Bloody Mama (1970) Roger Corman

This article is part of the ROGER CORMAN BLOGATHON hosted by Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear. Click here to check out more Corman reviews!

If you were a young teenage movie lover  in the late 1950’s or in the  early 1960’s Roger Corman was most likely a major influence on your movie going habits whether you knew it or not. Rock and Roll films, teen rebellion, gangsters, monsters, Sci-Fi, Corman did them all pumping them out, three, four or more films a year. Corman, along with A.I.P., practically created the teenage movie market. My own first Roger Corman film on the big screen was “The Masque of Red Death” with Vincent Price, Hazel Court and then Beatle Paul McCartney’s girlfriend, Jane Asher.   On TV, I caught up with some of his early 1950’s flicks like “Attack of the Crab Monsters,” “Five Guns West,” “A Bucket of Blood,” “I, Mobster” and “Machine Gun Kelly.” Corman directed four gangster films in his career, the third being 1967’s “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” with a way over the top performance by Jason Robards Jr. as Al Capone. But this was only a warm-up for 1970’s “Bloody Mama” with Shelley Winters whose performance as the machine gun totting Ma Barker made Robards Al Capone seem meek and timid.

1970 was the beginning of a new era in American film whose flame was lit just three years earlier in 1967. The restrictive production code was gone replaced by a rating system that allowed for more “adult” stories to be put on the screen. This translated into varying degrees of sophisticated filmmaking and wild abandon exploitation film depending on who was behind the camera. Corman always one to exploit, obviously was in the second grouping. After pushing the limits of the dying production code in such mid to late 60’s films like “The Wild Angels” and “The Trip,” Corman in 1970 was ready to go all the way.

The first golden age of the gangster film was the early 1930’s with violent pre-code films like “Little Caesar,” “The Public Enemy” and “Scarface” spitting blood, guts and sex all over their urban streets. Those glory days were snuffed out by the production code only to be revitalized in a slightly more cleansed form in the late 1930’s by Warner Brothers with Cagney and Bogart in classic gangland works like “The Roaring Twenties” and “Angels with Dirty Faces.” Some ten years later underworld mayhem hit the screens again with “High Sierra,” “White Heat” and “Key Largo.” Almost a decade later, still another cycle of criminal films exploded on to the screen with “Al Capone,” “Baby Face Nelson” and Roger Corman’s “Machine Gun Kelly.” Unlike prior cycles this one lasted longer continuing into the early 1960’s with other low budget works like “Pay or Die,” “The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond,” “Mad Dog Coll” and “The Purple Gang” before dying out. In 1967, Warner Brothers released what former WB head Jack Warner thought was a dog of a film called “Bonnie and Clyde.” The film not only turned into a financial hit, it became a symbol to the future of American filmmaking in what would become known as the New Hollywood.

Kate “Ma” Barker and her sons were rural outlaws in the tradition of Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson. Roger Corman, King of the B’s who earned that title knowing what the public wanted, at least the portion of the public he focused in on, the emerging youth market. Corman, as previously mentioned, was no newcomer to the underworld gangster genre having already directed “I, Mobster,” “Machine Gun Kelly” and more recently, “The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre,” the same year as “Bonnie and Clyde.” With a screenplay by Robert Thom (Death Race 2000, Wild in the Streets), Corman, a man always willing to ride a trend, originally intended to make the film in 1968. However, the late 60’s were a violent time in American history; assassinations, race riots and the ongoing unpopular war in Vietnam made Corman decide the time was not right for a film with a title like “Bloody Mama” and postponed making the film until 1970.

Shelley Winters was the first on board. With a star of her magnitude and a plan to shoot on location in Arkansas, Corman worked with one of his largest budgets in his career along with an unheard of four week shooting schedule.  The four actors who played Ma Barker’s sons were all relative newcomers. Don Stroud (Herman Barker) had some TV show experience along with a small part in Don Siegel’s “Coogan’s Bluff” behind him. Robert Walden, with two small films to his credit, was Fred Barker. Walden would go on to star in “Lou Grant” a few years later, one of the best TV series on the newspaper trade. Clint Kimbrough played Arthur Barker, and last was another newcomer by the name of Robert DeNiro who played the drug addicted Lloyd Barker. Also in the cast were Diane Varsi, Pat Hingle and Bruce Dern.

