The Flickers: The Grasshopper

The Grasshopper (1970)

Starring Jacqueline Bisset, Jim Brown, Joseph Cotton and Corbett Monica. Directed by Jerry Paris. From National General Pictures.

All images © National General Pictures

She’s leaving home. Early one morning, Pretty Canadian lass Christine Adams (Bisset) packs her bags. She leaves her folks a note and sneaks out of her childhood home in Kingman, British Columbia. Her destination is Los Angeles, there to meet up with her boyfriend Eddie (Tim O’Kelly) who has gone on ahead and has a good job as a bank teller. Along the way, her car breaks down and the free-spirited Christine hitches a ride with various types. One happens to be a famous comic, Danny Raymond (Monica) who takes her to exciting Las Vegas instead of LA.

Freedom.

Danny shows her off and makes a minor play but he respects her love for her fiancee and her desire to get to LA. She eventually shows up at the bank and she and Eddie enjoy a reunion. As they set up housekeeping, Christine soon becomes bored; all straight-laced Eddie wants to do is read the financial section and work hard for a promotion. Once again, Christine lams it in the middle of the night and heads back to Las Vegas. Needing someone and somewhere to stay, she begins a half-hearted affair with Danny but this doesn’t last.

Jim Brown as Tommy and Ed Flanders, in his film debut, as Jack Benton.

Tommy Marcott (Brown) is a recently-retired football star who has gone into the restaurant business with Jack Benton (Ed Flanders). But Tommy is earnest and business-minded and bristles when he realizes his only job is to pose for pictures with customers. Christine needs work and ingratiates herself with powerful Jack who gives her work as a showgirl. She also becomes friendly with Buck (Roger Garrett) and his boyfriend and starts running with the Ice Pack, a rock band lead by Jay (Christopher Stone), with whom she becomes intimate. Not quite ready for the drugs and free love scene, she connects with Tommy who proves to have a stabilizing effect on Christine. The two eventually marry.

Above; Christine (Bisset) and Buck (Garrett). Below; Jay (Stone) and Christine.

Tommy could use some professional help from a construction tycoon visiting from Pennsylvania. Roosevelt Dekker (Ramon Bieri) fancies Christine so she goes to dinner with him to help curry favour for Tommy’s sake. Dekker proves to be a beast, though, and beats and rapes Christine. When Tommy finds out, he tracks Dekker down at the golf course and pummels him in a sand trap. Fearing retribution, Tommy and Christine flee to Los Angeles. As Christine begins again to feel boredom creep in, Tommy meets with tragedy.

Leaving Las Vegas.

After nearly O.D’ing in the wake of her failed marriage, Christine – rudderless – heads back to Las Vegas and becomes a high-priced call girl. One of her clients, wealthy Richard Morgan (Cotten), takes a particular liking to her and sets Christine up with an apartment and an expense account. When the Ice Pack shows up in town, Christine and Jay renew their relationship. Jay gets the idea he’d like to own a ranch. This appeals to Christine and she begins to siphon Richard’s cash gifts to Jay. Just as the ranch begins to look like a reality, Richard announces he’s ready to marry Christine. Panicked, Christine leaves him and runs to Jay who is incensed about the money drying up. He has a plan, though; he will begin pimping Christine out. After months of turning tricks, Christine finds that Jay has left her and has taken all the money she has earned. At the end of her rope, Christine gets a pilot acquaintance to take her up where she will skywrite her message to the world.

Busted.

I can’t recall when I’ve been more gobsmacked when watching a movie for the first time. Credit charter member of the Friends of SoulRide, Vintage Las Vegas, with turning me on to this fascinating film. The Grasshopper is loosely based on Mark McShane’s 1961 novel The Passing of Evil. This book – written by the author of Seance on a Wet Afternoon – takes place in London. To Americanize the story, the filmmakers made the canny decision to set the action of the film in glitzy Las Vegas and sunny LA. The English connection is maintained with the casting of Surrey-born Bisset and by making her character Canadian. This gave Christine a wholesome place to travel from to start her adventure and I suppose the thinking was that audiences in 1970 would accept a British accent coming from a girl from part of the English Commonwealth. Although, we don’t really talk like that, eh?

Beautiful British Columbia.

