|Natalie Wood & Robert Wagner, together for the first time.|
All the Fine Young Cannibal’s opening titles are the giveaway to this movie’s mindset. They look like the tawdry paperback novels my Mom used to read when I was a kid! Though Cannibals looks like a B-movie, all of MGM’s top talent was involved, plus its bright young cast. While it not a prestige picture, like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, it was definitely an A-flick, but deserves a Z rating.
|Wagner, George Hamilton, Wood, and Susan Kohner as 'young moderns' in an old soap!|
The source novel, The Bixby Girls, was allegedly bought with Elvis Presley and Elizabeth Taylor in mind. While Elvis made MGM a fortune with Jailhouse Rock, his fate in “drive-in movies” was sealed early on. As for Elizabeth, she had already become permanently plump after Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. By 1960, it was more appropriate that ET appeared in BUtterfield 8 rather than All the Fine Young Cannibals. Natalie Wood, who got away with playing younger longer than she had a right to, was then 21. During the early shack scenes, Nat looks about 12. Still, I’d have loved to see ET feeding those no-neck siblings their dinner slop!
|I can think of TWO good reasons Elizabeth Taylor would be miscast as an 18-year-old girl.|
Natalie Wood, 21, was cast instead. Nat & ET around the time Cannibals was made.
The film version was influenced by melodrama hits of the time, like Written on the Wind and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The screenplay is by Robert Thom, who was a playwright, poet, and screenwriter. Thom’s big hit was the play Compulsion. Once in Hollywood, Thom wrote these “eclectic” gems: The Subterraneans; The Legend of Lylah Clare; Angel, Angel, Down We Go; Wild in the Streets; Bloody Mama AND Crazy Mama; and Death Race 2000. Then there’s All the Fine Young Cannibals, which forces its cast to spout some of the most insane dialogue ever.
|RJ's Chad Bixby & Nat's Salome start off as poor Texas trash.|
At the movie’s opening, Robert Wagner’s Chad Bixby is the son of a preacher man, yes, he was… and he’s the only one who can ever teach Natalie Wood’s Sarah aka “Salome.” Chad’s daddy, who was hard on his wild child, has died. And Chad wants to party his pain away. “You shouldn’t be near any dancing!” gasps Salome. Sounds like a prequel to Footloose!
Well, they do, and from there they go to the black side of town. First, Chad makes Salome promise her one thing: she won’t leave his side until sunrise. No, he’s not a vampire. It’s because Chad’s afraid of the dark—seriously.
Chad and Salome go to Rose’s, a whorehouse and all round fun house. George Hamilton, as rich kid Tony McDowall, makes his entrance as a customer who mistakes Salome for a hooker. The screenplay is filled with purple proclamations of the characters’ passions and motivations that feel like a Carol Burnett Show parody. Proprietor Rose (Louise Beavers) introduces Chad's big talent: “He’s gonna tell us what he feels, then he’s gonna play us what he feels, just like he’s been doing down here since he was seven.”
|Wagner's white boy is gonna 'say' the blues, then play them, for Rose and her patrons!|
RJ as Chad, pouts and peers through his pompadour, like he’s gonna burst into an Elvis song. But no, the young man with a horn belches such hot air as, “You gotta be awful strong not to love anybody, because the world gets colder every year.” Then Bixby blows something brilliant on his trumpet on the spot! RJ’s hunched posture is supposed to look so James Dean, but really more like a monkey humping a football! Other gems that follow: “This is how strong my father was.” Womp! Womp! Wahhh! “And these are my tears!” Cue another horny wail. I’m no music expert, but the sounds are actually pretty cool, but are negated when performed by the hopelessly uncool Robert Wagner.
After Chad and Salome part ways, he wanders back to the roadhouse, looking for mother figure Rose. Instead, he finds her sister, Ruby Jones, played by Pearlie Mae Bailey herself. Their first exchange is a hoot.
Wagner asks her gruffly TWICE: “Do you think I’m a fool?”
Ruby’s response: “I think most men are fools, white boy!”
|Pearl Bailey as morose Ruby Jones & RJ as the tragic trumpet player, with a bottle as a buffer.|
They both commence to swill down huge tumblers of whiskey that people only drink in movies, probably because it’s actually ice tea. Ruby was once the biggest singer in NYC—and the South, too! But a man had gone done her wrong, spending all her money, and then leaving her for another woman. Now Ruby’s done, determined to drink herself to death. After a night together, they decide to establish Chad as a performer in NYC. He encourages her to sing again, but she’s not having it. Though implied that they are lovers, when he offers to at least care for her, Pearlie Mae growls: “I don’t carry on with no white boys!”
|When George Hamilton's frat boy meets Nat's country girl the first time, he takes her for a prostitute!|
In the early section of the movie, Hamilton’s Tony is a carefree college playboy. At one point, while arguing with his father about joining the family biz, Tony replies, “I love you, Daddy-O.” Then he proceeds to tell Pops that he loves oil money, too, but doesn’t have oil in his veins! Dig? Or in this case, drill.
When we first see Susan Kohner’s Catherine McDowall, she’s lolling on her brother Tony’s bed, acting like she wants him to join her. Kohner is a combination of Dorothy Malone’s rich bitch sister in Written on the Wind and Elizabeth Taylor’s crazy Catherine from Suddenly, Last Summer. “I like spoiling the fun!” You keep wishing somebody would clock her, and stop her declarative, fake southern baby talk, and posturing.
|George Hamilton's Tony is taken with the poor girl he befriends on a train. |
Wood's scenes here remind me a bit of her Alva, in This Property is Condemned.
