Reading synopses, reviews, and open-mouthed shock reactions for Ted Post's 1973 weirdo exploitation romp The Baby, I had somehow got the idea that at least part of the movie's shock value was inherent in the reveal of its premise--a social worker goes to the house of an eccentric family to assess the needs of their "special" youngest member, only to discover that the "baby" she thought she'd be caring for is in fact a thirty-year old man in an oversized crib and diapers. Therefore I worried that, since I knew the premise going in, much of the effectiveness of that shock reveal would be diffused.
Parishioners, I was happily misinformed--not only about how much the flick's effectiveness relies on that shock reveal (hint: it doesn't), but about that knockout premise's centrality to the plot as a whole. Yes, there's a thirty-year-old man with the brain of a pre-verbal infant who sleeps in a gigantic crib and occasionally needs his nappy changed, but surprisingly that's just a small part of what makes the movie tick. It's merely the soup base, if you will, to which Post and writer Abe Polsky add a variety of savory exploitation ingredients--some diced, some chunky, some pureed--to arrive at a delicious Mad Movie stew.
Social worker Ann Gentry (Anjanette Comer, previously of the beloved-by-some Mexican oddity The Night of a Thousand Cats) is a lonely woman whose life has been marred by some unspecified tragedy involving her husband--a tragedy she's loath to discuss, but is always reflected in her sad, striking blue eyes. She spends her days immersed her her work with disadvantaged and disabled children, and her nights in the darkened palatial mansion she shares with her devoted mother-in-law, watching home movies of happier times. It's a sad existence, and one that clearly leaves Ann unhappy and unfulfilled.
All that changes when she takes on the case of the Wadsworth family, a trio of eccentric women who depend on governmental assistance to care for their youngest brother/son, "Baby" (David Mooney). There's no shock reveal here, as before the opening credits are over Ann has thumbed through a series of photos showing the infantilized adult crawling on the carpet, lying in his crib, and modeling the Depends™ Fall Line with undeniable panache. Ann takes an unusual--indeed, downright unhealthy--interest in the case, and quickly inserts herself into the daily life of the Wadsworths so she can spend as much time as possible with Baby.
This doesn't sit well with Mama Wadsworth (an absolutely wonderful Ruth Roman, twenty years on from her top-billed female lead role in Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train), who would much prefer the social worker just rubber-stamp their file, send the check, and butt the hell out. Mrs. Wadsworth is a tough, no-nonsense matriarch you definitely don't want to cross--think Varla from Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, only thirty years older and living in the suburbs. When Ann comes to her with ideas about how to improve Baby's condition, Mrs. Wordsworth lets her know she will not suffer her motherly toes to be stepped on. "Maybe you think too much," she tells the timid woman, archly. "When it comes to Baby, I do all the thinking."
That comparison to Russ Meyer's most famous anti-heroine is a considered one, as Mrs. Wadsworth and her two daughters make up a trio of villainesses that would feel right at home in the Meyer universe, if only they had the giant boobs required for entry. Youngest daughter Alba (Susanne Zenor) is a lanky pigtailed blonde who gives tennis lessons for pocket money. She's the angriest and most out-of-control of the Wadsworth women, vicious with Baby, sadistic with her would-be lovers, and given to delivering lines like Katherine Hepburn channeling Bette Davis ragging on Joan Crawford. (Nota bene: if you've never heard Bette lay into Joan, get thee to youtube or a quote site, stat. It's art.) Eldest daughter Germaine (Marianna Hill, who the same year memorably starred as Arletty in the MMMMMasterpiece Messiah of Evil) brings in a negligible amount of cash as a model and actress in commercials, and would probably make more money if she didn't come off like one of the forgotten members of the Addams Family. Sporting the vampress bouffant and slinky floor-length skirts, Germaine is the quiet, creepy sister, whose motivations for her kindness to both Baby and Ann prove to be somewhat less than altruistic.
a grown man in diapers or a velvet Lord Fauntleroy outfit, no malicious teasing or giggling, pointing children. The closest we come is when a doctor Ann consults repeatedly refers to Baby as "retarded" (after a scene in a school for developmentally disabled children that's probably the most exploitative segment in the film), and blames it on Mrs. Wadworth's moral failings. ("Each child by a different man!" he notes, damningly, as if nothing more need be said.) The fact that Baby is treated just like any other baby--especially by Ann, who doesn't even hesitate to offer to change his loaded nappy (ewww)--gives the movie a further sense of unreality that again reminded me of the mad universe of Mr. Meyer.
