectly content were the film to consist solely of scenes devoted to Silver cooling her well-shaped heels at Girls Town, mouthing off to any and all, showering suggestively, getting into cat-fights, and instigating confrontations with the nuns (a la Hayley Mills in The Trouble With Angels). But the makers of Girls Town all-too-frequently shift the spotlight from Mamie van Doren (never a good idea) to follow through on a couple of subplots. 
Subplot #1 has Silver’s restless 15-year-old sister Mary Lee (Father Knows Best’s Elinor Donahue, decked out in a blond wig, tight sweater, and behaving in a very un-“Princess”-like fashion) blackmailed and potentially shipped off to Tijuana for her part in and knowledge of the real circumstances surrounding the death of Silver’s ex. Preposterously, these threats come from “The Velvet Fog” himself, diminutive, elder hot rod gang member Mel Tormé (whose character, despite looking well into his 30s, lives in fear of his father taking his car away).
Carrying on in the Family Tradition (click on photo to enlarge)
Although difficult to make out, that's Harold Lloyd Jr on the left clinging to a mountain cliffside in a pose recalling the iconic skyscraper sequence from his father's 1923 silent film Safety Last!

The other subplot—superfluous, but by far the most campily entertaining of the two— features another crooner, Paul Anka, as pop star Jimmy Parlow, upon whom Serafina, a lonely Girls Town orphan, is delusionally fixated. Teen sensation Paul Anka makes his film debut in Girls Town, singing almost as many songs as Olivia Newton-John did during the finale of Xanadu, and serving in practically the same magical capacity in this film’s plot. Indeed, Anka’s character swoops in to save the day so often, one wonders where he finds time to cut one of his many, sound-alike, loneliness-themed records.
Popular singing group The Platters make an appearance in a sequence set in a smart supper club (to which Silver wears the most laughably inappropriate outfit imaginable). The Platters was my father's favorite singing group so I practically grew up on their smooth sound. The group was known for its frequent changes of personnel, so perhaps that's why the face of the lead singer (the disembodied hand to the right)  is never shown

Meanwhile, as Silver manages to sneak in a date with a 36-year-old delivery boy (bandleader Ray Anthony, Van Doren’s husband at the time), Girls Town shoehorns nepotistic “guest star” appearances by: Harold Lloyd Jr, Charlie Chaplin Jr, Jim Mitchum (eldest son of Robert), Cathy Crosby (Bing’s niece), and pseudo-star cameos by the likes of Dick “Daddy-O” Contino, Hollywood gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, and martial arts pioneer, Bruce Tegner.
In addition to all this, time is set aside for sexual assault, a potential suicide, human trafficking, social commentary, and the standard juvenile delinquent movie staples consisting of:
Make-Out Sessions
Cat Fights
Drag Races
Remarkably, all of these labyrinthine plot entanglements wind up being neatly resolved and expeditiously dispensed with by fade-out. Silver, while still maintaining her ostentatiously lewd clothing sense, learns respect for authority and finds religious redemption (of sorts) after Jimmy subjects her to a grueling rendition of “Ave Maria.” Mary Lee is saved from an involuntary run for the border, and lonely Serafina gives up stalking Canadian pop singers with hero complexes and becomes a Fangirl for Jesus. By all appearances, Girls Town ends with the scourge of teenage delinquency well and soundly vanquished.

When I was a kid, afterschool TV consisted of reruns of programs like The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show, and Leave it to Beaver. Although I enjoyed them all, each suffered from what felt like an unrelenting, almost propagandistic endorsement of a kind of bland suburban conformity so artificial it seemed beamed in from another planet. The one welcome deviation from this plastic norm was Leave it to Beaver’s Eddie Haskell, a refreshingly candid, wise-guy anarchist whose appearance on the show was practically subversive in its ability to make the program's promoted standards of middle-class “good citizenship” look absurd. 
All Revved Up
Fred corrals Mary Lee into taking part in a drag race. Jim Mitchum stands looking into the camera center frame in the dark clothing and glasses, Charles Chaplin Jr stands with his arms folded, and that's accordion maestro Dick Contino dressed like Tom Slick. 

It's that quality of defiance of the norm that I most love in ‘50s juvenile delinquency movies, and Girls Town is one of the most enjoyable of the lot. Lighter in approach than the social commentary JD movies like The Cool and the Crazy or High School Hellcats, Girls Town’s inconsequentiality (it exists primarily to showcase Van Doren’s assets and Anka’s music) makes it easy to be enjoyed purely as a camp timepiece.
I have no idea what teenagers thought of the film at the time, but it’s a laugh-riot from start to finish now. Even without the uproarious running commentary provided by the Mystery Science Theater 3000 team in the edited, most readily-available version of the film.
Vida & Flo share a secret glance (how did this get past the censors?) as Jimmy Parlow 
croons a love song to the wayward girls of Girls Town
William Claxton 1964
In a movie full of actors on the cusp of transition (Paul Anka not long after underwent a nose job, and Mamie Van Doren split from husband Ray Anthony the following year), none is as startling as that of 18-year-old Peggy Moffitt. Cast as Flo, a girl sent to Girls Town because she was so unattractive she stole money to pay for cosmetics and fancy hairdos, Moffitt would go on—as muse and model to futuristic fashion designer Rudi Gernreich—to become one of the most famous and iconic faces of the '60s.

