Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Happy Birthday, Lurene Tuttle

One hundred years ago today in Pleasant Lake, Indiana, character actress Lurene Tuttle was born. Sadly, she didn't make it this far, having passed away in 1986 at the ripe old age of 80. Though she's one of those performers whom film buffs tend to recognize without knowing her name, Lurene claimed more than her fair share of big and small screen history in her half-century career.

Her distinctive voice was groomed by many years in radio, where she played many a character role, the standout being that of Howard Duff's girl friday Effie in THE ADVENTURES OF SAM SPADE -- and her radio work with Orson Welles opened the door to her being cast as one of the witches in Welles' MACBETH (1948). She was in William Cameron Menzies' THE WHIP HAND (1951) and two of Marilyn Monroe's darkest, DON'T BOTHER TO KNOCK (1952) and NIAGARA (1953), and she played the judge who sentences Mamie Van Doren and Lori Nelson to a prison labor farm in UNTAMED YOUTH (1957). She was one of the citizens of Rachel, Kansas -- a "Rachelanian" -- in THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN (1966); in fact, the landlady of Luther Heggs' (Don Knotts) rooming house.

It was impossible to grow up in the 1950s and 1960s without seeing her everywhere on television, usually cast as kindly older ladies. On LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, she was the woman at the adoption agency who guided Beaver Cleaver back to his parents when he decided they didn't love him anymore; she was a neighbor to DENNIS THE MENACE; on PERRY MASON, she played six different roles in five years; on BACHELOR FATHER, she was Bentley's visiting Aunt Caroline; and she was a series regular on PETE AND GLADYS and JULIA.

Still can't place her? Okay, here's the clincher: she's the lady and the voice you think of whenever you hear the words "periwinkle blue," because of the vivid way she spoke them in Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO (1960).

Such a nice, firm, yet gentle screen persona... yet Lurene Tuttle's only starring role came in MA BARKER'S KILLER BROOD, made the same year she appeared in PSYCHO. Produced by Screen Classics Inc. (the people who brought you GLEN OR GLENDA?) and distributed by the short-lived Filmservice Distributors Corporation (THE MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS), it opens with a bang: fade in on a hog-tied Byron Foulger screaming for his life as someone sets his legs on fire and sends his flaming car over a cliff!

Directed by Bill Karn (DOOR TO DOOR MANIAC), MA BARKER'S KILLER BROOD is a grossly inaccurate account of Kate "Ma" Barker's alledged life of crime with her four sons -- which goes so far as to portray her not only as a crook, but as a guru-of-sorts to Machine Gun Kelly (played by Vic Lundin of ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS), Baby Face Nelson, John Dillinger, and every other headline-making gangster of the Depression era... and a great cook as well! Ma's much-beloved cherry pie becomes the centerpiece of a stomach-churning bit of symbolism as she forces her own besotted husband (Tristram Coffin) to play Russian Roulette with a slice of pie in his hand; we don't see the gun go off, but we don't need to because the camera focuses on his free hand as its death spasms wrench every gloopy drop of pie filling from Ma's flaky crust.

The movie is lopsidedly constructed, with a narration by Tuttle that comes and goes (even though she's left dead in the final act -- where's she narrating from?), and a major character dies offscreen under circumstances hastily covered in a last-minute death toll. These faults aside, no one can deny that this movie is way off the rails of 1950s propriety, in the same manner as Robert Aldrich's KISS ME DEADLY (1955). It rattles along like a box of zingers, many of which Lurene gets to say (click here for examples). She gives a terrific, hellbound performance that sometimes requires her to be convincingly maternal and hateful and ironic to three different characters in the same scene, without anyone glimpsing all three sides but the viewer. Maybe not as good as Roger Corman's BLOODY MAMA, but plainly superior to any other version of this oft-told story, MA BARKER'S KILLER BROOD is worth seeing by everyone who likes their exploitation fare served up red hot and raw. It's available from Alpha Video, so the price is right. And what better time to spin it up than today -- tonight -- on Lurene Tuttle's centenary?

SEE! Lurene ram a policeman with her car and then run him over for good measure!
SEE! Lurene empty a machine gun into another cop's chest!
SEE! Lurene force an alcoholic doctor with the shakes to perform plastic surgery on her son's face and hands... without anaesthesia!
SEE! Lurene slap Don (MY THREE SONS) Grady's face repeatedly and break his "sissy" violin!

And the fact that it recycles the Guenther Kauer library score from THE ASTOUNDING SHE MONSTER (1958)? That, dear reader, is just the whipped cream on the cherry pie.

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