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Movie reviews by Gerald Panio

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Cry-Baby (1990)

“I wonder what the nice people are doing tonight.”

–Dana Andrews, in While the City Sleeps


Director John Waters isn’t noted for making movies about what nice people are doing.  He’s got a bit of the crazed, slicked-down, pencil-thin mustache look Ray Bradbury likely had in mind for Mr. Dark, ringmaster of the demonic carnival in Something Wicked This Way Comes—the one that sets up in the dead of night outside small towns and sucks up people’s souls.

Not that John Waters is after your soul.  Your lunch more likely.  According to James Monaco’s Encyclopedia of Film, Waters once stated that having someone vomit while watching one of his films was like getting a standing ovation.  He also told the inmates of Patuxent Institution that “These films I make are my crimes.”  His first feature film was called Mondo Trasho (1970); his second Multiple Maniacs (1971).  Gross-out comedy wasn’t invented in the 90’s. We’re talking “Odorama” scratch-and-sniff cards and death-by-dog-food.  We’re talking bad taste as an understatement.

Let me guess. At this very moment you’re probably thinking that whatever film Panio is reviewing this month, it’s going to have record-setting limited audience appeal.

You’re wrong.

I’m just toying with you.

I’ve never actually watched any early John Waters movies.  The I’ll-carry-bad-taste-to-the-point-where-somebody-calls-it-Art school of aesthetics has never particularly appealed to me.  Although in the occasional interviews I’ve read Waters comes across as more cheeky than sinister, I had confidence his reputation was well-deserved.  I put Pink Flamingos (1972) and Female Trouble (1975) on my priority list somewhere between Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks and Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

Then I rented Cry-Baby and I’m still smiling.  It was a calculated risk.  I knew it was a John Waters movie, but it was a much later one (1990), and it featured Johnny Depp in one of his earliest leading roles.  I felt safe—I couldn’t imagine Johnny Depp eating dog food.

He doesn’t.  Instead, he and co-star Amy Locane give dynamite performances in a hilariously over-the-top musical tribute to every 1950’s cliché of juvenile delinquency, bad boys, bad parents, hepness, squareness, and rock and roll.  Age has obviously mellowed John Waters a little.  His sympathies are still with the rebels and outsiders, but he’s now willing to trade laughter for outrage.  How often do we say, “Someday we’ll look back on this and it’ll all seem funny”?  For Waters, “someday” is now, and the “it” is America in 1954.  It was an America that saw newly-emerging rock music as the first step in the moral decline that would take Western civilization down as surely as the barbarian hordes overwhelmed the Roman Empire.

Didn’t happen.  Instead of cities in ruins we wound up with Finkleman’s Forty-Fives and Dolly Parton singing “Stairway to Heaven.”  Go figure.  The sheer joy which suffuses Cry-Baby is easier to understand—we’re still dancing and singing along with Fifties’ classics long after the voices of the critics are relegated to sociology textbooks and university archives.  The soundtrack of Cry-Baby is fabulous.  Listen to it once and you know, really know, why rock ’n’ roll won.  These are killer tunes.  Showstoppers.  I’ve always wanted to use that word in a review and never had an excuse till now.  How many times did I rewind and replay the “Please, Mr. Jailor” number in Cry-Baby?  Don’t ask.

Let me lay out the movie’s not-so-tragic tale for you. The setting is Baltimore, 1954.  Youth are divided into Drapes (delinquents) and Squares (preppies).  Wade “Cry-Baby” Walker (Depp) is the baddest boy in town.  He’s got a past.  Something terribly obvious to do with his pa and electricity.  He is, of course, an orphan (they have “special needs”), raised by a loving, hubcap-stealing grandmother (Susan Tyrell) and hillbilly uncle (Iggy Pop) to be as fine a delinquent as he can be.  He’s called Cry-Baby because one single solitary tear is all he’s vowed he’ll ever shed, no matter what the pain or heartbreak.  Cry-Baby and his motley crew of fellow punks hang out and perform at grandma’s dancehall cum chophouse, the Turkey Point Swim Club—better-known as the Redneck Riviera.  Cry-Baby plays his pa’s music: one part “hillbilly,” and one part “colored.”  Depp’s character is like the anti-matter version of Marlon Brando in The Wild One. Brando was heavy and sullen and brooding; Depp is all devilish joie de vivre.