Natalie’s Salome gets mixed up with this crew when she hops a train out of Hicksville and meets George’s Tony on the train. One evening with Salome and Tony’s entranced; he marries her and instantly becomes a dull, dutiful husband. Just as suddenly, Salome now has a gorgeous wardrobe. They barely make it his frat house door, when Catherine shows up. Also, Salome’s got a secret: she is pregnant from her last night of “dancing” with Chad. In true soap fashion, she keeps it secret, and marries another. This movie doesn’t drag, that’s for sure.
|Natalie gets the MGM glam treatment & looks lovely in her Helen Rose costumes.|
Natalie is radiant in Helen Rose’s MGM glam wardrobe, especially a red cocktail dress that beautifully brings out Wood’s dark coloring. This is offset by sister-in-law Catherine’s nonsensical bitchery. Nat’s Salome, despite a bitty baby bump, looks wafer thin. Hell, Nat’s Bambi false eyelashes probably weighed more than she did! Yet, Kohner’s Catherine cattily comments that she wouldn’t be caught dead in public in her condition. Why? “How can you dance that way?”
|Nat's Salome getting pestered by Kohner's sister-in-law Catherine.|
Another clinker from Catherine: “If I irritate you, you can image how I irritate myself. I’m what am known as spoiled.” You don’t say! Tony interrupts this scene, to tell his sister that he loves Salome, in a most unconvincing manner. Her response is zingier: “But she doesn’t love you.”
Meanwhile, Chad and Ruby are ensconced in a ruby red apartment suite, apparently in the black part of the city. As Ruby’s getting him fitted out for stardom, she abruptly asks, “You got underwear, white boy?” This made me laugh, since at times, RJ looks like his other instrument is swingin’ free!
They talk about money, and Ruby laments, “What do I need money for, when I’ve lost my mind?” Ruby Jones is just jonesin’ to end it all!
When we first see Chad perform in a polished performance, he’s got his tell and show down. Then he drags morose Ruby onstage to perform. It’s the classic cliché: No, no, no, I can’t! Then after a slight falter, Ruby wows with a mini-set! Absurd as the setup is, Pearlie Mae’s performing is the highlight of this movie, including a rendition of God Bless the Child.
|Pearlie Mae sings the blues, with RJ as the young man with a horn.|
Salome finds out about Chad’s success when she awakens one night, to find out Catherine is entertaining a fellow with Bixby’s latest disc as mood music! Salome awakens, goes downstairs, hair intact, full makeup, and in a lovely MGM nightgown that Wood could have worn to the Oscars. The scene is so hokey, but with the music playing, Nat’s silent, natural emoting, this is one of the film’s more effective scenes. But once she has to endure Catherine’s prattle, the spell is broken.
When Salome finds out that Chad’s a NYC sensation, she cajoles everyone to go see him perform. In keeping with the rest of the movie melodrama, she’s a jittery wreck, and then Chad spots her while performing. Natch, he improvises on the spot! And so does the wicked sister-in-law, who senses their connection, and decides to come between them, just for kicks.
|Wagner's Chad & Kohner's Catherine enjoy some marital happiness.|
When Catherine comes home from an all-nighter with Chad, Salome confronts her. Kohner has one of her most baroque moments, yawning ostentatiously and caps her insults by saying, “I’m bored. I’m bored with this conversation. I think you better go now, mother.”
The next day, Salome meets Chad and spills the beans, her baby is theirs. Chad huffs, “If I can’t have ya, then I wanna hurt you. And I will.”
This all comes to a head when now newlyweds Chad and Catherine have one of their biggest fights. She whips him with a riding crop, and he taunts her that his father’s scars cut deeper. She slips off to the bathroom and slashes her wrists. Her response: “Did I cut them deep enough, Chad? Did I?” Surprisingly, this scene is one of the more effective in the film.
|Kohner's character redeems herself, RJ's Chad looks like he has heartburn.|
Cannibals’ saga all wraps up in an absurd about face. Salome realizes she isn’t crazy about Chad after all, and that maybe she loves Tony. Likewise, Chad considers that he hasn’t given neurotic Catherine a fair shake. Salome takes baby Pete back home. Natch, Hamilton’s Tony follows Nat’s Salome, almost makeup-free, and calling herself Sarah once again. Chad brings Catherine back to their apartment, reads the reply that she’s left to his lipstick written scrawl—How BUtterfield 8! Her response when she awakens: “I left the light burning every night.”
|Nat's Salome goes back home & to being called Sarah again. |
Wood's character has a few similarities to her next role, in Splendor in the Grass.
None of the four “young moderns” rise above the hilariously outdated script. At least Natalie, as the Sondheim tune I’m Still Here goes, “Still, someone said, “She’s sincere.” The next year, Wood would fare much better as another small town girl navigating romance with a rich boy who has a bitchy sister, in Splendor in the Grass.
That’s more than you can say for Susan Kohner, who is absurdly artificial and arch as the bitchy sister of the rich boy Wood marries. Much was made about how Natalie and Susan looked like each other. But once seen on screen together, you see that's not so true. Kohner looks more like a vulpine, imperfect version of Ava Gardner. Susan Kohner retired in 1964 to a happy personal life.
|RJ's Chad not only pours out his feelings on the trumpet, but his wife's lipstick, too!|
The two male leads are leaden: Robert Wagner and George Hamilton. Wagner got the build up by 20th Century Fox the prior decade and after his heartthrob status subsided, he flat lined as a leading man; Hamilton would soon travel the same trajectory. Neither were simply talented enough dramatic actors. Both fared much better later, on TV in light comedy/adventure or films that allowed them to spoof their classy personas.
All four of the fine young stars went on to better things, and All the Fine Young Cannibals is best enjoyed today as camp.
|Susan Kohner tries to whip some life into Robert Wagner, but no luck!|
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