Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Reflections on ... Kitten with a Whip (1964)

From the Lobotomy Room Goes to the Movie's Facebook events page for my 27 January 2016 screening of Kitten with a Whip:

Hey! Did you know about Fontaine’s FREE weekly film club? As winter draws in, how better to break the monotony on a Wednesday night than watch a FREE film, drink cocktails and eat canapés in the plush and intimate environs of Fontaine’s basement Bamboo Lounge? As host and DJ of the regular monthly Mondo Trasho punkabilly club night Lobotomy Room (last Friday of every month downstairs in the Bamboo Lounge!), I – Graham Russell - will occasionally crash the proceedings and screen a rancid film of my choice!

The featured presentation this month will be the ultra-lurid 1964 juvenile delinquent exploitation psychodrama Kitten with a Whip (1964) – starring quintessential atomic-era sex kitten-gone-berserk Ann-Margret. This sleazy little black and white B-movie urgently poses the question: why do the sweetest kittens have the sharpest claws? Fresh from cavorting with Elvis in Viva Las Vegas, red-headed vixen Ann-Margret plays a vicious teenage sociopath escaped from her high-security juvenile detention centre – who then takes hostage and torments straight-laced local politician John Forsythe in his palatial suburban dream house. (Yes – a cardigan-wearing and still dark-haired John Forsythe as in Dynasty’s silver fox Blake Carrington). From there, Ann-Margret’s gang of thug friends turn up – and things just get wilder!

Don’t miss this rare opportunity to catch this should-be cult classick and genuine curiosity: Kitten with a Whip is not available on DVD in this country and never crops up on TV. It’s got it all: a genuinely feral wild child performance from Ann-Margret at the height of her bad girl beauty, dramatic shadowy film noir photography, a finger-snapping Henry Mancini-style cool jazz score and cringe-worthy faux beatnik hepcat dialogue galore. (Samples: “Ooh! Everything’s so creamy! Kill me quick, I never had it so good!” “How come you think you’re such a smoky something when you’re so nothing painted blue?” “Now cool it, you creep, and co-exist!” “Hands off, buster! Don’t you ever bruise me ... God knows what I might do to you if you ever bruise me.”).

Perhaps the highest compliment of all? Kitten with a Whip is a sentimental favourite of John Waters’. (In 2011 he introduced a screening of it at Anthology Film Archives in New York). He’s described it as “almost like a Russ Meyer movie, an early one, only without as much tits” and reminisced, “Divine and I saw this movie together, definitely. Several times, actually. And he loved it, too. It was very much a big influence on us. And in 1964, I was a senior in high school, so on LSD, so angry, so insane, and so it came at one of the most insane periods of my life as far as being a disturbed teenager. I mean, we wanted to be Ann-Margret! Divine was my Kitten with a Whip, in a weird way.”

As usual: arrive circa 8 pm to order your drinks and grab the best seats. The film starts at 8:30 pm prompt!

/ John Forsythe and Ann-Margret in Kitten with a Whip (1964). Virtually all photos via  /

Happily, this was my most successful Lobotomy Room Goes to the Movies film night so far (well, it was only the third to date!). The basement Bamboo Lounge was full and the hip audience totally got the trashy magic of Kitten with a Whip. They were also drinking Fontaine’s potent cocktails – which probably contributed to their enjoyment. As they arrived and filed downstairs, I was already blasting Ann-Margret’s irresistible cocktail lounge 1960s tunes and had my grainy black and white vintage homo porn projected on the big screen just to add to the sleazy Lobotomy Room ambiance.

/ "She reached for evil with both hands ..." Believe it or not, Kitten with a Whip is a literary adaptation! It began life as a 1959 pulp novel by Wade Miller /

Kitten with a Whip is crying out to be discovered and embraced by a new generation. In an ideal world, it would be cherished as a cult film with rapt audiences repeating its endlessly quotable dialogue. Sure it is kitsch as hell (mainly due to its sensational tone and bludgeoning lack of subtlety), but it’s also a wildly entertaining, tightly-constructed, suspenseful little B-movie. It also anticipates both the “yuppie-in-peril” genre of the eighties (think After Hours, Something Wild [the Jonathon Demme film, not the 1961 Carroll Baker film!], even Desperately Seeking Susan) and the “home invasion” horror genre.

Even its occasional incompetence is fun. As Slant magazine points out (in a bit I have to admit I’ve missed despite repeated viewings!): “Toward the end, there's a lot of driving around in front of rear projection, and at one point, as Jody is at the wheel, there's no dashboard in front of her, as if somebody just forgot to put it there, and this signals the film's almost avant-garde ineptitude.”

