After the critical and box office success of Elmer Gantry in 1960, another film, much smaller in scale and budget, came along that mirrored the latter film both thematically and in some of the plot details. It might have been merely a coincidence that Angel Baby (1961) appeared shortly after the release of Elmer Gantry, but it certainly beats the Burt Lancaster Oscar winner when it comes to oddball casting and camp value.
Take, for example, George Hamilton and Mercedes McCambridge as married evangelists, traveling down the backroads and byways of the Deep South. (You heard right – Hamilton and McCambridge are a married couple!). This odd arrangement is revealed by the screenwriter through an expositional mid-point revelation. Or consider Salome Jens in her first major screen role as a young mute who miraculously finds her voice at a revivalist tent show and becomes a faith healer herself.! There’s also the hardcore roadies, Joan Blondell and Henry Jones, sinners who became believers and occasionally fall off the faith wagon if the temptation to booze overcomes them. Plus, in a small but pivotal role is Burt Reynolds in his movie debut playing a lustful redneck named Hoke Adams.
Last but not least, Haskell Wexler is one of the cinematographers. It may not be Academy Award material but it’s a fascinating brew that comes off like an Erskine Caldwell literary adaptation crossed with a sordid B-movie melodrama aimed at the drive-in crowd. It also has six revival-style musical numbers written by songwriter Wayne Shanklin whose composition “Chanson d’Amour” ended up in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut . None of these numbers are exactly rave-up toe-tappers but, for the record, they include “Little by Little,” “Rise Up Singing,” “Beulah Land”, “Our Love’s No Ordinary Thing,” “He’s My God, Yet”, and “Jenny Angel.”
The director of Angel Baby is Paul Wendkos who is more famous for his television work (Fear No Evil , The Legend of Lizzie Borden  than his feature films but he did give us the underrated film noir The Burglar  and an intriguing tale of the occult, The Mephisto Waltz [1971). I won’t mention the three Gidget movies he directed. What we don’t know is when he took over for director Hubert Cornfield who started production on the film but left abruptly. There are actually differing accounts of why Cornfield didn’t end up directing. One source claims he had to bow out due to appendicitis but the other version states he was replaced by producer Thomas F. Woods due to creative differences and Cornfield filed a lawsuit for breach of contract.
Noir fanatics, of course, know Cornfield from such key genre entries as Plunder Road , The 3rd Voice  and The Night of the Following Day  and it’s easy to trace a connection between Angel Baby and Nightmare Alley  which deals with another kind of racket – phony mediums and mentalists and Joan Blondell is in both.
While the performances in Angel Baby are wildly uneven, Salome Jens anchors the film with her ethereal presence which makes us readily believe she is really some backwoods saint. While not a conventional Hollywood leading lady by any stretch of the imagination (a good thing), Jens has one of those faces that can look radiantly beautiful one minute and the next appear as a homely slattern. In real life, Jens was married to Ralph Meeker – now that’s an image – and in Angel Baby she gets pawed by an actor who projects some of Meeker’s physical menace and animal cunning in movies like Kiss Me Deadly. We’re talking about Burt Reynolds who gets to deliver some ripe dialogue here, especially in the scene where he tries to rape Angel: “You look so nice and sweet. I swear you give me the torments.”
George Hamilton in the leading role of the devout Paul Strand who “heals” Angel is less successful in bringing any ambiguity or genuine fire to the role, which is sorely needed. At this point in his career he was still testing the waters, giving earnest performances in prestige films such as Vincente Minnelli’s Home From the Hill or being served up as the latest male ingenue in youth flicks like Where the Boys Are. He’s clearly out of place here but it’s often intriguing to see him play highly dramatic scenes opposite Mercedes McCambridge or even Burt Reynolds whom he beats up in a fight. Oh, sure!
