Flickhead
Appreciation
By Ray Young

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Salome Jens in Angel Baby

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Screen Jens:

When Salome shook her groove thang for The Lord

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    How many actresses are named Salome? The one who beguiles me is Salome Jens. As I wrote in my memoirs, remembering Saturday matinee screenings of that science fiction/horror anti-masterpiece Terror from the Year 5000 (1958):

“[The film] was not without merit, for playing the ‘terror’ was Salome Jens. Awakening — nay! setting afire! — one’s slumbering libido, she possessed a face tailor-made for the wide-angle lens: stately cheekbones nearly as epic as Faye Dunaway’s, almond-shaped eyes slanted toward depression. Her voice quivering with Nordic ancestry and a suggestion of neurosis, Salome arrived from Y5K in a black leotard aglitter with sequins, twirling hypnotic talons at the poor fool scientists responsible for unleashing this thing on humanity.”

    Twenty years after those hot buttered encounters, I revisited the picture only to find boredom (Salome or no Salome) persuading me to parcel its grueling sixty-six minutes over three nights. Back in my article, I plugged her brief onscreen stint with Rock Hudson in 1966:

“Salome put the whammy on me a few years later, in Seconds, playing a Pod variant of Holly Golightly. Stomping grapes in its orgasmic centerpiece, my nude Venus gave James Wong Howe some of his finest images. After that, it was the gradual descent of guest spots in forgotten episodes of obsolete TV shows.”

    Regardless of its nightmare scenario, Seconds suggested something of the bohemian in Jens’s character Nora. Grooving in Malibu, hooking up with Rock’s Tony Wilson (a landscape painter by desire, sadly lacking the skill), Nora joyfully yells to the wind “Who are you Tony Wilson?!” to a man clueless about his true self — a malady indigenous to ‘The Sixties.’ Nora is all about big, puffy sweaters, corduroy slacks and sandals; an accommodating hausfrau from the pages of an Eddie Bauer catalog, providing comfort to a ‘straight’-laced guy so tragically out of his element (and mind). Arriving within spitting distance from the Beat Generation, one would like to believe Jens was just like that in real life.

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Above, Salome twirls her hypnotic fingers in Terror from the Year 5000

Below, going native with Rock Hudson in Seconds

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    Cue the bongos, professor: I envision a blonde gamine all in black, reading from Nietzsche with a dog-eared volume of Kerouac curled up in her back pocket, snapping those sinewy fingers to Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. Born in 1935 in Milwaukee — a dreary locale prompting her infamous quip, “the only time I can imagine contemplating suicide would be if I was told that I had to go back and live in Milwaukee forever” — she split for Greenwich Village and gave marriage a spin, first to the actor Ralph Meeker. That gig lasted for two years (1964-66). Later, Salome was wed briefly to TV personality Lee Leonard. As far as I know, she’s been a free spirit ever since.

    She’s had a long, respected career in the theatre, and presides over a flock of Trekkers for her Changeling character on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Give me Angel Baby (1961) over any of that. Made in Florida and Hollywood, Salome (or, as she’s listed in the credits, Salomé) heads a cast of George Hamilton, Mercedes McCambridge and Joan Blondell, as well as newcomer Burt Reynolds as a horny ruffian quivering from ‘the torments’ in Salome’s presence. Jens5_22311sm.jpgIt all takes place in the deep south, the Bible Belt, a hotbed of feverish little daisy duke melodramas like Baby Doll (1956), God’s Little Acre (1958), and the Steinbeckian Russ Meyer flicks Lorna (1964) and Mudhoney (1965) — ‘hicksploitation.’

