“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.
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