Corman and screenwriter Thom did not stick to the facts. “Bloody Mama” gives us a wild alternate version of the story of Ma Barker and her four “loving” boys. The true story of Ma Barker and her family is far different from what is on screen. The most obvious is that Ma Barker was no mastermind of criminal planning as portrayed in the film. The real Ma Barker was straight out of hillbilly heaven. Real life gang member Alvin “Creepy” Karpis is supposed to have said, ole’ Ma “couldn’t plan a breakfast,” and would sit around listening to “Amos and Andy” on the radio.  In fact, there is no record of her ever being involved in actual robberies or murders.  It has been suggested that Ma Barker’s notoriety was more a fabrication of Hoover’s F.B.I. after she was killed in a shootout along with son Fred.

If you ever think your family are a bunch of oddities from a freak show, just take a look at the Barker brood in this film. Ma Barker is a mean nasty, son loving, in the worst sense, machine gun totting woman who slaps her boys one moment for talking back and next takes them to bed with more than a little motherly affection. Herman (Don Stroud) is a psychotic mama’s boy; Robert DeNiro’s Earl is a drug addicted moron who keeps his “stuff” in candy wrappers. Earl will be the first of the Barker clan to die, not from a hail of police bullets but from a drug overdose. One of the most entertaining scenes in the film  is watching Winters over the top Ma Barker come screaming hysterically to her dead son’s side. Of the other two brother’s  there is Fred who introduces his former prison “mate” Kevin Durkman (Bruce Dern) to the family, who also seems to service ole’ Ma Barker in her time of sexual need. Finally, there is Arthur (Robert Walden), the “quiet one.” Diane Varsi, an actress who seems to not have cared about a career and turned her back on stardom, is Mona, Herman’s girlfriend who lovingly calls him a freak at one point. Last but not least there is Pat Hingle as a kidnap victim. Yep, the Barker’s’ were not your typical family unless your idea of a typical family is one filled with murder, incest, sadism, perversion and drugs.

“Bloody Mama” was made at a time when Europe discovered Roger Corman and was praising his work to the sky. For me, Corman’s films are far from being works of cinematic art. I don’t watch a Corman film to be emotionally and/or philosophically moved. Corman’s films are over the top, cheesy, fun generally in a light, entertaining wild, crazy kind of way. I leave any kind of critical opinion at the door when I watch Roger Corman films, the same way I leave it for Abbott and Costello, or The Little Rascals. These films are in their own universe and you enjoy them for what they are or not.

While Corman would not direct another gangster/rural outlaw film, he would produce quite a few more in the coming years, including “Boxcar Bertha,” directed by Martin Scorsese (cinematically, the best of the lot), “Big Bad Mama” and “Capone,” both directed by Steve Carver. This last film has another brilliantly bad over the top performance, this time from the usually fine actor Ben Gazarra. What is it about portraying Al Capone that makes actors go crazy?

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24 comments on “Bloody Mama (1970) Roger Corman

  1. Personally…I think that Corman’s films can be enjoyed BOTH intellectually and viscerally…but that’s just me…

    Anyhow….

    Bravo! Excellent review! One of the ways that I prepared for this blogathon was to try and watch all of the films that had been chosen by the participants. And let me tell you…I was NOT ready for “Bloody Mama.” This movie blew my mind. It was dirty, gritty, spooky, funny, and scary…all at the same time! It was like the bastard child of “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Last House on the Left.” Even in today’s age, “Bloody Mama” made me feel things that I haven’t felt in a long time. And let me say…you’ve done a great job capturing and depicting these feelings in this review. You can practically hear the exasperation and shock in your words as you read it! That’s a rare feat, my friend.

    You also get serious brownie points for giving a short film history of the gangster film. As a film buff…I appreciated that level of research.

    I want to personally thank you for participating in this blogathon. Twenty Four Frames has consistently been one of my favorite film blogs ever since I was introduced to it. I was thrilled when I heard that you wanted to participate. And let me just say…you certainly delivered the goods as I knew you would!