    Not that anyone cared or noticed. The press wrote it off as “a cut-rate Elmer Gantry” (that’s Eugene Archer in the New York Times), or complained that it “reeks too much of Elmer Gantry” (Time magazine), and not without reason. Released a few short months earlier, Elmer Gantry (1960) covered similar ground: working its way across the south, an evangelical tent show supervised by a too-attractive young minister takes on a first-time preacher who may be a genuine faith healer or a manipulative fake, sparking a power play between the two at the expense of the minister’s repressed sexual urges. Back when winning an Academy Award could prolong coffee klatch controversies and first-run engagements, the Oscars for Elmer Gantry’s Burt Lancaster (actor), Shirley Jones (supporting actress) and director Richard Brooks (for his adaptation of the Sinclair Lewis novel) quickly dashed the hopes of any and all competition.

    Not that it’s fair to compare the two. I give Elmer Gantry high marks for the punchy, pulp-twinged approach to lofty theological ideals, and for Jean Simmons… to say nothing of the brilliant casting of Ms. Jones as a hooker named Lulu. “Oh, he gave me special instructions back of the pulpit Christmas Eve,” Lulu says of her private one-on-one with Gantry. “He got to howlin’ ‘Repent! Repent!’ and I got to moanin’ ‘Save me! Save me!’ and the first thing I know he rammed the fear of God into me so fast I never heard my old man’s footsteps!” You really can’t beat that.

    Whether or not Angel Baby was intended to cash in on Elmer Gantry seems moot, since both were filmed around the same time, and Angel Baby producer Thomas Woods would’ve needed a crystal ball to predict Gantry’s enormous success. He bought the movie rights to Jenny Angel, a forgotten novel written by the equally obscure Elsie Oakes Barber, who patterned her title character after evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson in a plot hinged on the then-current controversies over sham faith healing snaking its way through radio and television. Unlike the character of Gantry, however, Jenny may be the real deal.

    And unlike the film of Gantry — so hale, so hearty, so commercial — Angel Baby benefits from its modest means. Mercedes McCambridge, Joan Blondell and Henry Jones (remember the judge who disses Scotty in Vertigo?) were recognizable character actors. Add to the mix the unknown Jens and future tanning guru Hamilton (who scratched the public’s consciousness a year earlier in Where the Boys Are and All the Fine Young Cannibals), and the viewer was denied any preconceptions over acting styles, no soft comfort in stargazing, all in glorious black and white.

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Above, original hand-colored lobby cards; click to enlarge

    The screenplay adaptation was written by Paul Mason, Samuel Roeca and Orin Borsten. The latter, incidentally, wrote the “Corpus Earthling” episode of an Outer Limits episode from 1963, in which we’re told “there’s nothing wrong with our television set” as Jens falls under the spell of an extraterrestrial rock. Teetering on exploitation, sidestepping any verbose Bible thumping, Angel Baby zeroes in on sex. It opens with Burt (as ‘Hoke’) in the throes of his ‘torments,’ pawing at Jens’s Jenny in the parking lot of a revival meeting. Her mom has brought her here, hoping that God can save her from getting knocked up — and to regain her speech, as she’s been dumbstruck after years of abuse at the hands of her alky father. Checking in for salvation with ‘Sister’ Sarah (McCambridge) at the reception area, Jenny’s distracted, wandering eye (the script makes an educated correlation between sexual promiscuity and attention deficit) lands on a photo of ‘Brother’ Paul (Hamilton), the congregation’s young and impeccably coiffed minister.

    As it turns out, Brother Paul and (the decidedly older) Sister Sarah are husband and wife, their wobbly Oedipal union about to be rocked by firm young Jenny’s yearnings and Paul’s sorely neglected libido. For a scenario immersed in hootin’ and hollerin’ Christianity, Angel Baby sure has its doubts about holy matrimony. The sexless union of Paul and Sarah (whom, after several years together, finally offers her sagging virgin body out of desperation), Jenny’s sadistic upbringing, and the old married musicians (played by Blondell and Jones) bound together by alcoholism (and broadly slurred ‘drinkie-poo’ stage enunciations) offer very little in defense of wedlock.

