Writers: Orin Borsten, Paul Mason and Samuel Roeca, from the novel Jenny Angel by Elsie Oakes Barber
Stars: George Hamilton, Mercedes McCambridge, Joan Blondell, Henry Jones, Burt Reynolds, Roger Clark and Miss Salomé Jens
So, how to begin fixing that so you can watch without getting confused? Well, let’s kick off with the young lady who’s the title character. She begins the picture as Jenny Brooks, who has been mute since the age of eight, after her father hit her. Her devout mother, who’s poured all her money into medical treatments to no avail, brings her to a travelling evangelical preacher, Brother Paul Strand, in the hopes that she can be healed in a revival tent. Jenny is happy fooling around with bad boy Hoke Adams outside but Ma drags her in and, to her own amazement, Brother Paul manages to stir her into speech. It’s a miracle, ladies and gentleman, a miracle! And so when the show packs up to get back on the road, Jenny is there to go along for the ride and dedicate her life to serving the Lord. Now, if you’re imagining Brother Paul Strand as that ‘greedy promoter’, you’d be leading yourself astray. He’s a good man, spreading the gospel by whooping and hollering in summer revival meetings all across the deepsouth.
Reynolds is surprisingly impressive for a supporting role in his first outing, but for all the testosterone on display in his scenes, this isn’t about the guys; it’s about the girls. It was named for a woman, based on a book by a woman, Jenny Angel by Elsie Oakes Barber and it stars three women, each of whom is far more interesting than their male colleagues. Jenny is played by ‘Miss Salomé Jens’, who lands an ‘introducing’ credit, because her future should clearly start here with a serious lead rather than her two previous titles, Showdown at Ulcer Gulch, a comedy short made by Chico Marx’s Disney animator son-in-law, and Terror from the Year 5000, a cheap sci-fi flick from Robert J Gurney Jr. She’s well cast here, pretty but plain, with the ability to look lost one minute and then let her eyes come alight and steal the show the next. It’s the exact combination that she needs to play Jenny and she does it well. She’d go on to a lot of TV work, like Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, but surprisingly few films of note.
And that leaves Mercedes McCambridge as Sister Sarah Strand. As she would have been a hundred years old on 17th March and her screen husband here is currently a dashing hit on reality TV, we can safely say that there was an age difference and not in the usual direction for classic Hollywood. She had 23 years on George Hamilton, who, making his fifth feature, was younger than the debuting Burt Reynolds, who has a full three years on him. McCambridge was also by far the biggest star in the picture, having won both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for her own screen debut in 1949, as Best Supporting Actress for All the King’s Men. She’s known for classic Hollywood roles in Johnny Guitar, Giant and Suddenly, Last Summer, not to mention an uncredited spot in Touch of Evil, whose auteur, Orson Welles, called her ‘the world's greatest living radio actress’. Yet her filmography is wildly versatile, as highlighted by her ending the sixties with The Counterfeit Killer, Women’s Penitentiary XII and Marquis de Sade’s Justine.
And so Angel Baby hits the road, with Mollie and Ben in tow to help run a new revival show: Jenny Angel, Miracle Girl, Preacher of the Ages. It’s here that we meet that ‘greedy promoter’ from the synopsis, albeit one who isn’t as outrageous as that suggests. He’s Sam Wilcox, a successful pharmacist and apparently a devout man, who witnesses Jenny in action as she persuades a murderer into a confession, then protects him from the mob until the police can take him. He proposes to manage and finance her with the spiritual line, ‘Are you cutting me in, Miss Angel?’ He’s no crook, he simply understands how money works and he sees her as just another product. Well, at least until temptation comes knocking and commandments are ready to be broken. There is a story here, after all, and Roger Clark gets to contribute plenty to its growth until the Strands inevitably rejoin it and we can move towards the finalés, one that follows Sister Sarah’s beliefs and one that follows Brother Paul’s. The very end could have gone a few ways but it works well.
I’d suggest that the film sits uncomfortably between the passionate dramas of the fifties and the social exploration of the sixties. It’s late for the former and early for the latter, so it tries to do both and doesn’t quite succeed at either. It’s often compared to Elmer Gantry, an earlier novel by Sinclair Lewis which was adapted to the screen in 1960, a year before this film, with Burt Lancaster and Jean Simmons. Given the many differences between Angel Baby and Jenny Angel, it’s no stretch to see Elmer Gantry as frequent a source as the credited one. It does well though, with its strong performances and confident camerawork, courtesy of Emmy-winning Jack Marta and double Oscar-winning Haskell Wexler, who died last December. The story remains the weakest link, because it doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. It’s engaging but predictable. It’s traditional but modern. It’s ambitious but careful. There are too many incompatible goals for it to truly stand out but it does remain an interesting member of the crowd. Can I get an amen?