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Talk about splitting the critics -- Variety's review lauded the mountain clan feud drama Lolly-Madonna XXX, while most everyone else found it to be worthless trash. 1973 was in general a good year for uncompromising and unconventional movies, and this modern hillbilly tale has all the right ingredients. Director Richard C. Sarafian and Sue Grafton adaption of her novel shows how a feud develops from petty insults to an all-out war. Perhaps remembering the silly mythomania in Sarafian's big hit Vanishing Point, more than one critic seems to have decided that Lolly-Madonna XXX was an allegory of Vietnam, or of War in general. The show certainly demonstrates how ugly people can become when they feel their pride and dignity are under attack. It also helps that the 'hillbilly' characters are so well acted. Sarafian and producer Rodney Carr-Smith signed the established stars Rod Steiger and Robert Ryan, as well as a terrific mix of ambitious newcomers, most of whom only partly realized their career potential.
The story unfolds in a way that forces us to play catch-up with what the heck is going on between warring families in a forgotten stretch of Tennessee mountains. The Feather clan has lost possession of a prized meadow to the Gutshalls, relative newcomers who bought it in a tax sale. Pap Gutshall (Robert Ryan) is doing better financially but the bull-headed Laban Feather (Rod Steiger) refuses to accept the loss of face. Neither paterfamilias can control their uneducated, belligerent sons, who have kept up a war of petty insults and pranks. They escalate dangerously when a Gutshall trick to wreck the Feather moonshine still results in Thrush and Hawk Feather (Scott Wilson & Ed Lauter) kidnapping innocent Roonie Gill (Season Hubley), under the mistaken notion that she's 'Lolly-Madonna", the fictitious fianceé of the Gutshall son Ludie (Kiel Martin). Laban also falls for the bait, and decides to hold Lolly/Roonie as a hostage to recover the meadow. Roonie ends up an involuntary observer of the escalating feud, that neither Laban nor Pap does much to stop. Skylar Feather (Timothy Scott of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) and "Sister" E. Gutshall (Joan Goodfellow) are secret lovers, but when they try to rendezvous Sister E. is caught and raped by Thrush and Hawk. Mother Elspeth Gutshall (Tresa Hughes) expects Sister E. to take the rape in stride, as she can 'start over' learning about love at a later time. Ludie Gutshall sneaks down to see who the Feathers' female prisoner is, and clubs Thrush savagely on the head. Pap Gutshall refuses to go to the authorities, and instead comes to Laban to demand justice for the rape, plus the return of some stolen pigs; Laban instead stakes the pigs out and sets fire to them. The mania consumes everyone. Pap leads his Ludie and Villum (Paul Koslo) to go on the attack. Ludie argues principles with Pap but the only non-violent Gutshall is Zeb (Gary Busey). Most of the Feathers are committed to bloodshed, including the mother, Chickie (Katherine Squire) are committed to a violent clash. The simpleminded Finch Feather (Randy Quaid) cowers in the corners. Only Zack Feather (Jeff Bridges) has stayed clear of the conflict, as he's been minding the prisoner Roonie. Zack tries to tell her how good things in the valley used to be. He was married to Lyda Jo (Kathy Watts), a Gutshall; and all was fine until her accidental death. Not only did the families split up, the belligerent Laban unfairly assigned the blame for her death to Thrush; the family has been rotting from within ever since.
Lolly-Madonna XXX handles its many complex relationships so well that its bloodbath finale almost feels unavoidable. The resentments are explained, but not the irresponsible attitudes of the older generation -- the fathers do nothing to stop the sons from causing trouble, and the mothers do little or nothing to keep their children from going to war. The only explanation is a fatal stubbornness and suppressed anger. Civilization seemingly has a weak hold in backwoods life. The uglier aspects are here in the rape, but everything these people do to each other reeks of maladjusted stupidity. The Gutshalls are no longer capable of expressing emotional sentiments, while the 'better angels' of the Feathers come out only when people are injured or dying. None of the actors appear to be using strong regional accents, which in the twisted reality of stereotyping, makes them seem too well-adjusted to be committing such crimes.
