BIG BAD MAMA starring Angie Dickinson was an enormous hit for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures—the studio’s biggest to date—so it should come as little surprise that Corman had the similar CRAZY MAMA in theaters a year later. Somehow, he convinced Academy Award winner Cloris Leachman (THE LAST PICTURE SHOW) to star in it. Leachman was no past-her-prime matinee queen trying to hold on to old glory (as when Corman cast Shelley Winters in 1970’s BLOODY MAMA). She was extremely popular on THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW and in TV-movies, getting nominated for Emmys almost every year, and it’s a mystery why she chose to do a low-budget comic action programmer for drive-ins.
One guess is that she saw something in director Jonathan Demme that Corman did and the rest of the world soon would. Later the Oscar-winning director of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and PHILADELPHIA, Demme broke into Hollywood the way many other filmmakers did—in Corman’s trenches at New World. After writing and/or producing the women-in-prison flicks THE HOT BOX and BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA, Demme made his directing debut with another one, CAGED HEAT, which garnered critical acclaim unusual to the genre. More importantly, it made New World money and influenced Corman to hire Demme to direct another violent melodrama with female leads: CRAZY MAMA.
With more humor and less sex and violence than BIG BAD MAMA, Demme’s film suffers from its lack of exploitation elements. The director and screenwriter Robert Thom (DEATH RACE 2000) are going for a screwball vibe in its attempt to parody 1950s kitsch, but instead they’ve created a lot of racket and wheel-spinning. A soundtrack packed with hit singles (“All I Have to Do Is Dream,” “Money,” “Lollipop”) and Burma Shave spoofs are little substitution for wit.
Frustrated with the system after banker Albertson (Jim Backus) takes their California beauty shop, Melba (Leachman), her mother Sheba (Ann Sothern), and her pregnant daughter Cheryl (Linda Purl) steal a car and head to Arkansas to buy back their long-ago-foreclosed farm. To get the money, they pull a series of robberies with the help of Cheryl’s meek boyfriend Shawn (Donny Most), 82-year-old Bertha (Marie Earle), greaser Snake (Bryan Englund, Leachman’s son), and gambling sheriff Jim Bob (Stuart Whitman), who becomes Melba’s new Vegas husband.
Editors-turned-directors Allan Holzman (FORBIDDEN WORLD) and Lewis Teague (ALLIGATOR) try to piece together a cohesive story, but too many plot points are lost in the cacophony (like John Aprea’s photographer character), and the postscript showing us the fates of the surviving characters feels like a copout.
Dick Miller, Sally Kirkland, Carmen Argenziano, Beach Dickerson, Clint Kimbrough (husband of co-writer Frances Doel), Will Sampson (ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST), and Tisha Sterling, who plays a younger version of her real-life mother Sothern’s character, appear in support. You can also see Dennis Quaid making his (silent) film debut as a bellhop and THE WIND AND THE LION director John Milius as a bearded cop. Demme, who stepped into CRAZY MAMA after Shirley Clarke (THE COOL WORLD) dropped out, made a third film for Corman—the action picture FIGHTING MAD with Peter Fonda—though it was produced for 20th Century Fox.
A smart script by John Sayles (PASSION FISH), then a member of Roger Corman’s screenwriting stable, lends 1979's THE LADY IN RED some class. Pamela Sue Martin, then something of a name coming off the Nancy Drew TV series and a Playboy spread, stars as Polly Franklin, the young acquaintance of gangster John Dillinger who was by his side when he was shot down in Chicago in 1934.
In actuality, the “Lady in Red” was the moniker given to Anna Sage (Louise Fletcher), the madam who informed the FBI of Dillinger’s whereabouts that day. I guess Corman or Sayles liked the title, though, and manipulated the narrative so that it pointed towards Polly. Martin is quite good as both the innocent who leaves a rough home life with her abusive, religious father to make it on her own in the city and as the confident prostitute who learns to toughen up behind bars. Despite her squeaky clean television image, she has no problem carrying this mature picture.
TV star Robert Conrad (then on BAA BAA BLACK SHEEP) has much less screen time than the film’s marketing lets on, but essays the notorious baddie Dillinger as a happy-go-lucky guy who looks like more of a hero than the Feds who blow him away. Director Lewis Teague, a New World editor directing his first film (he was fired during production of DIRTY O’NEIL) throws in plenty of action and nudity to occupy the drive-in crowd, while the good performances and occasional humor elevate the movie to one of New World’s classier releases.
THE LADY IN RED, shot in four weeks for under a half-million dollars, was not successful at the box office, however. In an attempt to find an audience, New World retitled the film GUNS, SIN & BATHTUB GIN (!) and put together a coarse trailer that must have included practically every nude scene and blood squib in the movie. The new campaign failed, and THE LADY IN RED, while surely a moneymaker, became a rare Corman misfire.
You can see both CRAZY MAMA and THE LADY IN RED on Shout Factory's latest Roger Corman Cult Classics DVD. All of CRAZY MAMA's supplements come from the old New Concorde DVD, over which the new disc is a great improvement. Demme and Corman provide an interesting commentary track--thankfully, the A-list director doesn't look down on his early exploitation work--and also shoot the shit in a sitdown interview also taken from the New Concorde disc. A theatrical trailer and some TV spots complete the CRAZY MAMA extras, as well as a poster gallery that includes THE LADY IN RED material.
Shout Factory has also included a couple of trailers, including its re-release spot as GUNS, SIN & BATHTUB GIN, for THE LADY IN RED, which gets two audio commentaries, both new. The first, teaming director Teague and co-star Robert Forster, who goes uncredited in a small role as a sympathetic hitman named Turk, is something of a disappointment. It really needs a moderator, since the two men have little to say about the film. It eventually goes out of sync, meaning they're talking about scenes we won't see for another couple of minutes, and they eventually just give up talking altogether. Much better is the second commentary pairing writer Sayles and producer Julie Corman. Sayles, a bright guy who did a lot of research into Dillinger, dominates the track so much one wonders whether Mrs. Corman gets a bit bored listening to him.
We also get trailers for other Corman flicks now or soon available on DVD: THE GREAT TEXAS DYNAMITE CHASE, SMOKEY BITES THE DUST, BIG BAD MAMA, CAGED HEAT, and THE BIG BIRD CAGE.