/ "Luscious - and only seventeen ... she's all out for kicks ... and every inch of her spells excitement!" Original ad campaign for Kitten with a Whip in 1964. Seen today, that lecherous barely-legal / jail-bait angle looks pretty sordid! /

Mainly, though, I treasure Kitten with a Whip as an ideal vehicle for Ann-Margret, who I revere as a berserk mid-century sex kitten second only to Jayne Mansfield. After several musicals in a row [State Fair (1962), Bye Bye Birdie (1963) and Viva Las Vegas (1964)] which emphasised her considerable singing and dancing talents, Kitten with a Whip represented an opportunity to showcase the red-hot young Swedish-American starlet as a “serious” dramatic actress. And boy did she embrace it over-zealously! In fact you could say Ann-Margret sinks her claws into the role. The film is like a mouse she subjects to a full feline attack! 

Ann-Margret’s frenzied full-throttle performance as Jody is one long continuous mood-swing, temper tantrum or “glamour fit”. She is so genuinely feral using female animal comparisons feel obligatory: she evokes not just “kitten”, but “tigress”, “minx”, “vixen” or “lynx.” Ann-Margret’s cat-on-a-hot-tin-roof portrayal was savaged by critics at the time (the film’s commercial and critical failure threatened to torpedo her initially promising career) and then later more kindly reappraised as campy and so-bad-it’s-good – but in fact (in the tradition of similarly histrionic actresses like Elizabeth Taylor or Karen Black), she collapses hidebound conventional distinctions between “good” and “bad” acting. If Ann-Margret’s performance in Kitten is “bad”, it is fiercely, awesomely bad – and never dull for one second. (For me, her overripe, bravura acting contrasts beautifully with John Forsythe’s wooden, straight-laced approach). As Slant magazine’s Dan Callahan argued, watching her in Kitten “I was reminded of the novelist Manuel Puig, who was a mentor to my friend Bruce Benderson, and a famous routine he had about Ann-Margret. Whenever A-M came up, Puig would ruminate, very seriously, in his Argentine accent: “Ann-Margret! Sometimes you think she is a good actress, and sometimes you think she cannot act at all. Sometimes you think she is a good girl, and sometimes you think she is a total slut! Ann-Margret!” he would cry, and take a momentous pause. “She is anything but reassuring.””

Like Marianne Faithfull with Girl on a Motorcycle or Patti Duke with The Valley of The Dolls, Ann-Margret was apparently mortified by Kitten with a Whip, considering it one of the nadirs of her acting career. By the time I saw the then-64 year old durable show business veteran perform her sparkly cabaret revue at the now-demolished Stardust Casino in Las Vegas in 2005 (the show was a kitsch hallucinatory fever dream!), her attitude had seemingly softened. Reflecting on how as a young starlet her looks saw her typecast in bad girl roles, Ann-Margret joked,"I call it my Kitten with a Whip phase. Sometimes I still feel like that little kitten. It's just getting a little harder to crack the whip. But I still manage."

/ "Don’t you ever bruise me ... God knows what I might do to you if you ever bruise me.” /

Additional reading:

From the Shock Cinema website:

“On the heels of her show-stopping numbers with Elvis in Viva Las Vegas, Ann-Margret decided to take the low road with this no-budget, b&w melodrama: a surprisingly sleazy juvenile delinquent flick, with a killer performance from everyone's favourite sex kitten. John Forsythe stars as a suave, fat cat politician, whose palatial house is 'borrowed' by a bleach blonde cutie named Jody (Ann-M), dressed in nothing but a nightgown. Not unlike Goldilocks, Forsythe discovers Jody napping in his bed, and the guy is mildly intrigued by this disheveled dish with the crazy curves. And (since his wife is conveniently away) Forsythe's sympathy goes out to the teen when she tells him she a runaway from an abusive home. But he quickly learns that Jody's not your ordinary jailbait. She's on the run from the cops, after breaking out of a detention home, setting fire to the place and stabbing a guard. And pretty soon the tables are turned, with Ann-M playing mind games on the increasingly nervous dweeb and threatening Forsythe with rape charges. A few thrill-crazy (though unbelievably clean cut) hoods join the party and provide a smidgen of bloodshed, but Ann (as well as the viewer) quickly gets bored with their cretinous hijinx, and she eventually dumps the punks and takes Forsythe on a Mexican joy ride... Lemme tell you, this flick is without a doubt the finest showcase of Ann-Margret's talents. She's a tough, no-nonsense bitch, using sex 'n' a smile to get what she wants, and this harder edge makes her more alluring than ever. When she snarls and brandishes the broken end of a whiskey bottle -- well, I think I'm in love. Plus, Forsythe is such a cardboard clod, overflowing with morality, that you can't help but enjoy watching her make him squirm. Douglas Heyes' direction is cheap but energetic, complete with an endless supply of hip dialogue and a no-compromise finale that had me cheering. Kitten is a much-loved, vicious li'l B-movie with Ann-Margret proving once and for all that she's a slut goddess extraordinaire." 

