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Retro Review: LOLLY-MADONNA XXX (1973)

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LOLLY-MADONNA XXX
aka THE LOLLY-MADONNA WAR
(US - 1973)

Directed by Richard C. Sarafian. Written by Rodney Carr-Smith and Sue Grafton. Cast: Rod Steiger, Robert Ryan, Jeff Bridges, Scott Wilson, Season Hubley, Gary Busey, Joan Goodfellow, Tresa Hughes, Paul Koslo, Ed Lauter, Kiel Martin, Randy Quaid, Timothy Scott, Katherine Squire. (PG, 106 mins)

In the years before her career took off in 1982 with A is for Alibi, the first of her ongoing "alphabet mysteries" (the 24th, titled simply X, was released last year), novelist Sue Grafton worked primarily in television, writing numerous made-for-TV movies in addition to being a creative force behind Michael Learned's post-WALTONS CBS series NURSE. She made the move to TV in an effort to polish her plotting and character-building skills after her first two books tanked. Her second novel, The Lolly-Madonna War, was published overseas in 1969 with little fanfare, not even attracting interest from a US publisher. British writer/producer Rodney Carr-Smith (BARTLEBY) bought the movie rights and brought it to MGM in an attempt to establish himself in America (still unpublished in the US, The Lolly-Madonna War remains Grafton's most obscure novel, and used mass market paperback import copies currently range from $423 to $880 on Amazon). Carr-Smith collaborated with Grafton on the screenplay adaptation and the film version was rechristened as the ill-advised LOLLY-MADONNA XXX, which didn't do it any favors as many confused moviegoers and theater owners may have understandably mistaken it for a porno. The title refers to a signature on a postcard, with the "xxx" being "kisses," but it proved problematic enough that MGM pulled the film and relaunched it under its original book title as the more straightforward THE LOLLY-MADONNA WAR (and judging from the trailer, it was also titled FIRE IN THE MEADOW at some point prior to its release), though the LOLLY-MADONNA XXX title is what it's most commonly known as today. Under either title, the movie bombed and Carr-Smith's adventures in Hollywood, as well as his career in cinema, came to an abrupt end.




A then-contemporary take on the feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys, updated to rural backwoods Tennessee, LOLLY-MADONNA XXX opens with young Roonie Gill (Season Hubley) switching buses in a podunk town on her way to Nashville and being mistaken for Lolly-Madonna, the supposed fiancee of Ludie Gutshall (Kiel Martin). Roonie is abducted from the bus stop by Thrush (Scott Wilson) and Hawk Feather (a never-better Ed Lauter), two sons of Laban Feather (Rod Steiger), who's in a property dispute with former best friend and rival moonshiner Pap Gutshall (Robert Ryan, in one of his last films; he died less than five months after it was released). Correctly assuming Feather's dumb sons would take the bait and head to the bus stop, Ludie put a forged postcard from a non-existent "Lolly-Madonna" in the Feather mailbox (right next to the Gutshalls on the roadside), asking to be picked up, giving Ludie and two other Gutshall sons, Zeb (Gary Busey) and Villum (Paul Koslo), time to run up to the Feather still and vandalize it. This is just one in a series of escalating back-and-forth pranks that the Feather and Gutshall sons have been playing for the last couple of years, as the bond between the families has deteriorated to the point where star-crossed lovers Skyler Feather (Timothy Scott) and Sister E. Gutshall (Joan Goodfellow) are forced to carry on their relationship in secret. Things headed south after Gutshall's other daughter married Zack Feather (Jeff Bridges) and was killed in a horse-riding accident that Laban blamed on black sheep Thrush. Following Gutshall's purchase of a disputed piece of land that went up for auction when Feather owed back taxes on it, tensions have done nothing but flare and it's only made worse by the presence of Roonie, who is held captive by the Feathers and can't convince Laban or any of his sons--even Zack, with whom she falls in love in what may be a case of Stockholm Syndrome--that she's not Lolly-Madonna and has no idea who the Gutshalls are.




LOLLY-MADONNA XXX is a strange and often twisted film that somehow got a PG rating in 1973 despite some grim and disturbing developments as things take a decidedly dark turn. Ludie confronts Thrush and cracks his skull open with a rock, requiring stitches. Heading to the hills for a clandestine dalliance with Skyler, Sister E. is spotted by Thrush and Hawk (the latter with his face smeared in Roonie's makeup and wearing her bra and granny panties), who attack her and take turns raping her. Pap demands justice for his daughter's rape and wants Thrush and Hawk whipped, which only enrages Laban as the violence and lunacy intensifies and the Feather patriarch sets the disputed piece of land ablaze while leading his clan in a sing-along of "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow." Eventually, Pap and his sons--with the exception of pacifist Zeb, who goes behind his father's back and attempts to broker a truce with an unconvinced Zack, pack an arsenal of weapons to launch an assault on the Feather homestead.





Directed by journeyman Richard C. Sarafian (VANISHING POINT), LOLLY-MADONNA XXX is surprisingly strong stuff that would probably get an R rating even today with the mostly-implied but still unsettling rape scene (it's actually more effective that Sarafian cuts away just as it's about to get really unpleasant), the bloody violence, and fleeting nudity by both Hubley and Goodfellow. Though it prefigured oncoming hillbilly-centered films like GATOR BAIT by a couple of years and the great SOUTHERN COMFORT by eight, it feels a lot like a big-studio version of a really grimy drive-in hicksploitation flick, almost like THE WALTONS-meets-DELIVERANCE, definitely revealing an unexpected side to Sue Grafton's writing if you're only familiar with her very mainstream mystery novels. The climax--a long, protracted, Sam Peckinpah-meets-Walter Hill-style shootout where all hell breaks loose while a catatonic and insane Laban can do nothing other than silently stew at the kitchen table and angrily make himself a mayonnaise-and-ketchup sandwich--is the kind of batshit craziness that did little to win LOLLY-MADONNA XXX any fans then but makes it a terrific and bizarre curio item today (one of Hollywood's great overactors, Steiger is one of the very few people who can overdo the act of pouring ketchup). It's hard to believe there was once a time when a character played by a young and still-serious Gary Busey (in just his fourth film) would function as the most stable and level-headed voice of reason in a movie (speaking of crazy, a young Randy Quaid is also on hand as a mentally-challenged Feather son). Despite its more exploitative elements, there's certainly an anti-war Vietnam era metaphor to LOLLY-MADONNA XXX in the way Laban and Pap express concern over what's going on but do absolutely nothing to stop it, instead being complicit in its escalation and content to let their sons do the fighting and the dying. Vietnam is also directly invoked by Pap Gutshall having lost a son in combat and Zack Feather being established as a draft dodger. Even by the standards of the more adventurous, chance-taking cinema of the post-EASY RIDER, pre-summer blockbuster 1970s, LOLLY-MADONNA XXX is one of the weirder movies to come from a major studio in that era and is worth seeing on that basis alone, and even more so when you look at that fascinating mix of old-school Hollywood and up-and-coming youngsters. Shortly after completing this film, Ryan and Bridges would work together again on John Frankenheimer's THE ICEMAN COMETH, released several months after Ryan's death from lung cancer.




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