Shelley Winters was BLOODY MAMA, Angie Dickinson was BIG BAD MAMA, and in 1975, Cloris Leachman was CRAZY MAMA. Set in the late 1950s, Leachman stars as Melba Stokes, a middle-aged woman who runs a beauty parlor in California with her aging mother Sheba (Ann Sothern) and teenage daughter Cheryl (Linda Purl). When the shop is repossessed by a banker in a fez (a great bit by Jim Backus), Sheba and the other ladies take a road trip to the old family home in Arkansas. Also along for the ride is Cheryl's redheaded surfer boyfriend, Shawn, played by Donny Most of "Happy Days" fame (here billed as "Donn Most).
The gang quickly takes to a life of crime, robbing filling stations, supermarkets, and eventually banks. While playing the slot machines in Vegas, Melba falls for wayward sheriff Jim Bob Trotter (Stuart Whitman, THE MONSTER CLUB), Cheryl falls for a greasy biker named Snake (played by Leachman's son Bryan Englund) and Sheba befriends and elderly lady named Bertha (Merie Earle), who ran away from a nursing home. Melba and Jim Bob allegedly get hitched so their gang can rob the chapel before hitting the road again. Another scheme makes it seem that Jim Bob has been kidnapped so they can extort money from his wealthy wife (Sally Kirkland), but the plan backfires and all hell breaks loose.
Jonathan Demme's second feature (the first being CAGED HEAT in 1973) is a fun slice of 1950s Americana exploitation, made during the short period in the mid 1970s when that era was hot again. Clocking in at a brisk 80 minutes, CRAZY MAMA has no time for characterization, but the cast plays it great as an ensemble of wacky eccentrics. Rated PG and aiming for comedy, it still manages to throw in some nudity, violent shoot-outs, car chases and crashes, as well as shifting locales that makes this look more expensive than your average New World production. Demme's recreation of the era (complete with a soundtrack filled with choice oldies) is right on the money with the exception of several anachronisms in the form of some shaggy 1970s hairdos (Whitman's especially) and a "Radio Shack" sign seen in the background during a parade. Look for cameos by Corman regulars Dick Miller and Beach Dickerson, as well as a very young Dennis Quaid as a bellboy. Tisha Sterling (Sothern's real-life daughter) can also be seen playing her mother as a young woman during the opening pre-credit sequence.
CRAZY MAMA was previously available on DVD from New Concorde in a full frame transfer which put the picture’s composition totally out of whack. Shout Factory! gives us a welcomed update/replacement with this new anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) presentation and the framing appears as it should. Transferred from a UCLA Film Archives print, the 35mm source has some lines and debris, but it’s never anything severe. The color appears to have faded on this source as well, but they have been corrected during the transfer process, with some remnants of the warming hues still in check. The mono English audio is perfectly acceptable.
Director Demme does a commentary with and is interviewed by Roger Corman, and these two supplements have been carried over from the old New Concorde release. You would think that the director of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and PHILADELPHIA would be pretentious and look down on his past, but Demme is exactly the opposite. The video interview has Demme and Corman sitting in a studio discussing how they first met, and they actually both defend exploitation cinema with great fervor. The commentary has the two of them watching the film more than talking about, but it's still great fun to listen to. Corman had no real direct involvement with the production (his wife Julie produced it) so his thoughts are limited to comments, but Demme makes up for it with some interesting bits of trivial information. Demme's initial encounter with Corman came out of his being a big fan, and his enthusiasm for these kinds of films still shows. Other extras for CRAZY MAMA include the energetic trailer for the film, which juxtaposes authentic "Howdy Doody" footage and is narrated by the Real Don Steele, and two TV spots.