Excerpts from John Waters discussing Kitten with a Whip in Interview magazine in 2011:

“[Ann-Margret] never looked greater. She is fucking gorgeous in this movie. When I was young, I had movie posters in my house everywhere. Now, in only one place where I live do I have a movie poster, and it's Kitten with a Whip.”

On Kitten’s reputation as a terrible “bad movie we love”/ "so bad it's good"-type film:

“I think it's not one bit terrible. It reminds me of a film noir. It's almost like a Russ Meyer movie, an early one, only without as much tits. There was a whole bunch of movies from that period that started with people in turmoil, like with someone breaking into a house. You know what I mean? Like Lady in a Cage, or Penthouse—all these movies about juvenile delinquents taking over. And I think it was a period when a lot of movie stars tried to make these arty ones. Carroll Baker made a movie called Something Wild. There was a movie that I really love called A Cold Wind in August ... They were these early-'60s art films that were American, but yet were made with movie stars that wanted to be cutting-edge and prove they could act rather than be sex kittens.

“Look, it's a great film, and you know I'm screening this film not as a camp movie, but as an undiscovered art movie that people should see for real ... Kitten never became a midnight movie. It might be too arty to be a midnight movie, although I can imagine people standing up and shouting out some of that dialogue. It's just an art film that fell through the cracks, and has a title that is notorious, basically. And that poster is notorious. It's a movie that takes itself fairly seriously.”

/ "She's all out for kicks! And every inch of her spells excitement!" /

Waters nails perhaps one key to Kitten’s failure at the time: it’s made in ’64, but feels like a 1950s film. [You could easily imagine it made in the mid-fifties with Mamie Van Doren as Jody, with only minimal changes].

“It's fun to watch Ann-Margret be a juvenile delinquent, all juvenile delinquent movies are fun, but this is a juvenile delinquent movie too late. Because those movies were in the 50s. This is a 50s movie made too late. When the neighbours show up, it's very Douglas Sirk. That's very Magnificent Obsession.”

Read the essential Dreams Are What Le Cinema is For blog's analysis of Kitten with a Whip here.

Think of Kitten with a Whip as being sandwiched between two other essential Ann-Margret films ...

/ Above: Viva Las Vegas (1964) /

/ Above: Tommy (1975) /

The next Lobotomy Room Goes to The Movies film club is Wednesday 24 February 2016. Details below:

Hey! Did you know about Fontaine’s FREE weekly film club? How better to break the monotony on a bleak wintry Wednesday night than watch a FREE film, drink cocktails and eat canapés in the plush and intimate environs of Fontaine’s basement Bamboo Lounge? As host and DJ of the regular monthly Mondo Trasho punkabilly club night Lobotomy Room (last Friday of every month downstairs in the Bamboo Lounge!), I – Graham Russell - will occasionally crash the proceedings and screen a rancid film of my choice!
Considering Valentine’s Day falls this month, February’s selection is a love story. But bear in mind this is, after all, Lobotomy Room Goes to the Movies – so the love story is a twisted, high camp tale of amour fou. In Morocco (1930) – directed by visionary maestro of kinky exotica Josef Von Sternberg – dissolute nightclub chanteuse and woman of mystery Amy Jolly (German screen diva Marlene Dietrich in her sensational Hollywood debut) finds herself adrift in North Africa and caught in a love triangle, torn between a handsome amoral Foreign Légionnaire (lanky young Gary Cooper at the height of his beauty) and a wealthy playboy (Adolphe Menjou. Perversely, Menjou is meant to represent Von Sternberg himself – who in his complex off-screen relationship with the bisexual Dietrich stoically stood by and watched her seduce legions of men and women both). Depending on your sensibility, Morocco culminates in an ending which you’ll either find irresistibly romantic or totally absurd. Either way, the film is a blast!
Morocco represents the first glimpse American audiences got of Marlene Dietrich (she and Von Sternberg had already triumphed with the German filmThe Blue Angel (1930) but it wasn’t released in the US until afterwards. They ultimately made seven movies together – each one a wild, decadent masterpiece!). It’s a chance to see the origins of the Dietrich myth. Morocco is the film in which she first famously donned a man’s top hat and tails, a daringly butch look which would become her signature. Morocco is also significant in terms of queer cinema history for the notorious musical number in which Dietrich – in male drag – nonchalantly kisses a female audience member on the lips. All these decades later, the scene still feels taboo and transgressive.
Note! The management of Fontaine’s says: drag up as Marlene Dietrich on the night, get a free drink!
Film starts at 8:30 pm prompt! Show up circa 8 pm to order drinks, food and grab the best seating! I’ll be blasting Marlene Dietrich tunes LOUD as you arrive.

/ Above: Marlene Dietrich in femme mode as Amy Jolly in Morocco (1930) /

The next Lobotomy Room club night is Friday 26 February. Details here /