One of the most inter­est­ing film­mak­ers to emerge from the train­ing ground of Roger Corman’s New World Pictures dur­ing the 1970’s was Jonathan Demme.  He nev­er dis­played the  b-movie obses­sive­ness of a Joe Dante and despite a hand­ful a gen­re items in his post-Corman cat­a­log (like the Oscar-win­ning Silence Of The Lambs), he’s bet­ter known for the indie sen­si­bil­i­ty he shows in crit­i­cal­ly beloved fare like Melvin And Howard and Something Wild.  That said, he man­aged to fit the mold nice­ly dur­ing his Corman days, deliv­er­ing movies that could play at the dri­ve-ins while work­ing in con­cerns that were unique to his cine-per­sona.

In fact, Demme man­aged to cre­ate a per­fect fusion of his sen­si­bil­i­ty and Corman’s com­mer­cial needs in his sec­ond film, Crazy Mama.  Corman intend­ed for this film to fol­low in the foot­steps of Big Bad Mama but what Demme and screen­writer Robert Thom came up with is a dif­fer­ent sort of beast.  It deliv­ers the shootouts, rob­beries and car chas­es that dri­ve-in needs dic­tate but what real­ly dri­ves it is the film­mak­ers’ deeply felt iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with its char­ac­ters — and what their actions have to say about America.

But first, a bit of plot sum­ma­ry: Melba (Cloris Leachman) is a sin­gle mom try­ing to keep a beau­ty shop afloat with the help her mom, Sheba (Ann Sothern).  When the land­lord takes it away for their fail­ure to pay the rent, they steal his car and take off with Melba’s new­ly-preg­nant daugh­ter Cheryl (Linda Purl) and her surfer boyfriend Shawn (Donnie Most).  The wom­en intend to reclaim the Arkansas home­stead that was tak­en away years ago by a greedy banker.

Of course, the ladies’ plan will require plen­ty of legal ten­der so they turn to armed rob­bery to finance their dreams.  They also begin to build an extend­ed fam­i­ly as they trav­el along, with Melba pick­ing up a new boyfriend/crime part­ner in run­away Texas play­boy (Stuart Whitman).  Greaser/biker Snake (Bryan Englund) and kind­ly old-timer Bertha (Merie Earle) also join the gang as their crim­i­nal deeds grow big­ger and more dar­ing.  Of course, the law will even­tu­al­ly close in on this rag­tag crew — and the des­ti­na­tion they even­tu­al­ly reach might not be what they are expect­ing.

Crazy Mama is impres­sive on mul­ti­ple lev­els.  For starters, it is sev­er­al films at one time — road movie, crime movie, women’s film, com­e­dy, dra­ma — yet it nev­er feels over­stuffed or mis­con­ceived.  The ragged edges of the low bud­get show here and there but Demme directs it with flair and con­fi­dence, deliv­er­ing a stun­ning amount of plot and inci­dent in a tight run­ning time while man­ag­ing to do jus­tice to a big ensem­ble of char­ac­ters.  It some­times feels like Altman decid­ed to make one of his movies Corman-style and cram it all into 85 min­utes.  Demme also does a great job of evok­ing the 1950’s, using an oldies sound­track to great effect and weav­ing some nice touch­es like Burma Shave signs into the mon­tages.

The film also boasts a unique cast.  Leachman was a big suc­cess on t.v. around the time this was made and she gives the main char­ac­ter a sort of screw­ball-com­e­dy grace that fits Demme’s fast-and-fun­ny style beau­ti­ful­ly.  Sothern also brings a boozy yet sharp-tongued charm to her role as a south­ern-fried matri­arch and Purl is charm­ing as the con­fused but inde­pen­dent-mind­ed daugh­ter.  Elsewhere, Whitman has one of his bet­ter 1970’s-era roles as Melba’s gam­bler beau, bring­ing a nice world-weary sense of humor to the pro­ceed­ings, and Sally Kirkland and Jim Backus score with ener­get­ic turns in bit roles on the periph­ery of the sto­ry.

However, the ele­ment of Crazy Mama that real­ly dis­tin­guish­es it is the amount of heart both Demme and screen­writer Thom have invest­ed in the film.  The heroes have their foibles and Thom doesn’t shy away from let­ting the audi­ence see them but he also paints them as good-heart­ed  vic­tims of cir­cum­stance.  They’re all beau­ti­ful losers who find them­selves left out of the American Dream but still find the nerve to fight for their own ragged lit­tle piece of it — and Thom finds a strange beau­ty in their quest to regain their hon­or by any means nec­es­sary.  He also scores some fun­ny digs at the heart­less nature of big busi­ness and insti­tu­tions in America — and how the “pro­gress” both crave can roll over the lit­tle peo­ple with­out con­science.

Demme fully hon­ors the heart­felt nature of Thom’s sce­nar­io in his direc­tion, apply­ing his nat­u­ral empa­thy towards female heroes to the tri­umvi­rate of wom­en who dri­ve the film.  These ladies may be short on luck and mon­ey but they have plen­ty of courage and charm (as Cheryl says near the end of the film: “Oooh, my fam­i­ly sure got style!”). The way the pro­tag­o­nists band togeth­er as one big, odd­ball fam­i­ly in Crazy Mama is gen­uine­ly touch­ing and Demme makes the most of this aspect of the film — a scene where Bertha opens up to the group, telling them this is first birth­day she’s spent with a “fam­i­ly” in years is mag­i­cal and heart­break­ing all at once.

In short, Crazy Mama might not be as wild or splashy as oth­er New World Pictures touch­stones but it’s a dis­tinc­tive and lov­ing­ly made film  that dis­plays the promise that Demme would soon real­ize in his big­ger-bud­get­ed ven­tures.  Anyone inter­est­ed in his career — or the high­lights of the New World library — should check it out.

Crazy Mama / The Lady In Red [Double Feature]

Crazy Mama / The Lady In Red [Double Feature]

Two action packed, gun tot­in’ films for one price!Crazy Mama: A wid­ow in the 1950s begins a wacky life of crime when she los­es her beau­ty par­lor. She’s joined by her moth­er, her preg­nant daugh­ter (and her boyfriend), an old lady, a greaser and a defect­ing sheriff.Director: Jonathan Demme (The Silence Of The Lambs, Philadelphia, Stop Making Sense)Stars: Cloris Leachman, Stuart WhitmanThe Lady In Red: A farm girl flees her abu­sive father and lands in a sewing sweat­shop in Chicago, where the girls are exploit­ed by a sleazy man­ager. After land­ing in jail, she becomes a pros­ti­tute and then a wait­ress while falling in love with a mys­te­ri­ous hit man.Director: Lewis Teague (Cujo, Cat’s Eye, The Jewel Of The Nile)Stars: Pamela Sue Martin, Robert Conrad, Louise Fletcher, Christopher Lloyd