Have you heard the news? The new Sight & Sound Critics Poll has voted Vertigo the greatest movie ever made. Hitchcock’s 1958 classic has unseated Citizen Kane, the previous greatest-film-ever winner. The poll, held every ten years, had been number-oneing Kane since 1962, a fifty-year reign at the top. As you can imagine, the classic-movie world is all a-buzz about the usurpation. Discussions have been flying back and forth about what it all means, about what it says on changing tastes in film, and about what constitutes a great movie. For those who love to discuss the art of cinema, it’s been a productive moment.
Now on to the film in our current post: Ma Barker’s Killer Brood.
What, you thought this would be about Art?
No, Ma Barker’s Killer Brood isn’t art, not as the Sight & Sound critics understand it. It lacks that frozen-custard-pie-with-crimped-swirls look of the Hitchcock opus (every time we look at Kim Novak’s swept-back hair-do in that film, we think of ice cream. Vanilla ice cream). Nor does it have the stately-homes-of-Hollywood aura of Kane. You won’t see ceilings in Ma Barker. You will see lots of machine guns, though, usually of Ma herself jamming the butt of a tommy gun to her shoulder and blasting away. Lurene Tuttle as Ma is made up to look like your grandmother; wouldn’t you like to have a grandma this versatile? Maybe not, but Ma Barker allows you to sneak in the thought. We always feel a wearying sense of duty when watching Great Stuff like Vertigo or Citizen Kane. They’re Art, so they’re important, and they’ve become, like low-calorie desserts or a bottle of vitamin water, flavorless but good for you. But Ma Barker is pure indulgence; it’s pizza-and-beer night; it rocks with energy and makes rude noises, and doesn’t mind if you come to the party in sweatpants and a do-I-look-like-a-fucking-people-person T-shirt. It’s mean, it’s lean, and everybody should see it at least once.
That’s not to say that Ma Barker is mere junk. In its own gritty, trashy way, the film is as personal a statement about cinema, human nature, and American culture as are the works of Hitchcock or Welles. Released in 1960, much of the film has the flat, evenly lit look of late-50s television, the characters and furnishings placed in two-dimensional planes within the frame. Yet it manages to set a tone of distilled, hard-core pulp right from the start, with a scene of a man tied up inside a car, screaming in terror as, entering from screen left, a seemingly disembodied hand drops a lighted match on the upholstery. You can picture the rest, though you don’t have to; the screen bursts into flame before us, fire licking it up like eager little tongues slavering against a slab of candy. That’s a bang-up opening, if there ever was one.
Violence in gangster cinema is what brings out the creative juices in its artists, and it’s with the sadistic scenes that the director Bill Karn achieves a pure, cinematic style of story-telling in his film. It’s like watching a series of crude but boldly drawn comic-book panels set in motion. Note a sequence in which a man is forced to play Russian roulette for drunkenly squealing on a criminal gang: Hands again thrust themselves into the frame, shoving a pistol and a tommy gun against the unfortunate fellow’s ears. When the man finally pulls the trigger with the bullet, the camera focuses on a close-up of his hand spasmodically crushing a piece of cherry pie he’s been holding. Karn gives us here a sense of the impersonal and random nature of violence, a force without a controlling agency—it just happens. The director uses the film frame to create the tension between surface order and underlying chaos, reminding us that the jungle always lurks at the edges of our perception.
If there’s a queen of that anarchic jungle out there, beyond the narrow frame of law and order, that has to be Ma herself. Like the titles of much low-budget cinema, Ma Barker’s Killer Brood defines its subject right up front—the career of the famous Depression-era gangster, Ma Barker, and her four murderous sons. There’s even a hint of horror in the use of ‘brood’ to describes Ma’s family, as if the lady had spawned a litter of monsters, their tentacles slithering out of the cradle, suckers gripping tommy guns. And at least one scene in the film really does brush up against horror’s slimy fringes. It’s when Ma corrals an alcoholic surgeon into performing plastic surgery and fingerprint removal on one of her sons. To the accompaniment of jangly piano chords on the soundtrack, Ma ladles gin down the boozy doc’s throat while he slices off slivers of skin (“get me another slug,” he demands when the going gets tough). Byron Foulger gives an inspired performance here, bulging and rolling his eyes and flapping his loose, wet mouth like a fish (considering he’s drinking like one, that’s to be expected). When Ma insists on more ether, Doc cackles insanely that he’s used it all for himself. “You’re hurting him!” cries Ma; “Well, let it hurt!” Doc ominously replies. We guarantee you won’t forget it.