I don't think that Lolly-Madonna XXX even made a noise when it was released; its official title makes it sound like a porn film. Much of what happens is repulsive, and most every character is a barbarian or a simpering fool. Innocent Roonie Gill is snatched off the road as if she were a pig in a barnyard. To entertain his brother, the hulking Hawk dresses in Roonie's underwear and prances around like a girl, a grotesque sight that surely motivated its share of audience walkouts. With his wife only hours dead, the unemotional Pap Gutshall reads her insurance contract out loud as if checking the warranty on his tires. He ignores Zeb's refusal to hurt or kill anybody, while the infantile Villum wraps up eggs to throw during the battle to come. Foolish Chickie Feather tries to protect the uncomprehending Finch from the hate-filled atmosphere, but does little to prevent Laban from kicking to death one of his own sons. Nothing lightens the mood of menace and tragedy, and when Roonie or Zack smiles, it only makes us feel that worse things are going to happen.
The Panavision cinematography is good and Sarafian's camera direction fine; the legendary editor Tom Rolf has no trouble making the action clear, and helping keep the large cast straight. Certain other choices are questionable. We never see the actual postcard that starts all the trouble. A short up-front narration by Roonie also seems a misstep, as the show isn't told from her point of view. The movie's sudden shift to B&W and an abbreviated ending deny full closure to the viewers that have sat through this emotional ordeal. Is it possible that MGM's interfering head of production, the 'smiling cobra' James Aubrey, had a go at re-editing Lolly-Madonna XXX? His meddling with films by Sam Peckinpah and Blake Edwards has been fully documented.
Most everybody delivers in the acting department. Rod Steiger is extremely convincing as a burned out patriarch making lousy choices and eventually turning on his own flesh and blood; his breakdown / attack in the last act is as blindly ferocious as anything by Marlon Brando. Scott Wilson is the tragic son who loves his father yet receives only beatings and scorn in return. Ed Lauter shows a versatility not seen in most of his one-note performances elsewhere. His Hawk is brutish and irresponsible, but when alone also fantasizes being Elvis Presley. The less well known Kiel Martin is the smartest but the most vicious of the Gutshalls, while young Randy Quaid (soon to receive a supporting actor nomination for The Last Detail mostly simpers and looks distraught.
This was one of Robert Ryan's last films before he died of cancer, one of a rush of projects he took on presumably to earn as much as possible while he could still function. Although Ryan's natural authority comes through, something in the script or direction doesn't add up. Pap Gutshall is no hillbilly and seems far too self-controlled and intelligent to allow his family to be destroyed this way. When Ludie proposes outright murder, we see nothing in Pap that explains why he'd approve such obviously suicidal actions. Lolly-Madonna XXX only makes sense if we see these mountain fools in the grip of irrational impulses.
The movie uses old photos and a lyrical flashback to illustrate the accident that ruined the happiness of the Feather clan, and started the trouble with the Gutshalls. By this time the outsider Roonie has almost been absorbed into the fabric of the feud, and in the film's most (only?) compassionate scene she succeeds in making Zack talk about his late wife, and how things turned so bad. As it turns out, Zack wasn't the only Feather in love with Lyda Jo... Newcomer Season Hubley and Jeff Bridges finally become the film's center, although the feud is too far along to be stopped.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Lolly-Madonna XXX is a good enhanced widescreen transfer of this feel-bad action drama. Although it eventually makes sense, it still plays as if someone tinkered with the editorial. Colors are subdued but probably accurate; not even MGM was putting shows with good-looking prints in 1973. The audio is clear and most of the dialogue is easy to understand (the WAC does not provide subtitles).
When the film played in Los Angeles, I seem to remember it being advertised as The Lolly-Madonna War. A trailer is included bearing the unusual title Fire in the Meadow. Perhaps this trailer survived because it was never used? I guess I'll have to find the book to read why Laban Feather named his boys after birds...he must have been a little more lighthearted then. Lolly-Madonna XXX is a strange film, and is dramatically a step up from Sarafian's Vanishing Point. 1
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Lolly-Madonna XXX rates:
1. I was working in Westwood in 1973 and remember nothing about Lolly-Madonna XXX except that it came and went very quickly. I asked good friend Dick Dinman, who in 1973 worked as a film booker, if he had any memories about it. Here's what he had to say:
Hi Glenn. Thanks for sending --- insightful review as usual. Wish I could add something worthwhile other than my unfortunate experience with this film. My film buyer/booker duties at National General included my attending every preview available and I was not adverse to this particular one because Robert Ryan was and remains one of my favorite actors. Lolly-Madonna was previewed at the Avco-Embassy in Westwood. After spending an excruciating half-hour trying to tolerate this turkey while more than 50% of the audience stormed out of the theater en masse I gave up and joined them. A few weeks later one of the theaters I was responsible for (the El Portal in North Hollywood I think) had a hole in its schedule so I reluctantly booked it there on the multiple. Opening day grosses? Zero. I pulled it immediately. Cheers, Dick
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