1956 was an election year. In an unidentified Ohio town, a long-haired mayor needed an issue to exploit in order to win re-election. A crackdown on crime always works in such places, especially when you turn a blind eye to criminals or take bribes from them normally. When you finally crack down you look like a crusader. In 1956 Ohio there was no better target than the numbers racket, which was run by black people. In our unnamed town the numbers were the domain of Edwin Austin, aka Hakeem Jabbar, aka Pasha (or "the Pasha") who ran the racket out of his ghetto real estate office. In the fall of '56 Pasha found himself between two fires, for just as the city began to crack down (giving him fair warning first), the Chicago Mafia, represented by his childhood playmate Big Tony, made it's move to take over the numbers, offering Pasha an interest in drugs and prostitution in compensation. Pasha refused the offer. He wasn't interested in other vices. Half the people might use drugs, he once said, but everyone plays the numbers sometime.
Our only source for what happened in this anonymous municipality is a screenplay by Fredericka DeCosta and producers Elizabeth and Howard Ransom. Baby Needs A New Pair of Shoes was clearly a deeply personal project for them, for none of them have any other screenplays to their credit. The film now available in the Mill Creek Entertainment Drive-In Classics box set as Jive Turkey was their one shot at movie history, and it shows considerable ambition in some respects, as well as complete conceptual breakdown in others.
Viewers might be excused, for instance, for wondering whether the events portrayed actually took place in 1956, despite the insistence of several characters that "this is 1956!" For example, here is a pre-credits sequence showing a random massacre of innocent ghetto dwellers by visiting gangsters.
Note the victim falling backward in Peckinpah-style slo-mo. Does he look like a citizen of 1956?
This is a harmless child, allegedly living in the year 1956. Does anyone see what's wrong with this picture?
The fact of the matter seems to be that the Ransoms and director Bill Brame decided to make their movie a period piece because they had access to vintage cars. For a low-budget film like this one, old cars count as special effects, and they are nice to look at. They do lend the film a certain visual character. The problem is, once you look beyond the main characters' cars and their quasi-timeless criminal fashions, the illusion fails. That's why exploitation movies strive to put exaggerated details in your face so often. Their excess is designed to compensate for the lack of elements that might be taken for granted in ordinary Hollywood films, and that excess often redeems a film in the eyes of trash cinema connoisseurs. It can be a zany performance by a barely professional actor, or it can be inspired if not spectacular stuntwork or gore effects. For a film like Jive Turkey it can be something as simple as showing off a car collection, or something as wild as the performance billed as "Introducing Serene."
We're introduced to Serene (pronounced just like the adjective), who for all we know is playing herself, in the opening scene of the film proper, when Big Tony (Frank DeKova of F-Troop fame, earning a Special Guest Star credit here) tries to impose terms on Pasha (a calmly authoritative Paul Harris). Serene at first seems to be Pasha's consort or escort or companion, but when Pasha invites Big Tony outside for more private consultations, Serene stays inside, attracting the aroused attention of Big Tony's bodyguard.
Stroking his cheek one moment, Serene slits his throat with a razor-edged ring in the next.
This is actually the big gore moment of the picture, but Serene is far from finished. The producers are canny enough to keep her mostly under wraps for a while, building up anticipation for her next appearance, which comes after some turncoats have killed a popular local youth. Pasha quickly figures out who did it, and gives Serene instructions to incapacitate them with spiked booze and then "have fun." She lures the traitors to a dive and takes a saving swig of mineral oil before joining them for a game of drain the bottle.
After they pass out, she pukes out the bad stuff and has her fun. She takes off her high heeled shoes and starts pounding them heel-first into her victim's face. She does it again and again, cackling in triumph as she seems to speed up her attack and "blood" nearly covers the camera lens. In many respects, Jive Turkey is a semi-comedic observation of ghetto life that rings true with sincere, almost convincing performances. But in this respect, the film is exultant all out garbage.
Now the filmmakers have to give Pasha something to do to top Serene's exploits. The best they can manage is a final showdown with Big Tony in which a feud dating back to childhood resolves itself in a game of Russian Roulette. "You've always been a man of honor," Tony says, "something I never could stand in a n*gger. Now I want to see that honor put you right in your grave." Since Pasha assumes that Tony's men will come gunning for him anyway if he wins, he decides to play along. You'll have to see for yourself how it ends, but I will tell you that the ending also involves the flashback-laden death of a Mafia informant within Pasha's organization and a shocking revelation about Serene that most of you have probably guessed already, and which the Mill Creek disc envelope totally spoiled for me before the movie started.
By 1974 Frank DeKova was trying to trade in his 1960s typecasting as Indians for Seventies typecasting as Mafia men. He actually fits the role of a small-time gangster pretty well.
This is one of those little movies I can't help liking despite its many faults simply because the people involved seem to be trying their best. Jive Turkey has its dull stretches and its awkward moments, but there's a determination you can see throughout the show to give people something at least close to their money's worth. Objectively speaking, it's closer to mediocre than to the epic badness some of us look for, but "Serene's" once-in-a-lifetime performance definitely earns the film its place in the wild world of cinema.
You can watch the first eight minutes of Jive Turkey, including Serene's first attack, here.