Melba (Cloris Leachman) is a down-on-her-luck hair stylist who loses her salon when she gets too far behind on her payments.
With her mom, Sheba (Ann Sothern), her pregnant daughter Cheryl (Linda Purl) and Cheryl’s boyfriend Shaun (Don Most) in tow, Melba decides to pack up the car and head back to Arkansas, where she hopes to buy back the family farm.
Along the way, they pick up a number of odd characters including a Greaser named Snake (Bryan Englund) and a gamblin’ ladies man named Jim Bob (Stuart Whitman).
Crazy Mama (1975) is directed by Jonathan Demme, written by Robert Thom from the story by Frances Doel.
The film starts off in the 1930s, and kicks off quite dramatically. A father is shot, a family loses their land. This scene is brief and seems out place at first, but soon everything begins to come together.
We’re then launched into a lovely Buddy Holly tune, completely changing the mood as the credits roll, before we’re propelled forward to Long Beach, California in the 1950s. Here we meet three generations of women from a tough luck family — the same family that lost the farm in the opening scene.
The cast is a strange mix of actors, and having not read much about the film beforehand, I couldn’t help but love the film a little more each time a new familiar face was revealed. From Cloris Leachman to Ann Sothern to Don “Ralph Malph” Most, there’s someone to be recognized by everyone here.
Across the board, the cast gives very appropriate performances for this type of film. No one seems to be taking the story too seriously, and it shouldn’t be taken too seriously. This is a story of simple-minded bunch of women returning from the California sunshine to their Arkansas “hillbilly” roots.
These ladies certainly have a wild streak, and the performances of Leachman, Sothern and Linda Purl make their journey fun to watch. The script forces them into tons of off-the-wall situations, from wedding chapel robberies to encounters with the law.
All the while, stereotypes of the 1950s are both parodied and celebrated.
Aesthetically, Crazy Mama doesn’t scream “authentic ’50s,” but it does have a lot of nice elements: the cars, the storefronts, the classic billboards. Like many period films from the 1970s through 1990s, the costumes, hair and makeup are a strange mix of the contemporary period and the period in which the film is supposed to be set, but this isn’t too bothersome.
One thing that certainly is authentic to the period is the film’s amazing soundtrack, which includes tracks from The Everly Brothers and The Chordettes, among others.
The film’s mood is quirky, adventurous and certainly hectic, in the vein of films like It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963) or the Vacation movies. It’s silly and sometimes over-the-top, but a whole lot of fun to watch.
Crazy Mama offers up a decidedly kitschy and campy but completely delightful retrospective of an often-idealized decade. The film is not flawless, but the upbeat pace from the opening keeps the viewer roped in. Zippy dialogue, some successful gags and solid performances make this a pretty good watch. The score: 3.8/5