Apparently the real Ma Barker never participated in any of the (many) crimes committed by her sons and their associates, merely providing aid and succor to the busy bunch. But who needs the stinkin’ facts? Other than getting a few things accurate (one son committed suicide during a police chase; another died with Ma during an FBI shoot-out), the story’s a wild flight of fancy about Ma’s unlawful activities. She’s the leader here, the matriarchal mastermind, who begins her gangster career chalking heist strategies on a tiny blackboard to teach her small sons the fine art of knocking off a bank. “Ma, you are the slickest ever!” exclaims one of her admiring progeny. As her sons grow up, she still continues to plan their jobs; the boys don’t make a move without her. But Ma’s also a crime consulting service for the likes of Baby Face Nelson, Machine Gun Kelly, Alvin Karpis, and “Johnny” Dillinger, who come to her for robbery and kidnapping tips. (Dillinger’s treated like a rock star by the other characters, their eyes widening with adulation whenever he appears; even Ma speaks his name with awe.) She’s a one-woman crime wave, a Midwestern Moriarty whose lightest touch on the criminal web results in another haul of loot. The film’s opening crawl proclaims her as “Ma Barker, Mother to the Underworld and Public Enemy,” as though granting her a kind of gangland apotheosis.
However, Ma is also—well, a Mom. Her domestic talents are part and parcel of her criminal ones. She can bake a mean cherry pie, dishing it out to her boys in the clean, comfy kitchen while outlining a kidnapping plot (later, the returned kidnappee can’t describe his captors, but he fondly remembers eating those delicious pies). Ma’s a good ma, all right, encouraging her children’s interests; she praises her sons when they rob the collection plate at church. “It was their own idea,“ she brags, “I thought it was kinda cute.” The film is tapping into some pretty bizarre, and deeply buried notions here about mothers, sons, and the interactions between. In one early scene, she startlingly strips down to her slip in front of her young boys; it’s a moment that would send Woody Allen screaming for his shrink. Ma’s the flip side of those perfect suburban moms of ’50s TV sitcoms, who kept an immaculate house and spooned out reassuring homilies with the stew. She’s Underworld, all right: She’s Hecate to the Virgin Mary, Lillith to Eve, Astarte to Gaia. She’s the mythic Dark Side to the Light, the shadowy antipodes to all our shallow, soothing ideas of what Motherhood means. We’re getting elemental here: Motherhood is hearts and flowers on Mother’s Day, but it’s also a brooding (that word again), chthonic force, the unspoken, bloody maw of our being. It gives us life, and then grudgingly holds that gift against us.
And you can sense that yawning pit of Jocastian doom opening whenever one of Ma’s sons acts like the taboo word in her arsenal: A “sissy.” Ma slams the word around like a hammer thrower at the Olympics; it’s her ultimate put-down, even more than a bullet. Like a she-bear smelling blood from an oozing wound, Ma will hunt sissyhood down and shred it to ribbons. Dripping scorn on her son Herman for playing his violin, she likens the sound to “a cat gobbling razor blades.” She won’t let her sons take a day off from school because she doesn’t want people to think her boys are “sickly.” Next to her sons, only one thing matters to Ma, “and that’s guts!” It’s what her cringing, Bible-quoting husband George doesn’t have. Needling the sappy fellow for not showing some intestinal fortitude and earning more dough, Ma declares that her boys “could steal more in one week than you can make in a month.” To her disgust, the weakness of the father is visited on the offspring: Wimpy, music-loving Herman’s inability to shoot an inconvenient guard during a hold-up earns him a slap in the face from his mother. When the police close in during a high-speed chase, Herman blows his brains out rather than risk capture, Ma’s warning to “Don’t get caught!” ringing on the soundtrack. At his funeral, a sobbing Ma turns to George and, in a shocking moment of blind, willful cruelty, bawls out, “If only you’d been a better father!”
