In a matter of two days I managed to watch two films, each sporting a question mark in the title. Is it redundant to use a question for a title? What are movies if not formulated questions based upon answers we want to hear? Movies remind us of profound things we already knew, but willingly forgot just to happily be reminded of it once again. Does the little guy ever win out? Is good truly better greater than evil? Can love conquer all? How about, Where’s Poppa? – that was yesterday’s question. Today, I was asked When You Coming Back, Red Ryder?
Whether or not Red Ryder is coming back is unquestionable. Of course he’s coming back, why else would the title be asking such a question? Does he win or lose? How does he come back? Just who the hell is Red Ryder? Why should I care if he comes back? Those were the real questions. But they are just the surface questions. These are the questions everyone ask. I tend to ask those questions and then some.
I wonder what a nice young evangelist like Marjoe Gortner is doing in a black-hearted film such as When You Coming Back, Red Ryder?. Furthermore, why is a good Christian boy producing this movie?
Once a novelty act on the tent revival circuit four year old Marjoe (his name a combination of Mary and Joseph) dazzled audiences with his memorized sermons of hellfire and brimstone. In his teens Marjoe turned his back on the ministry. Then, in 1972 Marjoe returned. A reunion tour of sorts, cashing in on former fame, Marjoe was preaching to the choir, while confessing to a documentary crew that evangelistic preaching was a racket. Of course, this didn’t stop Marjoe from collecting a few dollars along the way. Were those offered dollars gone by the time 1979 rolled around? Was the cash of bible thumpers used to make a film they’d surely damn to hell?
Ask yourself these question and When You Coming Back, Red Ryder? takes on new, deep, psychological dimensions.
Played to full-tilt craziness, Marjoe delights in the demonic role of Teddy – a drug smuggling, Vietnam Vet, carrying a huge chip on his shoulder. When Teddy’s van breaks down in a one-stop, New Mexico town he and his tag-along girl hold the patrons of a small dinner hostage. While he waits for the service station owner to fix his vehicle, Teddy entertains himself by berating the diner’s clientele.
Though I have never read Mark Medoff’s play, from which this film takes its narrative, I suspect that in the playhouse version of the story Teddy is to act like a grievous angel. Teddy is himself a wounded soul and his abuse, more psychological than physical, is meant to shock some form of self-realization into each patron. In the film version director Milton Katselas (Butterflies Are Free) uses the events of a prior night to clue the audience into the character faults that Teddy shall help to reveal. This notion of normal people having faults and the need for a “bad boy” to come along and expose these faults is so juvenile and insipid that it certainly makes for pretensions twaddle; were it played that way. Thankfully, the film version has Marjoe. Taking a layered character and making him two-dimensional Marjoe makes each of his hostages seem more dimensional than their parts allow for them to be. This is not a sign of Marjoe’s genius as much as it is a sign of his acting limitations. Nothing Teddy reveals can redeem his sadistic persona. He is a deranged man spouting threats to his congregation, while proclaiming the clarity to see right through them, down to their deepest sin. Teddy acts as if he knows-it-all, when in fact he knows nothing and is scared by this hidden truth. He’s not that different than your most flamboyant pulpit pounding preachers.
Marjoe embraces his chance to slip out of the choir robe and into a pair of devil’s horns. With a producer credit on the film, there’s no denying that Marjoe had his choice of material and roles. When You Coming Back, Red Ryder? is just the sort of anathema he was taught to condemn. And there’s no missing the blatant marks of Marjoe’s past strewn across the film. Besides casting himself in the lead he also opts to put his more known and more talented wife, Candy Clark, in the role of Teddy’s girl. Marjoe is kind enough to share full-frontal images of his wife bathing in a stream – how Christian of him. Mark modify makes a cameo as a faith healer and Leon Russell’s voice is heard preaching on the radio. The entire episode takes place on a Sunday while the rest of the town is at Church. While others are praising the lord, the sheer lack of an intervening savior is felt throughout the diner. Yet, one’s sense of hope is not lost. Not because their is a God in this world, but because the film is a construct of Hollywood. Grim as the film is When You Coming Back Red Ryder? does deliver a sense of justice, but by then the damage has been done.
I found a wonderful correlation between Marjoe’s preaching past and his psychopathic portrayal of Teddy. Both swoop into town, deliver their own versions of hell, and then they asking for money, leave town, and leave behind a shellshocked audience. Whether or not Marjoe saw this connection is questionable. Though he does bring all the sweat and enthusiasm of a faith-healer to his performance. The bigger question might be just what purpose this film served? Was it psychotherapy for Marjoe? A little role playing game to help expunge some buried demons? Was it just a self-stamped calling card to Hollywood, begging people to forget his Goody Two-shoes past?
When You Coming Back Red Ryder? is certainly not about Red Ryder – the nickname of one of Teddy’s hostages. No, this film isn’t even about Teddy. It’s about Marjoe. Just like the patrons of the coffee shop, I felt stuck with this grinning madman. The only thing is I know he’s not that crazy – though he goes to great lengths to convince us. For instance, Teddy freely admitting to customs guards that he’s got cocaine and his wanting to have a full cavity search while crossing the Mexican border, I am sure is not graphically represented in the play – if it’s in there at all. Here, in the film, it is only presented to help solidify the insanity of Teddy’s character. Watching Marjoe get a rectal exam might be an image of what other charlatan preachers have waiting for them in Hell, but it’s one I could do without. Surely, this scene is meant as (1) a diversion tactic (2)an act of defiance or (3) a way for Teddy to humiliate his girlfriend, who must also undergo a full examination. Though we aren’t shown her exam, there is no mistaking the weirdness of Teddy’s smiling while he watches his girlfriend cry because he just put her through hell. Where as Teddy’s expression during the exam is one of painful joy. As the man sticks it to him, he feels he has stuck it to the man.