As a fan of B – or, in this case, “less-than-A” – movies, I am beginning to recognize the look of a film made by TV people. Truth be told, The Grasshopper is technically not a B movie but there is still an aura surrounding it that seems to tether it to the ground, making it impossible for it to ascend to greatness. Makes sense then that it was indeed made by “TV people”. Bronx-born Garry Marshall broke into the business writing for The Joey Bishop Show, the sitcom that co-starred Corbett Monica. Marshall formed a partnership with Jerry Belson and the two worked together on several sitcoms in the Sixties. Belson’s name I have noticed in the credits of The Odd Couple television show. The pair decided in 1969 to make a film together and to this end they gained the rights to Mark McShane’s novel and came up with a script. This they took to director Jerry Paris. Paris’ name I grew up seeing on Happy Days, a later show of Marshall’s on which Jerry served as director of most of the episodes. Paris got his start in front of the camera playing the Petrie’s neighbour on The Dick Van Dyke Show, another show Marshall and Belson worked on. Paris would go on to thrive in the somewhat-lesser world of television direction before returning to direct a Hollywood film I mentioned in an earlier article on Toronto’s Shannon Farnon (read it here). Miss Farnon appeared in the Paris-directed Leo and Loree (1980), an inexplicable film that “starred” Donnie Most and Linda Purl, two actors who worked with Paris on Happy Days. Jerry Paris would eventually direct two Police Academy movies. Point being, The Grasshopper was made by TV Guys and this can be seen in a lack of polish – the transitions, the dubbing and the overall visual presentation – though these things don’t really detract from the viewing experience. I wondered too if the editing had been done by a neophyte. Aaron Stell, while no rookie, did the bulk of his work on B movies in the mid-Forties. I have to wonder then if he was not a reliable if business-like editor who could be trusted to just get the job done and he does. But with a kitchen knife? (He later served as editor of The Take)

It’s obvious why Vintage Las Vegas posted and shared this film (see it by clicking here). The TV Guys saved money by jettisoning their plans to have the action take place internationally and kept the story happening in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Many viewers will be entranced by this late-Sixties look at Las Vegas in all its gaudy glory. The Grasshopper – like Model Shop – is wonderful to watch for the exteriors, street scenes and practical locations and for the world it depicts.

The Grasshopper was distributed by National General Pictures, the smallish studio who brought you Presley’s Charro! the previous year. In another Elvis Connection, the incidental music for the film is by Billy Goldenberg who worked on the Elvis TV special of 1968 and scored Change of Habit, King’s farewell to La La Land. He also scored Silent Night, Lonely Night, a SoulRide pick of 2020 and wrote the robust theme for Kojak. Bobby Russell contributed two songs to the soundtrack. I’ll admit, I had never heard of him before but I should have. Bobby made his contributions to music in only a few short years but they were quite substantial. In 1968 alone, Russell penned both “Little Green Apples” and “Honey”, both written as an experiment by which Russell hoped to add more true-to-life stories to songs. Dig that “Little Green Apples”, in 1968-69, was a chart hit for three different artists, making the Top Ten of the US Country, the US Adult Contemporary, the US R&B and the US Pop charts. It would go on to be recorded by everybody except you and I; Johnny Mathis, Ray Price, Frank Sinatra, The Temptations, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett…

The same year – the same year – Russell’s heartbreaking “Honey” by Bobby Goldsboro was only Number One on three different US charts and in multiple countries worldwide. It was the fastest-selling record in the history of United Artists Records. Russell added two more gems to his CV in 1969 when Elvis Presley recorded “Do You Know Who I Am?” as part of his triumphant sessions at American Sound in Memphis and Roy Clark released “Then She’s a Lover”, another great countrypolitan song about a woman who juggles the madness of her home all day and still has the strength to be a lover in the evening after hubby wakes up from his nap. Seriously, it’s a great song.

Young and innocent.

So, Bobby Russell was no slouch by the time he provided “As Far As I’m Concerned” and sang it himself over the opening titles of our film. Russell’s lyrics are poignant and set the table for Christine’s story well.

"If the morning sun should rise and find you 
bored with living and you've changed 
and because you're not your used to be 
perhaps you oughta leave and rearrange... 
they don't understand your feelings 
and as far as I'm concerned, love, you should leave 
So, if you can only watch yourself 
because no one's gonna say 'no' when you're free 
then I think you oughta taste it all 
and as far as I'm concerned, love, you should see."   

Interesting, Russell’s warning about watching herself as there will be no one to warn her of pitfalls. The other Russell song on the soundtrack is “Used to Be” but it is not sung by Bobby but by his then-girlfriend and soon-to-be wife Vicki Lawrence. I’m still having trouble connecting “singing” Vicki Lawrence with “acting” Vicki Lawrence. Once the two got married, Bobby provided his wife with her one hit song, “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia”. A “Southern Gothic murder ballad”, the tune was a #1 smash for one-hit-wonder Lawrence. As I’ve said, in a brief four-year stretch, Bobby Russell wrote some iconic songs. Bobby died of coronary artery disease in 1992. He was 52.

