There was a line all the way down Second Street off Second Avenue in Manhattan last night; film fans were waiting in the cold to see John Waters present one of his favorite movies, the Ann-Margret vehicle Kitten with a Whip (1964), as a special event to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the venerable Anthology Film Archives. Waters was charmingly introduced by the mighty founder of Anthology, Jonas Mekas, who did a kind of Bela Lugosi in Glen or Glenda (1952) spiel: “I showed John’s first big movie…here!” Mekas said, in his halting Lithuanian accent. “It was Pink...Flamingos! And it was…disgusting! But you knew…you must watch…this disgusting…film!” At just the right moment, Mekas cut off his musings and introduced Waters himself to the packed house; nattily attired in a suit with a yellow scarf, Waters gushed about the merits of Kitten with a Whip, which he first saw as a teenager with his longtime star and friend Divine.
“I used to have all kinds of movie posters up in my houses, but now there’s only one movie poster, for Kitten with a Whip,” he said, and then showed us the novelization of the film and other memorabilia. Waters positioned Kitten with a Whip with a movie made that same year, Lady in a Cage, a far more arduous and nasty picture where stately Olivia de Havilland is trapped in her private elevator and tortured by a group of thugs headed by a young James Caan, who wears perhaps the tightest jeans in film history. These two movies are exploitation items which are also trying to say something about The Sickness of Our Society, but Kitten with a Whip takes itself far less seriously than Lady in a Cage, and that’s all to the good. Waters also placed Kitten with a Whip in relation to the strange Carroll Baker picture Something Wild (1962), where a Sexpot Emotes, and he puzzled over Kitten with a Whip’s intentions. “Many people have called it a camp classic,” Waters said, “but I think it’s a failed art film.” Wrapping up, Waters said that there was a moment early on in Kitten with a Whip when Ann-Margret was as beautiful as she ever was on screen, and he promised to shout, “Now!” from the back of the house when this happened.
I know Kitten with a Whip like the back of my hand; I’ve seen it many times, usually with groups of friends, and I’ve seen the Mystery Science Theater version of it so often that I could probably do all their jokes at it. This screening of Kitten with a Whip at Anthology is obviously the apotheosis of all my Kitten with a Whip screenings; as Waters himself said in an interview with Miriam Bale for The L Magazine, showing a film at Anthology Film Archives lends it a permanent aura of legitimacy. Kitten with a Whip begins with Saul Bass rip-off credits of prison bars going up or down to reveal members of the cast and crew, and this isn’t the only rip-off here; later on, the movie will recycle parts of Henry Mancini’s Touch of Evil (1958) score. We first see Ann-Margret’s Jody escaping from reform school; her hair is a straw-like blond and she’s wearing a sexy nightie. A feral creature, Jody spots a house with a lot of newspapers sitting on the lawn, and so she lets herself in and beds down sensually with a frightened-looking Teddy Bear.
Jody has broken into the home of politico David Stratton, played by John Forsythe, who is perfectly cast as a smooth-talking bore ready to be shaken up by A-M’s kitty-cat ways (Waters pointed out that Forsythe was on a popular TV show called Bachelor Father at the time, and so it was extra fun to see the Bachelor Father tormented by this young sex symbol). When Stratton finds Jody in his daughter’s bed, his immediate reaction is to call the police, but she plays on his liberal sympathies with a pack of lies about her past, until he finds himself buying her some clothes (the fact that she’s so hot-to-trot probably helps her case, but Stratton is the type who would never admit this to himself). At a certain point, when A-M went from good girl to bad girl facially on a dime, Waters called out, “Now!” and he certainly had a point about her shifty beauty. I was reminded of the novelist Manuel Puig, who was a mentor to my friend Bruce Benderson, and a famous routine he had about Ann-Margret. Whenever A-M came up, Puig would ruminate, very seriously, in his Argentine accent: “Ann-Margret! Sometimes you think she is a good actress, and sometimes you think she cannot act at all. Sometimes you think she is a good girl, and sometimes you think she is a total slut! Ann-Margret!” he would cry, and take a momentous pause. “She is anything but reassuring.”
Stratton is forever bumping into nosy neighbors as Jody starts to assert herself over him, and he does just as much lying to the neighbors as she does to him, but his are social, politician’s lies, whereas her lies are based in fairly demented sexual fantasy; the audience for this screening of Kitten with a Whip did try to take the movie seriously whenever it could. This was one of the few features for the director and writer Douglas Heyes, who mainly worked in television, and the film has a television look; it was filmed on the Universal Studios lot, and when we’re down in Tijuana at the end, the city looks so small that everyone in the cast keeps bumping into each other. There are some striking images, like the weird salad bar-type structure in the middle of Stratton’s living room, or the way Heyes frames Jody in front of a TV set showing cartoons as she screeches at Stratton, or the way Jody rubs lipstick all over the looming portrait of Stratton’s wife. But when Jody’s beatnik posse shows up to keep Stratton in line, the laughs keep coming, and the biggest one is always when existentialist Grant (Richard Anderson) barks to Troy Donahue-like Ron (Peter Brown), “Now cool it, you creep, and co-exist!”
Waters pointed out something I had never noticed before; toward the end, there’s a lot of driving around in front of rear projection, and at one point, as Jody is at the wheel, there’s no dashboard in front of her, as if somebody just forgot to put it there, and this signals the film’s almost avant-garde ineptitude. Afterward, Waters stayed to answer questions, chuckled over Kitten with a Whip’s climactic, speeded-up cartoon fight in a hotel room, and then wondered if the whole film should have been done in fast-forward images like that. Ann-Margret will always be remembered for her dirty-innocent come-ons to the camera in Bye Bye Birdie (1963), her gyrations with Elvis in Viva Las Vegas (1964), her depressive girlfriend in Mike Nichols’s Carnal Knowledge (1971), the ultra-game way she rolled around in soap, chocolate and baked beans in Tommy (1975), and some fine TV work, especially her Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire (1984), which is certainly the most overtly sexual Blanche I’ve ever seen. But to many fans, she will always be Jody in Kitten with a Whip, howling at the self-important Grant, “How come you think you’re such a smoky something when you’re so nothing painted blue!”