An Honest Preface From The Webmaster
Sheba Baby is dopey and fun.
- Patricia Breen, "Kentucky Films"
I lied. I hate Sheba Baby. The weakest entry in Bill Girdler's repertoire, Sheba Baby holds the dubious distinction of being Girdler's least favorite film. The fact that Bill publicly described Sheba Baby as his own worst movie speaks volumes. Because not only was Sheba Baby Bill's second most lucrative effort, but it's the only moneymaking Girdler movie unmarred by legal intrigue. It's the only offering from which Billy earned significant proceeds in his lifetime. To me, Bill's negative impression of Sheba Baby is a testament to his love of the craft. He had an idea in his head as to what made a movie entertaining, and Sheba Baby, despite its financial success, did not meet his standard.
Sheba is not Girdler's weakest movie in terms of hands-on filmmaking. Sheba Baby is nowhere near as raw as Girdler's earliest entries like Asylum of Satan or even The Zebra Killer. It's a very competent film with a wonderful score and some innovative photography. As per usual, Girdler was always improving. In this case, what was gained in aptitude was lost in heart. The spark of creativity that energizes Girdler's first four films simply doesn't illuminate Sheba Baby.
Producer David Sheldon says he and Girdler penned the script in one night to sell the project to Sam Arkoff and AIP. Their crunch session paid off in spades. Sheba Baby filmed in Louisville in the summer 1974. As with all of Bill's hometown movies, Sheba Baby tapped the talents of his usual stable of friends. It was the last movie Girdler made in Louisville.
The plot is well-tread territory for anyone familiar with the blaxploitation genre. Grier plays a sassy private detective working in Chicago who returns to Louisville to save her father from a band of local thugs. Austin Stoker co-stars as Pam's hometown love-stud and D'Urville Martin plays a big cheese gangster for most of the movie. Martin's character isn't depicted as being wholly bad, though. He even proclaims at one point that he really doesn't want to kill anybody. This doesn't jive with his behavior in the first part of the film (I mean, he wires a car to explode, for crying out loud). The character becomes a typical sellout archetype found in blaxploitation films. The REAL villain is a rich white guy, and D'Urville pays dearly for sucking up to his Caucasian puppetmaster.
As with Project Kill, Sheba Baby's plot is propelled by large amounts of dull, clunky dialogue. Thrills are few and far between. Only Stoker succeeds at giving his character dimension. Most of the actors walk through their performances with the spunk of a Romero zombie. This is especially true of Grier, who seems anti-charismatic and flat throughout. Well, as "flat" as Pam Grier can be.
Bill Girdler remarked in several interviews that he and Grier clashed while making Sheba Baby. He described her as being difficult to work with. Some folks close to Girdler recall ego-fueled disputes on the sets. Grier's popularity was at its height in 1974, so it's quite possible she was a handful at that point in time.
I have another theory: throughout director Jack Hill's various Grier-related DVD commentaries, Hill discusses the open rapport he shared with Grier. He fondly describes how he and Grier bounced ideas off one another and how he welcomed her input. Grier's performances in Jack Hill's films are so vivacious - especially when compared to her drowsy delivery in Sheba Baby - I can't help but think that Grier needed a hands-on director to inspire her. In contrast to Hill, Girdler was not always known for his hands-on approach when working with his casts. He was usually more concerned with setting up shots and just getting the job done. I imagine Billy's no-nonsense directorial style was a radical departure from what Grier had grown accustom to. And thus, I suspect the differences in their working styles led to the perceived tension … and also led to Grier's lackluster screen presence.
Sheba Baby is Grier's third most successful movie after Foxy Brown and Coffy. Unlike Foxy and Coffy, Sheba Baby was rated PG in the USA. This is important to understand, because Sheba Baby was the first "family" blaxploitation film to feature Grier's ass-kicking assets. It marked the first time an all-ages public could see what the Foxy Brown fuss was all about. It wasn't Grier's first PG movie, but it was the first title to arrive after Foxy Brown elevated her to diva status.
Sheba Baby invariably falls victim to its family-friendly nature. Foxy Brown wowed audiences with tawdry titillation and stylish excess. If you take away those elements, you're left with a fairly bland revenge flick. If you take away those elements, you're left with … Sheba Baby!
The best thing about Sheba Baby is its soundtrack. With music by Alex Brown and Monk Higgins and vocals by Barbara Mason, the catchy songs do a good job at complimenting the onscreen action. The track "A Good Man" is commonly sampled in gangsta rap tunes. It even spurred an unofficial Good Man single re-issue a few years ago.
MGM's Sheba Baby DVD transfer is actually the crispest, most vibrant presentation of any Girdler film to date (here's hoping Asylum of Satan changes this). The film quality still doesn't make Sheba Baby any more enjoyable - staring at the DVD box cover for 90 minutes offers the same level of entertainment as any Sheba Baby viewing.
In summary, Sheba Baby isn't an important film. It's not even an interesting film. It's simply a lesser Girdler film.
The sun sets over Louisville. We see a car filled with suspicious-looking characters pull up to the Shayne Loan Company. The car's headlights go dim.
Inside the loan house, Andy (Rudy Challenger) and his partner Brick (Austin Stoker) argue about recent threats they've received. "I'm not going to bow down to him, Brick," insists Andy Shayne.
