Monday, March 22, 2010

Kitten with a Whip (Universal, 1964)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I eventually watched the 1964 film Kitten with a Whip, one of the legendary bad movies of all time and an inexplicable role choice for Ann-Margret after her blockbuster hits of 1963, Bye, Bye Birdie and Viva Las Vegas (the former an Elvis-inspired tale of what happens when a major rock star gets drafted, and the latter a vehicle to pair Ann-Margret with the real Elvis). She plays a 17-year-old J.D. named Jody Dvorak, who escapes from a women’s reformatory after having set fire to the place and badly burned one of the guards, then hides out in the home of a respectable something-or-other (I don’t think we’re told exactly how he makes his living now) who’s considering a run for U.S. Senator from California. The character, David Stratton, is played by John Forsythe, and when he discovers her — she’s slipped into his home while he was briefly out and his wife was out of town, and cuddled in an upstairs bedroom with a teddy bear in a scene that’s obviously supposed to make us think of her as a latter-day Goldilocks — he naturally wants to call the police. She threatens him by saying that if he does so, she’ll tell the cops he invited her for lascivious purposes and thereby ruin his political career — a plot development which after Teddy Kennedy and Chappaquiddick, Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, Elliot Spitzer and his “escorts” and now the bizarre quadrangle of John Edwards, his cancer-stricken wife, his girlfriend and the aide Edwards told to say was the father of the baby he’d sired with the girlfriend, plays differently and far more seriously than it no doubt did in 1964 (when the political-media code of omertà that kept JFK’s affairs from the American people during his lifetime still applied).

Kitten with a Whip was described on the side as bad enough that instead of watching the “straight” version I’d recorded off TCM last Friday, I figured the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 version on the archive discs (from 1994, after Mike Nelson took over from Joel Hodgson as the host) would be more fun — though Kitten with a Whip, while definitely a bad movie, turned out to have enough points of interest it might not be an altogether unpleasant experience to watch it au naturel. It’s basically one of those fish-out-of-water movies pairing a bunch of J.D.’s (Ann-Margret and three of her friends, a woman and two men, who enter the action midway through and force David to drive them across the border into Mexico) with a “straight,” upstanding citizen, and if it’s less fun than it should have been given the subject matter and the potential of Ann-Margret’s performance, that’s the fault of Douglas Heyes, who both wrote the script (from a novel by one H. William Miller) and directed.

Like Laird Doyle in the 1935 film Dangerous (with Bette Davis) and Martin Mooney in the 1941 Paper Bullets, a.k.a. Gangs, Inc. (with Joan Woodbury, though more famous for having the then-unknown Alan Ladd as second male lead), Heyes has written a script that requires his leading actress to change motivations and emotional states at the drop of a hat, but without grounding them in much of anything that would allow his star to blend all these disparate scenes into anything resembling a coherent characterization of a credible human being. commentator Kenneth Anderson blamed much of the wretchedness of this movie on Ann-Margret, saying she was “so kinetically awful that she virtually invents a whole new kind of awfulness” and, as if that weren’t nasty enough, that her performance is “like one given by a person who’s never seen acting before.” I think he’s being wretchedly unfair; Ann-Margret is actually struggling powerfully with an incoherently written role and giving her all in every scene, doing her best to bring to life a character that in the hands of more sensitive and creative filmmakers (like the director and screenwriter of Rebel Without a Cause, Nicholas Ray and Stewart Stern) could have been not only powerful but even moving.

Certainly she’s a damned sight more impressive than her co-star; unlike Alan Ladd in the similarly plotted (though in that one the leader of the gang that terrorizes the middle-aged, middle class hero is a man) but far superior 13 West Street, John Forsythe goes through this movie with so impassive a mien, with utterly no clue as to whether he’s having any emotional reaction at all to events which are not only wrecking his chances for a long-sought political career but threatening his life, that the MST3K crew’s most devastating comments on this film targeted Forsythe in just that particular: “I must remain bland,” they have him saying. “Blandness at all costs.” By any conventional standard Kitten with a Whip (a title that’s never explained in the film; the “whip” Ann-Margret is wielding over John Forsythe is purely metaphorical — a pity, since if she’d been packing a real whip this film would have been sleazier but also more fun!) is a perfectly dreadful movie — but it’s also haunting enough, full of implications of a much better film that could have been made on the premise (indeed, still could be; in the modern version the man could be a Clinton-style politician who’s already run through a lot of “bimbo eruptions” and is now being teased unmercifully by a girl who, unlike his previous paramours, is underage and therefore that much more dangerous — and a modern version would probably give us more backstory into how the girl got that way; there’s a perfunctory hint when she describes being molested by her stepfather, which in 1964 was probably a galvanic shock to movie audiences but these days we’d be surprised if a girl Ann-Margret’s age in a film like this didn’t blame her wildness on a molesting authority figure!) — and it’s interesting to watch Ann-Margret’s acting here if only because she’s trying for an edgy combination of sexuality and innocence (feigned, in this context) that marks her a lineal descendant of Marilyn Monroe.

The secret to Monroe’s stardom was that she accidentally hit on a combination of naïve vulnerability and blatant sensuality that provided a powerful combination of sex and innocence that made every woman in the audience want to protect her and every man want to fuck her. Ann-Margret, like Jayne Mansfield before her, deliberately sought to copy that combination of sex and innocence that had made Marilyn first a star and then a legend — and she pulled it off in Bye, Bye Birdie, hurling herself at the camera and shaking her boobs in the famous opening scene (she’s copying Elvis’s moves, appropriately enough since an Elvis-like singer is a key player in the plot, but they look totally different on a woman) while exaggerating the lyrics of the title (“Boye-boye, Burt-hee!”) to the point where they sound less like English and more like an orgasmic moan — all the while introducing a movie in which the plot will have her forsake the glamorous globe-trotting rocker for the dull boy next door in her little small town. With a more sophisticated writer than Douglas Heyes, Kitten with a Whip could have provided a similar vehicle for her to play the sex/innocence combo in the person of a “bad girl” — that early scene with her snuggled up in bed with a teddy bear suggests that she’s a person in which pre-pubescent girlhood, adolescence and adult womanhood are going at it hammer and tongs in a three-way conflict that’s tearing her apart — and with a stronger leading man than John Forsythe, one better able to portray the conflict between his reputation, respectability, political future and marriage vows on one side and overpowering temptation and lust on the other, the basic premise of Kitten with a Whip could have been the root of a positively chilling melodrama instead of a film that’s abysmally silly but — unlike a lot of the other MST3K “targets” — at least not boring.