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CAMP DAVID JANUARY 2013: CAKE OR CROTCH? YOUR BREATH STINKS, BUT I DIG IT

By • Jan 20th, 2013 •

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Any film from American International Pictures that opens with the line of dialogue “It is not true that my father was a homosexual” has my attention to begin with and in the case of this transgressive masterpiece of questionable taste—the relatively unknown counterculture flick ANGEL, ANGEL, DOWN WE GO —it is a cinematic catalogue of wiggy dialogue and sexual situations to keep any film buff focused on this sixties meltdown of a motion picture.

ANGEL, ANGEL, DOWN WE GO engages us from the very first frame by allowing us to peer into the abode of a power couple who are super rich in the Hills of Beverly. The voice of a young girl begins to explain who she is: a poor, fat little rich girl who has not been laid as of yet and loves her fucked-up parents since she really has no alternative as of yet… She is Tara, named after the mansion in GONE WITH THE WIND. Her mother is a world-class drunk who was a porno queen before she became one of the ladies who lunch. Her father is a captain of industry who digs showering with young men and may well be into S&M with guys as well. It is Tara’s journey through the looking-glass as described by Robert Thom with the aid of American International Pictures. A coming-out party is planned so Tara’s beautiful mother (played by the stunning Jennifer Jones) can show off an epic piece of jewelry in the form of a chandelier-style diamond necklace and it is with this coming-out party that our story really begins….

The arrival of Bogart Peter Stuyvesant, played by Jordan Christopher, soon catches the eye of our rich little fat girl. This Jim Morrison-like rock god, all leather pants and crotch bulge, is the lead singer for The Rabbit Habit and as soon as Tara checks out his junk her only alternative is to pig out on pastries, shoving as many into her mouth as possible until she is filled with cream. Tara must now make a choice between the cakes and the crotch and soon her needs will be met but at a price that her parents will pay the most for in the end. This is a film in which nobody comes out alive. Bogart takes her virginity in the woods after his gig and slowly she loosens up but not until he strips her of all her pretense. Even her breath stinks, but guess what? Our rock God is so into raunch he digs it!

This movie is very much a product of the ripe imagination of the American writer and now auteur Robert Thom, the man responsible for some of AIP’s most interesting films of the period BLOODY MAMA, CRAZY MAMA, and DEATH RACE 2000. It was, however, his script for WILD IN THE STREETS that made it possible for Thom to helm this Titanic-like disaster. The concept of teenagers taking over the government was presented with great energy and with a catchy Barry Mann score which included the anthems THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME and FOURTEEN OR FIGHT. Christopher Jones was perfectly cast as Max Frost, the James Dean-like rock god who puts voters in concentration camps when they reach 30. This was just the kind of fantasy teenagers wanted to see at the drive-ins during that summer of love, although as usual AIP was about a year or two off in trying to keep on top of the youth market by releasing films that would have been more relevant a season or two earlier.

I can see what Thom had in mind by in trying to duplicate the “vibe” (if you will) of WILD IN THE STREETS by giving audiences yet another cipher of a rock god by casting Jordan Christopher as a shirtless Jim Morrison clone in tight leather pants. Jordan was in a rock group at the time that had a hit song, WILD THING, which went on to be very successful for another group. What the film lacks in not having a Christopher Jones in the lead it more than makes up for in sheer audacity of content. It is as if Robert Thom chose to make as taboo-altering a film as possible and yet remain somewhat within the bounds of a sequel to WILD IN THE STREETS in the sense that both Max Frost and Bogart Peter Stuyvesant are victims of their public as well as the American dream as seen by AIP’s marketing boys.

Both Max Frost and Bogart Peter Stuyvesant become trapped in their own yellow book-world as surely as Oscar Wilde was a century ago. Both films have coded gay men in secondary roles: in WILD IN THE STREETS Max Frost’s accountant (played by the late Kevin Coughlan) is openly homosexual with a crush on a daddy figure in the form of Hal Holbrook’s Senator. In ANGEL, ANGEL, DOWN WE GO we have Roddy McDowell, perhaps the most closeted gay actor of his generation, who allowed himself to be coded gay in this although even in films Roddy plays his groupie very much on the fence. In his one big moment in the film he is given a close-up long enough to reveal that while he may or may not be homosexual, even a carrot can turn him on. Roddy’s homosexuality was the best kept non-secret in Hollywood, as he always threw lavish dinners parties twice a week for years, one being for his straight Hollywood celebrities, and then on Friday a gay version of much the same thing. This ritual went on beyond the filming of FRIGHT NIGHT until the actor’s death. The homosexuality of Charles Aidman’s father figure in ANGEL, ANGEL, DOWN WE GO is discussed from the very beginning as we follow our Alice down the rabbit hole as Tara Nicole Steele reveals her inner-self through a commentary that begins with her denying the obvious regarding her billionaire father’s taste for houseboys while showing him having an on-camera shower with one, and later both Bogart and the houseboy are seen playing pool in the nude for her father’s pleasure. Later on in the film Bogart would be seen performing some nude S&M-like flogging on her father, referencing Pasolini in more ways than one since the entire film could be interpreted as an acid version of TEOREMA

The real mystery behind ANGEL, ANGEL. DOWN WE GO will always remains why its leading lady, the Academy Award-winning beauty Jennifer Jones (whose rise to Hollywood royalty began with her Svengali-like husband David O Selznick, who protected and guided her career until his death) would ever consent to play such a role in the first place. Robert Thom went to great lengths in his screenplay to draw comparisons to Selznick by naming our protagonist (Holly Near) after the near-mythical Tara in GONE WITH THE WIND. In fact Thom has Tara’s father reference GONE WITH THE WIND as his wife’s favorite film explaining just how they came to call their daughter by that name. He even has Bogart do a line of dialogue from the film regarding the land and Tara just to make sure the audience gets the point. There is something very ROMAN SPRING OF MRS. STONE at work here, as if Tennessee Williams let one of his cipher leading ladies out on loan. Jennifer Jones seemed to suffer the same fate in not only this film but the one prior to this shot in England right after Selznick’s death. The film in question, THE IDOL with Michael Parks, had the same situation occur again with an older woman being used to fan the flames of a hustler’s vanity.