But that doesn't mean Post and Polsky don't milk their premise for all it's worth. For instance, when Mama Wadworth and the girls decide to go out for a night on the town, they hire a young babysitter to watch Baby for the night. The girl is in her very early twenties and has apparently sat for Baby before, and is totally comfortable with him. After a telephone argument with her boyfriend lets us in on her sexual frustration, she goes to mind the baby, who is cranky and hungry. Despite his child-like mentality Baby *is* as strong as a thirty-year-old, and he starts pawing at the girl's breasts--clearly hoping for a little snack before bed! The girl resists at first, but finally allows Baby to latch on, a look of clearly sexual pleasure on her face! It's a testament to the film's disorienting skill that this reads more as the girl abusing Baby than vice versa.
The Wadsworth women pick that moment to come home, and Mama is most displeased to find Baby's lips wrapped around the milk-nozzle of the hired help. So displeased that she orders Germaine and Alba to teach the girl a lesson, which they do by slapping her bloody on the changing table before Mrs. Wadsworth takes the strap to her! As the sobbing girl flees, Mama reminds her not to go to the police, lest she be charged with "molesting a mental case."
As Ann investigates Baby's case files, she begins to find even more disturbing evidence. Baby's previous case worker had tried to spend a lot of time working with him as well, but then strangely disappeared just when she was beginning to report progress. (Dun-dun-DUN!) Furthermore, she theorizes that Mrs. Wadsworth, abandoned by her last Baby-daddy, now hates all men and is dead-set on making sure Baby, the only male member of the family, stays dependent on her and so never leaves. "He's imprisoned by a kind of sick love!" she tells her boss, and not heeding his warnings, begins to encourage Baby to speak and walk.
But the main focus of the film is on Ann and her battle to wrest Baby away from his supervillain family. As her concern morphs into obsession, Ann begins to dream of adopting Baby, taking him home to live with her and her mother-in-law in their huge, largely empty home. Though usually timid and vulnerable, periodically Ann displays flashes of grim determination, as when she gets fiercely competitive in a game of darts with Alba. Similarly, her home life is punctuated with strange mysterious notes. For instance, why is her mother-in-law living with her in the absence of her familial connection, and why does she seem so devoted? What was the tragedy so severe that it causes Ann to crumple under Germaine's relentless questioning? What does Mom-in-Law mean when Ann asks her how her day was and she replies, "My feet hurt...among other things!"
(Hint--the implied answer later will knock your socks off.)
It all culminates when Mama Wadsworth throws a 70s-style blow-out for Baby's birthday. Words can really not to justice to the awesomeness of this party, but I'm going to try, nonetheless. With Germaine glammed up like Helena Bonham Carter gone Disco, Alba in full-on sex-tease/party-bitch mode, and at least three-dozen of Mama Wadsworth's closest friends (INCLUDING the babysitter they beat to a pulp earlier!), this had to have been the social event of the season, if not the decade. Have we got red light bulbs? Have we got enough booze to keep Oliver Reed happy for 36 hours? Have we got hippie girls doing the frug with silver-haired middle-aged men straight out of Weekend with the Babysitter? Have we got Grave of the Vampire's Michael Pataki in one of the most amazing fringed suede jackets ever? YOU BET YOUR SWEET BIPPY WE DO.
"No, seriously! I was on an episode of T.J. Hooker once!"
