Tag Archives: Bobbie Gentry

Ode to Billy Joe (1976)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Where is Billy Joe?

Based on the hit 1967 single sung by Bobbie Gentry this film attempts to reenact what occurred in the ballad as well as explain the song’s mystery elements with a screenplay co-written by Gentry herself. The story centers on Bobbie Lee (Glynnis O’Connor) a 15 year-old girl living on a farm and longing to satisfy her newfound sexual awakenings. She becomes attracted to a local boy named Billy Joe McAllister (Robby Benson) and he to her, but her conservative father (Sandy McPeak) won’t allow her to bring over ‘gentleman callers’ until she is 16, so she runs off into the woods with him only to learn that he harbors a dark secret that if it became known to the public could ruin his life.

While the film did quite well by grossing $27 million at the box office on only a $1.1 million budget I felt it was a mistake to turn the classic song into a movie. Sometimes things are more interesting when the mystery angle is left unanswered, and having it explained especially with the lame way that it gets done here, tarnishes the song’s mystique.

For years Gentry said that the point of the song was never about why Billy Joe jumped off the bridge or what he threw off of it, but instead the relationship of the song’s narrator with her family and how completely oblivious they were to her feelings, which the movie doesn’t recreate. In the song the father is portrayed as being ambivalent and distant towards his daughter and yet in the film for some ill-advised reason he is kindly and connected, which isn’t as interesting.

Hiring Herman Raucher to co-write the screenplay was a mistake as well. He had great success with Summer of ’42, but pretty much tries to turn this into the same glossy romance as that. He even brings along the same composer Michel Legrand whose orchestral score is completely out-of-place with the story’s country setting.

The script also adds some crazy side-stories that have nothing to do with the main plot or the song that it is based on. One of them includes having prostitutes shipped in from nearby Yazoo City to have sex with all men from the town, who line up one-by-one seemingly guilt free, to fuck the ladies while attending a small jamboree. Now, I was not alive during the ‘50s, but I know people who were including my parents, who insist that it was every bit as oppressive and conservative as its reputation states especially in the rural areas such as this film’s setting. I realize that prostitution is considered the ‘world’s oldest profession’ and I’m sure in some underground big city clubs of that period you could find some, but bringing them to some small town where everybody knows everybody else and having the men jumping in for quite literally ‘roll-in-the-hay’ with them (as this took place on a barnyard floor) with all of their friends watching and not worrying that this would get back to their wives or ruining their reputations, as rumors spread like wild fire in small  towns, is just too far-fetched and ridiculous to be believable.

Benson is great in the lead and James Best is strong too in a small, but crucial role, however O’Connor seems miscast. She’s attractive and has been good in other films, but she plays the part as being very outspoken and strong-willed where in the song that same character came off as more introverted and quiet. She also seemed too worldly-wise for a 15-year-old especially one that had never ventured out of her town although the bit where she sticks her head into a toilet bowl and shouts ‘hello’ may be worth a few points to some.

If you spent sleepless nights trying to figure what it was that Billy Joe threw off that Tallahatchie Bridge then you may find this film’s clichéd and corny answer to it as disappointing.  It also takes way too damn long to get there while forcing the viewer sit through many long, drawn-out scenes in-between.

In fact the only thing that the movie does get right is its on-location shooting that was done in LeFlore County, Mississippi that was the actual setting to the song. However, even this gets botched because the Tallahatchie Bridge that Gentry describes in her song, which was near the small town of Money, was destroyed in 1972 and the bridge used in the film was a different one located near the town of Sidon that also ended up getting demolished in 1987.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: June 4, 1976

Runtime: 1 Hour 46 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Max Baer Jr.

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Macon County Line (1974)

macon county line 3

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Sheriff attacks innocent trio.

The year is 1954 and Chris and Wayne Dixon (played by real-life brothers Alan and Jesse Vint) are two brothers traveling through the Deep South for one last hurrah before joining boot camp. Along the way they pick up attractive hitch-hiker Jenny (Cheryl Waters) and the three appear ready to party it up when their car suddenly breaks down in front of an isolated country home. Unbeknownst to them the home’s inhabitant (Joan Blackman) has been murdered and when her husband, who just so happens to be the county sheriff, (Max Baer Jr.) arrives to find the carnage he immediately suspects it’s the kids sleeping in the nearby car. Thus begins a wild night chase through the country backwoods as the three try desperately to outrun a man with an unrelenting rage while pleading with him that they are innocent.

The film is a definite step above the average drive-in fare of that era with characters that manage to avoid the usual stereotypes and clichés. The 1950’s are painted in a little more of an edgier way and populated by people that are much more crass than what you will find in an old episode of ‘Leave it to Beaver’ or some sanitized recreation of that period, which I found to be refreshing. The music, particularly La Vern Baker’s gospel tinged opening song and Bobbie Gentry’s closing one is great and really helps to create a definitive mood. There are also two really good flashback sequences including a dimly lighted, moody one dealing with police brutality of a criminal and an ‘interrogation’ scene done at a police station that isn’t bad either.

Unfortunately the story is thin and hinges solely on the frantic chase that takes up the movie’s final 20 minutes, which is well edited and even features a twist ending, but up to then it is rather uneventful with too much time spent on the trio’s visit with a dimwitted auto mechanic (played by Geoffrey Lewis) that adds unnecessary comic relief.  There is also an ill-advised, dream-like segment where Jenny and Chris decide to take off their clothes and make love in some stagnant water found inside an old, rusted circular drinking trough in an abandoned barn that not only takes away from the film’s grittiness, but also seemed extremely unhygienic as well. I was also expecting more car chases especially with all he nicely refurbished vintage cars that appear, but the only one that they do have gets shot at night and the camera focuses more on the driver’s nervous faces in a cheesy melodramatic style than on the automobiles.

The film was produced and co-written by Max Baer Jr. who is better known as Jethro from the hit 60’s TV-series ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’ and in fact he wrote the story for this movie on the back of some Hillbilly scripts during breaks in filming. Although this was filmed in Sacramento the location is supposed to be the south and could’ve been either Georgia, Tennessee, or Alabama as all three of those states have a Macon County, but the real irony is that the two brother are from Chicago and we even see a close-up of their Illinois plate, which also has a Macon County although it’s likely the story wasn’t set in that one.

macon county line 4

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: August 8, 1974

Runtime: 1Hour 28Minutes

Rated R

Director: Richard Compton

Studio: American International Pictures

Available: DVD