Sunday, February 21, 2016

Girdler/Sheldon's early Pam Grier movie, SHEBA, BABY makes its Blu-ray debut

Ah, the irony! For those of us who've been longtime fans of black actress Pam Grier -- from her early days making blaxsploitation films through her more recent work -- the announcement that one of those early films, SHEBA, BABY, would become available in Blu-ray format seemed cause for rejoicing. That the transfer provided by distributor, Arrow Video, looks at least as good as the movie did when it hit theaters back in 1975, simply adds to the delight.

The only problem? The movie mostly stinks. Though this critic had seen all of the early Grier films at the time of their original release, the several decades in between now and then has allowed memory to grow dim. Though I believe that Coffy still holds up as the best of the bunch, followed by Foxy Brown, Sheba-Baby is an alternately silly and shoddy misfire. The reason can be summed up in two words: Jack Hill.

Mr. Hill, who was not involved in this film, was the writer/director of Grier's best early films, including the two mentioned above, along with The Big Doll House and The Big Bird Cage, and he understood how to make fast-moving, funny, exciting and -- yes, enjoyably campy -- exploitation movies. This was not the case with William Girdler (shown at left), the fellow entrusted to make Sheba, Baby, a movie that, more than anything else, simply dawdles its way along. We waste oodles of time merely getting places: walking, waiting on the elevated subway, riding in cars. What should take two or three seconds to establish goes on for 20 or 30. From the opening credits onwards, this kind of low-wattage vamping builds up until we're bored stiff. (Granted movies move faster these days than they did back then, but Girdler gives us nothing interesting to look at during all of his vamping.)

Not to speak ill of the dead (Girdler was killed in a helicopter crash in 1978, after finishing his final film), but in whatever genre you'd want to place him, this filmmaker was a third-rate hack. His action scenes are execrable, his sense of pacing mediocre, and the performances he draws from his casts are uneven to say the least. The most enjoyable job here comes from Christopher Joy (above, right) as one of the several fellows Sheba must question to get to Mr. Big (played with proper smarmy self-satisfaction by Dick Merrifield, below, right).

Plot-wise, the movie has to do with white overlords using their black henchmen to do dirty deeds to good, law-abiding blacks -- destroying their businesses in order to claim the insurance (at least, I think that was what was going on). Basically this is just an excuse for some so-so violence and bloodletting that gives Ms Grier the chance to strut her stuff --- which she does less well here than under the direction of Mr. Hill.

She does however, get to wear some nifty outfits, one after another, and she and her beautiful, sexy body and face, look sensational at all times. If this is enough for you, by all means, rent or purchase the new disc. Otherwise it's for Grier completists only.

On the disc's EXTRAS, there are a couple of good or at least funny interviews: one with movie historian Chris Poggiali regarding Ms Grier's years at American International Pictures; the other a hoot-and-a-half with the film's main screenwriter and producer David Sheldon, in which he compares -- seriously and favorably -- Mr. Girdler's work to that of Steven Spielberg. Mr. Sheldon also boasts that the script of Sheba, Baby was written literally overnight. (Are we surprised?) Trust me: This is not something you want to brag about.

Sheba, Baby -- from Arrow Video and running a way-too-long 89 minutes -- is available now on DVD and Blu-ray, for rental or purchase.

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