How Do You Solve A Problem Like Silver?
Mother Veronica (Margaret Hayes, the harassed teacher in Blackboard Jungle) and Sister Grace (gossip columnist and F. Scott Fitzgerald mistress Sheilah Graham) discuss the pros and cons of giving Silver Morgan a "poke in the kisser."

As one of the platinum blonde 3-Ms of the ‘50s (Monroe, Mansfield, and Mamie) Mamie Van Doren carved out a niche for herself as the bad girl of B-movies. I haven’t seen enough of her films to access her talent as an actress (she seems a good light comedienne), but I can tell you that in Girls Town she has a vivacity and presence that makes it difficult to watch anyone else when she’s onscreen. The performance Van Doren gives may not be considered "good" by any objective standard, and though neither she nor any of the other major players are believable as teenagers, her prototypically '50s charm and somewhat hard edge makes her ideally suited for the material. Girls Town drops several degrees Fahrenheit whenever the story veers away from her.
Infinitely more convincing as a tough-cookie troublemaker than Ann-Margret was in Kitten With a Whip, Van Doren possesses a tongue-in-cheek sexiness and sass that suggests Mae West more than Monroe. 
Silver (certainly one of the screen's most energetic listeners) steps out with
superannuated delivery boy/Private Investigator Dick Culdane (Ray Anthony)

At least half of the Girls Town screenplay is devoted to bop talk and slang. I have no idea if the dialect is authentic or exaggerated, I just know that it makes for a very quotable movie.
All quotes attributable to Silver Morgan:

"You’ve gotta let me out of here! There’s nobody to take care of her but Aunt Scrooge...and she’s cracked!"

"Aw, Don’t flip your wig… I got your signal"

“Big deal. King Groovy comes to Dungeonsville to make with a song for po’ little ol’ us. What do you want me to do, kiss your foot?”

"Hey, who are them apples, the Junior WACs?"

"Go flap your plates!"

“I got tired of you cats with the fast cars and slow heads. You give me a pain in the ears”

“Ok if I use the Alexander Graham?”

"Stop draggin’ your axel!"

"What’s my crime, dad? For not having as much moola as this jerk? Or my old lady wasn’t in the social register?"

“You’re in queersville, man. You’ve flipped.”

"Go bingle your bongle!"

Lovely Cathy Crosby (whose character isn't even given a name) pops up out of nowhere to serenade The Dragons - rival hot rod gang to The Jaguars - at a "crazy weenie roast" with the Paul Anka composition "I Love You" only to disappear, never to be seen again

If the male juvenile delinquent movies of the ‘50s owed more than a passing nod to the Warner Bros. gangster films of the ’30s, then the exploitation movie bad girls of the era were simply a gum-popping, teenage iteration of the ‘40s film noir femme fatale. What gives this particular incarnation its ginger and snap is the percussive beat of rock and roll, the restless hum of Youth Culture, and its unexpectedly (and perhaps unintentionally) progressive female lead. Girls Town, free of its half-hearted social commentary, is a great deal of mindless fun. A shining specimen of time capsule camp. Mamie Van Doren rocks!

In a movie whose 90-min. running time is excessively padded out with musical numbers which somehow manage to be both brief and interminable, not affording the well-padded Mamie van Doren a solo feels like a particularly egregious omission. We do get to hear Miss Van Doren sing (in that flat, rocker-chick style later adopted by Debbie Harry of Blondie) a verse of the film's theme song during the opening credits, but as everyone knows, as a vocalist, Van Doren is strictly a visual act.

Apparently '50s censors thought so too, for it seems Anka penned a swingin' rock and roll ditty for Van Doren that was shot and later cut from the film for being too suggestive. Not the lyrics, the setting: Silver Morgan sings the song "Hey Mama" while wriggling around in the shower as she prepares for her date with the 36-year-old delivery boy.
Thanks to the wonders of the internet, here's that heretofore unseen Mamie Van Doren number in all its glory. "Hey, Mama" has the same melody as the film's terrific theme song and is as catchy as hell. And as you might expect from Miss Van Doren, her performance of the song is nothing short of crazy, cool, and fantabulous!

Not a success during its initial release, when Girls Town was re-released in 1964, its dated, Drive-In-friendly title was changed to the bland and nondescript The Innocent and the Damned 

Copyright © Ken Anderson   2009 - 2016