Having had enough of Ann's meddling, Mama decides it's time to get her out of the picture permanently by drugging her drink and dragging her to the basement for later disposal. It works like a charm until Pataki notices and has to be distracted by Alba, who promises him sex if he can hold his hand over a flaming lighter for a full minute. ("I'll do anything to get to paradise, Alba, but does it have to be in an ambulance?") Unfortunately no one's minding the Baby, and with his inadvertent help Ann is able to escape and take him back to her place, slashing Mama's tires on the way out. ("That BITCH!" Mama spits. "She thinks of EVERYTHING!") This leads to an all-out SWAT-style attack as the Wadsworths invade the Gentry Mansion to get their Baby back (baby back baby back baby back), and that shock reveal I was waiting on all this time finally leaps out of the shadows and hits me in the face with a soaking wet nappy.
The very definition of "only in the 1970s," The Baby is a Mad Movie gem. The heightened-reality vibe I associate with Russ Meyer is here in full force, minus the bouncing boobs and cartoon sound effects. The Wadsworth women are larger-than-life icons, and Ruth Roman is absolutely monumental. With that Old Hollywood acting style and the bemused expression of a gangster who knows he could make one call and have your family's digits express delivered to your door, Roman absolutely nails the role. The other Wadsworth girls are great too--particularly Marianna Hill in her weird, disturbingly sexual role--but it's Roman who really makes things sizzle.
Anjanette Comer plays Ann as the polar opposite to Mrs. Wadsworth's supreme self-confidence and dangerous capability. Ann is vulnerable and sad, an emotional open wound, whose obsession with Baby is a desperate attempt to fill the crater in her life left by that unnamed meteor of tragedy. Finally, David Mooney as Baby is admirably committed to the role, though at times he seems to play Baby less like an infant than like a puppy. Apparently Mooney recorded the "baby sounds" for his performance--crying, baby talk, etc.--but Post later replaced them with actual baby sounds. I can't help thinking hearing Mooney's original interpretation might make things even weirder and more effective, but sadly that track seems to be lost.
Given its premise, the film demonstrates what some might call admirable restraint in many ways, as detailed above. However, the score of the movie by Gerald Fried is not one of those instances. In fact, it's downright schizophrenic. There are passages that sound like Henry Mancini Pink Panther-style jazz, juxtaposed with bombastic Spaghetti Western music (both Fried and Post have many Westerns in their filmographies), switching then to plinky music box and finally to experimental Kronos Quartet-style string screeches. If Fried meant to capture the mental states of the various characters in this score, well, I have to say he succeeded.
In closing, if you only see one movie this year about a man-baby cared for by strong, eccentric women and kidnapped by a well-meaning social worker for ulterior motives of her own, make sure it's this one and not Adult Baby Fetish 5: Oops I Crapped My Playpen. 3 Thumbs for this exemplary Mad Movie.
Nota Bene: Aunt John over at Kindertrauma (one of the Duke and Vicar's absolute favorite web stops--follow it now if you haven't already!) put together a wonderful post on Baby's Birthday party that must be seen and thereafter applauded maniacally. Here's the link. Go there now!
A few more images from The Baby (1973):
"Cover your ears, Baby--Mommy's about to call someone a cocksucker!"
"Awww, oos got him a wittle boo-boo?"
Just like in the dream!
Tuesday, August 17, 2010
They Grow Up So FastHer theory is borne out when, after he seems to try to pull up on his play pen, the Wadsworths shoo her away and then take Baby back to his room for punishment with a cattle prod! Alba does the honors, shouting angrily, "Baby doesn't WALK...and Baby doesn't TALK...and Baby doesn't STAND!" all while zapping him with the prod! Their point made (and their meal ticket secured), the womenfolk retire...but creepy, diaphanous gown-clad Germaine returns later in the night to watch Baby sleeping in his crib, a strange gleam in her eye...her see-through gown drops to the floor as she opens the side-door of the crib, and we at MMMMMovies add another entry to the Film Encyclopedia of Retard Seduction.
Bandana Styles Come and Go, but The Chicken Dance is Forever
Bringing Up Baby
She Loves the Night Life