Entry #2: Robert Altman’s rowdy beginning and bittersweet goodbye
by Nathan Rabin
First and Last is an ongoing column exploring remarkable filmmakers at the beginning and ends of their careers.
The legend of Robert Altman generally begins with the unlikely triumph of 1970’s M*A*S*H, a seminal film in the new Hollywood of the late 1960s and 1970s, or Altman’s pre-M*A*S*H television direction on such landmark series as Alfred Hitchcock Presents and particularly Combat!
Yet Altman actually made his feature-film debut thirteen years before M*A*S*H with a pair of low-budget exploitation films rooted in the deathless cult of James Dean. The late actor’s pop culture deification is still going strong but it was particularly intense in the years immediately following Dean’s death by vehicular misadventure.
Most directly, Altman co-directed a documentary (whose purple narration was written by Stewart Stern, screenwriter of Rebel Without A Cause) called The James Dean Story. But before The James Dean Story failed to launch Altman’s career as a uniquely American auteur he first traveled into the sordid, commercial territory of youngsters run wild with 1957’s The Delinquents.
The film represents a half-forgotten and little-seen collaboration between the man who would give the world The Long Goodbye, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Nashville, Short Cuts and so much more and Tom Laughlin, a star who would similarly disappear from the movie business for a while before reinventing himself as the writer, director and star behind the Billy Jack franchise, which is all but forgotten today but reigned as one of the least likely and most fascinating pop culture phenomenon of the 1970s.
The film, bluntly but appropriately enough, was called The Delinquents. The exploitation film rather nakedly ripped off Rebel Without A Cause but its Kansas City setting lends it a certain novelty, as does the pounding jazz on the soundtrack and moody, atmospheric black and white cinematography.
As a mature filmmaker, Altman delighted in ambiguity. As a baby filmmaker trying to make a little money out of the public’s enduring fascination with juvenile delinquents and one pouty juvenile delinquent in particular, however, Altman takes the unusual step of using the opening credits to say exactly what the film is about, what its message is, and what audiences should take away from it.
With grim, ponderous, Dragnet-style square authority, the narrator pompously proclaims, “The story you are about to see is about violence and immorality: teenage violence and immorality, children trapped in the half world between adolescence and maturity, their struggle to understand, their need to be understood. Perhaps, in his rapid progression into the material world, man has forgotten the spiritual values which are the moral fiber of a great nation: decency, respect, fair play. Perhaps he has forgotten to teach these values to his own. He has forgotten to teach his children their responsibility before God and society. The answer may lie in the story of The Delinquents, in their violent attempt to find a place in society. This film is a cry to a busy world, a protest, a reminder to those who must set the example.”
You could be mistaken for assuming that this would be the opening screed of a Church-funded anti-marijuana exploitation movie. If a post 1970 Altman film had opened with the above narration, it’s safe to assume that it would be witheringly ironic. If those words appeared in a late-period Altman teen comedy I happen to kind of adore, the National Lampoon-derived O.C. & Stiffs, for example, they would seethe with poisonous irony but here Altman genuinely seems to be playing the hysterical moralist role straight.
The film’s flimsy plot concerns Scotty (Laughlin), a sensitive young person with rough edges whose life revolves around his sixteen-year-old girlfriend Janice (Rosemary Howard). Then one awful day Janice’s totally L7 pops, a real uptight square-bear, forbids his daughter to see Scotty on account of them making ominous plans to get married and have children and generally do exactly what society not only expected, but angrily demanded of young people at the time.
A dejected Scotty sees a potential bright spot in this grim situation when a suspiciously friendly stranger makes Scotty a suspiciously generous offer to pretend to be Janice’s date, so that Scotty and Janice can continue to see each other without Janice’s parents knowing. Alas, the Eddie Haskell-like creep who makes the offer turns out to be a nasty character and complications ensue.