Jacqueline Bisset is 25 here and gorgeous. She does really well as Christine although she may not rise to all the heavy lifting to be done with the character. She had already gained much notice with appearances in three films released in 1968; The Sweet Ride, The Detective and Bullitt. The reason I watched The Grasshopper, though – after being hipped to it by Vintage Vegas – was Jim Brown. After studying him in blaxploitation films and after reading his autobiography, I wanted to see all his early films. Jim Brown the actor certainly has presence and by this point he was a veteran of 10 films – Bisset had only made two more. One of the many fascinating things about this movie’s script has to do with Jim’s portrayal. At the dawn of the Seventies, when Hollywood and society at large was still only beginning to accept blacks in positive roles in film, Jim Brown was blazing a trail of integrity through the industry. Not only is this film bold in depicting a mixed marriage but, of the two participants, Jim’s character Tommy is the more honourable. Tommy aspires to success in business and wants to be more than a curiosity to football fans who want their picture taken with him. When it comes down to choosing between his self-esteem or financial stability, he opts out of the spotlight and is ready to work a regular job to provide for himself and his wife and to make something of his life. I became really frustrated with Christine when she grew restless even when married to a quality guy like Tommy. The end of their marriage came as a severe shock to me.

There’s a comical moment – keep in mind, it’s 1970 – when Christine and Tommy arrive at the wedding chapel with their friends for their wedding. The proprietors are confused by a white chick, a black dude, a gay man and an Asian woman (Sandy Gaviola).

So the film deserves props for its depiction of African-Americans through Jim and then there’s Roger Garrett’s portrayal of Buck. Hollywood’s depiction of gay men and women still had a long way to go in 1970 but here again The Grasshopper stands out. Garrett does not apply broad tropes to his portrayal but he is allowed to relate to his partner in a legitimate way, discourse a bit on their relationship and to drop a couple of humourous lines about the life of a gay man. More than anything else though Buck – like Tommy – is a good person, honourable and always there for Christine. He is the best friend she has. Maybe the only one.

Wealthy Richard actually makes a respectable move when he decides to end his marriage and make his relationship with Christine official. However, having to spend all her time as Mrs. Morgan would make it impossible to be with Jay and to continue planning their ranch life. Christine actually makes one of her rare sound decisions when she bolts from Richard and settles in with Jay. She makes a choice and it is more for love as opposed to wealth and ease. I just about fell off the couch when Jay actually has the balls to suggest that Christine must now turn tricks to earn money. And the fact that Christine goes along with it made this difficult to watch. I felt bad for her. My second shock of the film came when she comes home to an empty apartment. A couple of quick notes; look at the album in which Chris and Jay keep their bank roll. That would be Boogie With Canned Heat, the sophomore effort from the stellar American blues/rock outfit released in early ’68. Christopher Stone made his film debut in The Grasshopper. He would work sparingly in Hollywood and later appeared in The Howling (1981) and Cujo (1983). He appeared in both of these films with his wife, Dee Wallace, a horror movie maven also seen in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. Christopher Stone died of a heart attack at 53. I could not believe the position that Christine found herself in when Jay abandons her. At this point I wondered if the film had gone too far. A knock-out punch of sorts was intended and, to some point, achieved, by the film’s final line. When asked her age, Christine responds “22”. All this has happened to her and she’s only twenty-two years old.

Which brings up maybe the most important theme of the film. While watching this for the first time, I began to grow frustrated with Christine and how flighty she was. Unsettled. Moving from one situation to another, not being able to commit to anyone or anything. While doing some reading on the film afterwards, though, I made a realization; about myself and the film. As a middle-aged man who remembers vividly his youth, as one who often applies scenarios seen in film to his own life, asking “what would I have done?” or “I wish that had happened to me”, I often enjoy and find it very easy to connect with coming-of-age stories depicting young men trying to find their way.

The Grasshopper, though, is a coming-of-age film from a female perspective. I quickly realized that, while I’m watching a male-centric story, I am usually cheering on the protagonist and encouraging him to “get it all dug”; try everything and everyone, have adventures, don’t get tied down until you have to. But I’m watching Christine in this film and I’m getting frustrated, wondering why she can’t settle down, find her spot, stay there and be happy. Well, dang, Wellsy, isn’t Christine also trying everything and everyone and getting it all dug? Sure, she is.

