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Angel Baby (1961) is a modestly-budgeted drama that tackles the same subject matter as Richard Brooks' Elmer Gantry and comes up with a dramatically effective, somewhat confused tale of revivalists and faith healers on the Southern yokel circuit. It garnered attention by virtue of its interesting cast.
Salome Jens (written Salomé in the credits) is Jenny Angel, a young woman stricken mute by what may have been a rape attempt by her stepfather. Jenny is brought by her mother to the tent revival of faith healer Paul Strand (George Hamilton), where she recovers her voice through Paul's emotional plea for heavenly intervention. Jenny joins the traveling show much to consternation of local thug Hoke Adams (Burt Reynolds), who wants to continue his amorous relationship with the idealistic young girl. Paul's ex-alcoholic tent show assistants Mollie and Ben Hays (Joan Blondell & Henry Jones) think Jenny is a fine person, but Paul's repressed wife Sarah (Mercedes McCambridge) takes an immediate dislike to her. Much older than Paul, Sarah is afraid that a "carnal attraction" between the two youngsters will ruin everything - especially for her.
Jenny begins preaching as well. Dubbed "Angel Baby", she's an immediate success. To get Jenny away from her husband, Sarah arranges for the troop to split up, with Mollie and Ben as helpers to the inexperienced new preacher. Working on the street is frustratingly unproductive until promoter Sam Wilcox (Roger Clark) partners with Jenny and arranges for a tent of her own. But the unscrupulous Sam wants Jenny to switch to faith healing, where the real money is. He uses subterfuge to convince "Angel Baby" that she has the god-given talent to heal the sick and lame.
Angel Baby received a lot of "agent buzz", mostly around new discovery Salome Jens, a beautiful, poised actress with a "different" quality. Although 24 years old, Ms. Jens convinces as a shy teen and does well "growing" with Jenny Angel as she develops as a revival preacher. The final scenes in which Angel Baby actually believes she can heal with her touch are quite moving because of Ms. Jens honest approach. We're as fearful to see her illusions shattered as are the characters played by Joan Blondell and Henry Jones.
The presence of Joan Blondell reminds us of the classic Tyrone Power picture Nightmare Alley, where a fake spiritualist's toying with ideas of faith makes us extremely uncomfortable. Angel Baby has plenty of the same feeling when we see Mercedes McCambridge's Sarah manipulating and shaming young Paul with Bible sermons. McCambridge is given an extreme character and by and large uses admirable restraint. The scene where she tries to seduce her young husband (they've never had sex, it seems) is truly pathetic. George Hamilton shows a lot of promise too, working up an impressive lather in his sermons. It's altogether possible that his exhortations to the mute Jenny Angel might make her want to talk badly enough to break a psychological barrier.
The opportunistic boyfriend is Burt Reynolds, who seems fully-formed as a slimy delinquent. He tries to rape Jenny in one scene. A tireless stuntman scoring a few TV parts, Burt made his film debut here. He'd work steadily and win big roles later in the 60s, finally becoming a star with 1972's Deliverance.
Director Paul Wendkos spent much of his career as "a talent to watch" after impressive pictures like Angel Baby, The Burglar and The Case Against Brooklyn. But the opportunities available kept him coming back to TV work and Gidget pictures. If Wendkos is responsible for any of the performances here he's indeed talented; the drama is nicely played and never exploitative.
The unsettling issue in this revivalism show is the subject of faith healing. The producers may have had their eye on the Southern market, because the movie avoids declaring the phenomenon as a flat-out fraud. Promoter Sam secretly hires fakes to pretend to be healed by Angel Baby, but Paul Strand appears to be the real deal. A nicely managed final scene makes it seem as if Jenny Angel has been given a bona fide healing talent. Sure, she's honest and devout, but...
Wendkos's film may have been produced before Elmer Gantry (1960) and held up until after the release of that big-budgeted Burt Lancaster film. George Hamilton made another Allied Artists film in 1959, Crime and Punishment, U.S.A.. By the end of 1960 he had become an MGM contract player, "introduced" with several other young Metro hopefuls in the seminal teen flick Where the Boys Are.
Angel Baby's credits include some interesting names from low-budget 50s Hollywood. The producer had just released a horror film called The Screaming Skull and cameraman Jack Marta had filmed most of Bert I. Gordon's monster movies. Take a look at costume designer Marjorie Corso's filmography sometime; she seems to have done every genre show from 1956 onward. Several crewmembers went on to impressive careers. Screenwriter Paul Mason wrote the American script for King Kong vs. Godzilla but rose to become a top executive at Viacom, while assistant Gabriel Katzka went on to become a big producer. Second cameraman Haskell Wexler became a respected director of photography and film director in his own right.
The Warner Archive Collection's DVD-R of Angel Baby is a perfect enhanced transfer of this arresting drama. The source element appears to have no damage and the disc quality is as good as any "storebought" title. Readers hoping that the Archive Collection has access to all of Allied Artist's releases need to curb their enthusiasm a bit, as many AA shows -- including some notable genre titles by directors like Roger Corman -- were independent pickups that reverted back to their producers.
No trailer is included; it would have been nice to see how this unusual drama was sold to the public. The poster (above) suggests that Angel Baby might be a devil in disguise: "Angel Baby can make you good."
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Angel Baby rates:
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