Monday, May 24, 2010

Angel Baby (1961)

Directed by Paul Wendkos
Starring Salome Jens, George Hamilton, Burt Reynolds
Unrated
USA

"You're gonna ruin your pretty eyes on that bible, Jenny."

Paul Wendkos (RIP) directed an alarming amount of schmaltzy TV movies in his five-decade long career, and his penchant for squirmy close-ups, over-emoting actors, and bizarre extras were already in place in this early theatrical effort. While Angel Baby is, theoretically, a 'faith-based' film, Wendko's sweaty-browed direction, the inclusion of two future 70's pop-culture stars, and the general what-the-fuck atmosphere pushes this production firmly into camp territory. In fact, Angel Baby often resembles a Jesus-freaked version of one of Russ Meyer's mid-60's backwoods-noir efforts.

When we meet Jenny, the titular Angel Baby (future Star Trek star Salome Jens), she's furiously making out in the dirt with a greasy-haired Burt Reynolds. Mute since birth, it's implied that Angel is often coerced into such slatternly behavior by thugs like Burt and lacks the communication tools to avoid these erotic misadventures.


This sinful life ends abruptly when she attends a tent revival meeting hosted by a young, charismatic faith-healer named Paul Strand (George Hamilton, chewing scenery like a starving man). Strand lays hands upon Angel Baby - a no-brainer, given her Nordic features and impressive rack - and, miraculously, heals her. As her first word ever is "God", naturally, she asks to join him on his traveling salvation circus. Also naturally, given the aforementioned rack, he agrees, and Angel Baby becomes a local sensation.


And then, in a scene not entirely appropriate for two messengers-of-the-lord, Paul and Angel make out. Just a little.


This new wrinkle in the soul-savin' business does not sit well with Strand's much older wife, a fire and brimstone preacher-lady known as Sister Sarah (Mercedes McCambridge), who schemes and rages until Paul finally relents and casts his sexy young apprentice out.


At this point, however, Angel is such a local celebrity that she hires a promoter, who puts up billboards and starts selling souvenirs, knick-knacks, and even Angel Baby cure-all elixir. This all seems on the level to Angel Baby, since she's still pretty green, but her handlers, Molly and Ben (Joan Blondel and Henry Jones), suspect antics are afoot.


When the crooked promoter pays a few ringers to convince Angel Baby that she has actual healing powers herself, Molly and Ben get tanked and drunk-drive over to Paul's place at the trailer-park to tell him what's up.


Will Paul make it to tomorrow night's phony-baloney faith-healing session before preacher-girl is revealed as unwitting fraud? And while he's at it, will he leave his shrewish wife, so that he can freely make-out with the bosomy Angel Baby?


Why yes, of course. And along the way, the entire town will riot and punch each other into bloody messes for no good reason. And then they'll burn the tent down. It's gonna be nuts.


 Angel Baby's tone is never quite serious. For example, the climactic tent meeting, with extras throwing themselves in and out of the frame, looks more like a Three Stooges short than a Christian drama. The camera adoringly closes-up on Angel Baby's heaving, crucifix-clad breasts more than it needs to, Blondell and Jones basically do a vaudeville act throughout the proceedings, and the bad guy is - of all people - Burt Reynolds So, really, how seriously can you possibly take it?  Still, despite how goofy Angel Baby is, the film has reportedly saved a few 'sinners' along the way, and the bizarre coda seems to suggest that faith healing is, given the proper amount of faith, actually possible. So, if you are prone to whacked-out religious indoctrination, I suppose you should be warned. On the other hand, if you're just looking for a fun, tawdry bit of overwrought early 60's exploitation, Angel Baby is well worth seeking out. Amen.

- Ken McIntyre

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