A few years back I wrote a series of articles for Country Standard Time magazine about movies based on country songs (or starring country singers). Invariably these movies were bad, and I entitled the series (with a nod to Johnny Paycheck) "Take This Movie and Shove it." Naturally, the worse the movie was, the more fun it was to write about, and there may not be a worse movie than "Ode to Billy Joe." If you've seen it you know what I mean, if you haven't, you should; it is unintentionally hilarious.
TAKE THIS MOVIE AND SHOVE IT
Part Two of CST's look at movies based on country songs
It all started with Bobby Gentry's 1967 smash crossover hit "Ode to Billy Joe." This sultry song told the story of two young lovers who threw some unnamed object off the bridge. People all over the country were wondering and debating about just what the heck this object was and why they deep-sixed it. I was in fifth grade at the time, and the consensus among my classmates was that it was a baby. (It should probably be noted that we were all pretty obsessed with baby-making at the time.) Whatever it was, Billy Joe, the male half of this star-crossed pair, shortly thereafter threw himself in after it and drowned.
In 1976, some Hollywood hotshot saw the cinematic possibilities in this unsolved mystery. To write the screenplay, they hired Herman Raucher, who was fresh off a resounding success with "Summer of '42" and he appeared to be well on his way to becoming one of the biggest writers in Tinseltown. But he made one mistake (this movie) and was never heard from again.
The question of who would direct was a vital one. It would require a sure, sensitive touch to assure this Southern gothic tale was treated with the dignity and decorum it deserved. So after a long exhaustive search who did they pick? Max Baer, Jr. That's right, Jethro Bodine from the "Beverly Hillybillies".
The movie opens with Billy Joe waiting on the bridge for his friend Bobbie Lee (all names of characters are leftovers from "Petticoat Junction"). They discuss bra sizes. She's up to a 32C, but Billy Joe predicts she'll be wearing a 96 before her papa lets her date. He is so bedazzled by her bosom, he doesn't ask her the obvious question "Why are you talking so weird? Is that supposed to be a Southern accent?"
Bobbie Lee's mother is worried (rightly so) about her daughter's sap rising (a pseudo-Southern expression for hormones running amok). What she really ought to be worried about is that the girl is fifteen years old, and not only has a very high sap level, but also still has an imaginary friend named Benjamin that she talks to.
What Bobbie Lee's dad is worried about is getting the eggs to the market. Halfway across this rickety one-lane bridge he and Bobbie Lee meet up with a carful of drunken rednecks. Nobody wants to back up and let the other pass so they solve this dilemma by the time-honored Southern traffic control method of ramming head-on into each other several times. Dad loses this game of chicken and ends up in a truck hanging halfway off the bridge. Bobby Lee runs to the sawmill where her brother James and Billy Joe work to get some help.
She doesn't appear to be real worried about dear old dangling Dad however, because as they're driving back to the bridge, Bobby Lee is lustily eyeing Billy Joe's bald chest and playing footsie with him. Sap is running everywhere, and I don't mean just the dialogue - although that's plenty sappy, too. For example, when James calls Bobby Lee a brain (for getting the redneck's license tag number) she actually says (believe it or don't) "I'm a body too - with desires. Somebody better pay attention to that cuz my blood is racing and my ample breasts are bursting."
Although her bosom doesn't go boom just yet, others are also concerned about Bobbie Lee's breast health. When she tells Billy Joe her father won't allow her to receive gentleman callers because she's only fifteen, he reminds her she's also 32 (C cup) and she better start using them boobies before they go bad and fall off.
Dad thinks they're on pretty tight, however, and refuses to change the rule. Billy Joe is stubborn and he comes a'courting anyway. Bobby Lee tries to dissuade him. "If you have any feelings at all for me, suh," she says, "and any hope of squeezing my soft and pliant flesh this evening, you better stop and consider what I'm saying."
(Are you starting to see now why Herman Raucher was never heard from again?)
