Movie Review: Kitten With a Whip (1964)

Film critic Nathan Rabin came up with the idea of the “manic pixie dream girl” as a character type after seeing Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown (2005). He called the type “that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” A less-overblown description would be a generally young, usually cute, female “free spirit” who enters the life of a dull, boring, generally older male and gets him to loosen up and enjoy life.

The MPDG has been identified in movies going all the way back to 1936, when Katherine Hepburn turned Cary Grant’s world upside down in Bringing Up Baby. The term has also taken flack from critics who object to the sexism of the idea, which has been used to define actresses in real life, and not just characters.

The character type has become one of those things where once you know to look for it, you can’t stop seeing it – or at least hints of it. Since it’s become a defined trope, one might expect to start seeing variations – a Manic Pixie Dream Boy, perhaps.

Kitten With a Whip was made well before the MPDG became common, so it clearly cannot be a response to the trope. But it does pose the question – What if the MPDG was a sociopath?

Kitten opens with a young woman (Ann-Margret, in her first significant role) in a nightgown being chased through a rail yard and around the opening titles. She makes her way to an unoccupied (you can tell from the newspapers scattered on the lawn) ranch house. She breaks in without any trouble, and finds a bedroom that from the decor must belong to a young teenager. Our Goldilocks finds this bed to be just right; she climbs in and falls asleep.

The next morning, Papa Bear David Stratton (John Forsythe) returns home. He’s got some friends / colleagues with him, and their conversation makes it clear that he’s being groomed for political office here in Southern California. And he’s having a bit of trouble in his marriage. We never do learn what Stratton does for a living, nor do we ever get anything on the problems at home (other than some quickly brushed off “they don’t communicate much”).

Having a nubile, potentially underage, girl appearing in his home is not what he needs right now. When he finds her, he is upset and angry and wants her gone post-haste. Jody (only now do we get her name) pleads for mercy. She’s a runaway, and needed a place to crash. David is a little bit of a softie; he offers to get her some clothes, give her a bit of cash, and drop her off at the bus station. Jody agrees, but after dropping her off and wishing her good luck, David stops at a bar for a drink with a friend. There, the TV shows a news item stating that Jody is an escapee from a juvenile detention facility, and she made her escape by stabbing a matron and starting a fire. Uh-oh! When he gets back home, guess who’s waiting for him….

She’s found an easy mark, and figures that extortion / a threat of blackmail is more than enough to keep him in line while she comes up with a plan to evade the authorities and flee to Mexico….

Young, attractive, free spirit? Check.
Older, dull, boring man? Check.
She turns his life upside down? CHECK.

I’d say we’ve got the character type covered. However, this is definitely not a “Fatal Attraction”. David wasn’t and isn’t at all interested in Jody. There’s no “attraction” at all.

You’ve got the makings of a decent drama here. Unfortunately, it just barely misses. Ann-Margret tries her best, but just isn’t quite convincing as a juvenile delinquent. John Forsythe had enough acting experience at the time, so he should have been able to pull of the mix of anger, fear, and frustration that the part called for. But he seems to be merely phoning it in. The secondary cast is, well, secondary. They can be ignored.

And the script…. The dialogue is as stilted as heck (maybe that’s why Forsythe is so wooden – he can’t believe what he hears or has to say….). Even ten years earlier, the beatnik boyfriend would have been outdated. The story is filled with coincidence after coincidence.

In fairness, though, it’s still good enough for a made-for-TV movie, if not a theatrical release. It moves along quickly enough, keeping you wondering how David is going to get out of the mess. It’s campy reputation is probably mostly due to its being subject to the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment*. It must be stated for the record that not every MST3K movie deserved their derision. A few of them were Americanized versions of foreign films that, in the original, are actually pretty good (e.g Humanoid Woman was edited from Per Aspera Ad Astra (USSR, 1981)). Other movies were little more than Saturday afternoon matinee fare for kids – it’s hard to really criticize them.

I’m more partial to the Cinema Insomnia tagline: “They’re not bad movies; just misunderstood.”

 

* In fairness, that version is the only one I’ve seen.

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