Saturday, August 17, 2019

BLOODY MAMA 1970

"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 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
Sunned 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.



WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS MOVIE
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)

PERFORMANCES
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)

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
“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 '30 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. featuring the slogan
"The Family That Slays Together Stays Together"
The Manson Family was set to go to trial that June, and the billboard was considered to be in bad taste.
It was removed.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

15 comments:

  1. "psychobiddy"

    One could wait an entire lifetime and still not receive a gift as rich as that one word.

    This is why I read this blog. Thank you!

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    1. Ha! I wish I knew who to properly credit for that term, but like "Hag-horror" and "Grande Dame Guignol," it's become a legitimate colloquial signifier of the older-actress melodrama genre.
      But regardless of the word's origin, I do appreciate and thank you for reading my blog!

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  2. Hi Ken! Without a doubt, a great movie. I didn't know the story about the Manson Family and the advertising slogan. Really interesting! Four years ago I had the opportunity to see the film:http://cinefiliasantmiquel.blogspot.com/2015/07/mama-sangrienta-1970.html

    Bye!
    Juan

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    1. Hello, Juan!
      Yes, the violence in this movie (especially the gumplay) was something of an issue at the time. While the shadow of the Manson killings hung over it at the time of release, back in 1968 when it was originally slated to be made (with Roddy McDowall in the cast) production was halted due to public sensitivity about guns in the wake of Bobby Kennedy's assassination.
      Glad to hear you've seen the film, and I'm looking forward to reading your thoughts on it on your blog. Thanks so much for reading and taking the time to comment!

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  3. Another classic! This is probably the most in-depth treatise ever written about it. Just another reason why I love you!

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    1. Aw, the feeling's mutual, Thom! and thanks for noticing; I get a kick out of writing about movies that are usually so cursorily covered because of their camp and/or B-movie status. When I was growing up I always longed for some of my favorite movie critics to write in-depth about some of the cheesier films of the day (the ones I loved), but they almost always stuck with the mainstream and gave a paragraph or couple of lines to the Drive-In stuff. This blog allows me to indulge that longing. It's a double bonus when someone like you takes notice of it. Thanks so much for reading this, So good to hear from you!

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  4. Hi Ken,

    Shelley Winters’s performance, especially in the final twenty minutes, is really powerful. That is some nose-running, spitting, howling, method rage she has going on there. I saw this when it came out…family night at the drive-in with A Bullet for Pretty Boy.

    My personal fourteen-year-old “oh my” moment was Bruce Dern and Robert Walden in bed together. Sure Dern is a sadist–everyone in the family is twisted–but when I re-watched it recently I was kind of surprised that his homosexuality is never really an issue. It reminded how sometimes AIP slipped openly gay characters into their 60s films without comment. Off the top of my head: Angel, Angel, Down We Go, and Kevin Coughlin as teenage genius attorney for the President in Wild in the Streets. If I recall, some of the biker films had gay bikers as well.

    And Robert De Niro and Don Stroud (whose Playgirl issue I still have) sure were easy on the eyes.

    Thanks!
    Max

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    1. Hi Max
      Right off the bat I have to say I'm so jealous that you saw this when it came out. Compounded by it being in a Drive-In and on a double bill with A BULLET FOR PRETTY BOY (Which I've never seen. But if you liked that movie, you MUST check out Karen Black and Fabian ...again...in the super low-budget LITTLE LAURA & BIG JOHN).

