Thursday, March 22, 2012

Film Review: BLACK GIRL (1972)

"Why the Hell isn't THIS on DVD yet?" - Number 76

BLACK GIRL (1972 Cinerama) Starring Brock Peters, Leslie Uggams, Claudia McNeil, Ruby Dee, Rhetta Greene, Louise Stubbs, Peggy Pettit, Gloria Edwards, Kent Martin.  Directed by Ossie Davis.

Pettit, Greene and Edwards are sisters (Pettit the youngest) living under mother Stubbs' roof.  The cramped arrangement also includes grandmother McNeil, her boyfriend Martin and the children of Pettit's two older sisters, both unwed mothers.  Their rental house is about to become more crowded, as Greene is pregnant again.  School janitor Stubbs is disappointed in her own daughters but puts her former foster child Uggams ("my only one to go to college") on a pedestal.

Greene and Edwards have long harbored a deep resentment towards Uggams and both team up to manipulate and bully half-sister Pettit, who dreams of a dancing career and has secretly dropped out of high school to start on it at "The Groovy Bar and Grill".  This puts Stubbs is in danger of finishing 0 for 3 on the college dream for her biological children.  Meanwhile already raw feelings are about to get rawer, as Stubbs' outwardly successful ex Peters arrives bearing gifts and Uggams plans a Mother's Day homecoming as well.

Few remember it today, but in between his cerebral actioneers COTTON COMES TO HARLEM and GORDON'S WAR, Ossie Davis helmed this female-dominated sleeper, the only film adaptation to date by talented playwright J. E. Franklin.  As Franklin's titular GIRL, Pettit isn't presented as a prodigy with an extraordinary gift, just a teenager with a dream who shows enough aptitude and desire to deserve an opportunity to pursue it.

But vulnerable Pettit finds derision and discouragement at almost every turn.  Stubbs dotes on Uggams and subconsciously takes her grudge against Pettit's father out on her youngest daughter.  Greene and the especially bitter Edwards tear down everyone around them, especially Pettit, feeling that any success from her would accentuate their respective shortcomings.  Favored ex Peters is equally unsupportive of Stubbs' only child that isn't "his", offering inflammatory asides about the "only possible outcome" of a dancing career (nudie bars).  While Pettit seems closest to Uggams, she's almost as jealous as her half-sisters of the foster child's effortless dominance of Stubbs' affections.

As was the case with his action entries, Davis got excellent performances from his cast, which included three holdovers from the original 1971 stage production (Greene, Edwards, Stubbs).  While there are some very familiar names in BLACK GIRL, it's the less famous actors who really get a chance to shine; Tony Award winner Uggams has less screentime than the three sisters and both Peters and Dee basically have glorified cameos.  In fact, Dee has no lines in a nevertheless crucial role as Uggams' birth mother who is suffering from mental illness.

Franklin's study on the difficulty of breaking a vicious cycle and the handing down of dysfunction from generation to generation was not a financial success in the early Seventies.  Action films dominated the box office (SHAFT, SUPERFLY); those seeking African-American family drama overlooked the contemporary BLACK GIRL the first time around in favor of films set in an earlier era (a la SOUNDER and THE LEARNING TREE).  Seen today, it might betray its stage origins and vintage on occasion, but Davis' understated approach meshes well with Franklin's frank dialogue and realistic resolution.  Those who find Tyler Perry's approach to similar themes too melodramatic may find a lot to like here.

So....why isn't this on DVD yet?

No earthly idea why here, if anything I think it was ahead of its time--save for the soundtrack and especially Peters' threads.   Franklin (whose other plays include THE PRODIGAL SISTER and CHRISTCHILD) expressed frustration with the Hollywood version of her best-known play, and has yet to write for the big screen again.  Since it was never released on VHS either, it may be a dispute over music rights, a common holdup.

Why it should be on DVD:

A wonderful opportunity to see a filmed version of Franklin's best-known work, and some truly unsung (at least in cinema circles) talents in front of the camera as well.  Pettit has been a stage stalwart for four decades, but BLACK GIRL remains her only film to date.  With the difficult task of keeping the most vicious character from caricature, Edwards is at her very best.  She only appeared in 8 films (including WHICH WAY IS UP? and SISTER, SISTER) before her untimely death in 1988.  Stubbs (THE LANDLORD) also had a distinguished theatre career but appeared in only three other feature films, and Greene's sole big screen appearance after BLACK GIRL was a small part in LEADBELLY.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Film Review: CITIZEN'S BAND a.k.a. HANDLE WITH CARE (1977)

"Why the Hell isn't this on DVD yet?" -- Number 75

CITIZEN'S BAND (a.k.a. HANDLE WITH CARE) (1977 Paramount) Starring Paul Le Mat, Candy Clark, Charles Napier, Roberts Blossom, Bruce McGill, Ann Wedgeworth, Alix Elias, Marcia Rodd.  Directed by Jonathan Demme.

