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Monday, September 28, 2009

Kitten with a Whip


It's time to give a shout out to that sassy, brassy fireball of entertainment known as Ann-Margret. In more than five decades in show business, she's appeared onscreen with legends Jack Nicholson, Steve McQueen and Elvis. She was immortalized in cartoon form as Ann-Margrock in "The Flintstones." She entertained American troops in remote parts of Vietnam. She survived a devastating accident during a rehearsal in Lake Tahoe. And most importantly, she showed the industry that she had some serious acting chops with acclaimed performances in films like Carnal Knowledge, Magic and 52 Pick-Up.

But it's those campy movies that give her an opportunity to cut loose that have earned her an honored spot in Weird Movie Village. Here's a sampling:

Kitten with a Whip (1964). Wow—what were her managers smoking? Enjoying a positive career trajectory after State Fair, Bye Bye Birdie and Viva Las Vegas, A-M went decidedly downmarket in this prime slice of low-budget Universal '60s trash, one of several films she would make for major studios laboring under the mistaken impression that they were providing "hip" product for the youngsters. What those youngsters got instead was an already hilariously dated melodrama with A-M starring as the titular kitten Jody, who claws her way into senatorial candidate John Forsythe's suburban home while his family is away. Discovering her sleeping in his daughter's bed, he threatens to call the police, but Jody gives him a sob story about running away from home after being sexually abused by her stepfather, so he buys her new clothes and drops her off at the bus station to start off on a new life.


While out with a friend, however, he sees a television bulletin revealing that Jody is in fact a delinquent who made a violent escape from a juvenile facility. And when he gets home, of course, there she is. Again he moves to the phone, but she threatens to tell the authorities that he raped her. Worried about his political prospects (and his wife), he finds himself playing reluctant host to Jody and her gang of really clean-cut beatnik pals.

A-M is wildly over the top in this juvenile delinquency epic, and that's precisely why it's earned a special place in our hearts. Whether she's purring seductively to Forsythe or holding a broken bottle to someone's throat, she's firing on all cylinders. Forsythe, on the other hand, is so consistently low-key that at times he appears medicated. And the dialogue is priceless. Jody frequently refers to feeling "creamy," and one of her beatnik friends, after being seriously wounded, says, "I'm dyin' in a rush, man."

This would make a great double-feature with another black and white Universal classic of similar vintage, William Castle's I Saw What You Did (1965). In it, two teenage girls having a slumber party prank call a man who's just murdered his wife, whispering to him, "I saw what you did and I know who you are," unaware of what he'd just done. This leads to a night of terror as he hunts them down to silence them permanently.


Two years later, A-M reunited with Birdie and Vegas director George Sidney for a slice of allegedly "with-it" '60s psychedelia, The Swinger. Here, A-M is Kelly Olsson, a wholesome Midwestern girl who lives in a Los Angeles mansion with a bunch of artist types. While waiting in the lobby of "Girl Lure" magazine, she is mistaken for a model, despite her insistence that she's a writer. When they only show interest in her body, though, and she hits upon a plan. She'll write a story so salacious they'll just have to publish it! Now, if you're a wholesome wannabe writer whose ambition is to have your work appear in "Girl Lure" magazine, aren't your priorities a little...well, wait. It gets weirder.


She cobbles her story together by plagiarizing sleazy paperbacks. And did I mention that the creative process involves slinking from room to room with her hair blowing in a nonexistent wind? "Girl Lure" editor and ersatz playboy Ric Colby (Anthony Franciosa) rejects the manuscript, claiming that it's fake, but she insists that it's her story.

The magazine's old letch of a publisher, Sir Hubert Charles (Robert Coote) wants to get a glimpse of her swingin' lifestyle, so he drags Ric to the mansion where Kelly has enlisted the aid of her artist friends to put on a show they'll never forget, which includes becoming a human brush as she writhes around a canvas covered in psychedelic paint, clad in a bikini. Suitably shocked, Ric now wants to save Kelly from herself and —like Pygmalion—turn her into a lady.

A private detective informs Ric that Kelly is a fake with virginity intact, but he's enjoying watching how far she'll go now to prove that she's a tramp. The situations get more outlandish and awkward until she finds herself on a strip club stage performing "That Old Black Magic."



Do you think Ric and Kelly will end up together? Of course they will. This is the goofy sixties, with a major studio desperately trying to emulate a counterculture it knows absolutely nothing about. But with A-M going full steam ahead, performing the title song twice—once in black leather and then on a swing—you can't lose!


The final selection today is somewhat polarizing. In 1975, A-M starred as Nora Walker in Ken Russell's film of The Who's Tommy. I refer to it as polarizing because people either consider it over-the-top camp trash or a stroke of cinematic brilliance. I think it's a little bit of both. As Tommy's mother, A-M gets a chance to sing, emote ferociously, get sexy with Jack Nicholson and Oliver Reed and seduce her son. And she also gets another opportunity to roll around in liquid substances—this time soap suds, baked beans and chocolate.

Now if you're familiar with Ken Russell's ouevre, subtlety is not his stock in trade. In The Music Lovers, looney Glenda Jackson gets gangbanged in an insane asylum. In Lair of the White Worm, delicious Amanda Donohoe slithered around topless with really huge fangs. And Kathleen Turner gave her all to the "architect-by-day/whore-by-night" opus Crimes of Passion.

Of course, A-M took full advantage of the freedom Russell encouraged while actually managing to give her character multiple dimensions. She's at varying times earthy, glamorous, maternal, devout and dowdy...all in the same film!

Distraught that Tommy (Roger Daltrey) has become deaf, dumb and blind as a result of seeing her lover, Frank (Oliver Reed), kill her husband (Robert Powell) when he returns home unexpectedly from the war, Nora embarks on a series of crazy cures in the hopes of restoring his faculties. These include visits to a quack specialist (Nicholson), a faith healer (Eric Clapton) at the Church of Marilyn Monroe (whose communion consists of a pill and a swig of booze),  and the Acid Queen (Tina Turner, who gives A-M a run for her money in the freak-out department). Notice how all these solutions involve drugs?

Nothing works, but Tommy reveals a talent for pinball and becomes rich and famous. Nora, still guilt-stricken but enjoying the trappings of success, is drunkenly watching television in her bedroom and singing about her woes when Tommy appears on the screen. Unable to change the channel, she hurls a bottle through the tube and the aforementioned liquids begin to cascade out of the box. Of course, she rolls around until she's completely coated in the mixture. Wouldn't you? Finally, confronting Tommy in the same room (which the servants did a really good job of cleaning up, incidentally), she accidentally throws him through a large mirror on the wall and—surprise—he's healed!


Now Tommy gets all Christlike and makes everyone in his circle renounce their indulgent lifestyles, unaware that hangers-on are cashing in on his fame more than before. And when his flock finally turns on him ("We're not gonna take it") at a retreat for the faithful, Nora and Frank are killed in the ensuing riot. Undeterred, Tommy simply links their dead hands together, strips off his shirt, dives into a lake (which looks really cold), climbs a mountain and becomes one with God. I think.

In preparing my comments about Tommy, I did a lot of Googling and was surprised to see how many people felt the film was a life-changing experience for them. I wouldn't exactly say it changed my life, but I enjoyed watching it and still do. I still remember the groovy "Quintophonic" sound when it played the theaters back in the day.

Since A-M won the Golden Globe and was Oscar nominated for this role, let's give her the last word. Here she is at her unhinged best, singing "Smash the Mirror."

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