They end up having a deep, philosophical discussion. Bobby Lee wonders whether she's adopted or depraved. "Of the two, I prefer depraved," she says. (Which is probably why she chose to be in this movie.) Just as soon as Billy Joe moves in to squeeze her soft and pliant flesh, these two stumblebums fall into the baptismal pond.
There's a big hoe-down jamboree that week, and Billy Joe tries to put the moves on Bobby Lee again there, but one of his buddies from the sawmill pulls him away and forces him to drink massive quantities of Schlitz. (Either Schlitz was a major sponsor of this fiasco of a film, or there wasn't much choice of brews in Mississippi in 1953 because everybody is drinking the Beer That Milwaukee Famous - except Bobby Lee. She doesn't drink at all - maybe she's afraid it'll make her ample breasts explode.)
Billy Joe gets drunker and drunker. A carful of loose women from Yazoo City arrive, wearing nothing but sheets. One of them drops her bedclothes and beckons to Billy Joe, who for some reason just stands there sweating.
After the jamboree Billy Joe disappears, doesn't come home for a couple of days. One of the ladies from Yazoo City was beaten by a customer who didn't have the price of a dalliance, and Billy Joe is a prime suspect. Bobby Lee is walking down by the baptismal pond, dreaming her usual X-rated daydreams. Her playmate Benjamin, who up to now has been invisible and imaginary, is now a cowboy doll, and he's with her, just in case she runs into Billy Joe and just in case he wants to throw something off a bridge.
Billy Joe comes up through the woods looking bedraggled. She asks him what he's been eating for the last two days, and he says "mushrooms and onions." Although she's glad to see him, she wisely keeps her distance.
All of a sudden, Billy Joe is crying, and it's not just from eating onions for two days. "I got drunk the other night. Something happened. Something real bad, Bobby Lee."
She asks him what the heck he's talking about, and he responds with the following homegrown love poetry, "I'm onto your scent. I'm downwind of you everywhere I go. You're wiggling your old tail feathers and I'm responding. If we were squirrels or cotton-tails out there in the forest we'd be snortin' and ruttin' in a very healthy manner."
Well, no girl can resist that kind of sweet talk. Bobby Lee wants to make out, but Billy Joe is too busy wailing and gnashing his teeth. He won't tell Bobby Lee what the matter is, and he eventually throws Benjamin off the bridge in a fit of pique. Bobby Lee realizes the symbolism of the moment, that her childhood is now at an end, and she can finally start rutting and snorting. She and Billy Joe roll around for a while, but he pulls away and says, "It's no good, Bobby Lee. I can't."
She tells him it's all right, but he says, "It ain't all right. I have been with a man. Which is a sin against nature. A sin against God."
She tries to reassure him that it's no big deal. Dr. Ruth and Dr. Joyce Brothers will be along in a few years to say that a lot of young people experiment with homosexuality, but Billy Joe just slinks back into the woods, his tail between his legs.
The next thing we see they're dragging Billy Joe's body out of the river. They find Benjamin too, but it's not imaginary playmate season so they have to throw him back.
The McAllisters sell their house and move to Vicksburg. James is sure Bobby Lee is pregnant and he urges her to abort. "I am not going to be an illegitimate uncle."
She picks flowers and drops them off the bridge, while she voice-overs some bad poetry about the winding road we left behind. After a while she packs up her clothes and her phony accent and she runs away from home. On her way to the bus station she meets up with the man that took advantage of Billy Joe on - of all places - the Tallahatchee Bridge. He wants to confess but she advises him to keep mum. She wants Billy Joe to become a legend.
"We can't have people thinking BillyJoe jumped off the bridge because of a man. After all, there is my good name and reputation to be considered." (Well, she has a reputation, no doubt, but I don't know about a good name.) He asks her where she'll go and she says she doesn't know, someplace far away, like maybe Switzerland. Someplace where its cold and her ample bosom will be less likely to overheat.
"I'm only fifteen," she says. "What do I know of the world?"
Not much if she thinks you can get to Switzerland by bus - or that appearing in a movie like this is going to help her good name and reputation.