You may view these scenes of Ma alternately coddling and harrying her sons as high camp, but they’re also unsettling. Ma’s a devoted mother, but she’s also a Freudian monster straight out of Philip Roth, the classic castrating bitch wielding those cherry pies as if they concealed gelding knives. It’s Ma who packs the balls here; as one son observes, “she wears the pants in the family.” During the climatic FBI shoot-out, she prowls the house’s perimeter, a machine gun stashed under her apron, like a drag-queen Edward G. Robinson; meanwhile, she has to bully her adult son Fred into taking up arms and joining her. “Stop your blubbering or I’ll drill ya myself,” she snarls. Poor, reluctant Fred snatches up a machine gun in desperation and then runs out crying. His weepy fear recalls those odd, contradictory moments in 1930s gangster movies, when the tough guy is reduced to a teary blob of panic. The late Robert Sklar, writing in City Boys, noted this contradiction, particularly in the James Cagney mobster persona: Beneath the big-shot bluster rages a frightened mama’s boy. Ma Barker is part of a cinematic bloodline of smothering gangster moms, from Beryl Mercer in Public Enemy, tenderly (and obliviously) addressing her vicious thug of a son as her “baby,” to Margaret Wycherly’s Ma Jarrett in White Heat, cuddling her grown boy in her lap while warning him to watch his back. They’re Oedipal nightmares, as envisioned by Philip Wylie in Generation of Vipers, his hysteria-laden portrait of mother-ridden American manhood, producing sons who are part Genghis Khan, part Peter Pan.
Just about all the men in Ma Barker are either fools, psychopaths, overgrown boys, or sissies. Al Karpis is introduced as a knife-fondling creep (note the symbolism there!) who flings a shiv into a hamster; he likes to hear things “squeal,” he says. Machine-Gun Kelly is a whining louse dominated by his blonde floozy, for whom Ma has nothing but contempt (she actually shoots the other woman’s fox-fur stole, explaining, “I didn’t want it to bite you.” You go, Ma!). In part, the film’s line-up of humanity’s dregs reflects its marketing to a restless 1950s teen audience, on the look-out for cheap kicks. Most low-budget ’50s American films were directed to this ‘new’ demographic; in the flush ‘50s economy, teenagers had disposable income and the itch to get out of the house and spend it. The film makes little attempt to use historically accurate cars or fashion. The molls bulge with big hair and bigger boobs, à la Jayne Mansfield, while the hoods have greased ducktails like Elvis Presley. The ‘30s gangster was a flashy dresser flanked by his admiring male ‘posse’ (“I’m alone, he’s with me,” says Cagney of a sidekick in Public Enemy). Such a display of wealth and power was important in an age of poverty and powerlessness. But Ma Barker’s thugs are jive hep cats enjoying themselves like kids at a party (when, in an early scene, Ma rushes down to the police station to bail out young Herman, the other tykes beg to go along for the “fun”). There even is a party scene at one point, with thugs bobbing heads, clapping hands, and snapping fingers in rhythm to a song, and one couple boogalooing along, the woman waving her arms and grinding her hips like a debauched Gidget.