      We would have been around the same age when it came out, and i would have had the same reaction as you about Robert Walden and Bruce Dern being lovers (I likely would have developed a crush on the horsey Dern, as, per Keith Carradine, that seems to have been my type as a teen). It's very true what you observed about how casual some of those early exploitation films were with homosexuality. They trafficked in sensationalism, but if they were targeting the youth market, they could often be surprisingly offhand about gay characters in the narrative. There's a scene in the first Billy Jack movie BORN LOSERS, where one of the biker guys succeeds at some dastardly deed, and as a reward, asks the gang leader to kiss him. It isn't just a peck on the mouth these two tough guys share, its a MAJOR, lingering opened-mouth kiss that makes Faye Dunaway and Steve McQueen's kiss in THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR look like Mickey Rooney & Judy Garland.
      I don't know about you, but had I saw this as a teen I would have been a bit beside myself with the male cast and the amount of suggestive flesh on display. For 1970 and a teen, it's quite homoerotic (Ha! Love that you still have that Playgirl issue! I stole a copy of it from our local supermarket when I'd read in RONA BARRETT that Stroud had done a centerfold).
      The cast is so good here, and indeed, Shelley Winters gives a very strong performance. She surprised me.

      A kick getting to vicariously re-experience BLOODY MAMA with your 14-year-old self, and the observations you made should have readers looking for where they can catch this gem online. Appreciate your valued contributions, Max!

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    2. Ken!

      I have seen LITTLE LAURA & BJ! I saw every BONNIE AND CLYDE knock off there was - including Dick Clark (!) and Diane Varsi in KILLERS THREE and Larry Buchanan's THE OTHER SIDE OF BONNIE AND CLYDE. Thank god for my movie-loving mother.

      Now I have to dig out BORN LOSERS asap. Thanks for the heads up!

      Max

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  5. Ken, I had wanted to see this for quite some time (ever since seeing a still photo of Shelley and her brood at bathtime on the porch.) When I finally did see it I was thunderstruck, too. I damn near broke my DVR, too, slo-mo-ing and freeze-framing that bath scene on the porch so that I could be sure to see all the nudity that was flying by. (DeNiro was surprisingly open to that sort of thing in his early days!) When you step back and look at this cast... it's just solid throughout with great character actors. I just don't think we'll ever be able to duplicate that gritty (even while strangely glam looking with the lighting and such), immediate, rowdy, raunchy feel that so many 1970s drive-in movies possess. We're too self-conscious now to pull it off properly. Thank God we have them to revisit from time to time. I LOVED "The Born Losers" in all its squalor and that kiss was a true eye-opener. The recipient, Jeremy Slate, had no clue at all that it was coming to that degree and his bemused reaction is genuine (He tries to swig his beer while there's a cigar in his mouth!) And that film has the lunacy of a latter-day Jane Russell tearing up the scenery as well! BTW, love the mentioning of how Corman let homosexual characters and eroticism slink into his movies - as did others. Thanks!

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    1. Hi Poseidon
      It's a curiosity (and a blessing to gay teens like myself) that the early 70s was a time of so many taboos being shattered. Gay youngsters in the 50s & 60s had few autoerotic outlets in mainstream cinema short of catching the sight of some blocky male star shirtless or in boxy swimtrunks.
      "Bloody Mama" was unusual in the exploitation field because there were no curvaceous female stars to exploit (where was Stella Stevens?). Like you, I recall seeing only stills of the the Baker boys bathing together or of Winters scrubbing Strouds back in the tub. Diane Varsi was nowhere to be seen. On this score alone BLOODY MAMAM was a must-see that so many of us were far too young to see.
      The freeness of actors like De Niro was quite the thing in the day (although I didn't see his jaw-dropping scene in Bertolucci's "1900" until many years later) and gave us gay kids something to fantasize about while our straight friends went gaga over...who, Jacqueline Bisset? I suspect De Niro's full-frontal in BLOODY MAMA was imperceptible in grainy 35mm and DVD, making me grateful I got to see it for the first time in Blu-ray & Hi-Def TV.
      And you're right. There's something sort of gonzo, low-down, and underground about the way independent films were made at the time that is not likely to be repeated. That's why '70s films still rule for me. Such a strange and exhilarating era in film.
      And yes, BORN LOSERS...if you can stand a film that uses rape as casually and frequently as a teen yelling "Surf's Up!" in a Beach Party movie, it's a wild retro ride. The story behind that infamous male-male kiss is as enjoyable as the kiss itself, and I recall you write about it quite amusingly on your blog. it's one of my absolute favorite movie kisses of all time. So out of left-field.
      Max Frost's insight comment referencing homosexual characters in Corman's films, and your cluing readers in on the improvised ardor of that kiss in BORN LOSERS stand as examples of why folks like to read the comment sections here--so well informed! Thanks, Poseidon (Oh, and I loved the piece you did on SYLVIA a favorite!)

