Saturday, August 17, 2019


"All right now everybody, reach for the nightgown of the Lord!"

It’s weird to think back to a time when I chiefly only knew these great ladies of the screen from the following movie roles: Bette Davis (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Dead Ringer, The Nanny), Joan Crawford (Strait-Jacket, Berserk!), Olivia De Havilland (Lady in a Cage, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte), and Tallulah Bankhead (Die, Die My Darling), Barbara Stanwyck (The Night Walker), and Shelley Winters (The Mad Room, What’s The Matter With Helen?, Who Slew Auntie Roo?).
Certainly, this assortment reflects the tastes of a kid enamored of the cheap fright sensationalism of B-movies available on late-night TV or weekends at the movies (it wasn’t until I was in college that I came to appreciate just how distinguished these actresses’ pre-scream-queen careers were), but they also reflect a time in Hollywood when leading ladies were close to becoming an endangered species. Particularly actresses of a certain age. In the late 60’s-early’70s, if you saw an older actress on the screen at all, it was very likely as the mayhem target in a horror flick, or as the terrorizing psycho in a hag-horror exploitation film. 
Pistol Packin' Mama
Shelley Winters as Ma Parker in a 1966 episode of the Batman TV series
Shelley Winters as Ma Barker in Roger Corman's Bloody Mama - 1970

Hollywood’s youthquake explosion had little use for mature and untoned flesh, so it was characteristic of films of the time to depict the middle-aged in oversimplified, often negative terms. Older men were usually morally corrupt, impotent—figuratively and literally—figures of emasculated conformity standing in the way of the virile, rebellious antihero (think any police chief in a '70s detective movie). Women—at least those upon whom Hollywood’s male gaze no longer bestowed its singular gauge of feminine worth and validation: desirability—were portrayed as grotesques and figures to be shunned. 
Shelley Winters as Kate "Ma" Barker
Don Stroud as Herman Barker
Robert De Niro as Lloyd Barker
Clint Kimbrough as Arthur Barker
Robert Walden as Fred Barker
Diane Varsi as Mona Gibson
Bruce Dern as Kevin Dirkman

When Shelley Winters was cast as Depression-era crime matriarch Ma Barker in Roger Corman’s Bonnie & Clyde-inspired Bloody Mama, the sizable role was seen as more of a departure for the two-time Oscar winner back in 1970 than it appears to be today. A character actress known for her scene-stealing supporting roles, Winters was always a bit of a ripe performer, but it wasn’t until the late-‘60s that she began to bid adieu to the relatively subtle phase of her early career, and her film roles gradually began to take on the outsized dimensions of her then-frequent talk show appearances.

For better or worse—depending on your fondness for high-decibel melodrama with a side of stuffed ham—her performances in American International’s Wild in the Streets (1968) and her brief but memorable turn in The Mad Room (1969) became the Shelley Winters standard. These twin B-movies ushered in a decade that saw Winters delivering increasingly shrill and broad-strokes performances in a string of low-budget thrillers and TV movies while somehow still managing to wow in the occasional major release (she’s awfully good in Paul Mazursky’s Next Stop, Greenwich Village – 1976, and of course, her waterlogged, Oscar-nominated turn in 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure).
Mama Dearest
Mere months after playing mom to the fabulous Barker boys of Arkansas,

Shelley Winters played stage mother to Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo Marx
in the flop 1970 Broadway musical Minnie's Boys. 

Bloody Mama, the highly-fictionalized account of the criminal exploits of the real-life Barker Gang who terrorized the American Midwest from 1931 to 1935, plays on the since-refuted legend that Kate “Ma” Barker was the hard-as-nails ringleader of a gang of outlaws consisting of her four imbecilic sons. Screenwriter Robert Thom (director and writer of the 1969 Jennifer Jones error-in-judgement Angel, Angel Down We Go) embellishes the story with the fictional characters of Mona Gibson (Diane Varsi) a blasé, pragmatic hooker; non-familial gang member Kevin Dirkman (Bruce Dern), a stand-in for the real-life Alvin Karpis; and Sam Pendlebury (Pat Hinkle) a kidnapped Memphis cotton magnate substituting for Hamm’s Beer president and 1933 Barker gang kidnap victim William Hamm.

