If Demme’s career wasn’t exactly helped by this somewhat endearing mess, he had much greener pastures ahead.
“It’s the first time in 17 years I haven’t been alone on my birthday. I feel like I have a family again.”
This bittersweet line in a mostly cheap period-crime movie shows the kind of human touch that director Jonathan Demme gave to even the most throwaway material. Crazy Mama, his second feature for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, doesn’t quite transcend its genre limitations, but it paved the way for better road movies to come.
Demme’s low-budget first feature, Caged Heat, benefited from a few behind-the-scenes luminaries. It was shot by Tak Fujimoto, who lensed Terrence Malick’s debut Badlands and would work with Demme on and off throughout their careers. It also featured a score by Velvet Underground alumni John Cale, who mixed a blues pastiche with strange strings for an unusual sonic stew.
Crazy Mama did not have such bona fides. Incidental music was provided by an outfit called Snotty Scotty and the Hankies. Demme was only assigned the film 10 days before shooting began, taking over after Corman parted ways with director Shirley Clarke, an independent filmmaker (The Connection) who never broke out of the underground. Still, this hybrid of American Graffiti and Bonnie and Clyde, although it clearly looks like the product of a cheapo exploitation house, still has the air of the alienated American cinema of the ‘70s.
In a prelude, we see the Stokes family in Jerusalem, Arkansas, where in the ‘20s the family farm was taken away by the government. More than 30 years later, the relocated family, now in California, again find themselves with their livelihood about to be taken away, this time a beauty shop. Melba Stokes (Cloris Leachman), her daughter Cheryl (Linda Purl) and her mother Sheba (Ann Sothern) soon set off on a multi-state crime spree to raise money to buy back the family farm in Arkansas.
As in Caged Heat, Demme is again charged with romanticizing the lives of outlaws, this time through the added gauze of nostalgia. The movie’s soundtrack is peppered with the ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll oldies that were in vogue at the time. But from the beginning of his career, Demme’s musical cues refused to stay obvious for long. Benign hits like the Chordettes’ “Lollipop” move over for the film’s apt recurring theme, the Bell Notes’ “I’ve Had It,” whose out-of-tune guitar and world-weary vocals echo the characters’ out-of-tune weariness. Even Nervous Norvus’ “Transfusion,” an old novelty song, evokes a ‘50s America that isn’t safe and simple, but uncertain and dangerous.
This was a cynical look at America indeed. On their way back to reclaim the family farm, the Stokes stop in Las Vegas where they meet Bertha (Merie Earle), the lonely elderly woman whose quote opens this piece. Sheba and Bertha both win a handful of nickels at the slot machines, and following Bertha’s lead of invoking God and country before every pull of the one-armed bandit, they run through a litany of slogans such as, “Only you can stop forest fires” and “Tippecanoe and Tyler too!” as they proceed to lose all their meager winnings. America has screwed them over again.
Demme’s satire of the corrupted American dream extends to kitschy roadside attractions, such as a motel made up of teepee-shaped bungalows with TV antennae jutting out from their peaks. The Stokes family travels back to Jerusalem like pilgrims visiting the Holy Land, but what they find is of course a different town, now run by the Muddes (suggesting a corruption of the very earth?) the same family that killed the Stokes patriarch many years ago. There’s even a fake kidnaping scheme where, after Melba marries supposed millionaire Jim Bob (Stuart Whitman) in Vegas, the Stokes try to get money out of his ex-wife.
With frequent shootouts and unlikely escapes, Crazy Mama comes off like a free-wheeling B-movie on the fringes of American independent cinema, which isn’t far removed from the Stokes’ entrepreneurial spirit in the first place. They somehow land on their feet, and if Demme’s career wasn’t exactly helped by this somewhat endearing mess, he had much greener pastures ahead.