Handle With Care (aka Citizens Band): Demme’s Feature, Part of Small Town Trilogy

Initially released as Citizens Band, Handle with Care failed at the box-office twice. The second title, Handle with Care, was less successful than the original, which at least did justice to the film’s concerns.

Jonathan Demme’s movie would have been more successful had it been released earlier (in the late 1960s), or later (in the 1980s), but in the context of the 1970s, it was an orphan.

Handle with Care resonates more strongly when examined in relation to Demme’s two later (and better) small-town works, Melvin and Howard (1980) and Something Wild (1986).

Based on original screenplay by Paul Brickman, it explores the social psychology of CB radio operators in Mid-America. Set in a small (unidentified) California town, the story centers on a community of eccentric individuals who share love–actually obsession–to talk on the air. A folk comedy composed of loosely tied vignettes; it is a quirky study of half-a-dozen characters. The film’s premise is Freudian, juxtaposing the individuals’ unrepressed ids with their more socially shaped egos and identities.

Handle with Care shows how CB radios enable people to express their hidden sexual fantasies to strangers in a manner they would not dare in personal face-to-face interaction. It also shows that, under certain circumstances, strangers could truly transform themselves into a close-knit community. The film thus demonstrates the paradox of a mass medium (radio), which at once separates and unifies, helping individuals maintain their anonymity but also make them feel they belong to a larger community.

Three triangles are at the center of the narrative. The first consists of Spider (Paul LeMat), his father Papa Thermodyne (Robert C. Blossom), a drunken bum, and his brother Dean (Bruce McGill). The second triangle is made of the brothers and Pam (Candy Clark), the girl they both like. The Angels compose the third triangle: Chrome Angel (Charles Napier), a truck driver, Dallas Angel (Ann Wedgeworth), and Portland Angel (Marcia Rodd). The two women meet accidentally on a bus only to realize they are married to the same man, Chrome, a con man.

Like in American Graffiti, these individuals spend as much time in their cars as anywhere else, but there is a basic difference: they are in their car by themselves and talking into the airwaves fulfills subconscious desires.

The protagonists’ public names are all icons of pop culture: Spider, Electra, Warlock, Cochise, Hot Coffee, Chrome Angel, Smilin’ Jack, the Red Baron. The radio helps to unleash their most hidden sexual fantasies. For instance, Electra (Pam’s name), otherwise an ordinary girl, breathes into the air outrageous sexual words that overexcite a man so much he reaches orgasm in his truck. Chrom Angel, who’s also listening to Electra’s fantasies, piles up a rig and finds himself in an accident.

Spider, the film’s hero (whose name is Blane), is by profession a mechanic, running a CB repair shop. He is a self-styled crusader who cuts off the wavebands violators of the FCC regulations. A number of parasites make his “enemy list”: a red-neck Fascist obsessed with Communism; the priest, who sees great danger in America’s increasing secularization; and an old man who’s most interested in reminiscing about the past.

There is no communication between the father, a retired truck driver, and Spider. At one point, failing to wake his father, Spider walks to the other room and calls him on the radio transmitter; the old man immediately awakes up! In fact, the father comes to life only when he uses the CB.

The radio also helps to integrate the community. In the film’s climax, an old man is lost in the woods during torrential rains. With no exception, every member is searching for him, and the CB proves to be most useful. In mood, this forest sequence bears resemblance to the magical sequence in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. The image of strangers holding hands together signifies a collective quasi-religious ritual.

The film’s eccentrics could be descendants of Preston Sturges (Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, Hail the Conquering Hero), though the style is decidedly different. Demme’s “touch” is lighter and less frenzied than Sturges’s.

The casting of Paul LeMat and Candy Clark, both of American Graffiti’s fame, suggests some continuity, though Handle with Care is a more original work, one that defies generic conventions and types. If in the Lucas film, cars were the adolescents’ dominant means of interaction, in Demme’s, radios replace cars. But radios fulfill similar function to cars: they define their protagonists’ space and connect between their private and public lives.