But we think there’s something deeper at work here. Like her audience, Ma is looking for kicks, and the means to pay for them. But the woman’s task, and burden, is to find a man who can pay for those needs, and in this Ma has been disappointed. Something owed her wasn’t delivered. Sooner or later, the men in her life let her down, and Ma’s gotta go snatch the brass ring herself. The film’s blending of the rude energy and familiar tropes of both the 1930s gangster movie and the 1950s drive-in flick presents, in compressed form, what’s been called the crisis of American masculinity, an underlying theme of many mid-twentieth-century crime thrillers. If the jobless men of the 1930s found themselves reduced to a soup-line stasis, the 1950s male had his life rolled up and squeezed into a gray-flannel existence, lashed to a treadmill of conformity. In either case, as filtered through the gangster genre, this predicament is the two-sided coin of the American dream—you have to achieve success, no matter what; anything else is not an option. It’s not only for the money; success brings excitement and glamour to an otherwise drab life. Ma tells her husband she’s terrified of “living my whole life and growing old and dying and never having anything or seeing anything or being anything.” And it’s the failure on her man’s part to fulfill these dreams that sends Ma out on her crime-spreeing jags. In her eyes, George is a bad father and husband because he’s content to remain poor. “A body needs food and food takes money—and how much money do you bring into this house?” she screeches with mirthless laughter. Whereas, fueled by memories of a dirt-poor upbringing, Ma’s willing to scrabble her way to the top, proclaiming, “I’m teaching my kids to take what they want!” Like Paul Muni’s Scarface, she believes the world is hers, just waiting to be grabbed.
Particularly galling to Ma is a recollection of being so poor that she had to wear “bloomers” (loose pants worn under a skirt) made of commercial gunny sacks; she’s bedeviled by the humiliation of schoolmates “reading Old Homestead Flour written across my bottom.” Lurene Tuttle, in the performance of a lifetime as Ma, manages to invest such crazily kitschy lines with a Joan-Crawford-like intensity; she can’t hang a towel on a peg without jabbing it on, as if she had a grudge against both objects. Her performance may not be subtle—she plunges through the ups and downs of Ma’s moods like a tank on a rollercoaster—but she lays out Ma raw; you get a sense of the grime lodged under this woman’s fingernails from having to clutch and dig her way to a foothold on the American dream. Tuttle was a B-actress usually assigned roles of nice ladies and middle-aged busybodies. She’s best-known as the gossipy sheriff’s wife in Psycho, whose whispered revelation that Norman Bates’ Ma had a sex life exhales a suppressed thrill (based on her performance in Ma Barker, it’s a pity that Tuttle didn’t get to play Mrs. Bates). As Ma, she grabs at her starring chance the way Crawford grabbed at men and money in her working-girl-makes-good films. Tuttle brings a poetically camp sensibility to what she’s doing, as did Crawford; she lets you see the exaggeration of the role and her acting of it, without ever condescending to her character or her audience. She knows these onscreen women, whose overlarge desires and drives cause them to blaze like roman candles, resonate with a peculiar truth for us. You might laugh at the movie’s lines and situations, but you don’t laugh at Tuttle, nor at Ma. She may end up badly, but at least she’s gone the distance.
So maybe Ma Barker’s Killer Brood won’t end up on a Sight & Sound poll, but that doesn’t mean it’s a movie to be ignored. It does what gangster movies, in essence, always do: Embody for us the utter freedom, if only temporarily on celluloid, of the self-sufficient, anarchistic Self. That the Self in Ma Barker is embodied by a woman makes it even more subversive. Women are supposed to preserve, not destroy, the social fabric; yet Ma defiantly arrogates to herself male privilege when men fail her. There’s something awfully heady about that. (Though the film ends with the conventional tut-tutting at bad behavior, we know better.) The cinematic Ma Barker is undoubtedly a disreputable creature and her example should never be followed; but, on film at least, her dream for something more, to be more, becomes ours.
The real Ma Barker never lived her own legend. In an ironic twist her sons, while they were out committing their crimes, supposedly sent her to while away the time at the cinema. It’s tempting to think that while she was there, she was watching gangster movies.
BONUS CLIP: Trailer for Ma Barker’s Killer Brood: “The Lawless Killers of the ’30s Live Again on the Screen!” -
>The complete film of Ma Barker’s Killer Brood can be viewed on YouTube by clicking here.