Ma Barker Rides Again

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Maybe I’ve got a Ma Barker thing. I loved 1960’s Ma Barker and Her Killer Brood, which I earlier wrote about here, but now I also love Roger Corman’s 1970’s Bloody Mama, which is even more deranged than its predecessor—lordy, just start with that Freudian title. Both films send up American notions of Mother Love and Family Togetherness with a glee that also smacks of Freudian schadenfreude; it’s filial payback time. Killer Brood, though, takes place in a sterile middle-class milieu; Ma and sons live in neat houses with clean, tidy kitchens (where she bakes her pies to feed the gang). Bloody Mama is set in Peckerwood country, where everything and everyone needs a good wash. Ma initially lives in a shack with her brood and their soon-to-be-discarded Pa; as they move up in the world (via bank robberies and kidnappings) to live in better quarters, Ma stays her slovenly self: titian hair falling out of a half-assed bun, badly fitting robes slipping off meaty shoulders. Curiously, though, she dresses up for bank robberies, wearing white shoes, a neat feather-decked hat, a fur-collared coat and matching gloves gripping a gun. Saving her Sunday best for the important things in life.

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Ma and the kids.

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Always let them know you’ve got class.

Both films are psychological portraits of mother-haunted gangsterdom, crucially divided by a crucial decade. The earlier film is a castration-anxiety drama, with Ma dominating her sons with rules and regulations (even slapping one mid-heist for not following orders). Come ten years later it’s Oedipus Rex with tommy guns, as Ma seduces—literally—her unruly, hormone-addled brood. Her way with maternal rewards is to have her offspring take turns keeping her company in bed each night. What was only implicit in 1960 is now brazenly flung at audiences along with the shredded pages of the recently defunct Production Code. Ma, however, is confidently righteous about her virtue. “We is not sex preverts,[sic] you understand,” she primly asserts to some elderly hostages after ordering them to strip. Respectability must be maintained.

Though maybe someone should have passed that word to her boys. Psychopath Herman, the eldest, flies into rages and threatens to shoot out a victim’s eyes; wimpy Fred plays bitch to prison pal Kevin (a lean, louche Bruce Dern); Arthur insists that Herman’s hooker-fiancée also service him (Herman agrees, but only until they’re married); and youngest Lloyd, played by a beautiful, baby-soft Robert De Niro, sniffs glue, shoots heroin, and finally OD’s, to be interred hastily in a ditch (“Just bury him deep,” says Herman). The slaying family is the staying family; and Ma holds her brood together right to the bitter end, a great climaxing shootout with the police, the editing jumping between gangsters and cops, hopping in and out and between rooms in the house where Ma and her boys are holed up and firing for all they’re worth. Meanwhile, a crowd of onlookers gathers to picnic and watch the mayhem.

Maternal rewards, Ma-style.

Maternal rewards, Ma-style.

I prefer Corman’s gangster films to his Poe ones, which look too fussy and faux-Hammer for my tastes; I think he has a better feel for violent working-class Americana than for the literary kind. His film came out in a cinematic era when character development and time-enough-to-absorb-the-milieu pacing was still allowed. During a robbery at a rural picnic, Corman allows us to see the picnickers, how they’re dancing and eating in the sunlight, the hillbilly orchestra accompanying them with twanging tunes. It looks raw and real, nothing prettied up. His film moves with a slow, ambling rhythm till it’s punctuated by violence; it seems to take place on a hot Southern day (the film was shot entirely in Arkansas), the kind where you dawdle along because it’s too hot to expend energy. Until it’s necessary. As with his excellent 1967 film The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, Corman gets the period look right: it’s the Depression, dearie, where everything looks ordered out of a dog-eared Sears & Roebuck catalogue. There are the dowdy working-class frocks gauded up with flounces and lace; the quaint, shiny-hooded cars lined with running boards (remember those?), skittering along dusty roads; the family piano where Ma leads her brood in a rousing rendition of “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier”; and the faces—gaunt, wrinkled, unglamorous; puffed like cotton or squeezed like limes—framed in John Alonzo’s sun-bleached cinematography like faded old Kodachrome prints.

The uses of running boards when making a getaway.

The uses of running boards when making a getaway.

In his accurately titled autobiography How I Made A Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, Corman writes that Bloody Mama is about “the breakdown of rationality.” That it is; but I would also note the Samuel Adams Pendlebury kidnapping episode (based on several actual Barker kidnappings)—a strange peep into an orderly universe. Throughout his ordeal, Sam insists on his dignity: commanding the Barker sons to call him Sam and not “buddy,” telling Ma that he doesn’t like to hear ladies swear (and gently turning her down when she propositions him, explaining that he’s a married man), and remaining calm even when threatened with murder. The character could have been played like a prig or a joke (as he is in the 1960 film), but Pat Hingle acts Sam with such forthrightness and humor that you root for him like the home team. The boys are fascinated with this upright, confident man, Herman even removing his blindfold so he can see the color of his eyes—which match the color of those of his own, long-abandoned father. Although unable to see his captors after being blinkered so long, Sam looks straight out and says, slowly and deliberately, that if he was their father, he’d take each boy over his knee and whale the tar out of him. And I could see his point. Could this violent, anarchic film be saying something about societal and familial breakdown, that what these boys really needed to grow up right was a strong, righteous daddy? Killer Brood hints at the same, at how the breakdown of masculine authority leads to bedlam and maternal crime sprees (both fathers in both films are weak and Ma-dominated). When Ma orders her flock to kill off Sam, they disobey her (for the first time) and let him go free. Hingle’s part is small but indelible; he’s a steady moral eye in a disintegrating whirl of chaos.

Corman gets great performances not only from Hingle but from all his cast, including De Niro, Don Stroud, Clint Kimbrough, and Robert Walden as the sons. I want to highlight Diane Varsi’s hard-bitten performance, though, as Mona, Herman’s fiancée, a whore who’s out for survival and goes along to get along, just to stay alive with this wild bunch. With her slouchy voice and sinewy feline body, Varsi exudes low-class, scrabbling-for-a-threshold toughness, like an alley cat adept at dodging flung bottles. She’s also the only one strong enough to leave, finally getting out after discovering she’s pregnant to find some peace. Sometimes excitement isn’t always for the best.

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De Niro (above) sniffs, while Varsi (below) feints.

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And of course there’s Shelley Winters as Ma Barker. Winters had already had a bash at playing criminal motherhood on the 1960s Batman TV series, where, as “Ma Parker,” accepting a Mother-of-the-Year award, she whips out a Chicago typewriter and smoothly collects the ladies’ pearls. She’s almost as parodic in this film, though it’s probably not intentional. That’s just her way: hit the heights right off and then keep on climbing. I think Winters is a crude, unsubtle actress, but she obviously loved to act and tore into her parts like a bear snaffling honey from a nest of bees; she’s fun to watch. