MARJOE. 1972
Directors: Sarah Kernocham & Howard Smith

Director: Luigi Cozzi (as Lewis Coates)

Director: Daniel Petrie

Reviewed by Paghat the Ratgirl

Marjoe Gortner began his entertainment career at age four as a pint-sized faith healing holy roller preacher dragged around the Bible Belt's revival tent circuit by his scam artist parents.

MarjoeHis first break into films was a surprisingly laugh-out-loud documentary expose of himself & the entire evangelical racket. Marjoe (1972) was not only about his personal career as a phony faith healer, but he was so trusted by god-selling crooks that they spoke way too candidly to Marjoe in "backstage interviews" never imagining he was filming an expose instead of a promotional film.

There was perhaps an element of revenge aginast his estranged father, the evangelical con artists who deprived his own son of a normal childhood, then absconded with the fortune the boy had generated, leaving mother & son with nothing. "Patching things up" with his dad was just another con, even if used to reveal the criminality within the evangelical circuit rather than to perpetuate the frauds.

The footage of Marjoe's preaching technique revealed a vigorousness & awesome personality far & above the stuffy old bigots who carry on the evangelical racket to this very day on television. It makes a sad sort of sense that anyone in a congregation pitched to by Marjoe would get out their wallet. It's must less comprehensible how overt scoundrels with ugly dispositions can get on television & talk America into paying for their Cadillacs, call girls, & vacation homes.

Already famous in the south since days when he was the littlest preacher anyone had ever seen, the Oscar-winning documentary was as successful as documentaries can be, & rendered his biography well known throughout the nation.

A good looking fellow with a humorous glint & obvious screen appeal, he attempted to spin his notoriety into an actual acting career. But either he had a terrible agent who talked him into too many mediocre projects on the premise that starring in mediocre roles films would open doors for better ones, or else he just had bad personal taste in selecting scripts, so that he was rarely associated with quality films. Whatever the cause of it, his big-star potential was never fully realized.

He was to some degree typecast as a preacher or faith healer character actor & as late as 1995 had a cameo come-back as the preacher in the Walter Hill-directed western Wild Bill, showing he's still got presence, but his casting was too much for the nostalgic jest & he rather gets lost amidst Wild Bill's large, impressive cast.

StarcrashOne of his better projects toward the end of his decade of "success" was a Star Wars spoof, Starcrash (aka Star Crash, The Adventures of Stella Star, or Female Space Invaders, 1979), in which he played an intergalactic faith healer, smuggler, pimp, & light-sabered hero.

Beautiful Caroline Munro as the space-bikini babe Stella Star, & a very sinister Joe Spinell as the evil Count Zorn in his evil clawed-hand-shaped space ship. In the course of the adventure we'll encounter a beautiful space prince (David Hasselhof), amazon warriors (Nadia Cassini as their queen), a galactic emperor (Christopher Plummer), vicious neanderthals, & much else very colorful.

Starcrash has many great moments of humor. When the cowboy "Robot L" or Elle (Hamilton Camp) was torn to pieces I gasped with legitimate horror because this was such a wonderful campy romp, I could not believe a film so upbeat & full of charm would kill off one of the most original "cute robot" characters ever. I mean, there I was laughing my head off at this great comedy, when suddenly someone I liked is destroyed.

Fortunately the robot repairman was able to put the pieces back together with updated improvements, because as our beloved robot loudly exclaims with his Foghorn Leghorn accent: "You can't keep a good robot down."

At a time when a science fiction spoof might well have been big box office, a small distributor made small effort to get this film seen, & it pretty much became Marjoe's death knell, judged solely by bottom-line receipts. But among science fiction fans at the time it was recognized as a sleeper comedy of surprising merit.

Some critics very wrongly thought it wasn't supposed to be funny & that it was just a badly made Star Wars exploitation rip-off that invoked laughter on the strength of its incompetence & accidental kitschiness. In reality this is a film that completely understood what made bad movies great & every joke is completely intentional, made funnier by seeming to be innocently committed.

The stars of space look like christmas tree ornaments. One of the space ships is the S. S. Murray Leinster, an in-joke for people who really know science fiction. Once over an intercom we hear Captain Ray Bradbury being paged, though Ray had a lifelong phobia against flying & wasn't apt to be piloting a spaceship. And did you know it was possible to "swim" in the vacuum of space? The big pretense that the filmmakers didn't know what they were doing just intensifies the humor quotient, resulting in a "bad movie masterpiece."

Compared to Mel Brooks' obvious & tragically unfunny Space Balls (1987), Starcrash is a work of genius, & the fact that some viewers mistook the humor as accidental is part of its unselfconscious brilliance. It's the ideal film for group viewing as it is so packed with jesting referentiality that everyone will spot something different & you'll be replaying scenes & slow-mo'ing to see if what zipped by was what you thought you saw or not.

Having starred in one the "best" bad movies of all time didn't impress the star-makers in Hollywood, for whom boxoffice receipts are everything, so Starcrash was not a jumping-off point to greater things for Marjoe, who would now & then score television guest parts or appear in worse & worse exploitation films. Those of us who remain his fans deserved to see him in more really good things.

Gun & PulpitWhen a bigger light still seemed likely to be on Marjoe's horizon, a made-for-tv film was tailor made just for him. In The Gun & the Pulpit (1974) he plays top gunslinger Ernie Parsons who escapes from a lynching for a crime he did not commit, finds the corpse of a preacher in the desert, & takes on a new identity as a fast-gun preacher in the dirtwater town of Castle Walk.

Castle Walk citizens live in terror of a tyrannical rancher, Ross (David Huddleston), whose ranchhands are killers, bullies & enforcers. Parson "Frank" arrives in town in his black coat & hat, astride his black horse, & takes over the church. Within the hour making good-natured jokes against the bullies then reveals his pistol prowess to make them skidaddle.

Slim Pickens as One-Eye Joe (the box portrait reproduced here somehow neglected to show him in the eyepatch he wears for the role) had many years before seen Ernie Parsons in duel, & could never forget the day. But he protects Ernie/Frank's secret because he feels that a fast-gun preacher might be exactly what the town needs just then, & the lord works in mysterious ways doncha know.

Parson Frank is most awfully attracted to eighteen year old Sally (Pamela Sue Martin) but in his preacher's garb can't seem to follow through on a move.

Amidst much that is extremely amusing, a few tough things do happen, like when Ernie is dragged behind a horse through a cactus patch & presumed killed. When he recovers he "haunts" Ross's ranch, blowing up the well, turning horses loose, harassing Ross's henchmen at night, until most of them flee the region in terror of the reverend's ghost.

Then he turns up at the church in time for Sunday services & berates the citizens for not even coming out in the desert to see if he was alive & needed help. Such cowards easily lorded over by a wicked man like Ross, & the Lord just might be angrier with them than with the bad guys.

One half expects the fake parson to put some backbone in the citizens so they can help themselves, but they remain cowards throughout, hardly worth risking one's life for. But Ernie as the quick-draw parson has developed a preacherly forgiving nature, so stands up for the town that won't stand up for itself.

There's a cool duel halfway through the tale in which both men, top gunfighters, miss at close quarters. It gives rise to a miracle-legend so that now even if everyone found out Frank the preacher is really Ernie the gunman, they'd never stop believing in him.

Despite production values are definitely made-for-tv, & the action climax is kind of a cliche shoot-out, it's really quite an amusing film, reminiscent of the original television series Maverick which mixed comedy & western adventure in equal parts. And it does show off Marjoe in a good light as an authentic charmer.

copyright by Paghat the Ratgirl

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