Interstate trucker Napier (handle: Chrome Angel) has an accident while hauling cattle during a rainstorm in rural Nebraska.  His S.O.S. is answered by LeMat (handle: Spider), a local CB repairman and R.E.A.C.T. volunteer on a crusade to prevent FCC violations.  LeMat's pet peeve is frivolous use of Channel 9 (by rule reserved for emergencies like Napier's) but his do-gooding isn't limited to public causes.  He also buffers tension between his brother McGill (handle: Blood) and their aging father Blossom (handle: Papa Thermodyne) who lives with LeMat but for his cherished air time.

LeMat also learns that his former flame Clark (handle: Electra) is one of those violators he's after, and also that she is now romantically interested in McGill.  Meanwhile Napier is convalescing with prostitute Elias (handle: Hot Coffee) when he learns that he has a triangle of his own to resolve: his two wives Rodd (handle: Portland Angel) and Wedgeworth (handle: Dallas Angel) have met and they're both headed to the Cornhusker State.

HANDLE WITH CARE marked Demme's move to Paramount after three exploitation films for Roger Corman's New World.  The studio chose to misleadingly market this low-key, quirky ensemble comedy-drama as a redneck drive-in flick to cash in on the CB craze, complete with change in title to CITIZEN'S BAND.  In the year of SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT, this deceptive approach led to predictably disappointing box office. 

Far from a trucksploitation good ol' boy film, and really not "about" the (alternate) title fad either, HANDLE WITH CARE belongs to a different but still distinctly '70's subgenre.  Slice-of-life recognition humor with interweaving plots populated by familiar faces rather than big name stars, with the characters and stories coming together in the final act.  Every filmmaker from Altman (NASHVILLE) to Schlesinger (HONKY TONK FREEWAY) seemingly tried one, but Demme perfected it right away with help from the wry screenplay by Paul Brickman (RISKY BUSINESS).  More than a study of Citizen's Band enthusiasts, HANDLE WITH CARE explores the use of the public airwaves as escape mechanism by those whose lives could use some spicing up.

They say things on the CB they'd never dream of saying face to face, enjoying the anonymity of their handles the same way many hide behind screen names on the internet today.  Several characters figuratively have alter egos, becoming completely different people on their mics.  Out of stater Napier goes a step further than the Great Plains locals: with the assistance of his constant travel he literally leads a double life.  If HANDLE WITH CARE was remade today, the trucker would probably blame his bigamy on sex addiction and tearfully beg for forgiveness, but refreshingly the filmmakers leave all judgements up to the audience and the ladies in Napier's life.

Subtle but constant evidence abounds indicating the stronghold that CB radio has on everyone's life. Napier's accident is caused when he is distracted by a risque conversation, Blossom (almost mute away from the mic) is so engrossed in chatter that he's oblivious to his near nakedness outside, LeMat destroys private property in the name of protecting regulations, and it is routine for CB'ers to drive to the outskirts of town to converse privately.

Prototypical character actor Napier gives perhaps the film's finest performance in arguably the meatiest role of his career.  Already a Russ Meyer regular, Napier became a Demme regular, appearing in ten of the director's films, including PHILADELPHIA, SOMETHING WILD and MELVIN AND HOWARD.  In the latter Napier was joined by HANDLE WITH CARE castmate LeMat, who played the put-upon everyman to perfection in both collaborations with Demme and was rewarded with a Golden Globe for the 1980 sleeper.

HANDLE WITH CARE was sadly denied that kind of recognition, and faded from view along with the Citizen's Band radio while its makers went on to bigger and better things, but it is a genial, amusing and consistently perceptive 1970's gem.

So...why isn't this on DVD yet?

The CB theme dated the film fairly quickly, and Paramount's initial marketing campaign was misleading, with alternate title CITIZEN'S BAND meant to cash in on the then-current craze.  The alternate titles and lack of box office names didn't help the film's visibility.  Also, Paramount is known for dropping the ball on even its popular titles from this period (Exhibit A: LITTLE DARLINGS).

Why it should be on DVD:

Truly undeserving of its obscurity, HANDLE WITH CARE is a real find in Demme's canon, boasting a strong ensemble cast of well-known yet underappreciated character actors, with Napier, Blossom, Elias and LeMat all making strong contributions.

Netflix Instant may have lost a ton of films from Starz last month, but the opportunity to see otherwise rarely seen unsung classics like HANDLE WITH CARE (Netflix has it under the CITIZEN'S BAND title) is why I kept my streaming.  Well worth your queue spot.