Friday, September 11, 2009

LOLA BABY (1967) -- Happy Birthday Lola Falana!

First of all, we’d like to wish the lovely and talented actress-singer-dancer Lola Falana a very happy birthday today (b. 9/11/42). We were hoping to have The Lola Falana Show in our sweaty little hands by now, but Video Service Corp’s 2-disc collection of Ms. Falana’s mid ‘70s variety show doesn’t hit stores until October 6th and because we’ve never lifted a finger to get on any company’s DVD screener list, I’m afraid there’s no birthday cake for us at the moment. We’ll just have to fill up on the main course -- which happens to be spaghetti.

[Above: A sub-distributor's Boxoffice ad for one Washington, D.C. playdate]

A few years after her Broadway debut in the Sammy Davis, Jr. stage hit Golden Boy but before Vegas, Hollywood and Playboy came a callin’, Ms. Falana from Philadelphia was something of a pop star in Italy and even managed to top-line a couple of movies, including a Euro western. It’ll never cut it as a serious genre piece but as a star vehicle LOLA COLT (FACE TO FACE WITH EL DIABLO) isn’t half-bad. Falana handles the action scenes surprisingly well, has fun with her wildly anachronistic musical numbers, and is a good enough dramatic actress to not look foolish with someone else’s lackluster line readings emerging from her mouth. She also looks beautiful in nearly every frame, whether she’s belting out songs in a skimpy showgirl outfit or kicking up dust in her cowgirl costume. Despite the fact that she was blasting away bad guys six years before Cleo and Coffy made it fashionable, LOLA COLT (or LOLA BABY as the English print reviewed here is titled) took a decade to reach American theaters, arriving in 1976 as THE BLACK TIGRESS soon after Lola landed a lucrative deal pitching Tigress perfume for Faberge. Released by Hallmark/Newport (the company that brought you “It’s only a movie…only a movie…only a movie…”), it played double bills with BORN BLACK and MAN-EATER (a.k.a. SHARK) before fading into obscurity, around the same time Tamara Dobson replaced Falana as the Tigress spokesmodel.

[Above: A Tigress perfume ad autographed by Lola Falana, currently framed and hanging in the Temple library]

When the stuffy white women of Santa Ana confront beautiful black showgirl Lola Gate not two minutes after she steps out of a stagecoach that’s just arrived and one of them sneers “We don’t need your kind around here,” it’s impossible not to see the racial implication of the situation. Yet it’s all knee-jerk reaction on the part of American viewers who saw SERGEANT RUTLEDGE, THE SCALPHUNTERS, DUEL AT DIABLO or any other western with a prominent black actor in the cast, because here there is no racial implication. Lola and her three white colleagues are sexy showgirls, and by “your kind” the townswomen simply mean prostitutes (although that isn’t explicitly stated either). Race is in fact the furthest thing on the minds of screenwriter Luigi Angelo and director Siro Marcellini, as the color of Lola’s skin is not mentioned once. The story is pure formula -- Lola rallies the locals against a greedy Anglo villain known as “El Diablo” while flirting with the town’s handsome young (white) medical student -- and I guarantee you the movie would’ve been forgotten 40 years ago if it weren’t for the anomalous casting of a black American woman in the lead. The role could’ve been played by Nancy Sinatra, Lesley Gore, Rita Moreno, Annette Funicello, Brigitte Bardot or any Italian beauty with a decent voice and it would’ve been the same movie.

In addition to its colorblindness, the film is also surprisingly tame, despite a bogus R rating that frequently turned up on its stateside ad campaign. Considering that both of Falana’s major studio Hollywood productions -- THE LIBERATION OF L.B. JONES (1970) and THE KLANSMEN (1974) -- were totally preoccupied with race and went out of their way to show her naked and being manhandled by her co-stars, LOLA COLT is probably the one film she can safely run for her children and grandchildren today without embarrassment. And while we’re on the subject of children, let’s consider this film’s target audience for a moment. Sure, adults who love westerns may have bought tickets, and I bet a lot of men were lured in by the stunning and exotic lead actress, but LOLA COLT seems ideal for young black girls who rarely - if ever - get the chance to see a strong black woman in the wild west strapping on a six-shooter and taking care of business (The movie about "Stagecoach Mary" Fields, which Pam Grier was attached to over 30 years ago, still hasn’t been made). Reality hits them in the face too soon as it is, so why screw up pleasant escapist entertainment such as this with trash talk and racial epithets? LOLA COLT could be the celluloid equivalent of a summer afternoon spent playing with black Barbie dolls in between games of double-dutch, slide and Miss Lucy. And besides, it’s certainly not the worst spaghetti western I’ve ever sat through.

[Available from European Trash Cinema]


jhalal drut said...

I've seen Man-Eater last century, it's pretty cheap, shot in southern Cal or Mexico and supposely in Arabia. A stuntman is said to die during the shooting...

Hal said...

Bringing back childhood memories here Chris. Man she was hot. Hope she's doing better in her battle with MS. Very sad that she and Tamara Dobson have that in common too.

Man, Tigress had Tamara Dobson succeeding Lola Falana. That's like the 49ers having Steve Young to succeed Montana......any dropoff is miniscule if its a dropoff at all. :)

Lars Nilsen said...

The print of LOLA COLT in the American Genre Film Archive appears to have been through several retitlings and has emerged as MEAN AND BLACK.

Temple of Schlock said...

Lars, is that one of the prints Dan Halsted found in Vancouver recently?