Roger Corman is the single most important American filmmaker since Orson Welles—he basically invented American independent filmmaking, and also gave many great directors their first shot. Jonathan Demme was one such director. Through the sixties he hold the following posts: Film critic for Florida Alligator and Coral Gables Times-Guide, 1963-65, and for Film Daily, 1966-68; worked in the publicity departments of United Artists and Embassy Pictures; salesman for Pathé Contemporary Films, and in London as a promoter of American films. While in London he hopped onto the Corman train right around the time Corman went solo to start New World Pictures after a long and successful relationship with American International Pictures.
Demme was first hired as a writer for New World, with Angels Hard as They Come and Black Mama White Mama being the two most notable writing gigs. Interestingly, after he stopped working for Corman Demme would only get one more feature film screenplay credit, for his much-maligned Charade remake The Truth About Charlie. Caged Heat was the first of the three films Demme would go on to direct for Corman. The “women in prison” films were a bit passé for Corman at this point, so Demme wrote his own take on the genre. Corman actually passed initially because he thought the genre was played out. Demme went on to raise the funds himself and Corman, always a smart businessman, decided to distribute the film.
As you would imagine, Caged Heat is a rough-around-the-edges movie that works to some extent. Demme’s script mixed feminism and his own liberal politics with a dash of satire to create a melting plot. The intention of the film is what makes the film more interesting: it’s trying to be this statement on the genre of WIP movies, but while it doesn’t always succeed, it’s still always entertaining. Corman’s films always had some socially conscious bent to them, so Demme really wasn’t doing anything particularly new. Jack Hill’s The Big Doll House did very much the same thing and personally, I think does it better.
Still, Caged Heat is a really fun movie. It fluctuates between an almost stream-of-consciousness ’70s oddity and the rigid constraints of Corman’s filmmaking mandates. It has the typical sex and violence around every 10 minutes mark that was expected for Corman, but also has insane dream sequences that could be out of a Fellini movie. Barbara Steele does a wild turn as the evil Superintendent of the prison. The film stars Russ Meyer favourite Erica Gavin as Jacqueline Wilson, who gets a crazy sentence for a drug offense and has to fight the prison-industrial complex. The film was shot by Tak Fujimoto, who was one of Demme’s go-to cinematographers for years. Demme hired him off the back of his spellbinding work in Badlands. The sound design, however, leaves a lot to be desired—although it does have one of the first film scores John Cale ever created!
Crazy Mama was the second film Demme made with Roger Corman, and probably the better film of the two. Underground filmmaker Shirley Clarke was initially hired to direct the film, but she and Corman parted ways over creative disagreements. Clarke would later accuse him of sexism and tokenism, but it sounds more like miscommunication—Corman didn’t know her work and expected a different kind of filmmaker. Demme came on board around 10 days into the shoot and took over.
The film is a kind of companion to Roger Corman’s Bloody Mama, which was a huge financial success. Both are crime spree films led by a mother! Cloris Leachman plays Melba Strokes, who is working at a beauty parlour but ends up fighting back with her mother and daughter after their landlord demands their back rent. The crime spree runs from California to their old family homestead, where the film starts with a flashback to the ’30s.
Crazy Mama feels more like a Demme film than Caged Heat, in the sense it has an oddball cast of characters, a kitschy love for the ’50s and, naturally, a soundtrack full of great songs. The film is at its best when it captures the scenery, the people and the places of the Strokes family’s crime spree. There are some shades of John Waters here, whose work I’m sure Demme was already acquainted with—Demme would later cast him in a role he was born to play as the slimy used car salesman in Something Wild.
One of the pluses of these early Demme films is the casts he was able to put together on a shoestring. Cloris Leachman was still hot off her Oscar-winning role in The Last Picture Show, along with Young Frankenstein and her long-running guest cast spots on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Stuart Whitman, Ann Southern and, of course, Dick Miller show up in memorable roles. Keep an eye out for film debuts from Bill Paxton and Dennis Quaid, and even everybody’s favourite “Zen-Anarchist” John Milius shows up as a cop in one scene.
The Blu-Rays from 101 Films are a port from the Shout! Factory releases, but in the case of Crazy Mama the new version actually includes extras that were listed on the Shout! Factory back cover but did not appear on the disc itself. Those extras are an interview between Corman and Demme recorded around the time The Truth About Charlie came out and some TV shows, they also do a commentary track together. Caged Heat has a commentary with Demme, Fujimoto and Gavin, along with a Leonard Maltin interview with Corman and the trailer, TV spot and radio spots.