Thursday, December 20, 2007
One of Pam Grier's final film with American International Pictures, 1975's SHEBA BABY, is often regarded as the weakest. Directed by talented Kentucky native William Girdler on location in his hometown of Louisville, SHEBA BABY is quite a mixed bag of that never really comes together but it is one that I always enjoy revisiting for personal reasons.
Louisville is a great little city that I love and I must admit that it is exciting to see it featured so prominently in a film. Girdler's film is a virtual valentine to the town and the images of Pam Grier walking its streets are timeless and extremely evocative.
Hometown Kentucky hero William Girdler was born just after World War 2 in Jefferson County, Kentucky. He shot his first feature, 1972's ASYLUM OF SATAN, on location in Louisville and the city would be the backdrop for all of his films up through SHEBA BABY. These include THREE ON A MEATHOOK, THE ZEBRA KILLER (both 1973) and the near legendary EXORCIST rip off ABBY in 1974.
The PG rated SHEBA BABY was a real change of pace for Grier after hard hitting and explicit films like COFFY and FOXY BROWN. The family friendly SHEBA BABY mostly suffers from being a little too tame though, as it is hindered by the absence of the raw sexuality and excitement of Grier's earlier films.
Girdler's film concerns a Chicago detective (Grier) who returns to her hometown of Louisville after some local thugs beat up her father. The plot of SHEBA BABY is the least notable thing about it (reportedly Girdler and co-writer David Sheldon wrote it in one marathon overnight session) and Grier is surprisingly wooden in many of her scenes. This might have something to do with the rumor that her and Girdler didn't get along and the shoot was an unhappy one for her. Thankfully though Pam shines in the films many action sequences and her performance improves as the film progresses.
Shot in various spots in Louisville, including one memorable sequence at the Kentucky Fairgrounds, Girdler's flawed film is never dull and it is helped immeasurably by an exciting score by Monk Higgons with songs sung by Barbara Mason.
For Kentucky natives like myself, the film features many recognizable shots in and around Louisville. One of the most inventive and memorable is an early sequence in the film where we see Sheba's plane landing at Louisville's old airport and then her car drives away from the new one. It is a nice little tribute to the economy and wit that Girdler always injected his films with.
The supporting cast features both Austin Stoker and D'Urville Martin, and they are fairly solid, although many of the dialogue scenes have an outtake quality about them. One wishes that that budgetary limitations wouldn't have stopped some necessary re shoots that would have helped Girdler's film in a profound way.
SHEBA BABY never really gels together completely and William Girdler is said to have liked it the least of all of his films. Still for all its faults, it is finally a fairly effective little film thanks to the obvious love Girdler has for the locations he is shooting and the powerful score. Also extremely noteworthy are the films final two shots which foreshadow the very memorable closing of Quentin Tarantino's JACKIE BROWN (starring Grier) over twenty years later.
Girdler's picture would premiere in the Spring of 75 and would play the customary drive ins and grindhouse theaters across the country. It didn't have anywhere near the success of Grier's R-Rated work and it is mostly relegated to the lower trenches of the Blaxploitation genre by fans.
The film is currently available on a what seems to be misframed 1.85 MGM DVD (I think a 1.66 transfer would serve it much better) with a trailer as the only extra. The film is also a part of the Pam Grier FOX IN A BOX collection in the same transfer as the stand alone disc.
Pam Grier would have two more films released in 1975, BUCKTOWN and FRIDAY FOSTER. The three works would effectively end the most popular period of her now near forty year career. Girdler would complete four more films, GRIZZLY (1976), PROJECT: KILL (1976), DAY OF THE ANIMALS (1977) and THE MANITOU (1978) before being tragically killed in a helicopter accident just a few months after his 30th birthday. SHEBA BABY marked the last time that the missed director would shoot in his beloved hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. More information on his career can be found at this great official site