    While I recognize Barber’s novel and the sharp screenplay for the picture’s thematic qualities, there’s an equally smart and fluid sense of direction, especially during Brother Paul’s sermons, his heated discussions with Sister Sarah (kudos to George Hamilton and Mercedes McCambridge for going the distance), Jens4_22311sm.jpghis dejection when the jazz combo stops playing because he’s a preacher, and Jenny’s budding eroticism during Paul’s “illustrated sermons,” a series of outrageous hootchie-mama dance interpretations of Biblical events used to lure in the Saturday night crowd. (Despite her namesake, Salome does not perform the Dance of the Seven Veils.)

    There’s been some hubbub (exclusively, I’m sure, among the handful of us who spend way too much time pouring over old b-movies) concerning who deserves credit for directing Angel Baby. Paul Wendkos is the name on the screen, but the project began with Hubert Cornfield, an artiste who made some interesting pictures, most of them barely stitched together, all with sporadic glimmers of excellence. In his book, The American Cinema, Andrew Sarris observed, “Cornfield seemed to be striving for a Europeanized elegance of form even when his scripts seemed too sordid for serious consideration.” Perhaps it was that elegance, combined with a lofty temperament, that worked against him in the business; his career as a director barely got out of the gate. (Four of his films are presently available for instant viewing at Netflix: Lure of the Swamp [1957]; Plunder Road [1957]; the odd, Stanley Kramer-produced Pressure Point [1962]; and the quasi-surreal Night of the Following Day [1968], which completists should check out on DVD for the director’s brief and very raspy commentary.)

    Prolific in television, Wendkos directed fifteen theatrical features, beginning with The Burglar (1957) before wandering into the cash cow trilogy of Gidget (1959), Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961), and Gidget Goes to Rome (1963). Despite all that he’s done, however, it’s difficult if not impossible to distinguish any identifying trademarks to unify the work. As Sarris points out, Wendkos’s career is “consistent only in its inconsistency,” where “the Gidget movies are not all that bad, and The Burglar and Angel Baby are not all that good.” Adding insult to injury, Wendkos doesn’t even rate an entry in David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film.

    There’s also been a question over who-did-what in the cinematography, as Hollywood veteran Jack Marta and the young, barely known Haskell Wexler share the credit. Thankfully, Stephen Bowie put in a call to Angel Baby herself to clear up the mystery: “According to Jens,” he wrote on his blog, “Cornfield was fired after one or two days (‘he had a lot of ideas, but none of them worked’) and all of his footage was reshot by Wendkos. Of the two credited cinematographers, Jens remembered Haskell Wexler as Wendkos’s primary collaborator; Jack Marta…was there mainly to protect the picture’s union status. (Wexler was not yet a member of the A.S.C.)”

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Above, rare color publicity photos of George Hamilton and Salomé Jens taken by Ralph Crane for Life magazine; click to enlarge.

    Its distribution handled by Allied Artists, Angel Baby was destined for limited rotation on the drive-in and grindhouse circuit. No matter that George Hamilton was being primed as a teen idol, the picture simply slid into oblivion. And stardom dodged Salome, who commenced a long, fragmented career of guest spots and supporting characters on any number of television programs and made-for-TV movies, ongoing and extensive work in the theatre, cartoon and documentary voiceovers, and secondary roles in a jumble of films: with Anthony Perkins in The Fool Killer (1965); as an over-the-hill go-go dancer in Fred Coe’s Me, Natalie (1969); James Ivory’s faux Buńuelian Savages (1972); with Hector Elizondo in Diary of the Dead (1976); narrating Michael Chapman’s unfairly maligned The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986); and part of an ensemble cast in I’m Losing You (1998).

    The loss is ours. Her one starring role, Angel Baby is a unique character without ties to the day-to-day. Abused by her father and the local boys, rejected by her own mother, looking to God for salvation from the sins of others, sexually drawn to a man trapped by a domineering mother figure; motivated by drunks and crackpots, Jenny is stuck somewhere between the lines of truth and desire. This is a rich, subtly nuanced performance in a film packed with golden moments. Perhaps one day it’ll find its audience.

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    Copyright © 2011 by Ray Young