Brenda Starr (1989) poster

Brenda Starr (1989)


USA. 1989.


Director – Robert Ellis Miller, Screenplay – James David Buchanan, Noreen Stone & Jenny Wolkind, Story – James David Buchanan & Noreen Stone, Based on the Comic Strip Created by Dale Messick, Producer – Myron A. Hyman, Photography – Freddie Francis, Music – Johnny Mandel, Visual Effects – Illusion Arts (Supervisors – Syd Dutton & Bill Taylor), Animation – Colossal Pictures/SRSFX (Supervisor – Gary Gutierrez), Special Effects Supervisor – Joseph A. Unsinn, Production Design – John J. Lloyd. Production Company – Tribune Entertainment/New World Pictures/AM-PM.


Brooke Shields (Brenda Starr), Tony Peck (Mike Randall), Timothy Dalton (Basil St John), Diana Scarwid (Libby ‘Lips’ Lipscomb), Jeffrey Tambor (Vladimir), June Gable (Luba), Charles Durning (Francis I. Livright), Nestor Serrano (Jose)


Comic-book artist Mike Randall is working on the ‘Brenda Starr’ comic-strip, concerning the adventures of girl reporter Brenda Starr, when Brenda turns around and starts to disagree with the way he is drawing her. Mike draws himself into the strip and joins her adventures. Brenda is assigned to find scientist Gerhard Von Kreutzer who has created an ultra-powerful new rocket fuel. Heading to Brazil, she is aided by the handsome and mysterious Basil St John and pursued by both the Russians, who want the formula, and her rival Libby Lipscomb, who wants to out scoop her.

Brenda Starr, Reporter is one of the classic syndicated comic strips. Created in 1940, it caused controversy because it was one of the few comic-strips drawn by a woman Dale Messick. Initially only distributed as a Sunday supplement, it soon became a regular daily strip. Brenda was a fabulous and sexy reporter whose adventures were as much a mix of romance as thrills, while Messick made a point of always keeping Brenda’s clothing up with the latest fashions. The comic-strip was running in 250 newspapers at its height and was being published right up until its cancellation in 2011. Dale Messick retired in 1980 (and died in 2005) and the editorship has been successively inherited by a string of women.

Brenda first appeared on film in the thirteen-episode Columbia serial Brenda Starr, Reporter (1945) played by Joan Woodbury. There have been other attempts to put her on film with the ABC tv pilot Brenda Starr (1976) starring Jill St John and another unaired 30 minute pilot Brenda Starr, Reporter (1979) featuring Sherry Jackson.

This film adaptation was a disaster that has been reviled by almost everybody. The film was originally shot in 1986, way before Timothy Dalton had appeared as James Bond. It appeared theatrically in Europe in 1989. Its distributors, even in this age of instant video dumping shelves, held it up nearly six years before finally giving it a video release in the US. Part of the problem is that the people involved in the production probably realised they were dealing with dated material but their only way of dealing with it appears to be to treat it with outright derision.

Brenda Starr (Brooke Shields) and Basil St John (timothy Dalton) in Brenda Starr (1989)
Brenda Starr (Brooke Shields) and the villainous Basil St John (timothy Dalton)

It is clear that nobody involved in the exercise is treating it with the slightest shred of seriousness. The film reaches execrable depths – all of the villains are played as incompetently bumbling slapstick Russians; all the editors in the film are shown as bawling tyrants who fire reporters at a moment’s notice for failing to turn out screaming tabloid headlines. The climax with most of the various goodies and baddies in the water engaging in a game of catch with a handbag, before Brooke Shields waterskiis in to save the day on the backs of two crocodiles, quite defies belief.

On every level, Brenda Starr is a bad film. However, it almost discovers itself as camp. Both Brooke Shields and her rival Diana Scarwid choose to play it as a duel of high-fashion bitchery. During a chase sequence, Brooke Shields rips a dress and has to stop at a conveniently located dress shop to buy several new outfits; or there is the moment where she uses a nail-file as a convenient lock pick and then stops in her rescue attempt to file a nail. Her finest moment is surely when she gets up out of hospital bed to open an entire wardrobe full of clothes (located in her hospital room) with the breathy line, “Now let me find something nifty to wear.” And each of the ludicrously colourful outfits is paraded through the film as the absurdity it is.

The best humour the film creates for itself is the intertextual play between Brenda and her cartoonist (Tony Peck), with she constantly complaining to him how her handbags are never big enough to carry her notepad, or how she would never in reality be able to afford her wardrobe on a reporter’s salary. Or how she responds to his challenge to toughen her language up with a barrage of ‘hecks’ and ‘creepers’, or regards him as a pervert upon seeing a navel for the first time. The running battle between the two at least proves amusing, even if Peck’s character is a total wimp.

Trailer here

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