Directed by “King of the Bs” Roger Corman, the R-rated Bloody Mama is clearly inspired by Arthur Penn’s almost elegiac, mythologizing Bonnie and Clyde (1967), but Corman dispenses with the arthouse soft-focus treatment and goes straight for the in-your-face bluntness of Drive-In exploitation. The result is bracing sensationalism rooted in a look at Depression-era Americana that isn’t interested in romanticizing the white-trash south, ennobling its disenfranchised poor, or feeding into the folk-hero myths of Public Enemy outlaws of the 1930s.
Kate Barker says goodbye to the Ozarks and her ineffectual husband George (Alex Nicol).
In another example of foreshadowed casting, Winters here looks just like Lena Gogan,
 the mountain matriarch she will play seven years hence in Disney's Pete's Dragon (1977)

Before Bloody Mama is even 15 minutes in, there have been 2 rapes (one resulting in a broken arm), male frontal nudity, implied incest, newsreel footage of Klansmen marching in Washington in protest of anti-lynching laws (Whaddaya know, MAGA ain’t new!), a man stomped to death, and hillbilly housewife Kate Barker taking off with her sons in a car stolen from the local sheriff and kissing her husband goodbye with the words, “You never did mount me proper. I guess your heart wasn’t in it.” And the hits keep on coming.

As envisioned by Corman and company, Ma Barker is a Bible-thumping, hymn-singing sociopath with a prudish streak when it comes to profanity (everyone else’s, anyway) and women’s emancipation (“Women was showing their bodies in public, smoking, doing God knows what else!”); yet thinks nothing of murder, kidnapping, and robbery so long as it secures her and her boys their stake in what she deems to be her proper chunk of the American Dream.
Mother Knows Best
Shunned as outlaws and outsiders, in a world seen as "them" vs. "us"
 Ma Barker makes her own rules when it comes to family 

A staunch believer in family-first loyalty and unquestioning obedience, Ma’s amorality, which extends to sleeping with her sons when the spirit moves her, brings about a kind of trickle-down depravity as her deplorable male offspring lay claim to a virtual smorgasbord of psychological disorders. Eldest boy Herman is psychotic given to blind, murderous rages; addlepated Lloyd is a drug addict; Fred is a sexual masochist who recruits his prison cellmate into the gang; and Arthur—seemingly the only member of the gang who can read and do math, and thus the brains of the outfit—shares his brothers' degeneracy (and women, on occasion) but is emotionally withdrawn to the point of shutdown.

When Lloyd tells a soon-to-be victim, “I’m not people, see? None of us Barkers is people, he knows whereof he speaks.
Feeling a little down, Ma chooses her youngest son's lover to be her bedtime company

Newsreel footage and historical photos punctuating the crimes of the Barker gang make their social-climbing ascendance as Public Enemies look like an anarchic vision of the American success ethic. Meanwhile, Ma’s perverse insistence on keeping God and scripture at the forefront of their barbarism turns into a solid indictment of the role religious hypocrisy has always played in this country’s tradition of blindered self-mythologizing. 

Ma Barker and her motley gang are outlaws and outsiders, but if you’re looking for sympathetic misfits turned hardened criminals by a harsh world, you’ll have to look elsewhere. These Barkers are strictly dog-eat-dog.

