Thursday, January 24, 2013

On ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE

If you're a shapely woman in your 30s seeking a new monologue to consider doing in acting class or for auditions, I have a tip for you.  There's a juicy one in this 1973 movie starring Robert Blake as an Arizona motorcycle cop.  He's the shortest cop on the force.  He carries himself like  a big guy.  The name of the movie is Electra Glide in Blue.
The title may be one of the reasons why it didn't capture wide box office attention.  It has that sort of "What the hell happened to America?" vibe that was popular in some movies of the time.  But those movies had better titles.  We saw dramas with titles like Five Easy Pieces, Taxi Driver, The Exorcist, Shampoo, The Hospital, Network, Chinatown, All the President's Men and Billy Jack.  Robert Blake gives one praiseworthy performance in a movie that should've had a better title.  Electra Glide in Blue sounds like an amusement park ride or a sexual lubricant.  Many moviegoers didn't know it referred to the motorcycle.  I have a feeling there was a lot of drama behind the scenes.  Not from Blake, but with the director and producers and screenwriters.  This was the only movie that James William Guerico directed.  He never got behind the camera again.  Guerico had made a name for himself in the rock music industry.  A producer, musician and songwriter, he produced the early hit albums by Chicago.  Later, he worked with Blood, Sweat & Tears.  That's why the soundtrack is so good.  Electra Glide in Blue has developed a cult following over the years.  Deservedly so.  If Robert Blake had ever received an Oscar nomination in his film career, if should've been for his  In Cold Blood performance.  In the excellent film adaptation of Truman Capote's acclaimed book, he played Perry, the less cold-blooded of the two killers.  But a killer just the same.
There's sort of a "Six Degrees of Humphrey Bogart" element in Electra Glide in Blue.  Before the In Cold Blood killer is executed, he talks about his miserable childhood.
Perry mentions the 1948 Bogart classic, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  When Blake was a child actor, he had a scene in that film opposite Humphrey Bogart.
Another Bogart classic is 1941's The Maltese Falcon.  Hollywood veteran Elisha Cook was opposite Bogart as a trigger-happy hood who follows private eye Sam Spade.
Cook plays a poor soul that Blake's Officer John Wintergreen tries to quiet and help.
Blake followed his  In Cold Blood performance with this -- and it's another good one.  Electra Glide in Blue is about dreams, disappointments, frustrations and how dreams got dashed in an America that changed drastically.  Severely.  Remember, this is after the decade in which President John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King and presidential hopeful Senator Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated.  There was the Vietnam War.  Blake's cop was a Marine in Vietnam.  When he got out, you know what Uncle Sam did for him?  Nothing.  He's a cop on a highway that seems to go nowhere.  He's not a perfect man but he's a good cop who doesn't always have the best luck.  He's by the book.  He gives a speeding ticket to a fellow law enforcement member who clearly broke the law.  He didn't cut the verbally abusive hotshot any slack.  That happens at the beginning of the movie.  It kicks off a running theme of the film:  Officer Wintergreen has to put up with a lot o' bullshit as a motorcycle cop.  He came back from Vietnam and distinguished himself on the force.  He didn't return an emotionally chipped man taking out anger on hippies.  True, he does use an Easy Rider movie poster at work for target practice.  But on the road, he treats hippies with respect.  He's just a guy in uniform pursuing an American dream.  But a lot o' bullshit gets in his way as things change.
He and his partner have to deal with all sorts of characters on that road.
His partner (so well-played by Billy Green Bush) could care less about these kooks.
The movie opens with a death by gunshot.  Suicide?  Murder?  John thinks it's murder.  He sees the case as his ticket to being kicked up to homicide and off highway patrol.  But then comes the frustration of having to work for a somewhat clueless, cigar-smoking boss.  Says one character:  "Incompetence is the worst form of corruption."
It doesn't show in his work but Wintergreen wishes he could start his life over.  Homicide would be a relief.  "I hate that motorcycle they make me ride," he reveals.  "Big John" does get kicked up to homicide and gets to trade in his helmet for a Stetson.
The movie gets off the track of the murder case when introducing us to other characters but it does eventually get back to it.  One character is Jolene, lovely to look at and delightful to see.  Built like a Playboy Bunny, she has frisky sex life with Officer Wintergreen.  Wintergreen and his boss go to the bar/restaurant where she works.  It's after closing time.  She's alone.  She's had a couple of strong drinks.  Jolene too has had some dreams dry up and blow away in the arid Arizona location.  She tells us about it while she shows off some dance moves.  She's no bimbo.  Jolene had talent.  The truth of her frustrations -- occupational, romantic and sexual -- comes pouring out.
She was Rockette in New York City for a year.  That takes training. Then she headed for Hollywood with her dance skills.  She comments on her old photos posted above the jukebox:  "Miss Peaches 'n' Cream, Miss Nice, Miss Naive."  Love and a frustrating marriage blocked her career drive.  She's looking at John, her occasional lover.  His dream came true. He's working homicide. "You got your hat and you got your badge and you got your boots.  You got it all.  Don't you, Johnny?  You got everything."  Her dreams didn't come true.  Jolene settled for less.  I watched that actress do this scene, this monologue, and I thought, "Oh, Girl!  You are workin' it!"  She is so good, so on fire in that scene.  I kept looking at her and she seemed familiar.  When the camera went in for another close-up, I said "Oh my gosh!  She was on Petticoat Junction!"
Jolene was played by Jeannine Riley, the actress who was my favorite of the three sisters on Petticoat Junction, the popular CBS sitcom.  She was on from 1963-1965.
She was busty, blonde Billie Jo Bradley.  She lived in Hooterville's Shady Rest Hotel with Kate, her widowed mother, her two curvy sisters and Uncle Joe...who was always "movin' kinda slow at the junction.  Petticoat Junction."  So the theme song said.
TV's future Batman, Adam West, played one of Billie Jo's beaux in Hooterville.
Who knew Riley had those dramatic chops?  And why didn't more movies display them?  The bar monologue of Jolene's is ripe for a 30-something actress to do in class or for a film/TV audition.  You've got a good 2-3 minutes in there.  Rent the DVD and check it out.
Another thing -- while Electra Glide in Blue falls short of being great 1970s film like Chinatown, Network or Taxi Driver, it's worth watching for the acting and for the cinematography.  It's beautifully photographed -- like a classic John Ford western.
Cinematographer Conrad Hall did that.  He photographed Blake previously.  Hall's black and white cinematography for 1967's In Cold Blood is art.  It's master class material.
Hall received an Oscar nomination for In Cold Blood.  He won Oscars for his work on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and American Beauty (1999).