In depression-era early 1930s, a young woman named Polly Franklin (Pamela Sue Martin, who had just finished a run as “Nancy Drew” on network TV), with aspirations of a more exciting life, runs away from her abusive father and soon takes a job as a seamstress in a sweatshop. A revolt against the sexist boss (Dick Miller) has her move on to a “dime a dance girl” gig, where she is soon trapped by an undercover detective for prostitution and thrown in the slammer. A dubious deal with the heartless, unethical guard (Nancy Parsons, MOTEL HELL) lands her residence in the whorehouse run by Polish immigrant Anna Sage (Louise Fletcher, STRANGE BEHAVIOR), which includes run-ins with crooked cops, sleazy reporters and various homicidal gangster types. When Anna’s establishment is brought down by the feds, her whole crew, Polly included, operate a coffee shop, and it’s there that the young woman meets a dapper gentleman (Robert Conrad) who enters her life as the love she’s been searching for her. Unbeknownst to Polly, this mild-mannered man happens to be Public Enemy #1, John Dillinger, laying low and buying time before the law catches up with him.
Directed by Lewis Teague and written by John Sayles (the team who would go on to do the more popular ALLIGATOR the following year), THE LADY IN RED is stylish, excellent storytelling, and it may well very be New World Pictures’ finest attempt at a gangster flick. Sayles’ script rises above the usual exploitation trappings to tell the fictionalized account of the woman who brought down Dillinger with unpredictability, giving Polly a wild journey through all the seedy characters and life-threatening events before and after Public Enemy #1 was shot down in front of the Biograph moviehouse in Chicago. The film is character driven, with sharp dialog which makes certain that even the supplementary players are given some sort of back-story or distinct personality, and it’s not afraid to toss in some racism and social commentary. Teague’s direction is always lively and fast-paced, mixing well acted drama with the usual Corman requirements of more than a few car chases as well as blood and boobs, of which the latter there is more than a sufficient amount of. In fact, some of the violence can be fairly sadistic and shocking, but it all seems befitting to the plot (and after all, this is a Corman film).
Pamela Sue Martin turns in an above average performance as a small town innocent lass tossed into a corrupt big city world where everyone she befriends meets some kind of untimely demise, and her character has totally evolved by the end of the picture. Aside from Oscar winner Fletcher and TV favorite Conrad (known for his tough guy roles, here playing a very low key and gentle Dillinger, as seen through the eyes of Polly), other cast members include Christopher Lloyd (as a nutcase killer with a disturbing birthmark covering a good part of his face), Alan Vint (as G Man Melvin Purvis), Mary Woronov (as another “lady in red” who happens to be Polly’s first run-in with crime) and an un-billed Robert Forster as gangster Turk (Forster would star in the Teague/Sayles collaboration ALLIGATOR the following year). Look for Russ Meyer starlet Kitten Natividad as one of the background bordello party girls, always appearing topless or in something very see-through!
Also known under its re-release title GUNS, SIN, AND BATHTUB GIN (really!), THE LADY IN RED was previously available on DVD from New Concorde in a full frame transfer. Shout! Factory now presents the film in anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) transfer which looks more than decent. Light lines, debris and other manifestations are present on the print source (which obviously wasn’t the original negative), but it’s nothing too off-putting. Much like with the CRAZY MAMA transfer, colors sometimes lean towards the warmer side, but overall hold up pretty well. The mono English audio track comes off fine, with no mentionable imperfections.
Shout! Factory’s DVD for THE LADY IN RED boasts two new audio commentaries. The first commentary features director Teague and the un-billed star Forster as they share some recollections together, and Teague makes a handful of scene-specific comments. The talk has lots of moments of dead space, and could have really used a moderator. The second one is much better, featuring writer Sayles and producer Julie Corman. Sayles dominates the track, finding plenty to cover, as he dissects his script, its characters and situations and how it all connects. He even mentions that the original screenplay was much longer, but pages had to be removed to condense the running time. Two theatrical trailers (the original and the re-release) as well as a brief still gallery (which also covers CRAZY MAMA) round out the extras, and you can watch both features together as a “grindhouse experience” with trailers for other titles in the “Roger Corman’s Cult Classics” collection. (George R. Reis)
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