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June 25, 2009

Angel Baby

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Paul Wendkos - 1961
Warner Archives DVD

Is there anyone who has the story on the making of Angel Baby? What is known for sure is that the film was begun by Hubert Cornfeld, and completed and signed by Paul Wendkos. There are also two credited cinematographers, Haskell Wexler and Jack Marta. There are parts of the film that appear closer to the work of Cornfeld and Wexler, mostly with some of the more dramatic lighting and unusual angles. In terms of any thematic and visual continuity, Angel Baby has more in common with Cornfeld's other films that I've seen, Pressure Point and Night of the Following Day. It could also be that Wendkos was hired to complete the film because someone remembered that his first film, The Burglar was about the robbery of a fake spiritualist. I found it interesting to discover that Wendkos and Cornfeld both made their debut films at about the same time, with The Burglar on the shelf for two years before being picked up by Columbia Pictures. Andrew Sarris considered Wendkos and Cornfeld interesting enough to mention them in his American Cinema. If nothing else, further study and interviews of those still with us would be of interest in discussing the kind of work that constituted independent filmmaking in the Fifties, when Wendkos and Cornfeld began their careers. Cornfeld's filmography is the skimpier of the two men because he managed to antagonize enough people to effectively cut short his time in Hollywood. Paul Wendkos proved to be more elastic in taking whatever projects came his way, yet Angel Baby is not uncharacteristic considering the scope of his very productive career.

Setting aside questions of authorship, Angel Baby is, on the whole, a film that seems to look better now than it did during its initial release. A mute young woman, Jenny, is dragged by her mother to the prayer meeting held by evangelist Paul Strand. With the audience members also praying for her to regain her voice, Strand places his hand on Jenny's throat. She regains the voice lost when she was a young girl, much to her own shock and amazement. Jenny decides to dedicate her life to spreading "the word", joining the itinerant Strand with his much older wife, Sarah, and their assistants, the less than secretively alcoholic Ben and Molly Hays. Sarah's jealousy of Jenny's youth and fear of losing her husband causes a rift, with Jenny going out on her own with help from the Hays couple. A small town businessman sees a way to make money promoting Jenny. While some critics have described Angel Baby as the smaller scale, distaff version of Elmer Gantry, this ignores both the issues raised by Angel Baby as well as its other merits as a film.

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Even though the religion in the story is a form of Christianity, I think it would by short-sighted to think that Christianity is the subject of the film. Taking a broader perspective, I would argue that Angel Baby is actually about the role of faith taken personally, and used in any form of organized religion where hierarchies of any kind are involved. The characters in Angel Baby may be deeply flawed, and yet they are also guided by a sincere belief that they are acting on behalf of God. What makes the film work is that there seems to be a fundamental respect for the characters without making them the objects of derision or cheap humor, even though there is an abundance of opportunity.

One scene that would have surely tempted a lesser director involves Sarah and Paul. Imagining that Paul's feelings about Jenny are more than friendly, Sarah reminds Paul of their marriage vows, and offers herself to Paul, wearing a somewhat flimsy nightgown, exposing the upper portion of her breasts. The actress playing Sarah, Mercedes McCambridge, was never attractive in the conventional sense, and was twenty-three years older than the actor playing Paul, George Hamilton. Paul spurns Sarah's advances. While the scene could be read as one of the old Hollywood trope of there being something wrong with mature women having both sexual interest, and sexual interest in much younger men, the scene is played with greater sympathy for Sarah than would be found in a similar scene in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard which played up the relationship between Gloria Swanson and William Holden for maximum grotesqueness.

Salome Jens, as Jenny, never fit the conventional mold of Hollywood beauty. Her acting ability cannot be questioned in the first few minutes of the film, first by the body language she uses when she is mute, and then when she is healed by George Hamilton. When Jens first speaks, it is with the voice of someone who has not spoken in about ten years, mouthing the words but not being fully articulate, the sounds struggling to come out of her mouth. The film also marks one of top billed George Hamilton's early roles. Whatever limitations Hamilton has had as an actor, he is visibly better delivering fire and brimstone than playing innocent and earnest. His performance in Angel Baby suggests that not enough attention was paid to how much better Hamilton is when his character skirts the sleazy side of life. Peripheral to the story, but a moment worth savoring is a scene of the very drunk Ben and Molly Hays, played by the always dependable Henry Jones and Joan Blondell. Deciding that the need to see the Strands about the trouble Jenny is about to get into, Jones takes Blondell's feet to put on her shoes. There is a palpable sweetness to the scenes these two older character actors share. Angel Baby was also the inauspicious big screen debut of Burt Reynolds, playing a character not too different from the good ol' boy persona he would make his own almost ten years later. Reynolds appears only in a few scenes in the beginning and near the end, showing off the chest that would sell a million magazines a decade later. Reynolds also has my favorite line in the film, letting Jens know how much he feels for her: "You look so nice and sweet. I swear you give me the torments."

I'm not sure if I know exactly what "the torments" are, although I could probably make an educated guess. Still, it's a great line and one that is more imaginative than what passes for dialogue in more recent American films. For those whose church is the cinema, we can be thankful that Angel Baby is born again on DVD.

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Posted by peter at June 25, 2009 12:44 AM


Angel Baby is the product of many talents. With respect to the film's striking visual style, I'd point to cinematographer Haskell Wexler as the film's predominant auteur - nothing else in the filmographies of Cornfeld and Wendkos looks quite this good.

I don't say this to denigrate director Paul Wendkos. His debut film, The Burglar, is a terrific little film noir, with style to burn - I can think of few other *lost* films that I'd more eagerly wish to see released on DVD. And The Brotherhood of the Bell is one of the best made-for-TV features broadcast in the early '70s when made-for-TV films were just getting off the ground - dense with the wide-angled paranoia that became Wendkos's authorial signature. I've never seen The Case Against Brooklyn (1958), but its reputation suggests it's another *lost* Wendkos that really needs to be rediscovered.

As far as questions of faith go, the combination of Salome Jens, George Hamilton, Burt Reynolds, Mercedes McCambridge, Henry Jones, and Joan Blondell makes Angel Baby a character actors' Heaven.

Posted by: C. Jerry at June 25, 2009 03:01 PM

I just learned Wendkos' The Case Against Brooklyn is going to be on TCM on the evening of July 13th.

Posted by: C. Jerry at July 1, 2009 04:13 PM