Hall filmed Robert Blake as two men on opposite ends of the scale -- one a killer in black and white, the other a good cop in color.  Both have an essential loneliness.  Officer Wintergreen confides to a janitor, "Did you know that loneliness will kill you deader than a .357 magnum?"  Electra Glide in Blue and In Cold Blood prove how effective an actor Robert Blake was.  I believe he's the only kid from MGM's Our Gang comedy shorts of the 1940s who grew up to land lead roles in movies and television.  Spanky, Alfalfa, Darla and Buckwheat surely didn't.  TV made him a star on the popular detective series, Baretta.  1970s films didn't seem to pick up the ball and run with his talents for whatever reason.  His reviews for In Cold Blood were stellar.  One can only imagine if Robert Blake had been given a chance to play Taxi Driver Travis Bickle, the disabled Vietnam vet in Coming Home, the military husband in Coming Home, Brody in Steven Spielberg's  Jaws or a character in that all-star disaster blockbuster, The Towering Inferno.  (That 1974 box office champ starred Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Fred Astaire, William Holden, Jennifer Jones, Faye Dunaway, Robert Wagner....and O.J. Simpson.)
Other 1973 releases were Serpico, The Way We Were, The Exorcist, Mean Streets, The Last Detail, Paper Moon, The Sting, Last Tango in Paris and American Graffiti.

Electra Glide in Blue -- an overlooked 1973 film worthy of attention.  The film acting of Robert Blake deserves re-appreciation.  A CBS sitcom star stands out in a dramatic supporting role as an ex-Rockette.  And the cinematography is absolutely gorgeous.













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