The humiliation of the Hollywood glamour queen had by 1969 become a time-honored tradition in Tinseltown, beginning with the greatest of them all, Sunset Boulevard, and then continuing on with the little-seen and highly enjoyable THE STAR with Bette Davis; THE GODDESS, featuring a tour-de-force by Kim Stanley’s thinly-veiled Monroe tribute, all the way down to WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?, whose success would reinvent the genre all over again, to (ironically) THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLARE, also by BABY JANE director Robert Aldrich. LYLAH CLARE was also written by our Robert Thom and so we see a pattern developing here of setting up a faded star for an even greater fall due to vanity and the wrong men, or in the case of LYLAH, the wrong women. Thom seems to envision Hollywood as a town top-heavy in cannibals of both sexes who feed off the insecurities of its kings and queens of the silver screen.

There is one film that owes a great deal to ANGEL, ANGEL, DOWN WE GO , made a year later and also starring a former Hollywood glamour star of a bygone era. The great Miriam Hopkins agreed to do a film at once called THE COMEBACK and later re-titled THE SAVAGE INTRUDER. In this film Hopkins is also an alcoholic, fading star who is living in one of those Norma Desmond-style homes off Sunset Boulevard (in this case using the former home of silent film legend Norma Talmadge). ANGEL, ANGEL’s producers located the former home of another silent screen star, Marion Davies. Hers was a 40-room coral stucco mansion that Thom was allowed to freely roam around in, even using Marion’s stylish bedroom for Jennifer Jones. Miriam is also seduced by a young sociopath only this time played by the son of screen tough guy John Garfield. THE SAVAGE INTRUDER suffered a greater fate than ANGEL, ANGEL in that it was never given a wide release anywhere, forever lost beneath the Hollywood Sign used in its opening credits.

Robert Thom wrote ANGEL, ANGEL, DOWN WE GO with several genres in mind. The biker film, the gangster film, and the horror film all bear the weight of the nuclear age of a family unit as fake as the threat of annihilation by the Communists and the counterculture that fascinated him from the start. Many critics have noticed the similarities of this film to Pasolini’s TEOREMA, and it is there, of course, in the sense that Bogart Peter Stuyvesant enters the lives of a family only to sexually seduce both sexes. But there the similarity must end, as ANGEL, ANGEL’s script is too far into deconstructing the American dream as imagined as an acid flashback to ever get in any way political.

If all had gone to plan and ANGEL, ANGEL, DOWN WE GO would become the kind of box office hit WILD IN THE STREETS had been for AIP a year earlier. Yale-educated Robert Thom would have been the boy genius Arkoff had been hoping for, Thom would have then directed JEREMY RABBIT, THE CAPED AVENGER, a caper flick about a court reporter who was onto the mafia for tax evasion. The disappointing box office for ANGEL, ANGEL sent Thom back to screenwriting and eventually led to his final film, THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA, which is as strange a film in many respects as ANGEL, ANGEL. It stars Thom’s wife, Mille Perkins, in the lead as a castrating witch suffering from the worst-case scenario of sexual hatred of men.

The reason that Robert Thom had miscalculated so far from his material in assuming audiences would feel any connection to these dislikable people is anyone’s guess. There is not one sympathetic character in it except for some moments in Holly Near’s performance where she is allowed to show more than self-centered disdain for her sexual frustration as well as her weight, which by the way was not that severe. If Thom had really chosen a way-over-the-scale fat girl in the role then the Mama Cass pop-culture reference would have been lost along with any entertainment value the film would have in the 21st century. A good case in point would be Tony Richardson’s personal train-wreck of a movie, THE LOVED ONE, which also failed at the box office for being simply too grotesque for the time and even today remains a classic example of too much too soon.

The Manson Murders, which took place several weeks after this film wrapped, officially removed any opportunity for ANGEL, ANGEL, DOWN WE GO to find an audience, as it confirmed in the minds of Arkoff and company that this film was geared to exploit the situation which made headlines across the world and forever re-imagined the summer of love with Altamont and the hippie as a demonic Rasputin-like figure in the guise of pathetic little Charlie Manson. ANGEL, ANGEL’s script even brings up the Manson manifesto of war between races in an off-handed manner since so much of the dialogue is rapid fire psycho-babble that would only make sense to a character like Z-man from Russ Meyer’s equally Manson-like fable BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS. It was as if, in 1969, Hollywood was ripe for a fall and the films of that year seemed to include reflections of counterculture Rasputins from Timothy Leary to Charlie Mason by way of Anton LeVay to represent the apocalypse.

What remains today is a time capsule of an era of filmmaking that perhaps is wisely left in the past, yet it offers an array of guilty pleasures for those of us that care to remember drive-in renegade cinema where genres were rebooted to fill the gaps left by the decline of the studio system and the rise of the next generation of Hollywood directors and writers that cut their teeth on films like this – Francis Coppola, Jonathan Demme, Joe Dante and of course Roger Corman. Perhaps Bogart Peter Stuyvesant said it best. When asked to describe just what his scene was, he replied, “Baby, I am polymorphously perverse.” No kidding.

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