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  Crazy Mama Family Felonies
Year: 1975
Director: Jonathan Demme
Stars: Cloris Leachman, Stuart Whitman, Ann Sothern, Linda Purl, Don Most, Merie Earle, Bryan Englund, Sally Kirkland, Clint Kimbrough, Dick Miller, Jim Backus, Harry Northup, Tisha Sterling, Beach Dickerson, Bill Paxton, Dennis Quaid, Will Sampson
Genre: Comedy, Action, ThrillerBuy from Amazon
Rating:  5 (from 1 vote)
Review: In 1932, the authorities stole an Arkansas farm from its rightful owners, killing the father of Melba (Cloris Leachman) in the process and leaving Sheba (Ann Sothern) a widow. By 1958, Melba and Sheba are running a failing beauty parlour in California but today the bank's representative Mr Albertson (Jim Backus) shows up with a group of bailiffs and a large truck and proceeds to load the ladies' possessions into the back of it. They've run out of money and goodwill and as if that wasn't enough Melba's teenage daughter Cheryl (Linda Purl) has just discovered that she's pregnant by her feckless boyfriend Shawn (Don Most). So they make a decision to move back to Arkansas and reclaim their farm...

One word that sums up Crazy Mama would be "chaotic": it never pauses for breath and most of the characters have a habit of overreacting and talking over each other. Judging by the opening you may be expecting a retread of the nineteen-thirties set Bonnie and Clyde, erm, homages that producer Roger Corman was turning out in the seventies and by the title a story reminiscent of Bloody Mama and Big Bad Mama might well be in order. Written by Robert Thom from a story by Frances Doel, who had co-scripted Big Bad Mama, this film is in fact more of a straight comedy which can't quite shake off its association to those previous films.

On the way to Arkansas, and after stealing Mr Albertson's car, the three women stop off at Las Vegas for a spot of gambling, all the while followed by Shawn who feels he must live up to his responsibilities as a father. But the men in this film are not the brains of this outfit, or any outfit it seems, with the women taking charge most of the time and leading the plot. While in Vegas Sheba picks up a new friend at the one armed bandits, Bertha (Merie Earle), and Cheryl picks up a second boyfriend, Snake (Bryan Englund), but most importantly Melba wins the heart of holidaying sheriff Jim Bob (Stuart Whitman) at the gambling tables.

Although Jim Bob is already married to the rich Ella Mae (Sally Kirkland), he is so taken with Melba that he marries her too, which conveniently provides cover for Shaun and Snake to steal the chapel's money from their back office. And so their crime spree begins in earnest, with Sheba feigning heart attacks in supermarkets to get access to the cash, and the unusual robbery of a motorcycle race, for variety. Although making the Beverly Hillbillies look sophisticated, and despite being nakedly, criminally mercenary, the actors display a real liking for their characters and their camaraderie seems real.

Their big idea is a staged kidnapping where Jim Bob's wife will part with a large amount of her fortune for his safe return, something he or the rest of the gang have no intention of going through with. But the cops are not so keen on the idea and an unexpected mood swing into tragedy is right around the corner. When things turn serious, it doesn't suit the goofy tone of the rest of the film with its jolly run of nostalgic fifties hit records playing on the soundtrack, from the Everly Brothers to Nervous Norvus. While the cast can handle the change of pace, the fact that the movie wasn't, in truth, all that funny for a comedy means the ending, with characters dying, leaves a sour feeling. As a masterclass in hamming it up, however, Crazy Mama is enjoyable enough.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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Jonathan Demme  (1944 - 2017)

American director with a exploitation beginnings who carved out a successful Hollywood career as a caring exponent of a variety of characters. Worked in the early 70s as a writer on films like Black Mama, White Mama before directing his first picture for producer Roger Corman, the women-in-prison gem Caged Heat. Demme's mainstream debut was the 1977 CB drama Handle With Care (aka Citizens Band), which were followed by such great films as the thriller Last Embrace, tenderhearted biopic Melvin and Howard, wartime drama Swing Shift, classic Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, and black comedies Something Wild and Married to the Mob.

Demme's Thomas Harris adaptation The Silence of the Lambs was one of 1991's most successful films, making Hannibal Lecter a household name, while the worthy AIDS drama Philadelphia was equally popular. Since then, Demme has floundered somewhat - Beloved and The Truth About Charlie were critical and commercial failures, although 2004's remake of The Manchurian Candidate was a box office hit. Rachel Getting Married also has its fans, though Meryl Streep vehicle Ricki and the Flash was not a great one to go out on. He was also an advocate of the documentary form, especially music: his final release was a Justin Timberlake concert.

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