In his memoir But Enough About Me, Reynolds had this to say about working with Hamilton. “George is the least athletic person I’ve ever met. When we shot a fight scene in Angel Baby, he could barely throw a punch. I’d have to grab his fist and steer it. And when he had to throw me into the bushes, he sort of lifted me up and I jumped, and that’s exactly how it looks on the screen. I was in two pictures that year: Angel Baby with George..and my old friend Dudley Remus, and Armored Command, with Howard Keel, Tina Louise, and Earl Holliman. I played a rapist in both films. They were a double bill on 42nd Street and I only hoped the audience didn’t think it was typecasting.”
Interestingly enough, Reynolds and Hamilton would later co-star in The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing in 1973, but at that point, Reynolds’ career was on the rise and Hamilton was getting ready to segue into a television career. In the early stages of his career, Hamilton played the guitar and sang and you can see him perform two of the musical revival numbers in Angel Baby even though he looks dubbed and awkward. He got better at lip-synching in the Hank Williams screen bio, Your Cheatin’ Heart , where Hank Williams Jr. provided the vocals and eventually Hamilton relaxed as an actor and started to have fun in lightweight entertainments like Love at First Bite  and Doc Hollywood .
In contrast to Hamilton’s inexperience are seasoned veterans Joan Blondell and Henry Jones in supporting roles. They provide a much needed lighter note as the weathered roadies, providing low comedy and proletarian wisdom that offsets McCambridge’s frightening presence. The acting styles, in fact, are so diverse in Angel Baby that it makes a good primer for fledgling actors who want to observe underplaying (Jens), overacting (Blondell, McCambridge, Reynolds) and merely reacting (Hamilton). It’s certainly an eclectic ensemble and there are scenes to relish in this strange bird.
Blondell’s religious vision – she sees a glowing aura around Angel’s head – could be the real thing or the result of rotgut gin but it’s a memorably bizarre moment. The scene where McCambridge visits a poverty-stricken family who have no concept of physical hygiene or what a bathtub is truly revealing as you observe Sarah Strand’s obvious repulsion and discomfort at being around the people she professes to care about and serve. Mercedes has another unforgettable scene later when she offers herself for sex to Hamilton after he’s confronted her about their loveless marriage; he flees in disgust as her fleshy form is glimpsed through her see-through nightgown, her arms outspread in a mercy plea like some fallen angel banished from heaven. McCambridge may have only one acting “shtick” here but it’s a good one and that’s to come across like a simmering volcano that’s on the verge of erupting. As Angel remarks at one point in the film, and rightly so: “That woman gives me the fidgets!”
The major stand-out scene in Angel Baby is easily the grand finale, not the ironic “miracle” epilogue, but the Elmer Gantry-like apocalyptic ending, though on a much smaller scale. Instead of a raging fire, Angel Baby ends with Jens realizing she’s been duped by her promoter and it has a chain-reaction effect on her fervent followers. Angel is denounced publicly, fake “cripples” who pretend to be healed are exposed, a fight breaks out, the tent poles come down – one lands, with fatal results, on a major character (guess who?) – and the crowd flees wily-nilly in every direction. All of it is beautifully choreographed and something Angel’s promoter could probably have charged an extra bonus fee. At any rate, the days of seeing a B-movie as ambitious and as offbeat as Angel Baby are long gone but here’s the funny thing, Angel Baby is so much more entertaining than just about any new release from Hollywood that is streaming online or playing in hard top theaters.
I first saw Angel Baby on VHS, which was recorded off of TNT back in the days when their programming was primarily the Ted Turner film library (Warner Bros, MGM & RKO). Today most of those films are showcased on TCM. So, the moral is don’t be so quick to toss out those old VHS tapes. You might find some amazing discoveries there if you kept your player. In the meantime, Warner Archives is doing a good job of unearthing some of these rarities and Angel Baby is a prime example. It was released on DVD in June 2009 but the disc contained no extra features. At present, there appears to be no plans for a Blu-Ray release.
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