For every bad boy, there just has to be a good girl who’s soooo tired of being good.  Allison Vernon William’s grandmother runs the local charm school (where she teaches the four B’s: Beauty, Brains, Breeding, and Bounty) and her boyfriend, Baldwin (Stephen Mailer), is a Pat Boone wannabe.  Allison makes eye contact with Cry-Baby in the school gym on inoculation day.  She gets the fever.  As his grandma proudly says, he’s young, stupid and mean—everything a young man should be.  Pretty soon Allison’s out at Turkey Point, getting a bad girl beauty make-over, singing rockabilly duets, and being introduced to the sloppiest French kissing in the history of the cinema.

It’s all too much for Baldwin and the Squares.  Fisticuffs and mayhem ensue.  Cry-Baby ends up in the hoosegow. Which, in true Elvis style, is not there not for the rehabilitation of criminals. It’s there because it rocks.  After a brief Eisenhower catechism from jail-guard Willem Dafoe (“God bless the Draft Board! God bless Roy Cohn! God bless Richard Nixon!”), Cry-Baby and the inmates are wailing away on “Doin’ Time for Bein’ Young” and the aforementioned showstopping “Please, Mr.. Jailer!”  Not to be outdone, the squares are Bunny-Hopping through the main streets of suburbia.  Credit John Waters with being an equal opportunity satirist: the squares get their share of great tunes like “Sh-Boom” and “Mr. Sandman.”

Every second line of dialogue in Cry-Baby sounds like it could have come straight out of a National Enquirer headline (Baldwin: “I think you’re a liar and a cad and I spit on your tears!” Wade: “Every day I have to do something rotten for my parents’ sake!” Judge: “What a sad vision of today’s youth!”  Allison: “The whole world knows I’m just a Drape fool!” Mrs. Vernon-Williams: “Stay away from my granddaughter, you common juvenile delinquents!”).  Astoundingly, some reviewers actually complained that Waters failed to develop his characters.  That’s a bit like complaining that “Rubber Biscuit” should have better lyrics.

Kick-started by Depp and Locane and some excellent choreography, Cry-Baby also benefits from at least half a dozen juicy cameo roles.  My personal favorites were Iggy Pop as Uncle Belvedere, and Traci Lords as the bad girl whose parents are trying to swap her for a Swedish milkmaid.

I’ll write about the Godardian dialectics of enlightenment in some future issue of the Mainstreet.   For this one, just sing along with Allison and me:


“Please, Mr. Jailer,

Let my man go free!

Though he’s guilty as could be

The only crime he’s guilty of

Is just for loving me.”


Being bad has never been this good.


Looking Back & Second Thoughts

Cry-Baby: That’s right, Allison. My father was the “Alphabet Bomber.” He may have been crazy, but he was my pop. Only one I ever had.

Allison: God. I heard about the Alphabet Bomber. Bombs exploding in the… in the airport and barber shop…

Cry-Baby: That’s right. All in alphabetical order. Car wash… drug store… I used to lay in my crib and hear him scream in his sleep…”A,B,C,D,E,F,G… BOOM! BOOM!”

Allison: But your mom…

Cry-Baby: My mother tried to stop him. She couldn’t even spell, for Christ’s sake, but they fried her too.


A very good time is had by all, the audience included.  Cry-Baby makes one dream of what Elvis Presley might have done if he had been free to make movies for the sheer joy of making them, instead of grinding out formula.  I’m not knocking Johnny Depp and Amy Locane and the rest of John Waters’ wonderful motley crew, but all the time I was picturing Elvis and Wanda Jackson in the lead roles.  Waters is one of the few directors who could tackle the 1950s without condescension, phony nostalgia, or attempts at deep ethnographical insights.  This is a fanboy’s film, with a killer soundtrack and utterly shameless exploitation of every lurid teen cliché available.  About the only thing missing is a nerd with a pocket protector, which I’m only pointing out because I was once a nerd with a pocket protector and want my vicarious moment in the sun.

Who chose the songs for Cry-Baby?  Waters?  Composer Patrick Williams (who wrote over 150 scores and was nominated for 21 Emmy Awards and 12 Grammys)?  How about The Blasters’ lead singer Dave Alvin, who has a consulting credit?  Or was it a group effort?  In any case, the choices are flawless.  “Please, Mr. Jailer” still stands as one of my all-time favorite musical numbers from the movies.  Check it out here:

“Please, Mr. Jailer” was written by Gospel singer Wynona Carr.  She’s in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, and deserves more attention than I’m giving her here.  Here’s Ms. Carr’s original version of the song:

We all know what happened with Johnny Depp’s career after Cry-Baby.  His co-star Amy Locane wasn’t as fortunate.  Her career stalled in the 90s, and she made only 3 feature films in the next couple of decades.  In a tragically ironic twist of fate, Ms. Locane spent time in prison for a drunken-driving accident that cost the life of a 60-year-old woman.

