Brenda Starr (1976)

In my review of the 1945 serial Brenda Starr, Reporter, I noted that there was a TV movie based on the same character (directed by Mel Stuart, it aired May 8, 1976 on ABC); I was able to track down a copy, so consider this an addendum to my survey of Brenda on film. As mentioned in my previous article, Brenda Starr, Reporter was a popular newspaper comic strip created by Dale Messick in 1940 (born Dalia Messick, she chose the androgynous byline “Dale” to get past editors who wouldn’t look at work by a woman cartoonist). During the 1970s there were numerous television adaptations of comic strip and comic book properties, as well as a general renewal of interest in the pulps and comics of the 1930s and ’40s. Unlike many of the pulp revival works of the ’80s and ’90s, however, most of the adaptations of the ’70s are thoroughly contemporary, placing their superheroes, gumshoes, and explorers in the modern world. The Brenda Starr newspaper strip was still going strong and keeping up with the times, so this version of the character is a jet-setter and spends time fending off the advances of a rival television newsman as well as tracking down leads the old-fashioned way.

The film isn’t on YouTube in its entirety, but the opening credits are, so you can hear the blend of action and romance in Lalo Schifrin’s stylish theme song (the soaring tune is heard in various guises throughout the film, transformed into a sultry “love theme,” and even presented as a bossa nova when Brenda travels to Rio):

Like the 1989 feature film starring Brooke Shields, the 1976 Brenda Starr begins with the reporter (played by Jill St. John) defusing a hostage situation, in this case a desperate first-timer whose plan of robbing a bank has led to him being cornered by police sharp-shooters. Only Brenda Starr can help him, first as a potential hostage, and then as an advocate who promises to do what she can for him. This little scene establishes Brenda as brave and clear-headed, but also compassionate. Back at the office of her newspaper (unnamed in this version), she gets a tip from a contact at the airport: billionaire Lance O’Toole has just arrived on a private plane and was whisked away by a waiting ambulance. (O’Toole is played by Victor Buono, the longtime character actor who often served as a TV-budget Orson Welles, playing characters who were alternately pompous, jovial, or threatening; he played delusional villain King Tut on the Batman TV series.)

Just as Brenda is convincing her editor, A. J. Livwright (Sorrell Booke, who would play Boss Hogg on The Dukes of Hazzard), to run a story based on this tip, Brenda’s rival, TV reporter Roger Randall, goes live with his own scoop. (This is one of those movies where people turn on the TV at the exact moment necessary to get the report necessary to the plot, but in this case Randall himself called Livwright to alert him.) Brenda sneaks into O’Toole’s hospital room disguised as a nun and, overhearing O’Toole discuss his case with a German specialist, Dr. Weimar, she learns that O’Toole believes himself to be the victim of a voodoo curse–or, more accurately, macumba, the similar animist religion from Brazil (although in this film the two terms are used almost interchangeably).

Then the bodies start piling up. Medical science cannot save O’Toole (whose death is again scooped by Roger Randall). Brenda discovers supermodel Kentucky Smith dead in her own home after investigating her connection to the sculptor Dax Leander, whom O’Toole blamed for the statue that made him vulnerable. Indeed, it turns out that the case is deeply intertwined with the Brazilian macumba: not just O’Toole, but several other tycoons, including the owner of Brenda’s paper, are being blackmailed after being approached by Leander to make statues of them–statues that happened to include real hair and fingernail clippings from their subjects! Eager to unravel the truth–and to avenge her friend Kentucky, who was romantically involved with Leander and appears to have been killed for revealing what she knew–Brenda offers to take the money to Brazil on behalf of the blackmailed macumba victims.

Aside from the story, Brenda has another reason to visit Brazil: the mysterious eyepatch-wearing Basil St. John hails from Brazil, and while it has been months since Brenda saw him, she can’t get him out of her mind. Although St. John never makes an appearance on screen, reminders of his presence are everywhere: Brenda’s hotel room is graced by a bouquet of black orchids, St. John’s signature flower (although the film doesn’t go into detail, in the comics, St. John’s family is subject to a madness that can only be kept in check with an extract of the black orchid; St. John is such a romantic character, no wonder only Timothy Dalton could play him in the 1989 movie); Brenda is led into a roundabout trap by a man with an eyepatch, whom she at first mistakes for St. John; and ultimately the villain of the piece threatens St. John with a voodoo statue in his likeness to keep Brenda in line.

The second half of the movie leans into both the exoticism of the South American jungle and the scary otherness of mind control and ecstatic macumba rituals. Like many pulp adventures made after it became increasingly uncool to demonize other cultures and their religions, but not so uncool that they wouldn’t be used as exotic window dressing, this movie has it both ways: Carlos Vargas (Joel Fabiani), one of Brenda’s contacts in Rio, explains that macumba is an understandable reaction to the enslavement and exploitation that produced it, and that its magic isn’t meant to be used for evil (spoiler alert: the magic totally ends up being used for evil). Alas, it turns out that he, too, is under the spell of the macumba, thanks to the magic of the macumba priestess, Luisa (Barbara Luna). But Luisa isn’t the villain either; she is ultimately a sympathetic character, and she helps Brenda turn the tables and uses her magic for good after a sisterly heart-to-heart talk.

Who is the villain? Well, I normally avoid spelling out the whole plot, but since this movie isn’t that easy to find, I’ll place a spoiler section below. Although made for television and definitely a product of its time, Brenda Starr isn’t a bad movie: shallow, perhaps, but diverting. The mixture of magic and very-special-guest TV actors is strongly reminiscent of Fantasy Island and other shows I watched regularly as a kid, and you don’t have to know anything about the source material to follow the plot. This was the era of Charlie’s Angels (although this movie filmed in 1975, Charlie’s Angels beat it to air by premiering in March of ’76), and while Brenda isn’t violent herself, she has a knack for getting into situations where people around her die and get hurt.

Sex symbol Jill St. John plays Brenda as a thoroughly self-sufficient career woman who pursues romance on her own terms. Her heart may belong to Basil St. John, but in the mean time she has her choice of men for companionship, and like comic-strip Brenda, she has an extensive wardrobe (and a couple of scenes where she models a bikini or lingerie, for reasons critical to the plot, you can be sure). She even tries to use her feminine wiles on the handsome and egomaniacal Roger Randall (Jed Allan, best-known for a long stint on Days of Our Lives), but in the end these scenes of seduction, titillation, and (in the third act) sexual menace are neutralized by the very fact that it’s a made-for-television production, safe enough for the whole family to watch together.

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

In case you’re curious to solve the mystery but aren’t interested in tracking this one down for yourself, suffice it to say that Lance O’Toole not only faked his death, he set up the entire macumba scheme himself as part of a bigger master plan. Once out of the public eye, he planned to start his own private kingdom deep in the Brazilian jungle, with his absolute rule enforced by macumba mind control. First the jungle, then the world! Carlos, Luisa, and sculptor Dax Leander are under his control, and he had Kentucky Smith killed because she knew too much. Not only that, but he intends to make Brenda Starr his bride, the queen of his new reign. As for the mysterious Dr. Weimar, that was Roger Randall in disguise: that’s how he was able to scoop Brenda, and it also gets him involved with the drama in the jungle.

Ultimately, O’Toole’s magic is used against him when Brenda convinces Luisa to release Leander from the trance he is in and he makes a statue in O’Toole’s likeness. Just another episode in the career of Brenda Starr, reporter!

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