Scotty learns the hard way that you can’t trust no-goodniks, on account of they’re always doing no good, as well ne’er do wells, on account of they’re never doing well. Blatant alcohol consumption, property damage, disregarding the wishes of over-protective parents: Scotty finds himself in a whole world of mild misbehavior due to his poor choice of friends.
The youth gone wild genre relies heavily on the charisma of the bad boys and dangerous girls at their center. The Delinquents suffers from a lead who seems at least five years old too old to be playing a teenager (Laughlin was in his mid-twenties at the time, but looks older), and less the kind of dangerous stud parents worry about than a worried parent himself. As Billy Jack, Laughlin badly channeled the moody, brooding intensity of Marlon Brando. As Scotty, Laughlin spends the movie doing an undistinguished James Dean impersonation, minus the androgynous beauty, charisma and effortless magnetism. But as someone who is morbidly fascinated by the Billy Jack phenomenon (and that’s what it really was, a phenomenon that far transcended film) it is fascinating to see such a strange pairing of influential 1970s independent film icons, one of whom has risen to the level of God since his passing, the other of whom has been mostly forgotten. I’ll leave it to you, dear TCM Backlot reader, to figure out which is which.
The Delinquents closes as it opens, with a cornball narrator once again clumsily articulating the non-easy, non-pleasant answers to what Altman sees as the “disease” of delinquency with the following clumsy cavalcade of self-righteous pomposity: “This is one story. Who’s to blame? The answers are not easy, nor are they pleasant. We are all responsible. And it’s our responsibility not to look the other way. Violence and immorality like this must be controlled, channeled. Citizens everywhere must work against delinquency, just as they work against cancer, Cerebral Palsy, or any other crippling disease. For delinquency is a disease but the remedies are available: Patience, compassion, understanding and respect for parental and civil authority. By working with your church group or the youth organization in your town, by paying closer attention to the needs of your children, you can prevent the occurrence of regrettable events like the ones you have just witnessed.”
In this self-righteous word salad, the narrator compares delinquency to Cerebral Palsy, as if a pompadoured youngster hopped up on moonshine and Eddie Cochran records menacing the public with a switchblade and a sneer was somehow equivalent to a baby being born with a disease. In light of Altman’s subsequent career, the lines about “understanding and respect for parental and civil authority” and “working with your church group or the youth organization" can’t help but ring deliciously ironic. Few filmmakers thumbed their nose at parental and civil authority as aggressively and consistently as Altman. He was forever on the side of the slobs, the punks, the oddballs, the misfits, the kids, the alienated and confused and iconoclastic.
Yet in his first feature-length film incarnation, Altman pretended to be on the side of uptight grown-ups tut-tutting at the loud music and loose morals of the kids today. There are subtle hints of the filmmaker to come in The Delinquents, in some nicely framed compositions, in its love of jazz, which it refreshingly if unconvincingly posits as the chosen music of white greasers instead of rock, and in the way the sound design picks up a lot of background that adds to the atmosphere even as it feels at times accidental rather than purposeful.
The Delinquents feels more like a prelude to Altman’s television work than his film oeuvre. It proved that he could tell a simple story cleanly and confidently, with a good feel for fight scenes and working with young actors. The Delinquents seems designed as a professional calling card, and on that level it was a success. The film turned a nice profit, in no small part due to the small budget and salacious subject matter. Alfred Hitchcock was reportedly impressed enough by it to offer Altman work on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Altman’s film breakthrough wouldn’t come for over a decade, and by that point Altman knew exactly who he was as an artist and a filmmaker, and it wasn’t the over-achieving if impersonal opportunist behind The Delinquents and The James Dean Story.
By the time Altman’s magnificent voyage through film ended on a perfectly bittersweet note with 2006’s A Prairie Home Companion, he had long since established himself as one of our most distinctive, important and prolific filmmakers. He had a tremendous late-period renaissance sparked by The Player and was so prolific in his final years that every movie he made was seen as a potential swan song.
