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The Ballad of the Sad Cafe (1991)

PG-13  |   |  Comedy, Drama, Mystery  |  June 1991 (USA)
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A tangled triangle. In the rural South of the early 20th century, Miss Amelia is the town eccentric, selling corn liquor and dispensing medicine. She takes in her half-sister's son, a ... See full summary »



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Cast overview, first billed only:
Cork Hubbert ...
Lawyer Taylor
Lanny Flaherty ...
Mert Hatfield ...
Stumpy McPhail
Anne Pitoniak ...
Mrs. McPhail
Frederick Johnson ...
Lauri Raymond ...
Sadie Ricketts
Henry Ford Crimp (as Joe Stephens)
Keith Wommack ...
Tom Rainey
Kevin Wommack ...
George Rainey


A tangled triangle. In the rural South of the early 20th century, Miss Amelia is the town eccentric, selling corn liquor and dispensing medicine. She takes in her half-sister's son, a diminutive crook-back named Lymon. He suggests they open a café in the downstairs of her large house. Marvin Macy gets out of prison and returns to town; turns out he was married to Amelia but it wasn't consummated. He pleaded, then got angry. Is he back for revenge? Eventually, Amelia and Marvin stage a no-holds-barred fight in the café. Lymon's complicated response to Marvin and to Cousin Amelia figures in the resolution. Written by <>

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


Comedy | Drama | Mystery

Motion Picture Rating (MPAA)

Rated PG-13 for a scene of violence | See all certifications »





Release Date:

June 1991 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

The Ballad of the Sad Café  »

Filming Locations:


Box Office


$184,890 (USA)

Company Credits

Show detailed on  »

Technical Specs

Sound Mix:



Aspect Ratio:

1.78 : 1
See  »

Did You Know?


Vanessa Redgrave has said of this film: "George Burns [Robert A. Burns], who lectured in the English department at Austin University [in Austin, Texas], coached me for the Southern dialect and accent of Miss Amelia. Not only that, he knew how to wiggle and flap his ears, and he made an electrical device that, placed behind Cork Hubbert's ears, produced a wiggle for the camera that convinced all spectators that Cousin Lymon could flap his ears". See more »


Several times earlier in the film, we are shown how the only way to arrive at Miss Amelia's secret still is by wading - neck-deep - through a muddy swamp. Yet late in the film when Marvin Macy and Cousin Lymon are shown at Miss Amelia's still, their clothes are clean and dry. See more »


Mary Hale: Marvin changed himself. That time he loved Miss Amelia. Well, it seemed like he changed completely -- he was -- he was good to me, and to Henry... You remember that, doncha'?
Rev. Willin: I remember that.
Mary Hale: Why'd she throw him out? Why'd she marry him and then throw him out? Why?
Rev. Willin: I don't know. All I know is... that it takes two people to be in love. It takes the... lover... and the beloved. But these two, they come from... diff'rent countries. And sometimes, the... the belove is the cause for all the, all the...
See more »


Featured in From the Journals of Jean Seberg (1995) See more »

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User Reviews

Ford should change their motto to - "Built Redgrave Tough"
21 April 2008 | by (Bookseller of the Blue Ridge) – See all my reviews

"The Ballad of the Sad Café" worked hard at its image, but when it came down to crunch-time, it was left standing in its own self-created dust.

One cannot image saying this out loud, but if Vanessa Redgrave's Amelia were to fight John Wayne or even Clint Eastwood, my hard-earned dollars would have to go to Redgrave. Her portrayal of Amelia was as close to perfection and consumed with more detailed dedication than most actors are willing to give to any multi-million dollar contracted persona. Redgrave gave Amelia this soulful drawl that was a blend of her own unique voice and a hard-earned woman from the south. To the average viewer, this could be construed as annoying, but as the film progressed it became her – Miss Amelia transforming this stage beauty into a roughneck. It was Redgrave's performance, as well as her interaction with the other characters, that made this film stand tall – but not the tallest. The others following her performance were needed, but not stellar. As we moved past the murky cliché image passed on by every set designer hired for the post-Depression South job, the minor characters felt like poster board. The image was needed to set the scene, but the characters of the town had no other purpose. Take for example Rod Steiger's vision of some old, wild spoken preacher. His scenes alone will make any viewer question the validity of this off-the-beaten-path town. The main two players who surrounded Amelia battled with charm for the admirable top scene-stealing moment, but due to the lacking direction – it just seemed faded. The most absurd of the two (albeit both rank high among the questionable sanity line) is Cork Hubbard who plays Amelia's "cousin" who shows up randomly one night. His character is never quite defined, he lacks true motive, and his loyalties remain uncertain. He plays no vital role in this film outside of forcing us, the viewers, to question his sanity and honesty. Can you create a character simply by sticking out your tongue, flicking your ears, and punching your chest and head? Finally, there is the other end of the absurd – Keith Carradine. Callow's close-ups of this tormented man build character, but our lack of understanding between him and Amelia causes his purpose to flounder. These were the characters, as cliché Southern as they were – some stood forward and attempted to create an absurdist period piece, and I cannot argue that they failed.

Where "Ballad of the Sad Café" failed to rise above mediocrity was in the cinematography and narrative. This film was about Amelia, and her need for other souls in her life. The audience's level of comfort with the arrival of her midget cousin was entertaining – one couldn't help but wonder if he was honest or merely a confidence man attempt to leech off a warm heart. Cork Hubbard's character is never quite understood, but we do accept him with brief shots of him and Amelia doing small things together. It is his idea that transforms from a recluse businesswoman to a bona-fide café owner. The problem is that director Callow never quite takes us to that dramatic take level between Cork and Redgrave – is the man crazy or does he represent all of Amelia's family? I needed something from Callow that brought these two out of the David Lynch-esquire relationship that they had. Then our pool gets even deeper with the addition of Carradine as Amelia's "love interest". Using the technique of a flashback within a flashback, we see the two wed, but never consummate their love – which Amelia's anger against their love drawing him into the world of madness. Why was Amelia so angry? Why was there no connection between Carradine and Redgrave? Why was this even in the film? With the lack of focus towards these characters's connection, the eventual scenes between the two made no sense – throw in Cork's choice and it just gets completely discombobulated. While there were a few beautiful choreographed scenes that Callow created, the inability to transfer his characters from point A to point B. I lost focus, interest, and my care for the characters plummeted when I didn't understand the ultimate question – "why"?

Overall, "The Ballad of the Sad Café" began with a bang, but ended with a very small crack of a firecracker. My emotional feel of this film swung up and down, up and down, and eventually stayed further down mainly due to the lack of understanding of the motives of the characters. Redgrave did a phenomenal job as Amelia, and while the other characters (outside of the random Steiger) tried their best, I just didn't quite understand who they were. Their motives were so muddled that when the emotional ending finally occurred, I was apathetic. Director Callow seemed to have been lacking importing connecting scenes that would allow us to understand the dynamic relationship between all of our main players. Callow created some beautiful scenes where faces seemed to overlap the scenery, which allowed us to focus on Amelia – or Carradine, but nothing was explained or developed. The film played out with anger, discover, happiness, flashback, anger, anger, anger, fade out. Without the comparative connectors, this transformed from distinguished period film to actors playing parts in front of camera. It was a shame, because "Sad Café" had the promise, it just couldn't deliver.

Grade: ** ½ out of *****

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