Need help deciding what to watch this weekend on Warner Archive Instant? We’ve got you covered with our must-watch Warner Archive picks! Each week, we select a small handful of must watch titles from the Warner Archive Instant catalog: some hidden gems, others well-known and beloved classics– all deserving of a look. Or two. Or five.
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This week, we’ve got a few firsts for y’all: A burly young Burt Reynolds in his sexy, sweaty, oh-so-Southern feature film debut, Angel Baby (1961); the quintessential Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Sandy Dennis, in the original version of Sweet November (1968), and the first oh-gosh-oh-gee-willikers introduction to Andy Hardy and his family with A Family Affair (1937).
Wade’s Pick: ANGEL BABY (1961)
There’s nothing like a sweaty and lurid Southern gothic potboiler to get your libido going. Angel Baby follows a trail of damnation that starts in a dusty revival tent and out into the tall grassy swamplands of Florida to chronicle the rise of a backwoods Evangelist girl who may (or may not) have been “touched by God.” Angel Baby is every kind of bad you could ever want in campy 60s morality tales. In the same vein as God’s Little Acre, Baby Doll and mid-60s Russ Meyer hillbilly sexcapades like Mudhoney and Lorna, religion and hell fire are the excuses for illustrating every type of heaving sin you can imagine. The amazingly voluptuous Salome Jens as mute Jenny Angel is wrested from the sinewy arms of bad boy Burt Reynolds (in his screen debut) to be thrust into the spotlight of a tent revival and given her voice back through the hands of faith healer George Hamilton. Sexual and physical abuse are the roots of Jenny’s inability to speak, and now filled with “the Lord’s light,” she feels a calling to join Hamilton’s band of evangelists as they trudge through the bible belt, saving sinners. Of course, the rest of the film follows the perils of Jenny’s as her once “amoral” behavior keeps finding ways back under her skirt.
Predictably, Hamilton struggles with his lust for Jenny, made all the more difficult since he’s married to much older Mercedes McCambridge, the hysterically religious matriarch of the troop. She sees Jenny as the embodiment of evil and sin, and spends her nights arguing scripture with infant husband Hamilton when all she really wants is for him to finally consummate their Oedipal union.
So sordid, so insane, so great! Angel Baby is pure drive-in pulp, and everything that’s good about bad cinema. The film had the unfortunate luck of being released just months after the similar, yet highly successful Elmer Gantry, forced to exist in its Oscar winning shadow. Joan Blondell as a rummy organ player with a heart of gold is good fun, but it’s McCambridge, whose always reliable psychotic performance style, steals the show. You can even hear within her final screaming, guttural sermon the spark that must have inspired William Friedkin to cast her as the voice of Regan’s demon in The Exorcist. Do you need anymore reason to watch Angel Baby? How about a young Haskell Wexler as co-DP? Hallelujah, sinners! Rejoice!
Carley’s Pick: SWEET NOVEMBER (1968)
No, not *that* Sweet November, *this* Sweet November. This 1968 original bears little resemblance to its more famous Keanu Reeves/Charlize Theron remake; which is a good thing. In this version, we have a quirky love story between two quirky New Yorkers in the quirky late sixties. (Also, they look like normal human beings, not Gods descended from Mount Olympus.) And what delivers it from being rather eye-rollingly saccharine is the fact that its bottom line is hard-as-nails honest: happy endings are, more often than not, a fiction.
If you’re not familiar with the story, Sara (Sandy Dennis) is a terminally ill woman who has made it her mission to spend her temporary time helping young men in need of direction. A free spirited landlady, painter, and aspiring plumber, she runs a highly unusual therapy clinic. Each month, she adopts a new man to share her home, her bed, and her time—but only for one month and one month only. Taking them into her creative, nurturing environment, she helps them realize whatever it is that is holding them back—and to transcend it. It is a perfectly sensible line of work to Sara, who is a gifted fixer (she’s great with clogged drains…but even better with clogged dreams). Charlie (Anthony Newley) a workaholic obsessed with his box manufacturing business, becomes her November. Sara helps Charlie to realize his untapped creative potential (in his case, poetry) and introduces him to a life that is not run by the tick of a clock. Predictably, Charlie falls head over heels in love with his sprightly benefactor. When he professes his love to her, however, Sara reacts clinically; like a therapist pleased with her patient’s breakthrough.
