Respect for Robert Thom

Things have improved for screenwriters in recent decades but long about the mid 20th century they were by most measures invisible, swathed in anonymity, and forced to adapt impersonal styles of expression adulterated by interference and contributions by everyone else in the process: producers, executives, directors, and the actors themselves. Typically many scribes would toil on a single project, making it almost impossible to associate writers with the movies they wrote, or to ascertain what parts of the script they were responsible for. On the fringes of the system, however, there was freedom, and if one wanted to badly one enough, one could assert a “voice”. Even then, though, audiences were not accustomed to identifying movies with their screenwriters. Thus is it was that it took YEARS before I realized that several of my favorite “way out” films had the same author, one with a characteristic voice that was all his own. His name was Robert Thom (Robert Flatow, 1929-79).

Thom’s style was as distinctive as that of any playwright’s, and that’s because he basically was one — it’s just that he was vaulted into the movie business so quickly that his time in the theatre wound up being very short. A Brooklyn native, he attended Yale, and then spent a year at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. Jose Quintero bought his first play, The Minotaur, for Circle in the Square in 1954. Thom worked within the then-still-new Off Broadway community scene for a couple of years. With his intellectual precocity and compulsion to experiment he would have been a natural for the Off-OFF-Broadway scene just around the corner, had he not been catapulted into commercial show business almost immediately.

In 1956, Thom divorced his first wife and married Broadway and Hollywood actress Janice Rule, who was fresh off the original Broadway productions of William Inge’s Picnic and The Flowering Peach. Rule appeared opposite Dean Stockwell in a production of The Minotaur at Westport County Playhouse. In 1957, he was hired to assist in the adaptation of Meyer Levin’s novel Compulsion for Broadway, featuring Stockwell and Roddy McDowell. Both Thom and Stockwell were subsequently hired for the 1959 Hollywood version, and that is how Thom switched both coasts and industries.

Identified with “troubled youth”, Thom was briefly a hot commodity. In 1960 he wrote the screenplays for two major films, The Subterraneans, the first movie adaptation of a Jack Kerouac novel (in which Rule and McDowell were third and fourth billed), and All the Fine Young Cannibals, the first movie to star married couple Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner, and the inspiration for the name of the ’80s British pop band. While “racy” for their day, both of these films play today like turgid soap operas, very much in the vein of things like Peyton Place, Splendor in the Grass, and The Chase (which Rule later appeared in).

But as fans of Valley of the Dolls know, these types of scenarios can be transformed into over-the-top grotesquerie with very little tweaking. In 1963 he wrote the script to The Legend of Lylah Clare for TV’s Dupont Show of the Week. This script became the basis of the bizarre Robert Aldrich film in 1968 starring Kim Novak as a woman hired to impersonate a dead and very, very freaky German actress, a sort of mash-up of Vertigo with earlier Aldrich stuff like The Big Knife and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? There is a twist at the end that makes it even more bizarre. I won’t spoil it, but I must warn the more sensitive that its attitudes about certain topics have become, shall we say, dated.

By this time, Rule was out of the picture. She left Thom for Ben Gazzara (also from Circle in the Square) in 1961, later appearing in movies like The Swimmer and Kid Blue. Thom returned to Broadway in 1963 with a play called Bicycle Ride to Nevada starring Franchot Tone. The following year he married Stockwell’s ex Millie Perkins, best remembered as the star of The Diary of Anne Frank, and the pair became part of Hollywood’s burgeoning counterculture/independent scene. In 1968 American International Pictures released Thom’s astounding exploitation rock musical Wild in the Streets, directed by Barry Shear, which we wrote about here.

The following year saw the only film Thom directed, the jaw-dropping Angel, Angel, Down We Go a.k.a. Cult of the Damned, which he adapted from a play he had written earlier for Rule. This one featured songs by Brill Building stalwarts Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, and features Jordan Christopher of The Fat Spy and The Sidelong Glances of a Pigeon Kicker. His co-star was none another than Jennifer Jones in her final role before The Towering Inferno, giving the movie something of a psychobiddy tinge (just as Wild in the Streets had employed Shelley Winters). Also in the cast was a young Holly Near, Lou Rawls, and Roddy McDowell, in a role so small it made me scratch my head, until I later later learned of his long acquaintance with Thom. Anyway, this one-of-a-kind joint is full of freaky freak-outs and marks the climax of Thom’s psychedelic period.

Thom’s association with AIP continued. I amused to observe that he wrote the scripts to both Bloody Mama (1970) and Crazy Mama (1975). The former starred Shelley Winters as a character loosely based on Ma Barker, with a cast that includes Bruce Dern, Pat Hingle of Splendor in the Grass (also from Circle in the Square), Scatman Crothers, and a very young Robert De Niro. The latter stars a pre-Phyllis Cloris Leachman, a pre-Happy Days Donny Most, Stuart Whitman, Ann Sothern, Jim Backus, Sally Kirkland, and the legendary Dick Miller. This one also has a cool rock soundtrack linking it in spirit to Thom’s films of the ’60s. Further it is directed by Jonathan Demme, with early career Dennis Quaid and Bill Paxton in bit parts.

Also in 1975 came what is perhaps Thom’s best known film, Death Race 2000, co-written with Charles B. Griffith (another of my favorite screenwriters) and directed by Paul Bartel. This satirical classic alone would be enough to cement Thom’s place in history. The genius of this film is that mixes the car race genre then in vogue with dystopian sci-fi and insightful social commentary (the drivers in the race, played by a pre-Kung Fu David Carradine, a pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone and a pre-Love Boat Fred Grandy, among others) compete to rack up the most hit-and-run kills in their cross country race. At this writing it has both been remade and succeeded by many sequels.

A third film bearing a Thom credit was released that year, Alias Big Cherry, a true story about 700 pound New Jersey gangster Sylvan Skolnick, known as “Cherry Hill Fats”. Thom also co-wrote the story for the amazing The Phantom of Hollywood (1974), an updating of Phantom of the Opera staged among the ruins of the old MGM studios, which I wrote about here. In 1976 came The Witch Who Came from the Sea, starring Perkins and directed by Jayne Mansfield’s ex-husband Matt Cimber. I caught this one on Criterion a couple of years ago and was so intrigued that it became the trigger that got me interested in both Thom and Cimber. What beguiled me about this one was the combination of poetic dialogue, full of mythological references, and the extremely low budget, almost home movie level, next to which an AIP picture looks like Cecil B. De Mille. It’s a sort of a feminist horror film, with Perkins as an abused and haunted woman, who goes berserk and begins killing men — awful, awful men.

Thom’s last movie The Third Walker (1978) was produced in Canada, and starred Colleen Dewhurst (another Circle in the Square alum) as a woman who must grapple with the fact that her baby was switched at birth. It was directed by Teri McLuhan, daughter of media theorist Marshall McLuhan, coiner of “the medium is the message”. Thom and Perkins had separated by this stage. Not yet 50, Thom died of a heart attack in 1979.

Just WHAT would have Thom done in the ’80s? Would he have gone mainstream like John Waters and Jonathan Demme? Would he have been a fish out of water and continued making distinctive low budget pictures? Would he have gone in a more literary direction, focused on his poetry, fiction, and plays for the stage in a return to his roots? Summon his vengeful ghost and find out!