    Also, don’t forget to vote for the Readers’ Choice Award on Monday! Also, check out the top right of my blog to vote for the topic of our next Forgotten Classics blogathon!

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    • John Greco says:

      Nathanael,

      thanks for the kind words. Watching it again for the blogathon reminded me how wild this film was. I have to admit having a soft spot for low budget gangster films whether they are from the 1950’s, 60’s or 70’s so this was a lot of fun doing on my part. Looking forward to checking out some of the other participants.

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  2. John,
    A very interesting look at Corman’s interpretation of “gangster flicks’.

    During the 70’s I was a little girl playing with dolls and focusing on learning to tie my shoes so getting the opportunity to go back in time now and read brilliant takes on Corman, get into his head is such a thrill.

    I wrote a snarky review awhile back on the original Scarface because I saw it as camp and a not so realistic take on ‘gangster’ but this film I am dying to see now and one I think I might enjoy. I just wonder how the audience of the 70’s felt about Corman’s very raw and sarcastic view on that era. I get a real kick out of Corman’s sense of humor and the ability to have a laugh while churning out these films.

    I’m currently reading Winters biography so this was one of the reviews I was really looking forward to and it didn’t disappoint

    You managed to produce another outstanding review John. Kudos!
    Page.

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    • John Greco says:

      Page,

      Thanks! The Winters biography is a pretty wild ride itself, if i remember correctly, its been a long time. For sure, Corman put the “exploit” in exploitation, He knew what the audience, that is the young audience of the day, wanted and gave it to them. Thanks again for stopping by.

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  3. The weird thing about casting Winters in this role is that she’d already parodied the concept by playing “Ma Parker” on the Batman show. There must have been such a perfect match in people’s minds of her persona and the mythical Barker persona that casting her was inescapable. I haven’t seen Bloody Mama but I’ll be curious to see someday exactly how different Ma Barker and Ma Parker really were.

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    • John Greco says:

      Samuel,

      Interesting, I was not a regualar viewer of the BATMAN TV show and don’t remember Winters but this is definitely a good point. Makes you wonder if Corman saw her on the TV show.

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  4. BLOODY MAMA isn’t one of my favorite Corman films for a lot of the reasons you mention, John–but the one thing I do love about the film is the acting, especially from the up-and-comers like Stroud, Walden (always a favorite) and that DeNiro guy (I often wonder what became of him). Of course, the presence of Pat Hingle is always a plus in my book because I can’t ever remember the man giving a poor performance.

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    • John Greco says:

      Ivan – Stroud is one of those actors who can convincingly play crazy, which he did a lot of in the early days. Walden is also a fine actor who as I mentioned in the article appeared in one of my favorite tv shows of the 1970’s, LOU GRANT. As for that DeNiro guy, I think he made a couple of films with some director who never quite got it together, Martin something or other…

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  5. ClassicBecky says:

    Wonderful review of Corman’s film depiction of the nastiest little dysfunctional family unit ever! Shelley Winters must have had a ball making this one! I remember it being very disturbing too, even now when we have seen so much graphic stuff. That says a lot about its story. The brothers were TOO well acted — very creepy guys. It’s certainly understandable that Corman would not release this movie too close to the awful year of 1968 particularly.

    I had to laugh at your comment about playing Al Capone causing insanity in actors. I liked Robards, actually, but then he tends to be over the top a lot anyway. Gazzara was a disaster! Just as a point of interest, I liked Rod Steiger’s Al Capone, again over the top just as Steiger so often was. Probably one of the best was little brother Earl Barker, grown up to be Capone in The Untouchables. Again, some hammy overacting, but Capone was a flamboyant creature, so I guess the actors can’t help it!

    Kind of got off the subject, didn’t I? Sorry, that happens to me when an article has a lot of interesting side-issues. I think Corman’s movies are just what you said — take them as they are for what the are, and have fun with them. For me, his horror genre films are favorites, and his Poe films are a strange mix of dark humor and depth of story. Great article, John!