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  6. There seemed to be a lot of depression-era riral gangster movies well into the 70s, I think riding both Bonnie & Clyde's considerable momentum and to satisfy audience's appetite for rampant gunplay as westerns became scarce. (Rampant gunplay, that is, that could be more easily seen as "entertainment" since it took place in the past.)

    A lot of these movies had good casts and subversive messages about the "American Dream" as we slogged through Watergate and toward the bicentennial (thinking a lot about that lately while watching mid-70s movies).

    And, you gotta admire Shelly Winters for jumping into whatever she did with both feet. I read an interview with someone associated with this movie (Don Stroud? Or maybe Corman) talking about how she would almost go into a trance while rehearsing her blocking.

    The tone got lighter with Big, Bad Mama 1 & 2 and went totally off the rails with Crazy Mama, but Corman knew when he had a winning formula.

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    1. You're so right, the glut of Depression-era gangster films really fed the dual public appetites for nostalgia (hello, Pointer Sisters, Bette Midler, and Broadway's No No Nanette) and post-Watergate desire to look at the inflation and oil crisis through the relatively safe, rebellious prism of 1930s outlaws.
      And you're right. In a book about Roger Corman I read that both Shelley Winters and Robert De Niro went full-tile "Method" while making the film: De Niro going to the location a week or so ahead of time to learn the accent, losing a lot of weight to look like a junkie, and morbidly insisting on participating in a burial scene that ultimately never made it to the screen. For Winters' part, the book recounted her needing to listen to a particularly sad piece of classical music prior to going nutso-Bismol for a big dramatic scene.
      Seeing some of Corman's other works, I can't find myself crediting him with any of the performances in this film...I seriously think he was just smart enough to stay out of these people's way.
      Of those latter films you mentioned, the ones that got increasingly silly, I remember seeing the one with Angie Dickinson where she makes no attempt to look poor, period authentic, or anything other than 1970s-era Police Woman Angie Dickinson.
      BLOODY MAMA is a product of its time in more ways than are immediately apparent. Thanks for pointing out a few of them!

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  7. Ken, forgive my off-topic question, but this film from around 50 years ago featuring Bruce Dern inspires me to mention this summer's "Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood" also featuring Dern and taking place 50 years ago. With your interest in L.A. and films of that era, I'm wondering if you've seen this new Tarantino movie or are planning to see it eventually. It's quite a recreation of how cruising around Hollywood in '69 would have looked like, with references to barely remembered films of that time such as Candy, The Illustrated Man, and Pendulum.

    If you do ever see it, see if you can spot Brenda Vaccaro's very brief cameo!

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    1. Not really off topic at all! I think it's fascinating that Dern is still acting, appearing in a major motion picture about the era his worth with Corman is associated with.
      All last summer may partner and I were driving all over Los Angles taking pictures of all the painstakingly re-created parts of Hollywood used in the film. The posters, the movie marquees, the storefronts...every day there was a new location reconfigured to look like it did in 1969. Not being a fan of Tarantino and not planning to see the film, I took these sightseeing photo excursions to be the extent of my entertainment experience with ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD.
      But friends have told me how much they liked it and assured me I'd at least get a kick out of how the film looked. Your calling my attention to it and your enthusiasm for it makes me think I should perhaps reconsider. Or at least give the DVD a try when it comes out. The subject matter and the era are right up my alley, the director, not so much. And Brenda Vaccaro? I love her!
      Thank you, Mark. I love the thematic tie-in of your comment!

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