From In-Laws to Outlaws – Rediscovering ‘Crazy Mama’ (US 1975 – 82 mins)

Posted in Rediscover by - July 01, 2014
From In-Laws to Outlaws – Rediscovering ‘Crazy Mama’ (US 1975 – 82 mins)

A cheerful Roger Corman production with less emphasis on sex and violence, ‘Crazy Mama’ is a fun, red-neck road movie, with a talented ensemble bringing to life some lovable, oddball characters. It’s a bit sloppy at times but the robust cast help keep the zany story moving along nicely.

After losing her beloved beauty shop to the authorities, sassy single mother Melba Stokes (Cloris Leachman), along with her pregnant teenage daughter Cheryl (Linda Purl), and slot-machine loving mom Sheba (Ann Sothern), head for Las Vegas in a stolen convertible. Picking up spotty biker; Snake (Leachman’s real-life son; Bryan Englund) and a vacationing Sheriff; Jim Bob (Stuart Whitman), along the way, this newly formed ‘family’ are soon embarking on a life of crime, robbing race-tracks, gas stations and even a wedding chapel. Feeling guilty, Melba and Jim Bob decide to give up the robberies, and instead stage a fake kidnapping, with Jim Bob as the hostage, hoping that his wife’s very rich family will pay the ransom. Of course things go rather awry, with some unexpected casualties along the way.

Academy Award winner Cloris Leachman has a lot of fun as the stretch pant wearing Melba, making her character both sexy and funny, with a degree of intelligence. Leachman had earlier played the infamous Anna Sage, who betrays John Dillinger to the cops, in the John Milius biopic ‘Dillinger’ (’73). Rugged tough guy Stuart Whitman plays Leachman’s love interest, the absconding sheriff and ladies man; Jim Bob. As the boyfriend-juggling Cheryl, cute Linda Purl has her best role here and, after co-starring in the controversial Canadian horror ‘Visiting Hours’ (’82), would go on to appear in mainly TV fare. Future ‘Happy Days’ regular Donny Most plays Purl’s no-hope boyfriend, Shawn, the same year that he played Tom Sawyer in the TV movie ‘Huckleberry Finn’. Stalwarts Ann Southern and Jim Backus also turn up in funny supporting roles, as does Corman regular Dick Miller. Future stars Dennis Quaid and Bill Paxton both make their debuts here, and Ann Sothern’s real-life daughter Tisha Sterling has a neat cameo in the film’s prologue.

‘Crazy Mama’ was 31 year old Jonathan Demme’s second feature, after his excellent ‘Women-in-Prison’ debut ‘Caged Heat’ (’74). Here, he perfectly recreates 1957, with the fashions, hairstyles and a first-rate rock score capturing the feel of the period. In keeping with other Corman movies, the female roles are strong, with the women of the outfit more savvy than the men, happily taking charge of tricky situations. The dark tone during the latter half seems a bit out of place, with some main characters being killed off, but at least it bounces back by the end credits. Initially, director Demme had wanted all of the main characters killed off, but this idea was scrapped.

A fun film about a close-knit ‘family’ of offbeat characters, ‘Crazy Mama’ is a fun Drive-in quickie, featuring a great cast in unpredictable situations. From its opening Depression-era prologue, right up to the very amusing end credit sequence, it’s a chaotic comedy thriller well worth hitching a ride for. Oh, and any movie featuring Linda Purl in shorts, strolling along to Santo & Johnny’s “Sleepwalk”, gets my thumbs up!

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