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Thursday, 17 March 2016

Angel Baby (1961)

Director: Paul Wendkos
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
Sometimes reading up on a movie before watching it, even just synopses at IMDb that ought to be free of spoilers, can be rather misleading. Angel Baby kept me on the hop, because it does a lot more than what I was expecting and it does it in different ways to how it intends. For a start, there’s an opening text which recommends (rather late, I should add) that ‘you consider carefully this picture’s suitability for viewing by impressionable children.’ That suggests a salacious exploitation picture, albeit not too salacious as this is 1961, especially as IMDb plays up a clash between a woman ‘who believes she has been chosen by God’ and a ‘greedy promoter and his shrewish wife’. Well, you can safely ignore all that. This isn’t exploitative in the slightest, playing out instead as a melodrama with serious underlying themes. There is a clash, but not of the sort you might expect from that synopsis. Also, while we do have both a greedy promoter and a shrewish wife, they’re not married to each other and they feature in separate plot strands. Whew.

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.
He’s also played by a young George Hamilton, so it’s no surprise to find young Jenny falling hard for him, especially as they’re of much closer ages than his wife, Sister Sarah, who’s the gatekeeper for their show. And, for all the exuberant praising of the Lord’s name, this is at heart a much more down to earth story, a good old fashioned love triangle which merely has Jesus hovering behind each of the three corners like a little angel on these folks’ shoulders, or perhaps a little devil because, of course, we’re not going to leap headlong into a happy ending. Hamilton wanted a happy ending of his own, deciding after four prior films to make ‘better, more serious movies’ mostly to impress his girlfriend’s family. I’m not sure how that story ended up, but he’s decent here as a holy roller with passion and verve, if not as a fighting man. The actor who debuted as Hoke Adams later commented that ‘George Hamilton beat me up in this film. Does that tell you something?’ That’s Burt Reynolds, a sexy muscled beast even if he hadn’t grown into himself yet.

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.
She’s the lead, so we watch more of her than anyone else, but I couldn’t keep my eyes off her two female co-stars whenever they’re on screen. One is Joan Blondell, a vivacious thirties actress who progressed to more serious roles as she got older and larger. She’s Mollie Hays here, Brother Paul’s pianist who’s a little too fond of the juice. ‘Whiskey undid me,’ she tells Jenny, and it’s what surely prompts her drunken vision of something floating around the girl which she interprets as being an angel; and that’s how Jenny Brooks becomes Angel Baby. As won’t be surprising to anyone who’s enjoyed Blondell’s earlier movies, she’s the one with all the character here. Jenny is more notable for what she represents, but Mollie is more notable for who’s giving her life. She works well with Henry Jones, who plays her husband Ben, and she steals her fair share of scenes, whether drunk or sober. She also drives many of the key direction changes and stays on top of everything. She was more vibrant early in her career, but more interesting as time went on.

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.
Of course, her most famous role is surely providing the voice to the demon that possessed Linda Blair in The Exorcist, making her role as a preacher’s wife here a neat contrast. There’s further contrast between the Strands too: Brother Paul is a New Testament kind of guy, healing the sick and believing in positivity; Sister Sarah, though, is Old Testament to the core, preaching hellfire and damnation with the fallen angel never far from her tongue. Her monologues are productions, perfect for a seasoned radio actress able to wrap her considerable talent around lines like those following their first contretemps over Jenny. ‘Oh, the devil has you in his grip,’ she mutters to him. ‘I know how swiftly Satan moves to coil his evil web around the heart.’ She escalates. ‘Why doesn’t God rain fire and brimstone down upon these women?’ she asks. ‘Show him the raging fires of Hell that burn in this woman’s eyes. Show him the Damned. Show him the fallen angels writhing in torment.’ Finally she gets to the point. ‘You must exorcise this devil, Paul.’

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.
From what I can tell, not having read Elsie Oakes Barber’s 1954 novel, this doesn’t follow it with any real zeal. For a start, it’s about Giannina Angelina who leaves a Boston slum for a mission, to be named Jenny Angel and marry Kendall Wyatt, before setting out as an evangelist. The Strands and the Hays appear to be the product of the scriptwriters; while Sam is in the novel, he seems to be rather different here; and a further subplot not in the film would appear to be the most important in the book. So this is a very loose adaptation and I wonder what it really aimed to accomplish. It appears to be pro-religion, pro-evangelist and even pro-faith healer, but it sets up awkward questions for the faithful in 1961. How did Sister Sarah pluck the 23 years younger Paul out of a choir to marry her and yet remain chaste? Are we supposed to see their different approaches to faith as equally valid or make a judgement call and call one false? And what of a love triangle between preachers? Marriage as purgatory doesn’t seem particularly biblical.

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?

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