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    • John Greco says:

      Hi Becky,

      My favorite Capone is without a doubt, Rod Steiger, also one of my favorite gangster films (Steiger had a strong resemblance to Capone too!). It is actually a film I keep saying I am going to write about but have yet to do. Like you, his horror films are my favorites too, Price is always a treasure to watch. I am also a fan of his film THE INTRUDER, arguably one of his best and certainly his most serious film. Thanks so much!

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  6. Stacia says:

    Great review! I’ve always wanted to see this one. I like the late 60s and 1970s gangster films, the ones that tried to cash in on the trend of Bonnie and Clyde. I think, too, that someone was eventually going to do an edgier Ma Barker story eventually; after White Heat opened the doors to implying incest in the family, fictional or not, someone was going to push that to the limit. Might as well be Corman!

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    • John Greco says:

      Stacia,

      Corman always seemed to be on the edge, pushing the buttons of the code, especaily in the 1960’s and on forward. I hope you get a chance to catch this one. Thanks!

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  7. Rick29 says:

    John, I really enjoyed your unflinching review of BLOODY MAMA. I agree that the film has quite a few flaws, starting with Shelley Winters chomping the scenery like a bag of pretzels. But, as you point, her over-the-top performance is certainly entertaining. Corman made better gangster pics (e.g., MACHINE GUN KELLY with Bronson), but this is the one that gets the most attention. DeNiro’s presence accounts for some of that, but it’s also such a broad excessive film that it can taken as black comedy, too.

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    • John Greco says:

      Yeah Rick, I agree with you here on MACHINE GUN KELLY being the better flick and true you cannot take BLOODY MAMA seriously, it is so over the top but that is part of its odd charm.

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  8. Thomas D. says:

    Great stuff! Thanks for putting the movie in context. I haven’t seen Bloody Mama, partially because I probably got it confused with Big Bad Mama. There’s actually an earlier version of the story called “Ma Barker’s Killer Brood” (1960). It’s available to watch on the Internet Archive, and Bloody Mama is also avail on Netflix instant watch.

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    • John Greco says:

      Hey Thomas,

      I have heard of MA BARKER’S KILLER BROOD but have not seen it, As for BIG BAD MAMA, I have watched that a few times, a Corman produced film and while I am at it, let’s not forget Jonathan Demme’s CRAZY MAMA with Clois Leachman, anothe Corman production! Thanks for stopping by!

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  9. Sam Juliano says:

    Wonderful review here John on BLOODY MAMA, and lead-in discussion of Corman, who I also worshipped as an impressionable kid watching 50’s and 60’s sci-fi and horror. I’m glad you mention MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (perhaps the B master’s best film) and several of the other Poes, a few deliciously hokey features like ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS, established his brand. I agree with you John, that this is hardly cinematic art, but it’s immensely enjoyable, much as William Castle’s work was. Fantastic contribution!

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    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Sam, yeah for me, Corman is enjoyable trash, not that there is anything wrong with that, as they use to say on Seinfeld. Th Poe films were beautifullly filmed by Floyd Crosby who actually goes back to the 1930’s, and many of Corman’s best films had Charles Griffith as his screenwriter. Great stuff!

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  10. John, I haven’t seen BLOODY MAMA in years, but I remember it being both intense and funny in a pitch-black comedy kind of way. Your smart, enjoyable review has me interested in giving it another look sometime soon!

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  11. JackL says:

    Fantastic review!

    I had no interest in this one at first, but your review has got me very interested.
    I especially liked how you summed up the times in which the film was made…
    Corman was clearly an inventive and influential film maker, but I thought that the film I reviewed for this blogathon, The Intruder, was actually very thought provoking and emotionnally powerful, so I’d recommend that one if you haven’t seen it already.

    Like

    • John Greco says:

      Hi Jack,

      Thanks for stopping by. I have seen THE INTRUDER and it is one of Corman’s most important films dealing with a serious subject. I actually just left a comment over at your place. Hope you get a chance to see BLOODY MAMA.

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  12. […] finally released thirty years ago with an R16 classification. I haven’t seen that either, so here’s a commentary by another WordPress blogger. It sounds pretty […]

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