In When You Coming Home Red Ryder? I didn’t see the face of a lunatic, I saw the face of a child actor hamming it up. Marjoe is a good boy acting bad – with a bad accent to boot. By the end of the film, we have endured about as much pain as Teddy’s captive audience has endured. Yet, we are one step removed. We can wonder about the little preacher boy as he chews through scenery like a group of mutant termites. The rest of the cast is just caught in a whirlwind named Marjoe. Stephanie Faracy is introduced as Angel, a plump coffee counter girl who’s naivete lives up to her name. She works the morning shift at the dinner and if it weren’t for her interaction with the graveyard chef, Stephen, you’d suspect she’d never converse with a boy her age. Stephen “Red” Ryder, decently played by Peter Firth, is still very much a boy. With a greaser hairdo and a tattoo that says “Born Dead” he receives the brunt of Teddy’s ire. Too young, and inexperienced to no real pain and Teddy looks to humiliate Stephen most of all. Teddy, taking on the role of demented director, entertains himself by making Stephen gallop about the room. Finally, Teddy tells Stephen to cut that undeserved tattoo from his arm. But these two pups aren’t the only subjects of Teddy’s malevolence. It’s no easier for an out of town couple, who are out of love with one another. Preying upon the Etheridge’s for being both upper-crust and not loving one another, Teddy threatens to smash their possessions and sexually humiliate the both of them. Lee Grant, a filmmaker and actress of some distinction, plays Clarisse Etheridge. As much as I sympathize with her character, my greater sympathy goes to Ms. Grant. I really don’t think her expressed dismay or hatred for Teddy/Marjoe is acting. Finally, there is Richard Etheridge a rather spineless man played by Hal Linden – TV’s Barney Miller. Richard tries too little to save him and her, drawing further disgust from his wife. I was personally mad and disgusted at Linden who tries to hard, as if he’s going to get to share the stage with Marjoe. Who does he think he is? Obviously, Linden didn’t know who was calling the shots and this is why his character gets shot.
The direction of the film is adequate. Even after taking the time to develop a prelude to the diner scene the entire production feels a bit stagey, but this is a showcase piece after all. Because of this, I attribute most of this blame not to the director, but to Marjoe – the actor/producer. Each camera angle seems to best serve Marjoe’s performance and when given room, he pushes all other cast members to the edge of the frame. In the diner, the camera remains tight with each cramped image set to explode with violence. Unobtrusively, the soundtrack contains some wonderful background music. Jack Nitzsche composed the original music for the film and songs by Hank Snow, Tammy Wynette, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and even The Doors get spun. Sadly, we don’t get to hear anything from Marjoe. I would have loved a song or two from Marjoe’s early 70’s rock ‘n’ roll album, fittingly called “Bad, but not Evil”.
Marjoe’s days of singing are far gone and I doubt Marjoe would ever be welcomed back by evangelists. He is more likely to find an audience with director Milton Katselas who went on to teach at the Beverly Hills Playhouse and became a strong believer in Scientology. I found no word of Marjoe taking up this religion of the stars, but then again it might not hurt his new job of producing celebrity sports invitational events. A Celebrity Sports Invitational event is the sort of thing were celebrities and athletes square off in various competitions, the winnings going to different charities. If the public ever gets to witness any of this action it’s late at night on ESPN 2 and usually something like fishing or golf. Whether he’s hosting charity events or serving as a fundraising auctioneer Marjoe still manages to find an audience. But, his days in Hollywood are pretty much over. He hasn’t been in a film in over ten year. Try as he did, Marjoe never broke through, not even after he produced When You Coming Back, Red Ryder?, his own little vanity project. He popped up in some wonderfully awful films (Star Crash, Viva! Knievel)and even on the small screen you could spot Marjoe in Laugh-In and on Circus of the Stars.
It’s too bad his best work sits hidden like Dead Sea scrolls. But it is not because the work is that bad or off the mark. This same scenario with other scene stealers such as Jack Nicholson or Kevin Spacey would be hugely popular and continually quoted, but Marjoe an hold his own even against these masters of overacting. Without muhc starpower, “When You Coming Back, Red Ryder?” delivers exactly what so many people flock to the movie theaters to see. It is an interrobang, a little known punctuation mark that combines the question mark with the exclamation point. Never seen in the real world, this punctuation mark perfectly defines cinema’s need to ask exciting questions. The question I am asking is, “When you coming back Marjoe?” In a day and age when hundreds of unworthy films are being re-released on DVD it seems an act of divine proclamation that Marjoe does not have his best work on DVD. Most certainly it is that wonderful soundtrack and all the music rights that are holding back When You Coming Home, Red Ryder? from ever getting released on video. Should someone ever pony up the cash to clear those rights – that’s what praying to God for – I hope they have the good sense to release it along with Marjoe – that 1972 documentary that shows Marjoe exposing evangelism as a sham. In order to fully appreciate the about-face performance, from good to bad, that Marjoe delivers in When You Coming Back, Red Ryder? is only achieved once you have seen sweet little Marjoe singing and preaching his little heart out. From charming choir boy to criminal lunatic – isn’t that how it always is with those childhood stars?
Don’t expect this title to come out on video anytime soon. If you want a copy I’d suggest checking out Shocking Video.