Some thoughts on Roger Corman and Robert Thom... Next week the Austin Film Society is showing the nightmarish American masterpiece Bloody Mama at the Dobie on Wednesday, May 21 at 7:30pm and Saturday, May 24 at noon. (No, I'm not introducing this film, but I am on the Film Society's board.)
By now, anyone seriously interested in film is at least aware of Roger Corman, a champion of exploitation and new talent and a genius of the low-budget film. Corman filmed B classics Little Shop of Horror in two days and Bucket of Blood in five. When The Raven finished two days early, Corman used the sets and the fact he still had Boris Karloff under contract to write a script overnight, and then to film The Terror, starring Karloff and a young Jack Nicholson (pickup work was done on it by some of America's most talented young directors, including Monte Hellman and Francis Ford Coppola). The stories about Corman's genius for exploiting situations and possibilities, as well as his eye for spotting talent, are legion. Nicholson, Peter Bogdanovich, Barbara Hershey, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Bruce Dern, Ron Howard (as a director), Francis Ford Coppola, John Sayles (as a writer), Sylvester Stallone, among others, did some of their earliest work for Corman. Roger Corman the filmmaker is just as intriguing. Not just for the literally hundreds of films his companies, his wife Julie, and he have produced, but the dozens he directed. Between 1955's Five Guns West and 1970's Von Richtofen and Brown, he directed 45 films (and produced another 30). In 1955 he directed two films, five in 1956, nine in 1957, and then slowed down to two to four films a year for awhile. Corman's work is exciting because he compensated for a lack of budget by becoming a terrific stylist; his films bustle with energy and ideas. Corman's wit dominates the proceedings, thus some of the weaker films such as Attack of the Crab Monsters and Not of this Earth are not just stupid but lunatic. Films like Teenage Doll, Little Shop of Horrors, and Machine Gun Kelly offer a view of American life that is comic-book defined, fiction that is tabloid but still resonant. (Teenage Doll is just great!) Corman's early films are fun for their audacity, energy, and imagination while some of the later films -- The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, Masque of the Red Death, Wild Angels, and especially Bloody Mama -- need no context.
Robert Thom is not as famous as Roger Corman. Neither is Robert Thom as well-known as Monte Hellman or Michael Miller, and neither of them are remembered well (Hellman directed numerous films, including 1971's notorious Two-Lane Blacktop and the extraordinary Cockfighter. Besides being a producer on Pulp Fiction, Miller directed Jackson County Jail). Thom was a Yale graduate whose thesis was a play written in the style of Racine; he went on to Broadway where he worked on Compulsion, among other plays. He ended up in Hollywood as scriptwriter on The Subterraneans (1960), a lame effort but still one of the few Hollywood adaptations of Jack Kerouac's work, and All the Fine Young Cannibals (1960). After several years' absence, Thom next surfaces in 1968, and over the next few years he is the original author or scriptwriter of several of the weirdest American films ever made, including The Legend of Lylah Clare (D: Robert Aldrich, 1968), Wild in the Streets (D: Barry Shear, 1968), Bloody Mama (D: Roger Corman, 1970), Crazy Mama (D: Jonathan Demme, 1975), and Death Race 2000 (D: Paul Bartel, 1975). Thom wrote and directed Angel, Angel, Down We Go in 1970. Holly Near (yes, that Holly Near), Jennifer Jones, Jordan Christopher, Lou Rawls, and Roddy McDowell star in this classic of nails-on-chalk board cinema that passionately raises the question of exactly which audience this film intended to entertain.
Sometime after this, Thom retired to a farm in Oregon to live out his days with actress Millie Perkins (who played Anne Frank in the original Diary of Anne Frank). Paul Bartel told me that Thom's script was virtually unfilmable until it was rewritten, just too weird and extreme... these words coming from the director of Eating Raoul, Lust in the Dust, and Scenes of the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills. Jonathan Demme told me essentially the same thing about the script for Crazy Mama, the story of a cross-country outlaw run by three generations of women -- a grandmother (Ann Sothern), mother (Cloris Leachman), and daughter (Linda Purl) -- and my favorite of all these films.
Bloody Mama brings together the talents of Corman and Thom to tell the tale of Ma Barker and her son's Depression-era criminal spree. Shelley Winters is more than over-the-top as the cigar chomping, machine gun shooting Ma. Notably in the film is a very early Robert De Niro performance as the junkie son. (After this film, Winters went around Hollywood saying De Niro was a genius and was going to be a big star.) Bloody Mama runs out of energy before it is through, but this is the gangster story of a family that, in Grace Slick's words, lays together and stays together, and rips along in the beginning. One scene has son Robert Walden lying in bed with ex-cellmate Bruce Dern (who used to beat Walden to a pulp in prison for both of their satisfactions) after a murder. Ma comes into the room and says, "Come on." Walden whines, "No, Ma -- not tonight, please.
"Not you," Ma responds. "You," she points at Dern. With a sick Dern grin, he rolls over Walden, grind his hips against him, and goes off with Ma while Walden stays on the bed putting out a cigarette in his hand. A bizarre kind of family comedy, this movie is not for everyone. But for those who might like this kind of stuff....
Last thoughts on the Chronicle. We lose two of our staff's and readers' favorites this week, "Council Watch" columnist (and one of Austin's most eligible bachelors) Alex de Marban is heading to Alaska. Managing, Food, and Features editor Jennifer Scoville is going to work for Texas Monthly, editing their website. Scoville has been den mother, too, at many parts of this operation for a long time and will be much missed. They both leave with the staff's love, affection, and good wishes for their futures.