I can’t end without a nod to the laughing rat and the first & only appearance of an iron lung in a courtroom.


As he did so very often, Roger Ebert caught the essence of Cry-Baby in his original review of the film:

It is only now that I am in a condition to appreciate the 1950s.

At the time, I was too cynical. I read Mad magazine and listened to Stan Freberg and Bob & Ray, and viewed all manifestations of 1950s teenage culture with the superiority of one who had read Look Homeward, Angel and knew, even then, that you could not go home again.

Now things are different. Battered and weary after the craziness of the 1960s, the self-righteousness of the 1970s and the greed of the 1980s, I want to go home again, oh, so desperately – home to that land of drive-in restaurants and Chevy Bel-Airs, making out and rock ‘n’ roll and drag races and Studebakers, Elvis and James Dean and black leather jackets. Not that I ever owned a black leather jacket. Even today, I do not have the nerve. Black leather suggests a degree of badness I never could aspire to.

Feelings like these are what John Waters’ “Cry-Baby” is about….


Available on YouTube?   No, but available for rent or purchase through iTunes & YouTube

Movie Information

Genre: Musical | Comedy
Director: John Waters
Actors: Johnny Depp, Amy Locane, Susan Tyrrell, Rikki Lake, Polly Bergen, Iggy Pop, Traci Lords, Stephen Mailer, Kim Webb
Year: 1960
Original Review: October 2002


Snow Fighters

Snow Warrior

From the National Film Board of Canada, a 10-minute 1957 documentary on a one-night battle against snow in downtown Montreal.  Think of this as snow noir, looking and sounding like it was made by crew responsible for Dragnet. 

The second short video, also from the NFB, made in 2018, “is a love letter to the splendour of winter. It captures the beauty of a northern city through the eyes of a bicycle courier named Mariah.”

I found both these films courtesy of a Friends of Canadian Broadcasting electronic newsletter.  After shoveling off my roof twice so far this winter, I’d be writing something other than a love letter.

Poitier and Bogdanovich: The Defiant Ones

New York Times film critics Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott pay tribute to two remarkable men.  From their conversation:

Scott: Bogdanovich was fundamentally a historian. Poitier was a history maker. When we started talking about them side by side, it wasn’t to compare their achievements, but to look at how their very different careers illuminated the changes underway in American movies after the studio era….

Dargis: That year [1960], Poitier turned 33 and started shooting “Paris Blues,” a film that I love despite its flaws, including his marginalization. Still, the film has Poitier and Diahann Carroll playing lovers and they’re beautiful, and shown as desiring and desirable. Poitier was disappointed with how the film turned out and said the studio had “chickened out on us” — he was always being sold out, it seems by the white powers that be, however ostensibly well-intentioned those powers.                                                     

How We Talk about Race: A Brilliant Filmmaker’s Cause

Another fine essay from Dorothy Woodend for The Tyee, this one looking at the work of documentary filmmaker Michèle Stephenson.  From the article:

Art can function as a mirror, reflecting experiences. It can act, too, as a prism, refracting experiences and beaming them onto walls for others to see if we care to look. But art has yet to fundamentally alter the fact of white dominance.

“It’s like the air we breathe,” Stephenson states, because “internalized attitudes are consciously and unconsciously replicating white dominance and other systemic inequities in all our relationships. We can’t escape it.”

And yet Stephenson moves relentlessly from committing to film one story after another, her contributions to the conversation motivated, perhaps, by the question she wonders aloud to me. “What will my children inherit?”

Films Worth Talking About:

le Bal du gouverneur (The Governor’s Ball), Stan the Flasher, The Krays, Atame (Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down), An Angel at my Table, The Killer, Ghost, GoodFellas, Milou en mai (May Fools), An Officer and a Gentleman, The Nasty Girl, la femme Nikita, Pretty Woman, Cyrano de Bergerac, Mountains of the Moon, Wild at Heart, Total Recall, Dick Tracy, Metropolitan, Postcards From the Edge, La Gloire de mon père (My Father’s Glory), le Château de ma mère (My Mother’s Castle), Dances With Wolves, Edward Scissorhands, Home Alone, Godfather Part III, Green Card, Blue Steel, Celia, Strapless, The Two Jakes, Europa Europa, The Unbelievable Truth, The Comfort of Strangers

The Bigger Picture

FilmsHairspray (1988), Hairspray (2007), Grease (1978), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

Music:  The Blasters, American Music (1980), The Blasters (1981); Wynona Carr, The Very Best of Wynona Carr, Jump Jack Jump!

