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?