by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The movie at the library was Cry-Baby, John Waters’ immediate follow-up to Hairspray and his first film following the death of his iconic Transgender star, Divine (though one of the parents in this send-up of 1950’s juvenile-delinquency films is played by someone named Mink Stole, so even though Divine was dead Waters was still recruiting heavy-set drag queens to be in his films) and his first film with a major star, Johnny Depp, perfectly cast as Wade “Cry-Baby” Walker, leader of a gang of party-boys and party-girls called “The Drapes” in 1954 Baltimore. The story is basically a Romeo-and-Juliet tale of romance between Walker and Allison Vernon-Williams (Amy Locane), “square” granddaughter of grande dame Mrs. Vernon-Williams (a practically movie-stealing Polly Bergen), and how he manages to steal her away from her “square” boyfriend Baldwin (Stephen Mailer) despite getting himself and his whole gang arrested for a gang fight the Squares actually started, which gives Waters the chance to throw in a production number pretty obviously based on the title song of Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock.
The plot of this one isn’t all that important, and though there’s an undercurrent of racial comment (especially in the raunchy Black R&B the Drapes listen to — a surprising amount of it rocked-up versions of 1920’s and 1930’s songs like “Cherry” and “Jungle Drums” — versus the bleached-up white rock like “Sh-Boom ,” “A Teenage Prayer” and “Mr. Sandman” the Squares like) it’s clearly not as important a plot element as it was in Waters’ immediately preceding film, Hairspray. Cry-Baby struck both Charles and I as a total delight, full of Waters’ “gimmick” casting (including Patricia Hearst as one of the Drapes’ mothers and former porn star Traci Lords as her daughter — I read Lords’ memoir and she said Waters was very kind and patient with her as he guided her through her, uh, acting debut, and that Johnny Depp was kind enough when they actually performed together but he had the usual formidable entourage keeping them apart when she wasn’t actually acting in a scene with him) and with some marvelous gimmicks, including a long scene that seemed like a parody of the infamous tunnel-with-rats sequence in El Norte (Depp has been imprisoned in a reformatory and he’s attempting to escape through the sewer pipes; he runs into rats and one of the rats seems to be guiding him, only he emerges still in the prison and the rat who led him there is shown visibly and audibly laughing at him on screen), an odd film to be parodied in a movie whose other meta-cinematic references include more predictable ones like Jailhouse Rock, Grease and Rebel Without a Cause (the film ends with a chickie-run, though not the drive-off-a-cliff kind of Rebel but the otherwise better-known version in which two cars barrel towards each other and the first driver that swerves away is the “chicken” — which doesn’t stop Waters from quoting the famous shot from Rebel in which the other cars’ headlights light up to illuminate the scene).
Though it’s not at all a realistic film, Waters’ evocation of the period is generally right (judging from the movies of the time), and I give him points for digging up such obscure early 1950’s R&B records that there was only one song representing the Drapes’ side of the film that I could recall having heard before (Esther Phillips’ “Bad Girl”). Indeed, there are enough original songs in this film it would seem on that ground alone, at least, to be a better candidate for musical adaptation than Hairspray, and both Johnny Depp (who comes off much like the young Elvis in the sort of movie Elvis should have been making all along — though no doubt if Elvis had still been alive when Cry-Baby was filmed Waters would have wanted him for some weird cameo) and Amy Locane had voice doubles, Depp’s being someone named James Intveld and Locane’s being Rachel Sweet, who also co-wrote many of the songs written especially for the film. Charles and I richly enjoyed the movie, finding it as funny as just about anything made in the last 20 years (there’s also a delightful scene in which the inmates of the reform school are made to recite a litany of prayers, starting with blessings to the people who put them there and are guarding them and ending, “God bless Dwight D. Eisenhower, God bless Roy Cohn. God bless Richard Nixon” — though I didn’t recognize him, the guard leading this litany was Willem Dafoe),though Ralph DeLauro’s opinion was clearly different. Ralph did something I’ve never seen him do in years of library filmgoing — instead of giving an introduction he just switched off the lights and hit the play button — and on my way out when I told him how much we’d enjoyed the film, he sniffed, “Not his best.”