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Country Goes to the Movies, part II: Ode to Billie Joe

By Robert Loy, May 1997

It all started with Bobbie Gentry's 1967 smash crossover hit "Ode to Billie Joe." This sultry ballad told the story of two young lovers who threw some unnamed object off the bridge. People all over the country were wondering and debating about just what the heck this object was and why they deep-sixed it.

I was in fifth grade at the time, and the consensus among my classmates was that it was a baby. (It should probably be noted, however, that we were all pretty obsessed with the baby-making process at the time.) Whatever it was, Billie Joe, the male half of this star-crossed pair, shortly thereafter threw himself in after it and drowned.

In 1976, some Hollywood hotshot saw the cinematic possibilities in this unsolved mystery. To write the screenplay, they hired Herman Raucher, who was fresh off a resounding success with "Summer of '42," and he appeared to be well on his way to becoming one of the biggest writers in Tinseltown. But he made one mistake (this movie) and was never heard from again.

The question of who would direct was a vital one. It would require a sure, sensitive touch to assure this Southern gothic tale was treated with the dignity and decorum it deserved. So after a long exhaustive search who did they pick? Max Baer. That's right, Jethro Bodine from the "Beverly Hillbillies."

The movie opens with Billie Joe waiting on the bridge for his friend Bobby Lee (all names of characters are leftovers from "Petticoat Junction"). They discuss bra sizes. She's up to a 32C, but BillieJoe predicts she'll be wearing a 96 before her papa lets her date. He is so bedazzled by her bosom, he doesn't ask her the obvious question "Why are you talking so weird? Is that supposed to be a Southern accent?"

Bobby Lee's mother is worried (rightly so) about her daughter's sap rising (a pseudo-Southern expression for hormones running amok). What she really ought to be worried about is that the girl is 15 years old and not only has a very high sap level, but also still has an imaginary friend named Benjamin that she talks to.

What Bobby Lee's dad is worried about is getting the eggs to the market. Halfway across this rickety one-lane bridge, he and Bobby Lee meet up with a carful of drunken rednecks. Nobody wants to back up and let the other pass so they solve this dilemma by the time-honored Southern traffic control method of ramming head-on into each other several times. Dad loses this game of chicken and ends up in a truck hanging halfway off the bridge. Bobby Lee runs to the sawmill where her brother James and Billie Joe work to get some help.

She's doesn't appear to be real worried about dear old dangling Dad, however, because as they're driving back to the bridge, Bobby Lee is lustily eyeing Billie Joe's bald chest and playing footsie with him. Sap is running everywhere, and I don't mean just the dialogue - although that's plenty sappy, too. For example, when James calls Bobby Lee a brain (for getting the redneck's license tag number) she actually says (believe it or don't) "I'm a body too - with desires. Somebody better pay attention to that cuz my blood is racing, and my ample breasts are bursting. "

Although her bosom doesn't go boom just yet, others are also concerned about Bobby Lee's breast health. When she tells Billie Joe her fatherwon't allow her to receive gentleman callers because she'sonly 15, he reminds her she's also 32 (C cup) and she better start using them before they go bad and fall off.

Dad thinks they're on pretty tight, however, and refuses to change the rule. Billie Joe is stubborn, and he comes a' courting anyway. Bobby Lee tries to dissuade him. "If you have any feelings at all for me, suh," she says, "and any hope of squeezing my soft and pliant flesh this evening, you better stop and consider what I'm saying. "

(Are you starting to see now why Herman Raucher was never heard from again?)

There's a big hoe-down jamboree that week, and Billie Joe tries to put the moves on Bobby Lee again there, but one of his buddies from the sawmill pulls him away and forces him to drink massive quantities of Schlitz. (Either Schlitz was a major sponsor of this fiasco of a film, or there wasn't much choice of brews in Mississippi in 1953 because everybody is drinking the Beer That Milwaukee Famous - except Bobby Lee. She doesn't drink at all - maybe she's afraid it'll make her ample breasts explode.)Billie Joe gets drunker and drunker. A carful of loose women from Yazoo City arrive, wearing nothing but sheets. One of them drops her bedclothes and beckons to Billie Joe, who for some reason just stands there sweating.

After the jamboree Billie Joe disappears, doesn't come home for a couple of days. Bobby Lee is walking down by the baptismal pond, dreaming her usual X-rated daydreams. Her playmate Benjamin, who up to now has been invisible and imaginary, is now a cowboy doll, and he's with her, just in case she runs into Billie Joe and just in case he wants to throw something off a bridge.

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