By this time, the viewer is rolling their eyes at Charlie’s ignorance. As if Sara’s medicine cabinet full of pills weren’t a clear indication that something is wrong with her, perhaps the fact that she is always cold–and the very nature of her refusal to get emotionally involved with her ‘patients’–should be a big fat red flag. She is obviously dying. But, Charlie is very much a little boy (Sara tells him he’s like Pinocchio–not quite real just yet, although he wants to be), and even when he finally does put two and two together, he is still selfish about the situation, demanding he be allowed to stay past his 30 day contract on the simple basis of them being in love. And, like the emotional toddler he still is, Charlie throws a tantrum and walks out.
This is where the film transcends from a rather predictable melodrama into, well, OK, admittedly still a seriously heavy-handed melodrama, but an undeniably sincere one. Sara loves Charlie back—and that wasn’t a part of the plan. Poetry begins to percolate the script for here on out, and Dennis’ dexterous delivery—delicate as china yet strong as iron—becomes the entire reason the film is worth watching. Charlie does come back, of course, to finish out November with her, equipped with a poem serves as his diploma, entitled Sweet November: “When we remember November’s sunshine, we won’t mind December’s rain. Every month will be November.”
I hope it’s no secret that Sandy Dennis is one of my all time favorite actresses. Decades before Manic Pixie Dream Girl was a “thing”, Dennis already defined it. She excels at playing the “delicate” woman because she understands the complexities involved, and Sweet November is classic Sandy Dennis. For all of Sara’s fragility, she is never truly weak, and always true to herself. (A feat that, in itself, takes great strength.) Dennis possesses a tense dexterity that keeps you on a pendulum, never quite knowing if she’s about to lose it or not. Everyone else *acts* (case in point, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, in which she outshines Burton and Taylor with ease), but you get the impression that Dennis simply *is*. There is not a dishonest bone in her curious, neurotic little body.
Enjoy the film for its unabashed sentiment, Dennis’ offbeat honesty, the gorgeous, muted palette of browns and greens that so defines New York of the late ’60s, and its ability to admit that, sometimes, to love someone is to let them go.
JILL’S PICK: A FAMILY AFFAIR (1937)
Welcome to Carvel, USA. A world of manicured lawns, respectful children, manners and morality. It’s also home to Judge Hardy and family, whose rambunctious, girl crazy boy Andy, the wholesome All American boy of this wholesome All American town, was the focus of a tremendously popular film series during the height of Hollywood’s golden age. Produced to showcase who was then the most popular star of his day, Mickey Rooney, the formula of boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl is admittedly…well…formulaic. The earnest father-son heart-to-hearts and were far from realistic even in those halcyon days of mid-century America. But MGM packaged it and, oh boy, did America ever buy it.
The Hardy films were escapist pieces of fluffy entertainment that celebrated the ideal of American values, family, and community—the fact they were released in the years leading up to and during the second World War, make these mid-century trifles all the more worthy of revisiting. Because nothing allows us to get inside the mind of where were as a people than movies. And much as we may scoff, these films show where our minds were during those years…or maybe where we wished we could be: with a white picket fence, a girl next door, and an impenetrable sense of security.
A Family Affair introduces us to Judge James K. Hardy and his family: wife Emily, sister-in-law Millie (we all call her Aunt Millie), and three children Joan, Marion and Andy. The Hardy’s oldest daughter Joan has separated from her husband because she was caught with another man at the town’s one seedy motel. Marion and her beau run out of gas and are towed by two drunks, resulting in a car accident. Andy keeps complaining because he has to take little Polly Benedict, who he hasn’t seen they were little kids, to a dance. And while dealing with his children’s problems like a champ, Judge Hardy faces something far more serious: impeachment and a full investigation. Joan’s reputation as a tramp surely doesn’t help matters.
The life lesson here? Don’t have a liaison in a seedy motel that has a reputation for that kind of business. Book a room at The Four Seasons, for chrissakes.