Sunday, January 25, 2015

Lolly-Madonna XXX (1972, Richard C. Sarafian)

Until the Warner Archive released Richard C. Sarafian's Lolly-Madonna XXX in late 2014, the film was m.i.a. on home video for over 40 years.  It's this sort of cinematic "rescue" that lovers of obscure films like this one cherish the Warner Archive for.  We're still waiting for the likes of Last Summer and China 9, Liberty 37, but every WA announcement seems to yield another buried treasure from the combined libraries of WB, MGM, RKO, Lorimar, Allied Artists, Monogram, and others.

I'm not sure what kept Lolly-Madonna XXX--aka The Lolly-Madonna War aka Fire in the Meadow (the title that the trailer on this DVD bears)--off home video for so long, but it's a pleasure to finally have this slice of prime hixploitation, with its stacked cast, in its proper scope aspect ratio on DVD.

The film like so many from the era, Westerns in particular, is a Vietnam allegory; it has its roots in an early Sue Grafton novel.  The Gutshalls and Feathers, two backwoods Tennessee clans are in a continual land dispute, which becomes increasingly violent and tragic as the film progresses.  Rod Steiger is the Feather patriarch and Robert Ryan his counterpart.  Lolly-Madonna is a fabrication of Ludie Gutshall (the underrated Kiel Martin, who died too young) meant to drive the Feather boys (Jeff Bridges, Scott Wilson, Ed Lauter, Timothy Scott, and Randy Quaid) away from their illegal still long enough for Ludie and his brothers (Paul Koslo and Gary Busey) to burn it down.  Through a case of bad timing, innocent Roonie Gill (Season Hubley) is mistaken by the Feathers for the fictitious Lolly-Madonna and it's she, caught in the middle, who narrates the sordid tale.  

The story is rather simple and often unpleasant, as it heads inexorably, with little suspense or surprise, to tragedy, but it's of interest because of its long-standing scarcity, grade-A cast, and trashy, country milieu.  Lovers of weirdo '70s cinema and that decade's fascination with rural characters and culture, as I clearly am, will find much to enjoy here.  

Unsurprisingly, in the loaded cast, it's the young, pre-stardom Bridges who has the film's best moments, particularly those opposite the incredibly young-looking Hubley (a million years from her jaded turns in cult favorites Hardcore and Vice Squad).  In the quiet before the final storm, Bridges and Hubley are quite moving together, united by the hardship and tragedy each has endured prior to their meeting.  

Before his untimely death due to cancer, Ryan, star of so many fine Westerns and noirs, seemed to load up on appearances in the bizarre, off-kilter, anti-establishment pictures that were de rigueur in the early '70s: Lolly-Madonna, The Outfit, And Hope to Die, Executive Action.  Unlike many of his contemporaries, who dropped out at this time from the industry, often out of a profound distaste for the new, much more explicit Hollywood cinema, Ryan clearly had no problem rubbing shoulders with the young up and comers behind and in front of the camera and appearing in stories containing "filth" that wouldn't have been permitted on the screen a few years earlier.  This is one of the aspects that makes this era such a treat for students of classic Hollywood; it was a time when boomer stars were emerging and the previous generation was still young enough to keep up with them and pass the proverbial torch, as Ryan and Steiger do here.  Unlike Steiger, who became known for his onscreen histrionics--on full display here--Ryan counters with a welcome gravitas and stillness that helps the movie achieve whatever dramatic power and sense of loss that it does.

Sarafian, coming off of the post-Woodstock, post-Easy Rider road movie sensation Vanishing Point, would have had more clout in his career at this point than at any other time, and he chose to helm the radically different Lolly-Madonna.  Where Vanishing Point is one long-distance car chase that keeps moving from one locale to another, Lolly-Madonna remains tied to the contested land of the Gutshalls and Feathers.  In addition to his cast (put together by casting legend Lynn Stalmaster), Sarafian is aided by Philip Lathrop as d.p., the haunting theme music by Fred Myrow (Phantasm), and editor Tom Rolf, whose impressive and lengthy resume includes Taxi Driver, Heat, The Right Stuff, and numerous additional good to great films.  

Sarafian on set with Steiger.

When I finally saw this movie a couple years ago via a faded, but serviceable 35mm print, I joked that the cast had just about every young actor in early '70s Hollywood, short of Jan-Michael Vincent, capable of playing rural characters and leads.  In truth, many members of the cast, vacillated between "hixploitation" (or, "hicksploitation") and urban action films at this time.  Aside from Bridges, Busey, and Quaid, though, most of them did not graduate to prominence or enjoy as much longevity in major films. Busey and the late Lauter would appear in several other Bridges pictures before their careers blossomed and went off in their own directions.  

Joan Goodfellow and onscreen lover Jan-Michael Vincent in Buster and Billie, which some exhibitor must have paired with Lolly-Madonna at some point in the early '70s.

Joan Goodfellow (Sister E. Gutshall) would soon star opposite Vincent in Buster and Billie, another '70s rural tragedy and cult item that has become difficult to see over the years; her career, unfortunately, soon fizzled out.  

Steiger and Busey, off-camera during filming.

Koslo was a '70s mainstay who seemed to make a career out of getting his head busted in entertaining ways by older stars such as Charles Bronson.  Koslo and Timothy Scott earlier appeared together in another, even rarer post-Vietnam downer, Welcome Home, Soldier Boys; Scott was also in Vanishing Point, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and The Party, and he remained active, often in "rural" parts, until his early death in 1995. 

Timothy Scott as Skylar Feather.

Scott Wilson is entertained as brother Ed Lauter engages in some healthy sexual role-playing.

Scott Wilson, co-star of In Cold Blood, remains one of the best, most underrated character actors to emerge in the '60s and '70s.  

The Gutshall men (from left): Ryan, Koslo, and Martin.

The handsome, charismatic Martin co-starred in the cult blaxploitation Iceberg Slim adaptation Trick Baby, gained some fame in the '80s on Hill Street Blues, and died of lung cancer at only 46.  

Hubley, so affectively fresh-faced and innocent here, and though quite talented, had few starring opportunities in film, save for the aforementioned Hardcore and Vice Squad, her career momentum apparently stopped in the early '80s following a difficult divorce and child custody battle with Kurt Russell.

An Australian ad, I believe.

The Warner Archive DVD features the film in its o.a.r., as we've come to expect, anamorphically enhanced, and derived from an unexceptional source.  Happily, we also get a theatrical trailer, which, interestingly, plays under the evocative title Fire in the Meadow, a title completely different from the usual Lolly-Madonna XXX and The Lolly-Madonna War.  Order it here.

Films like this one, even if they are ultimately significantly flawed, are my most favorite type to come out of the Warner Archive because they truly embody the term "from the vault."  We can only hope that the other studios develop and / or speed up the releases in their own MOD initiatives so that even more of these rarities can emerge from cold storage.

"Lolly-Madonna," in a moment of rare, short-lived quietude.