Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Baby (1973): or, You Oughta Wean Him, He's Old Enough

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.

Despite all his rage, he still acts twelve years underage.

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.

Not the first time she's given blue balls.

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.

"You're all shook up, aren't you, Baby?"

I said earlier that the weirdness of Baby's condition is not as central as you might expect--almost everyone who comes in contact with the Wadsworth, from Ann and her supervisor to Mrs. Wadsworth's party guests (on whom much more in a moment), seems to take Baby's infantilism in remarkable stride. There are no scenes of little old ladies expressing shock and horror at the sight of 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.

Clearly Conflicted

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.

They Grow Up So Fast

Her 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.

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.)

Chekhov Rule

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.

Bandana Styles Come and Go, but The Chicken Dance is Forever

"No, seriously! I was on an episode of T.J. Hooker once!"

Get down, Mama!

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.

Ruth Roman: All Out of Bubble Gum

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.

"No, sorry--I don't have a Hugh Jass here."

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):

Bringing Up Baby

"Please stay behind that line on the carpet. We've determined that to be the limit of his blast range."

She Loves the Night Life

"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!

Told Ya


The Professor said...

I teach a course at my university called ART, CULTURE, AND THE HORROR FILMS OF THE 1970's. As the companion movie to discussions about "The Women's Movement," THE BABY never fails to exceed all audience expectations. I see the film as a "cry for help" by the all-male filmmakers against the onslaught of femininity unleashed as represented by the largely female cast. Take note of the way males are depicted in the film as impotent, cloying nonentities, or worse, as infantile subhumans, typified by "Baby" himself. And if you don't agree with me, I'll beat you bloody with a macrame wall hanging.

Colin Lorimer said...

One of my all time favourites! And that ending....!!!!

Samuel Wilson said...

Never heard of this one before today. Knowing that it exists has sort of brightened my day. I'm going to have to see this some time, thanks to you.

Jenn said...

I tout this one constantly and reviewed it awhile back at the Cavalcade. It's truly one of the craziest fucking movies EVAR and I never fail to be completely weirded out/entertained by it on repeated viewings. All of it is so wickedly perverse, it's like it was made just for me.

Excellent review, as usual, my dear Vicar :)

Sadako said...

I've actually never heard of this one, and I thought I'd heard of all the weird wacky movies worth knowing about. I think I might have to see it.

aunt john said...

Excellent review of one of the bestest movies ever! And @ The Professor... where do you teach & do you offer this course online?

The Vicar of VHS said...

@The Professor--I am delighted to learn that somewhere in this great nation of ours, THE BABY is on the college curriculum! Who says tax dollars are wasted by the educational system? Your reading of the flick is intriguing, and borne out by the source, I think. Now put down that macrame!

@Lubbert Das--It's a great ending, isn't it? It wasn't until the next day after my viewing I connected it with the mother-in-law's complaint about her feet hurting, "among other things"! o_O

@Samuel--I'm glad to have brought it to your attention! Any day I can help educate a scholar such as yoursel, whose knowledge of film is frankly intimidating and awesome to me--well, that's a good day! :)

@Jenn--good to hear from you again! Where have you been keeping yourself? :P Thanks for the kind words. I would encourage all my interested readers to go over to Jenn's review of The Baby and partake in her special love and glee for the flick!

@Sadako--I learned long ago that whenever you think you've heard/seen it all in 70s cinema, a movie will always pop up and blindside you to punish your hubris. ;) There are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy, and more things in 70s exploitation even than that!

@aunt john--I freely admit that it was your Baby party post that made me bump this one up my queue, and of course I'm so glad I did! And I'd be interested to know where The Professor teaches as well!

Thanks for the comments, everyone!

The Professor said...

Unfortunately its not offered online. The class is an art elective I offer on an irregular (very irregular) basis at JMU. Some of the other topics/films in the class:

Investigative journalism (Watergate)/THE NIGHT STALKER
Biowarfare/THE OMEGA MAN
Counterculture/DRACULA AD 1972
Black Power movement/BLACULA
New age religion/THE WICKER MAN
Environmental movement/KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS
Consumer culture/DAWN OF THE DEAD
Just for the hell of it/ZOMBI

It's a fun class, and you wouldn't believe how many of the students have seen NONE of the listed films, not just the rare ones ( like THE BABY.)


Just got around to checking this review out. I too have seen THE BABY and it is truly a mad mad mad mad movie. Dare I say one of the maddest?

I dare Hollywood to try and remake this one!

... said...

This is a great, and as far as I can remember, extremely accurate review. I saw The Baby at least 15 years ago on late night telly and it left a strong impression on me. This review has brought back all the reasons why, and reminded me of details I had forgotten. Which to be honest was most of it. Strangely enough I remember a Scott Bakula lookalike playing Baby, which is clearly inaccurate!
To me the strong anti woman aspect of the film has nothing to do with anti feminism, but is more of a statement on the absurdity and irrational fears of anti feminists of that period.

Elizabeth West said...

I just watched this on Netflix. One of my guilty pleasures is really weird B-movies, particularly horror. This was one of the strangest, most perverse and hilarious films I've ever seen. I'm still chuckling. What was in the water in the 70s anyway!

Anonymous said...

I still don't understand the mother in law's "my feet hurt, among other things" comment. Can someone explain? I feel so dense!

Anonymous said...

I was thinking of this movie just yesterday and thought I may have to ask someone in the family if they remembered it.... so I go to the trusty internet and BAM! I now want to see it again so that I can see for myself that the ending is how I remember it... thanks !

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