A Prairie Home Companion, however, almost wouldn’t make sense as anything but a final film. It’s a film that continually seems to commenting on its director’s impending death, in no small part because it is about death in multiple forms. It’s about the death of a radio show that is a whole universe onto itself but it’s also obsessed with the death of the body. Heck, one of the main characters is an actual angel of death played with appropriately otherworldly charm by Virginia Madsen.
The film chronicles the final live recording of A Prairie Home Companion, a live radio variety show keeping the spirit of 1957 Minnesota alive for the sake of a perversely grateful listening audience. Garrison Keillor, whose voice is so gently narcotizing that it’s a wonder he’s not constantly lulling himself to sleep, stars as Prairie Home Companion host Garrison Keillor, an old-fashioned, intensely Midwestern gent in a newfangled world.
Keillor presides over a radio circus that suggests what the Grand Ol’ Opry might be like if run by and for emotionally constipated Swedes from the northern Midwest. But time is rapidly running out and an “axe-man” (Tommy Lee Jones, whose granite face bears a perpetually grim expression) from a big corporation is heading to the last taping to personally oversee the show’s death.
A Prairie Home Companion might seem like a weird project for an incorrigible smartass like Altman, who has historically shown little appetite for the kind of hokey sentimentality the real-world radio program traffics in. But the final show of a repertory with a long, complicated history with one another that spills out in casual, unexpected ways perfectly suits Altman’s sensibility.
Like so many of Altman’s films, A Prairie Home Companion isn’t about plot or stakes so much as it is about the joy of conversation, of small talk, of hanging out with people you love and simply being alive. Altman has a reputation as a cynic but you can’t love actors and characters the way he did without also loving humanity.
The end of the radio show, and the death of at least one of its old regulars, should lend a grim gravity to the proceedings but Altman and unlikely leading man/screenwriter Garrison Keillor keep things surprisingly goofy and light before a third act where the sadness everyone has been keeping at bay through incessant busywork (a true Midwest strategy) comes to the fore and A Prairie Home Companion becomes hauntingly bittersweet. I’m not ashamed to admit that I teared up more than once.
When Asphodel, the angel in white played by Madsen, tells a woman mourning the death of a cowboy singer whose time had come, “The death of an old man is not a tragedy” before imploring her, “Forgive him his shortcomings, and thank him for all of his love and care,” it’s hard not to think about Altman, a man whose tremendous shortcomings as a man and particularly as a father and husband played havoc on his personal life and the lives of the people who loved him, but whose love and care informs every one of his films, even the stinkers.
A Prairie Home Companion delights in the pleasures of conversation, of collaboration, of friendship, of being a professional in a world of fellow professionals. It’s a quiet hymn to work that alternates between the fly-on-the-wall casualness of Altman’s aesthetic and the more writerly, stylized world of Garrison Keillor and the homey, familiar world he created and that will not exist much longer with the recent news that after eighty-seven years on the air, A Prairie Home Companion is going off the air. (A Prairie Home Companion somehow predates radio itself, don’t ask me how.)
A Prairie Home Companion isn’t just about accepting death as an inevitable, if, in some ways, regrettable fact of life. No, it’s about embracing death as something beautiful and pure in its own right, as a secret beginning convincingly dressed up as an absolute ending.
Artists die. That’s an incontrovertible fact. It’s equally incontrovertible that the art they’ve created lives on. There is tremendous comfort in that. In the shadow of death, Altman, like his characters here, could think of nothing more noble or dignified, or important, than putting on another show. And that is goddamn beautiful. With A Prairie Home Companion, Altman and his collaborators put on one last show, and in embracing their mortality, achieved immortality.
Nathan Rabin is a pop culture writer, columnist and the author of four books, including Weird Al: The Book (with Al Yankovic) and You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me. He lives in Marietta, Georgia with his wife, son and dog.