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.