Gotta admit that the thought of Buena Vista being the source of DVD reissues from the long and checkered career of director/producer Roger Corman has me more than a little flummoxed – even if the packagers attempt to justify it by labeling him the "Reigning King of Independent Film" (as opposed to "Mister Low-Budget").
Yeah, I know that BV is so much more than Disney these days, but seeing an ad for the most recent Pirates of the Caribbean flick alongside a collage of Cormania that includes such gems as Death Race 2000 (budgetary excess versus brilliance on a tight purse) remains decidedly strange. Still, if it results in the rescue of a picture like The Cry Baby Killer from the blurry netherworld of the Dollar Tree cheapie DVD shelves, I can't help but applaud BV's acquisition of a good part of the Corman library.
Initially released in 1958, Cry Baby Killer is best known as Jack Nicholson's debut film. In it, he plays Jimmy Wallace (you know at heart this is a good kid 'cuz his name is Jimmy), who we first see getting beaten up in a dark alley by a bunch of young punks. Leader of said punks is an oldish looking youth named Manny Cole (durable low-budget actor Brett Halsey) who has recently stolen Jimmy's girl Carole (Carolyn Mitchell). "When the Mannys of the world take over," one of Cole's young henchpunks states, "the Jimmy Wallaces get lost."
Except Jimmy is too stubborn to know he's supposed to get lost. Bringing along his useless football player buddy, he follows Manny and his crew to Klix Drive-In, a seedy hang-out for would-be juvenile delinquents. "Hate to see clean-looking kids go into that place," uniformed copper Glen Gannon (John Shay) notes, in between half-assedly flirting with seen-it-all waitress Julie (Lynn Cartwright), and we quickly learn why.
Inside the dump, smarmy Manny attempts to spike the spellbound Carole's soda pop, so he can get her home and take advantage of her young nubile self. But before Carole's virtue is forever compromised, Jimmy shows to challenge Manny to a man-to-man fight. They Take It Outside to a place away from the copper Gannon’s eyes, and a scuffle ensues wherein Jimmy grabs a gun from one of Manny's toadies. Both Manny and the toady get shot; Officer Glen arrives on the scene; and poor panicking Jimmy grabs a mother and her baby into a convenient storeroom where he holds them – plus a Negro cook named Sam (Smoki Whitfield) – hostage.
All of this takes place in the flick's first fifteen minutes. The rest of the 61-minute black and white feature is devoted to a stand-off 'tween Jimmy and the police with periodic padding dialog by most of the grown-ups about the Trouble with Kids Today. (Scriptwriter/character actor Leo Gordon gets off the best line as a member of the bystanding mob: "Teenagers," he sneers. "Never had 'em when I was a kid!")
Jimmy's parents arrive so that Mom can call blond Carole a cheap hussy; good-guy cop Glen continues to flirt with waitress Julie; and hard-nosed police lieutenant Porter (Harry Lauter) weighs the advantages of using tear gas on a room where one of the hostages is an infant. In the background, teevee cameras for station KQQQ and a hot-dog vendor show up to take part in the action – like some low-budget version of Billy Wilder's The Big Carnival.
Young Nicholson's a pleasure to watch in his storeroom-bound scenes: growing more jittery as the night progresses, bouncing off of his frightened captives. "I don't know what to do," he moans at one point, and you can hear the sound of a thousand Method Acting workshops in that single exclamation. If at times, there's a brace more braininess behind those eyes than his character is allowed to actually demonstrate, well, that's partly screen inexperience and partly because we know just how smart Nicholson'll ultimately prove to be. He proves much more comfortable in this flick than he'll be in later Corman period flicks The Raven or The Terror.
The movie's stand-off ends anti-climactically – despite a ten-minute countdown sequence where director Jus Addis regularly gives us shots of Lt. Porter's Bulova – with blond Carole delivering a bullhorn speech ("Maybe it's all my fault," she sez, or, "maybe it's everybody’s fault!") meant to tie things up and lure Jimmy out of that storeroom. Once the credits roll, however, we realize that its title is a cheat: nobody was killed. Manny and Al have been taken to the hospital, never to be heard from again, while Jimmy's three hostages all make it out okay: mother and child back in the loving arms of their worried husband, Sam to be inexplicably glared at by Lt. Porter. According to Ed Naha's The Films of Roger Corman, Gordon's full original script was "de-written" by one of Corman's assistants, so perhaps the first draft painted Nicholson's Jimmy as a teary-eyed killer for real. Would've been more interesting if it had.
Whatever an intentional or haphazard fraud, the title still inspires a nifty period theme song: a bongo-heavy faux roll-'n'-roll lament by Dick Kallman ("Sweat was pouring from off his brow/Wasn't any hope for him no-how!"), perhaps best known for later playing record executive Little Louie Groovy on the Batman series.
All told, Cry Baby Killer remains pretty lightweight, even by '50s drive-in standards. But the movie goes by so quickly, you don't really mind. Buena Vista's DVD is being packaged as a "Back-to-Back Jack Edition," featuring a colorized version of 1960's Little Shop of Horrors as a bonus feature. This, too, is a bit of a con, of course, since Nicholson's part in that notorious quickie horror comedy is the short-but-memorable role as a masochistic dental patient (who'd later be assayed by Bill Murray in Frank Oz’s movie musical version). Though more than one movie buff has decried the use of colorization on this feature, in a way this bankrupt technique adds to the general tattiness of a film that legendarily was shot by Corman in two days.
At least Shop was actually directed by Corman, instead of Addis, who's mainly known for his workmanship in series television (did a few Twilight Zones and Alfred Hitchcocks). While I know that Corman brought a lotta great directors into the biz – along with young-'n'-cheap thespians like Nicholson – what I'd really like to see on remastered DVD are more of his own early directorial efforts. Many of Corman's best directing jobs have already been released on DVD, of course (often as part of MGM's "Midnite Movies" series), but the man was so prolific that you just know there are some unreleased low-budget gems out there waiting to be polished up and repackaged. How about a good copy of The Terror? You wouldn't even need to colorize it!