Every generation thinks it invents the rebellion against oppression, and this is another in a long line of films to put women in a hard situation and grant them them the capacity for behavior usually reserved for Dillinger or other masculine con-artists (I’ll reserve the list of offenders, I’m sure you could pluck a few from our current internet pages). So, long before there was a Thema and Louise , or La Femme Nikita we had this Chloris Leachman and Ann Sothern spectacle which is one part Golden Girls and two parts crime spree. Granted the humor valve is turned way up, but sometimes you can’t make this stuff up! Meaning, that inadvertent humor is a kind of cousin of offense, and black humor is really more what we’re getting. Our ladies aren’t being tricked into this mission to retake their family farm, they absolutely mean to right the wrongs of our money-grubbing society, though, there are no lectures about social class or the oppression that goes with it. We are simply treated to the seminal moment when daddy is gunned down by feds as he tries to protect the property from the law.
As our ladies begin their late fifties Odyssey (the setting is as much fun as the rambling story here) they pick up a number of fellows more than thrilled to help out. One of these fancy-free dudes played by Donn Most, would soon be Ralph Mouth on Happy Days (and be billed as Donny Most), as well as a rough and tumble Stuart Whitman of a dozen Fantasy Island episodes as well as a lot of other television.
What is sweet about the film is that the ladies really never lose their focus nor their family as they mostly shoot in the air and make their ragged get-aways. Their tri-generational teamwork (not always entirely covering one another’s backs perfectly) sometimes leaves a lot to be desired. These are untrained improvisers! The ladies don’t make plans. They are spur of the moment convenience criminals and sometimes Mama goes a bit further afield than necessary and the younger women are left trying to rope the mess back into a win. For a while the ladies have a fourth old biddy with them who gets gunned down, but the film doesn’t concentrate on death very much, which might be the one flaw in the realism aspect of the tale. We’re giving up a bit of the horror of bloody murder to instead play in the absurdism of the rollicking road-trip back to the farm. Leachman is terrific here, her style of winging it and twanging country girl are both funny and disarming, right to the end (seeing that my favorite Leachman moment happened on The Muppet Show, this was a fun find!).
There’s a bit of playful fun in there being two beaus for the youngest of our ladies (Linda Purl–probably best known for her exhausted and authoritarian voice on The Office), one fellow played by the aforementioned Donn Most and also a “greaser” played by Bryan Englund (who would die young in the 80s after being in a handful of films including High Anxiety). The threesome share a hotel bed after taking turns popping open the door to reveal the nude young lady, and while there is some mouth-harp twanging in many of the scenes, most of these sight gags aren’t overplayed. The humor is left to fend for itself.
So in talking to my buddy (Jun) about the glorification of violence as a yoke to drive a hero film, I was trying to put this film into context. The ladies and their gentlemen risk themselves boldly in the aim of regaining their family farm. Not much interest is spent on the fact that there’s no way in hell they’ll be able to settle there as every lawman (and they’re all men here, we don’t have a Coen Brothers Fargo story) would be hot on their rather easy to follow trail. I wanted to add that true to the era’s form, the lawmen are clumsy and trigger happy, and are just as likely to shoot one another as any perp. We’re not meant to respect the law, we’re meant to be immersed in the fantasy of possibilities, and we’re cheering for the Crazy Mama who isn’t all that “crazy” in terms of facilities. She’s only “crazy” in light of her choice of action. I don’t believe we’re supposed to be taking this wild ride too seriously, and it gets at the purpose of film-making. Jonathan Demme is no slouch, and this is only his second feature (the first being Caged Heat), but the point is entertainment, and helping people lose themselves for 90 minutes (or 80 in this case), not produce a documentary about actual bank robbing.
I was surprised not so much by the plausibility of this film, but by its skillful execution. And we all love a righteous outlaw story, it has fueled thousands of gun-slinger, trucker, biker, hooker and other tales of violence and revenge. My favorites of these tend to be those done with humor and an eye toward chaos, it’s why things like The Italian Job or Ocean’s Eleven, or Swordfish fall flat for my aesthetic sense. I would rather see Chloris Leachman in her striped pants, charm and bamboozle her way out of a tight fix with a good amount of luck, than watch some group of louts over-plan the unpredictable universe. But that’s me! Experiences may vary!
See this on Prime for free!