"I'm not saying to give in, but we've got to deal with it. That man called again this afternoon. You can't keep ignoring him, Andy! At least talk to him. Or let me talk to them." Brick reminds Andy that "they" already ran two other loan companies out of business. "I'm not saying to give in to them, but we have to deal with it," pleads Brick.
Andy is adamant. "It's not going to happen to us. One way to fight them back is to give our people fair deals, as long as we give them fair deals they'll support us. Listen you've been a good partner and we've trusted each other. There's no reason for this to change now."
Brick nods. "I know you think you're doing what's best. I respect that. But these people are ruthless men. They'll kill you." Andy dismisses Brick's warning. Frustrated, Brick announces he's going home for the night. Andy asks him to lock up behind him when he leaves. "Shut (off) the lights on your way out. I'll go out the back way." Brick follows Andy's instructions and exits through the front door, turning off the lights.
The parked thugs watch Brick drive off, then they casually let themselves into the loan house .. through the front door. The thugs are armed with canes and bats.
One thug (an extra from Abby) informs his posse, "We're just gonna mess the place up a little bit and let him know we mean business. Just as they start smashing the joint, Andy emerges from his office. A thug hears activity. "Somebody's here!!" exclaims the goon.
Andy growls, "Goddamned right there's somebody here!" Andy lunges at one thug and slugs him in the chest. The other two hired gangsters hold the old man down and take turns pummeling him in the stomach. They leave the old man slumped on the loan house floor.
(CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO THE OPENING THEME. MP3 FILE: 2.6 MB)
We jump to Chicago now and the title credits roll over Pam Grier's ripe, round buttocks. Sheba (Pam Grier) strolls across town, turning heads wherever she goes. She arrives at the door to her dumpy Private Detective office. From within she can hear the loud male voice of her partner threatening someone over the telephone that "my partner is going to stomp the hell out of you!"
Sheba shakes her head as she enters to greet her partner. The office is littered with beer bottles. The man hangs up the phone. "Well well my long lost partner returns!" teases the disheveled black fellow.
"Just be thankful I did, Racker," Sheba .
Sheba frowns at the garbage-strewn room. She waves her arms around wildly with anger. "Look at this place! I go away for three days and the whole place goes to pot!"
Ignoring the tantrum, Racker hands a telegram to Sheba. "This came for you a couple of days ago."
Sheba's face turns stony as she reads the telegram. She coldly asks Racker why he didn't call her about the note. He laughs nervously. "It's like finding a needle in a haystack." Sheba explodes, "Why don't you try looking? Getting off that fat fanny of yours and going out into the world! Maybe try a little working!"
She rushes to the door. Racker asks where she's off to. "Louisville," is her reply.
Sheba's plane lands at Louisville International Airport. Brick greets her warmly at the terminal. "I'm so glad you came," he says as he hugs her. "I'm glad I came, too. How's dad?" Brick's smile fades slightly. "A little bruised up but he's tough. You look terrific." Sheba grins and the two leave to find Brick's car.
As they drive off to Sheba's childhood home, Sheba inquires stiffly, "Oh Brick -- you said in the telegram that dad's life is in danger. From whom? Loan sharks?" Brick shrugs, "We don't know. He wants to fight them single-handed. Which is what happened the other night."
Sheba rolls her eyes. "And the police didn't do anything right?"
"Wha - what are their demands?" stammers Sheba. "Simple. Sell out or be killed," Brick replies gloomily. Sheba laughs. "Oh, do they have a fight on their hands!"
Brick pulls his car up to Sheba's house, commenting on how nice the neighborhood looks. They exit and Brick lugs Sheba's bags out of the trunk. "How much do I owe you for this?" asks Sheba. Brick grins, "I'll collect on it later." Sheba takes her bags from him and shoots him a saucy smile and a weak line. "Promises promises."
Sheba enters the humble home and sees her father waddle out of his bedroom. "You're looking better all the time," she says with a facetious grin. "Little Andy! What are you doing home?" asks her beaming father. They embrace then retire to the couch. He groans in pain as he slumps in the chair. "What happened?" asks Sheba. Her father looks away. "Just ran into the wrong people I guess." Sheba's frowns. "Brick told me what's going on."
He grits his teeth. "I told him not to call you. There's no reason for you to get involved in this. I have to work it out myself. I want you to stay out of this. I don't my daughter messing around with these kind of people."
Resolutely (and kind of out of the blue), Sheba says, "Dad I know you think I'm doing a man's job. But I'm not going to sit on the sidelines just because I'm a woman."
Before he can argue further, the ring of the telephone interrupts their discussion. Sheba jumps to answer. A raspy voice on the other line demands "let me talk to Andy." Sheba seductively inquires, "who's calling? This is Sheba, his daughter."
"Well good for you sweet sister. Lemme talk to your old man!" insists the caller. She hands to phone to her father. "Hello Andy. Feeling better today?" the voice taunts with a thick air of threat. Andy explodes. "I thought I told you to stop calling me!" The voice evenly replies, "I just wanted to know if you gave my proposition some more thought." Andy holds strong. "My company is not for sale. Not now or not ever." He slams down the phone. Sheba gasps in shock. "What was that all about?" Andy shakes his head. "Forget about it." Sheba shrieks. "Forget about it? I come home to find my father beaten half to death and hear (?) some sweet talking nigger threatens his life you say forget about it? Dad, what is going on?" Andy sighs. "I'll be ready for those bastards."