It’s starting to tell. Hair and make-up did well showing the strain on Christine. See the before and after below.

The problem may lie with the TV Guys who created this story. I’d be a bit over my head conjecturing whether or not these older men have accurately depicted the experiences of a 19-year-old girl but my gut tells me they are probably off the mark somewhat. It’s the excess of the film and the enormity of the things Christine experiences. It’s as if Marshall and Co. had a check list of a sort of “Disneyland attraction called Sixtiesland1 and threw everything in the pot. This mad mod gumbo includes rock bands/drug excess/groupies (including Marshall’s kid sister, Penny), free love, homosexuality, inter-racial marriage, pedophilia and physical violence. So, the fact that Christine’s flightiness leads to such outrageous circumstances perhaps made me want to yell at the screen as a sort of warning to her. Such are the dangers, I suppose, of finding one’s own way.

But I have no choice but to give major props to Marshall and Co. for The Grasshopper. Stylistically, it may not be great but if you know me you know that doesn’t matter. What they have presented is a challenge – to male viewers particularly – to accept the fact that young women come-of-age as well and during this they may make poor choices and get into unfortunate situations. The Grasshopper pulls very few punches. Early on, Christine tells one of the older men who pick her up hitch-hiking that she is going to join her boyfriend; not to get married but to have a baby. This shocks the old guy and he comically crosses himself. Christine casually starts an affair with the comedian Danny Raymond seemingly only because she needs a “sponsor” and her plans with Eddie didn’t work out. Which brings to mind a silent scene that portrays a later meeting between Christine and Eddie – and Eddie’s wife and child. Christine looks at the baby and Eddie somewhat wistfully, thinking perhaps that this could have been her stable, satisfying situation. It’s a well-executed moment.

Tommy and Christine meet but she eventually finds she cannot make that domestic scene.

Christine at first is uncomfortable with Jay and his rock band circle. She sees first-hand a gay couple, group intimacy and drug use. She declares herself a neophyte and spurns Jay’s invite to “get it on”. Moments later, she seems to abandon herself to the inevitable and joins Jay in the shower, inspiring the film’s audacious poster.

Ramon Bieri is repulsive as the crass, middle-aged tycoon from back east. First of all, he has married a teenage girl and she is ushered out of the room when Christine arrives to “talk”, hoping to promote a job for Tommy. Here’s where Christine’s naïveté really shines. Dekker strips and Christine thinks that she will simply demur and be allowed to leave. Her beating and rape are hard to take. You know Tommy will lose his mind and his violent pounding of Dekker rights the ship somewhat.

After recovering from her overdose, Christine takes the easy road and becomes a call girl. At this point I was forced to recall (Pennsylvania gal) Sharon Stone’s Ginger in Marty’s Casino and Robin Wright as Jenny in Forrest Gump – beautiful girls who prostitute themselves in many ways, throwing their pearls before swine and descending to some dark places. Oddly, Christine hooking up with Richard seemed more conventional; being a mistress with all expenses paid seemed a good choice and a common, understandable one. And, as I’ve said, casting her lot with Jay instead of Richard seemed a legit move. But – speaking of dark places – Christine’s descent to $50 whore is disturbing.

Then the film attempts to wrap with a bold counterculture statement. The closing scenes with Elroy the redneck pilot (voice actor William Callaway) are marred by distracting dubbing and by a misplaced slapstick approach but the end result is somehow legitimate. Christine gets Elroy to skywrite an obscene message for all to see, one that reveals Christine’s feelings on life and her fruitless pursuits of happiness. The youth on the ground – including black kids and a white cop – all cheer it, as they no doubt have applied the same attitude to life themselves and the older generation are outraged, some faint. And this brings up the overall tenor of The Grasshopper; youth will cheer Christine’s freewheeling – if damaging – approach to life and older, supposed-to-be-wiser folks will be shocked and lament the state of the future mothers of America.

Christine Adams is The Grasshopper, who “perched one place, then another…wherever she happened to land. And then she moved on”. This film forced me to not apply my own misguided expectations on this – or any – young woman – although I reserve and maintain the right to feel like everyone should be careful, make good choices and settle down. I was impressed by this film and by the ambitious intent of a group of TV Guys. The Grasshopper may be the most savage, brutal, depraved, depressing, outrageous, fascinating, watchable film I’ve ever seen.

The Grasshopper

  1. Anderson, Ken. The Grasshopper 1970. Dreams are What Le Cinema is For…. 2012.

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