King of the B’s, Roger Corman was well acquainted with making gangster films, having previous directed “Machine Gun Kelly,” starring Charles Buchinsky, aka Charles Bronson, “The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre,” with Jason Robards as Big Al Capone and in the 1970’s, his final film, “Bloody Mama” with Shelley Winters as Ma Barker and an unknown young actor named Robert DeNiro as one of Mama’s boys, the drug addicted, Lloyd. Later in the decade Corman produced “Capone” with Ben Gazarra over acting throughout as the Chicago mobster.
Other than “I, Mobster,” a film he made in 1958, all these films were based on real life underworld characters and that’s what he wanted to do once again with his latest project. According the extras on the DVD, Corman told screenwriter Frances Doel to do some research for a real life female gangster in the history books. With Corman, having already filmed the exploits of Ma Barker, Doel could not find another real life female gangster so she created the fictional Wilma McClatchie.
Organized religion, veterans organizations, corporations and the law are all targets for satirical ridicule in this Roger Corman produced, directed by Steve Carver, gangster flick, “Big Bad Mama.” On the surface, the Corman and company film is a cheap rip-off of “Bonnie and Clyde,” filled with the more than required amounts of violence, hillbilly music and nudity. Yes, this is trash cinema but with a script that takes jabs at society. With the Women’s Lib movement on the rise, in this film, it is the female who the brains of the outfit. The smart script combining satire, broad humor and violence is credited Frances Doel with assistance from William F. Norton.
The film’s theme is fairly ordinary; a mother wants a better life for her kids. But there is nothing ordinary about Wilma McClatchie (Angie Dickinson). The time is the depression and Wilma and her two daughters take over the bootleg liquor business of her recently deceased lover, affectionately known as Uncle Barney (Nobel Willingham), and while they made a few bucks, the business is a failure. With two federal officers (Dick Miller and Tom Sigorelli) on their trail the women hook up with Fred Dillard (Tom Skerritt), a psychotic bank robber. They meet during a bank robbery Fred and his gang attempt while Wilma is depositing money. She doesn’t like the idea of her money being stolen and in a unique kind of ‘meet cute’ Wilma not only joins in the robbery, but take charge, and soon Fred is part of her gang, and her lover. That is, until she meets up with grifter William Baxter (William Shatner) who takes his place in Wilma’s bed. No problem though for Fred who licks his wounded ego with daughters Billy Jean (Susan Sennett) and Polly (Robbie Lee) who gladly take Mama’s place. In between the rolls in the various hays, Wilma and the gang, do an array of robberies. An oil company and a religious revival meeting are among the targets until Wilma decides to graduate to the big time and bigger bucks, the kidnapping of a young pretty millionaire’s daughter (Joan Prather) for a one million dollar ransom.
Now, no one is making claims this is a great film or even a good film. This was a flick shot in twenty days and made for the drive-in crowd. But in between the annoying banjo music (1), the “Bonnie and Clyde” rip-off shots, the mediocre editing and the required violence and nudity, the writers tossed in some sardonic snipes at our alleged scared institutions making it just a touch more interesting than it has the right to be.
….and remember, as one of the daughters tells one of their victims, “Never trust a woman who gives her donuts away for free.”
(1) Grateful Dead guitarist plays the banjo and guitar on the soundtrack.