THE BOOTLEG FILES: “BABY BLUE MARINE”

The embrace of 1970s cultural kitsch often neglects to include one of the more amusing pieces of male eye candy to emerge from that decade: Jan-Michael Vincent. Today it may be difficult to accept, but there was a time when JMV (as his fans call him) was poised to become a major Hollywood superstar. He certainly everything going for him: good looks, a dedicated fan base, and Tinseltown connections.

But there were two things going against JMV’s road to superstardom. First, he was not a good actor. Of course, that liability never stopped many from achieving screen royalty. Second, and more lethal to the JMV cause, he never landed good roles. The 1976 movie “Baby Blue Marine” should’ve put JMV up into the higher levels of the A-list. But that didn’t quite work out.

Some quickie JMV background: he was born in Denver, Colorado in 1944 and never intended a show biz career. But a talent scout noticed him when he was on duty in the National Guard and he found a new civilian career in movies and TV awaiting him once Uncle Sam no longer required his services. Small movies and TV appearances kept him busy at first, and most people today recall him as Link in the “Danger Island” sequences of “The Banana Splits Adventure Hour.” As his star began to rise, something weird took place: he got stuck in a rut where he was either the second lead to an established superstar (like Charles Bronson in “The Mechanic” and Burt Reynolds in “Hooper”) or he got leading roles in B-Movies that made no impact on the box office (does anyone remember “Buster and Billie” or “White Line Fever”?). “Baby Blue Marine” was a major Columbia Pictures release, which offered him a rare chance to be a star in a big movie.

“Baby Blue Marine” takes place during the heart of World War II. The film opens at a Marine boot camp where an exasperated drill instructor is trying to whip his awkward enlistees into something resembling a unified fighting machine. The battalion has plenty of guys who are clearly not Marine material, including Marion Hedgepeth (JMV), who seems to be just a nice guy from a small town who lacks the oomph to become part of the USMC. At least Hedge, as he prefers to be known, isn’t the intentional slacker that one of his bunkmates turns out to be: a weasel of a guy who wants to get out of service so his lovely wife doesn’t find local diversion while he is in service. That guy is played by a newcomer billed as B. Kirby Jr., who later switched monikers to Bruno Kirby.

The boot camp sequences are the film’s best – one gets a sense of genuine camaraderie among the young men as they vainly try to follow orders (telling left from right is a major stumbling block) or as they let loose with good-natured tomfoolery (they try to kill an overhead light by throwing boots at the glowing bulb). Had the film stayed in this environment, it might have been a winning coming of age testament.

Instead, Hedge and a half-dozen guys are washed out of service and sent home. But they are not allowed to travel home in their civilian clothing. Instead, they are given strange pajama-type uniforms and oversized newsboy hats in a pale hue of blue – hence the film’s title. Hedge goes to a local bus terminal to get a ride home to his native St. Louis, but while waiting for the bus he wanders the nearby town and strikes up a barroom acquaintance with a Marine Raider who is on a leave from service. The Marine doesn’t seem to be entirely together, given his strange gaze and evasive conversation. He also doesn’t look entirely right to contemporary audiences, who will recognize the character as Richard Gere wearing the most unconvincing bleached blonde locks this side of Rita Hayworth’s “The Lady from Shaghai” hairdo. Why in the world it was needed to make Gere a blonde (rather than use his real hair color or hire a real blonde) is not known.

Any way, Hedge is plied with whiskey by the Marine, who takes him outside and knocks him out, dumping him in an alley. When Hedge awakes, he finds himself only wearing underwear. This is actually the second time within 20 minutes that JMV goes shirtless in “Baby Blue Marine” – he looks great, but it becomes a bit contrived to find situations where that restrictive ol’ shirt has to come off. However, Hedge discovers the crazy Marine left his uniform and a $2 bill for Hedge. Thanks to the magic of the movies, the uniform is a perfectly tailored fit and Hedge now has a new identity: as a Marine hero, not the washout he really is.

