February 10, 2020
Stars Ann-Margret, John Forsythe, Richard Anderson, Peter Brown, James Ward.
Either Ann-Margret’s agent was trying to pull off an image-inversion to prove the budding star’s versatility, which is what I think happened, or he simply ignored the risks of inking a brief deal with Universal Pictures, which, with just a couple name-actor exceptions, was tantamount to a death wish in 1964. In any event, Kitten With a Whip was kind of an unexpected and even strange choice for A-M to take on in the immediate aftermath of Bye Bye Birdie and Viva Las Vegas, a pair of enjoyably loud George Sidney musicals in which first a fictional Elvis and then the real-life Elvis were co-equal motivating forces. As with its title, Kitten’s ad art was provocative, too — eschewing a literal whip but still suggesting that this might be the kind of girl you could take home to dad if dad were the Marquis de Sade.
According to what I’ve read, Universal then ended up limiting the release of this junior delinquent melodrama to minor theaters and drive-ins, which might explain how I managed to miss it at a time when memories of the previous year’s Birdie remained indelible in my mind. Like every other straight guy my age at the time (15, almost 16), my eyes opened 5,000 f-stops when A-M came out of the literal big-screen blue to belt the title tune in that high school tune-fest’s no-foreplay opening. Sitting in my favorite spot at the Loew’s Ohio (my favorite 2,800-seater) just as summer vacation began, I probably levitated as well, even though before too long, the sexuality she projected became a little too obvious to appeal to me (I eventually tended to go for the unpretentious or smoldering ones). As for Kitten, only the most high-profile Universal releases of that era managed to rate downtown playdates in my Al Roker neck of the woods — almost certainly because until the Eastwood/Zanuck-Brown era gave the studio’s global logo some adrenaline (some might date the transition beginning with 1970’s Airport), Universal mostly made glorified TV movies, though very occasionally, one of them would have an edge. An example of the last was Don Siegel’s The Killers, which was supposed to be the first made-for-TV feature from the studio’s broadcast division until its brutality and climactic death count forced Universal to chicken out and release it to theaters mere months before Kitten’s release. This one isn’t as edgy by a long shot but for a movie that came out around the same time as Mary Poppins, it’s kind of a slick sickie.
We begin with a pursued and running A-M in a nightgown (and there’s nothing wrong with that), futilely trying to hop a freight car. Failing, she opts to break into the San Diego home of political hopeful John Forsythe, who resides in a mighty high-rent neighborhood for one apparently so close to the railroad tracks. It’s at a time when local promoters have been grooming him as a public-office candidate from an unspecified political party, but judging from the white-bread types who surround them “at the club” — the fact that Richard Anderson plays the main one is about all you need to know — you can bet that these guys sit around all the time lamenting how Pat Brown beat that good-joe Richard Nixon for the governorship a couple years earlier. Thus, Forsythe probably has to avoid scandal even more than most candidates, especially given that his moderately estranged wife is already out of town “thinking things over” while he has the house to himself.
So here’s the deal. You come home one night and miss discovering until the next morning that Ann-Margret is in a nightie and sleeping with your daughter’s stuffed animals. Awakened, this surprise guest then relates an unfortunately familiar story (though not that much on 1964 screens) about an abusing stepfather father or mom boyfriend; it might even be true and a thus legitimate contributor to her mixed-up state. But though this so-called teenager’s initial excuse is credible enough for a not unsympathetic Forsythe to buy, she keeps changing her story and getting angry and defensive whenever the TV reports reporting on her flight from a detention center indicate behavior far more sociopathic. And then, she starts doing the same with Forsythe to such a degree that you almost wish that Hope Emerson’s sadistic prison matron from Caged would break the fourth wall and enter the frame to slap her around a little bit. Because before long, the kid (though A-M was 23 when she made this) is starting to try on the wife’s clothes and revel in the degree to which she’s compromised her host. Then it turns physical (no, not that way) when she rips off Forsythe’s shirt and gives him a scratch he won’t forget across at the chest. Funny: I never would have thought an Ann-Margret character and Freddy Krueger used the same manicurist.
Throughout all this, poor Forsythe has to put up with an entire suburban community of meddlesome female neighbors and friends who are always showing up to “check in”; one can easily imagine him making a mental note: “Build Moat.” To compound this, he can’t even go to a department store’s women’s section to buy A-M some clothes to facilitate her permanent exit (he hopes) without another pest coming up to not loudly that the selections are far too small for the Mrs. (naturally, the presumed recipient) as the sales clark stands there in doubt. I think writer-director Douglas Heyes (working from an H. William Miller novel) probably does this to vary the program a little, but truth is, the movie is never as interesting as when it focuses on interplay between the two central characters. Alas, their back-and-forth is further minimized in the movie’s second half when two remarkably clean-cut punk A-M acquaintances (Peter Brown and James Ward, when he was sometimes billed as “Skip”) show up with another young woman who soon fades from the action. Eventually, matters shift to a less whimsical version of Tijuana than the one with which the Kingston Trio had what is now politically incorrect fun, with Forsythe getting barraged with so many mishaps and humiliations that he doesn’t even have time to think about how he’s ever going to explain all this to his wife and backers.
It all gets to be pretty risible, especially since you can almost hear the person in charge of a canned score lifted from previous Universal films going, “Cue the bongos” each time something sinister is about to happen. In fact, I didn’t know until now that “Mystery Science Theater 3000” once took a crack at this movie, which strongly indicates Kitten’s Blu-ray marketing appeal for gay audiences, camp fanciers and those who take their home-viewing movie parties seriously. It’s never quite the howler that the title, premise and lead actress portend, but at least a little of its chuckle/snort potential is reached. Joseph Biroc was a good cinematographer; he’d recently done an effective shadows-and-light number on Robert Aldrich’s Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte and would soon embark on the same filmmaker’s unforgettable The Flight of the Phoenix. But Kitten is essentially, as suggested earlier, a glorified TV movie that was never going to be anyone’s Blu-ray techno showcase under nay circumstances. The disc is about as no-frills as they come, and the $21.98 list price is a little stiff.
A-M’s performance is an odd hybrid. She’s definitely doing some sashaying Bye Bye Birdie stuff with the dress Forysthe buys her, almost as if she’s giving a dinner theater audience what they’ve paid to see in addition to the salad bar selection. But in a couple other scenes, she seems credibly off her rocker. In any event, working for Universal (she followed with Bus Riley’s Back in Town after a jump to Fox with The Pleasure Seekers) did her about as much good as it did Rock Hudson and George Peppard when they labored there at the same time far more extensively. When she made her Oscar-nominated comeback in Mike Nichols’ still potent-as-hell Carnal Knowledge in 1971, the films she made from 1964 on (see The Swinger — or maybe don’t) were what she was coming back from. Still, I’ll bet Kitten did satisfying business as drive-in fodder over the following winter (those in-car heaters really worked) and spring/summer of the next year, paired with, say, same-era Universals like The Killers or The Night Walker or The Naked Brigade. Of course, the crackhead who booked my town probably programmed it with Father Goose.