Books:  James Egan, ed., John Waters: Interviews

The Word on the Street

The late 80s and 90s were an odd time for fans of John Waters films. The oddball director had become mainstream and while the films during this “normal” time period were very watchable and fun, compared to the rough and raunchy older films he had made you’d almost think that this was made by a different man. Now I am not complaining–HAIRSPRAY, CRY-BABY and the rest are really good films. It’s just that Waters’ style changed so much that the films are tough to recognize as his since they lack the offensiveness that many have come to love!!   [Martin Hafer]

After three years of 21 Jump Street, Johnny Depp jumped his contract and got out of the series that made him a name. He knew what he could do and he knew that staying there he probably would continue to be like so many teen idols, forgotten the second their television show completed its run. Ironically though in Cry-Baby written, produced, and directed by John Waters, what was Depp doing, but spoofing the kind of part that brought him TV stardom…. 

Cry-Baby is yet another one of John Waters’s salutes to his childhood memories of the Fifties in Baltimore. If Cry-Baby looks a lot like Grease, well I would say that Waters is homaging outrageously. Though Johnny Depp is dubbed while singing, he manages to create and keep the illusion very well. A nice score both written and interpolated for the film helps bring the Fifties back again.
Throughout the cast you’ll see a lot of familiar names looking like they’re having a real good time in their roles. Former Teen idols like Joey Heatherton, Troy Donahue, and David Nelson really do get into the spirit of Cry-Baby.  [bkoganbing]

Following the success of Hairspray (1988), cult director John Waters continues to flirt with mainstream movie-making with this trailer-trash musical, a gloriously campy effort inspired by ’50s rock ‘n’ roll movies that boasts an extremely colourful cast, including rocker Iggy Pop, ex-porn-star Traci Lords, Waters regular Mink Stole, notorious kidnap victim Patricia Hearst, Warhol acolyte Joe Dallesandro, future chat-show host Ricki Lake, and ’50s heart-throb Troy Donahue, plus a small but memorable role for Willem Dafoe.   [BA_Harrison]

This rockabilly Romeo and Juliet romance is enlivened by the casting that only Waters can get away with….  [BandSAboutMovies]

…fantastic singing by James Intveld and Rachel Sweet….    [lastliberal]

this movie proceeds to put absolutely everything about America, people, existence even, under intense scrutiny. it’s approach is completely satirical, scathing and merciless. through all this tearing down of not just America, but pretty much life in general, comes a strange and funny(Hilarious) sort of enlightenment. i don’t know if Mr. Waters intended it or not, but this film helps any viewer with an open mind to transcend existence. you must learn to laugh at yourself and others,your ups and downs. in other words you need to “get over yourself”. even with all the bad things that can happen you can’t always take life too seriously. ‘Crybaby’ can help you do this. it really can….

i don’t always like John Waters’ movies. John Waters is the evil spider monkey who gave us cinema atrocities like ‘Pink Flamingos’, ‘Female Trouble’,the horrifying and disturbing ‘Desperate Living’. i do not endorse or recommend those films to any half-way sane person….’Crybaby’, and it’s sibling film ‘Hairspray’, are not like those films at all. it’s almost like they were made by a different person.    [johnstonjames]

It’s a decent musical. Jim Intveld did all of Depp’s vocals, and he’s pretty well known in the hepcat rockabilly circles because of this. In fact, I do believe that this movie helped bring about the rockabilly resurgence that started in the ’90s. A lot of good rockabilly & psychobilly bands started to appear after this movie came out.    [CaressofSteel]

Some of the musical numbers were written for the movie, and a few songs were originally 1950’s hits newly recorded for “Cry-Baby” (such as the song that opens the movie, Allison singing “Teenage Prayer,” etc.) There are also original vintage recordings throughout the movie (my favorite is “Jungle Drums,” by Earl Bostic, which really gives a summer feeling to the Turkey Point location.)    [onnanob2]