Now “Baby Blue Marine” could’ve gone in a number of intriguing directions: Hedge could’ve found himself corralled into the frontline fighting which Gere’s character was meant to do, or he could’ve been arrested with the other Marine’s crime for desertion, or he could’ve become involved with wacky women who go ga-ga over a man in uniform. Instead, the film goes the worst possible way: Hedge winds up in a small Colorado town where he becomes the object of affection from a young diner waitress (Glynis O’Connor). She takes Hedge home to her parents, who hail him as a visiting hero. Everyone hails Hedge as a hero in the small town. But not in a sharp, satiric manner. Instead, it is all too nice and Norman Rockwell – the film doesn’t have a mean bone in its running time.

Indeed, there is a super-mean subplot which is handled like a nice bit of perversion: the Colorado town where Hedge lands up is also home to an internment camp occupied by Japanese-Americans who were held prisoner by the U.S. government in the racist hysteria following Pearl Harbor. The film doesn’t view this as a blatant injustice – instead, it is just a convenient subplot that evolves late in the movie when three men escape from the internment camp and Hedge helps to track them down. The idea of capturing innocent people who shouldn’t be imprisoned behind barbed wire makes for a rather strange set of priorities.

But just what were the priorities of “Baby Blue Marine”? The film was made after the Vietnam debacle but was released during the Bicentennial year, so America was in something of a contradiction: a major military defeat followed by a hyperactive display of nationalist pride. Had “Baby Blue Marine” been made earlier, it might have fit in an environment where tradition-rigid American values were openly skewered in movies. Had it come later, say into the Reagan 1980s, it might have been a gentle reminder of a more innocent (or at least a less cynical) past. But from where it landed, the film just didn’t fit.

Nor did JMV fit as well. His character is something of a cheat: too nice to be a genuine heel, but clearly happy enough to go on with his Marine masquerade despite knowing he is living a lie. Nor does JMV know how to etch out the depth from this character. Most of the film, he can be found looking about blankly while reciting his dialogue in an on-again, off-again Southern drawl. Despite the inevitable interludes when he goes shirtless, JMV doesn’t give the viewer much reason to pay him any attention. It is not surprise that “Baby Blue Marine” is more diverting as a spot-the-star game with unknowns such as the aforementioned Kirby and Gere plus Adam Arkin and Katherine Helmond making small appearances. And Paul Lynde fans will recognize a brief performance by John Calvin, who played Lynde’s silly son-in-law in the late funnyman’s doomed sitcom and who turns up here as a drunken soldier aiming for a fight with JMV.

“Baby Blue Marine” was not a commercial hit, even with a provocative poster that featured (what else?) JMV without his shirt. The film’s failure cooled the luster on JMV’s star power, and within a few years he was relegated to forgettable B-Movies. While big screen success eluded him, small screen fame was more accommodating: he had a major supporting role in the popular 1981 mini-series “The Winds of War” and scored a hit series with the cheesy adventure show “Airwolf.”

But time and circumstances were not kind to JMV. Problems with alcoholism and a few run-ins with the law (for DWI and battering a fiancé) did not help him with casting agents. He found himself making memorable guest appearances in flicks including “Buffalo 66″ and Abel Ferrara’s “Whiteboy,” but for the most part he disappeared from sight. (Although some wiseguy has a web site where a faux-JMV answers Dear Abby-style inquiries with the logic of an inebriate.)

How far has JMV disappeared? He has been off camera since the 2003 direct-to-video title “Menace,” but already the Net is ripe with rumors of his whereabouts. One rumor insisted he was working incognito as a security guard in Texas, another claims he is an invalid in a Mississippi nursing home. His official web site is currently down and the agency which is supposedly repping him does not answer e-mails about his whereabouts.

And speaking of whereabouts, where is “Baby Blue Marine”? The film was never released on home video, but the cause of its absence is unclear. There doesn’t seem to be problems with any of the rights to the film, and the movie’s lack of popularity should not be detrimental to a home video release (bigger bombs have found their way on VHS and DVD). It may just be one of those little films that fell through the cracks. Bootleg videos are easy enough to find, though quality varies (my copy appears to have been a second generation dupe from a TV broadcast).

Maybe someday JMV will come back in a big way, a la Travolta in “Pulp Fiction.” Until then, here’s a raised glass of intoxicating substance to Jan-Michael Vincent. And if JMV is reading this, please drop me a line at Film Threat – I would love to hear from you!

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IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on November 4, 2005 in Features by
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