Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Girl in Lovers’ Lane (Robert Roark Productions, 1959)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I showed was a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 presentation of a movie that in some ways seemed too interesting to be appropriate for their ridicule — though in others it was just right for the “treatment.” It was The Girl in Lovers’ Lane (the title doesn’t contain an apostrophe but it bothers me too much to leave it out!), an indie made in 1959 by Robert Roark Productions (I couldn’t help thinking of his near-namesakes — Howard Roark, Ayn Rand’s superman architect in The Fountainhead, and the 1950’s author Robert Ruark) and directed by Charles R. Rondeau from a script by Jo Heims.

It’s a very simple plot: for some reason we’re never quite told (the synopsis says he’s a rich kid and he’s doing this because he’s upset that his parents were just divorced, but that’s not all that apparent from the actual film), Danny Winslow (Lowell Brown), a decently dressed young man with $100 in his wallet, decides to start hopping trains and living as a hobo. As the film open he’s fleeing two men who are trying to rob him; he throws his wallet into the boxcar of a train that’s about to leave, then follows it inside and meets up with Bix Dugan (Brett Halsey, top-billed), who’s supposed to be an experienced hobo but doesn’t look any seedier than Danny — they both look like people who regularly get three squares, clean clothes and a place to shower and shave. Bix grabs Danny’s wallet and there’s some doubt as to whether he’s going to give it back, but eventually he does, albeit with some warnings aimed at trying to keep Danny from getting rolled in the future.

The two take the train to a nearby small town, getting off a mile away so they don’t get arrested at the railroad yard when the train pulls in, and from then on most of the action takes place at the small-town diner owned by Cal Anders (Emile Meyer) and staffed, it seems, mostly by his daughter Carrie (Joyce Meadows). From then on the film is 78 minutes of surprisingly little action; mostly it’s talk, as Carrie welcomes the attentions of Bix and fends off those of Jesse (Jack Elam), a tall man with bad hair who hangs out at the diner and has a decidedly unrequited crush on her. Jesse is supposed to be so repulsive that no woman in her right mind would want to go out (or have sex) with him, but in fact all it looks like is he’s in need of a comb — and Elam is by far the most talented actor in this film (and, not coincidentally, the only person in the cast I’d heard of before).

Anyway, the film is basically Of Mice and Men meets Baby Doll, as the characters speak a lot of pseudo-“poetic” dialogue (I was pretty sure Jo Heims was inspired by Tennessee Williams) and occasionally go out to the meadow outside of town (a pretty obvious soundstage “exterior”), where Jesse attempts to rape Carrie and Bix happens on the scene to stop him. There’s an attempt to move us with Bix’s internal conflict — should I stay or should I go? Should I settle down to a relationship with a woman who I love and who loves me, or should I leave her and hit the road again? — though this becomes academic when Jesse confronts Carrie in the meadow a second time, and this time Bix happens on the scene too late to spare her; mortally wounded by Jesse’s assault, she dies in Bix’s arms and naturally Bix is assumed to be the guilty party. Not only is he arrested, but Carrie’s father organizes a lynch mob, which grabs Bix from the jail and starts beating him up — until Danny brings in Jesse and gets Jesse to blurt out that he raped and killed Carrie. Bix and Danny hit the road again as the film ends.

I’ll give The Girl in Lovers’ Lane credit for daring a lot more than your average cheap, exploitative drive-in movie with a no-name cast; there’s almost no action to speak of, Jo Heims is attempting to write a serious drama (though Tennessee Williams’ brand of faux “poetry” was bad enough when he did it — virtually none of Williams’ plays persuade us that any real people talk like that — and Heims’ attempt to do his schtick is even worse) and director Rondeau (punning on the meaning of his name as a musical term, I joked that he would use the same footage again and again — though this film is actually refreshingly sparing in its use of stock footage) tries to bring it some atmosphere, but the sheer pretension of the plot and the lack of serious dramatic incident hamstrings the movie. So does the cast; there aren’t any truly bad actors in it (except maybe Meyer, who’s an even more repulsive screen presence than the character needs to be to make the story’s points about him) but, aside from Elam, there aren’t any especially good ones either and it’s no mystery why even the most hardened movie-goers haven’t heard of most of these people.

The MST3K people did their best to spoof a movie that really didn’t offer them most of their usual targets for humor — the best they could come up with was referring to Bix Dugan as “Big Stupid” (his name jarred me, too, but only because I’m not used to hearing about people named Bix who aren’t jazz musicians, just as I remember reading a story in the Los Angeles Times in the late 1980’s about Elvis Cooney, who led the Sandinista party on an island offshore of Nicaragua, and whom I recalled as the first person I’d heard of named “Elvis” who wasn’t a rock ’n’ roll singer by profession!), and their interstital segments were considerably more amusing than their offtakes on the movie itself.