I’m a huge fan of Shelley Winters. Like Joan Crawford and Faye Dunaway, she’s an actress I find to be equally entertaining whether she’s bad or good. Happily, she’s good a great deal of the time. When I came to Bloody Mama (a movie I dearly wanted to see back in 1970, but saw for the first time this year) everything about it—the title, the subject, Corman, the American International thing, Winters’ late-career embracing of her tendency to go straight over the top—had me anticipating a deliriously campy evening of trash cinema. I was happily disappointed.
Pat Hingle as Sam Adams Pendlebury
On one level Bloody Mama is everything you’d expect from a Roger Corman film: a fast-paced, slightly loony meld of comedy, melodrama, and mayhem…the typical Corman pseudo-ineptitude served up with amble doses of sensationalized action, violence, and sleaze. Bloody Mama never comes close to giving Bonnie and Clyde anything to worry about (it doesn’t really even live up to its own tabloid title), but by its own modest merits, it succeeds in being a fresh, wholly satisfying and enjoyable no-holds-barred update of the classic era gangster flick. Solid storytelling on a budget, It’s arguably Corman’s best film.
Scatman Crothers as Moses
What I wasn’t expecting was for a movie called Bloody Mama to be so unironically good! The drama is compelling, the laughs (surprise of surprises) are of the intentional sort, the performances have dimension, and the film’s threadbare look works to its benefit. Shelley Winters' Ma Barker is pitch-perfect. And that includes the times she's pitching right over the fence. Is it a good performance? I'd say so. Good in the way an overstimulated movie like this needs. By turns funny, moving, and ultimately monstrous, I personally think she's better here than she is in The Poseidon Adventure
Diane Varsi, who appeared with Shelley Winters in Wild in the Streets (1968)
won an Oscar nomination for her film debut in Peyton Place (1957)

An observation attributed to director Martin Ritt (Hud, Norma Rae) is “Directing is 80% casting.” In the case of Bloody Mama, I’d say it’s more like 99 and 44/100%. Without argument, Bloody Mama's outrageously distinguished cast is both its chief asset and primary recommendation. With the exceptions of Don Stroud and Diane Varsi, Method acting devotee Shelley Winters heads a cast made up almost entirely of members of The Actors Studio...veteran (Pat Hingle, who's a standout)...and novice alike. The performances are so compelling and detailed, the character-study side of Bloody Mama actually made the car chases and gunplay feel like a distraction.
In this, his second film, future superstar and multi-Oscar-winner Robert De Niro is impossible not to watch. Though a generous ensemble player, your eyes stay trained on him no matter who's at the center of a scene. It's no surprise that he's good, it's just amazing to see so much of his talent in evidence so early on.
Bloody Mama marks the film debut of actor Robert Walden (of TV's Lou Grant).
Clint Kimbrough (right) made his film debut playing another quiet, bookish character in Hot Spell (1957)

“I’m loud and I’m vulgar, and I wear the pants in the house because somebody’s got to, but I’m not a monster. I’m not!”   Martha in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Traditionally, it doesn't take much for a woman to be seen as a monster in films. Hell, in psycho-biddy films, she just has to be old. In Ma Barker you have a character who is indeed loud, vulgar, and wears the figurative pants...but comparatively speaking, those are her good points. Bloody Ma Barker is a monster, the genuine article. And unlike the romanticized subjects of so many of those Dust Bowl bandit films that came in the wake of Bonnie and Clyde, she's not anybody's idea of a heroine, anti or otherwise.
Kevin watches in horror as Ma Barker earns her bloody nickname 
Bloody Mama isn't a film suited to everybody's taste, but thanks to Roger Corman's stay-out-of-the-way direction, a smarter-than-it-needed-to-be screenplay, and as embodied by Shelley Winters' large as life and twice as natural performance; I'm persuaded to dub this fabricated incarnation of the '30s crime matriarch something of a fabulous monster for those willing to take a step through this 1970 looking glass.

Bloody Mama was released in Los Angeles in April of 1970. Earlier that year in January, public outcry met the unveiling of a billboard for the film on Sunset Blvd. The ad featured the tagline "The Family That Slays Together Stays Together".  With the Manson Family trial set for June that year, many considered the billboard to be in bad taste and eventually it was removed.

In 1977 Euro-Caribbean singing group Boney M had a hit with "Ma Baker" a retelling of the Ma Barker legend to a disco beat. When asked why the name was changed to "Baker," lyricist Fred Jay stated it was simply because it sounded better.

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2019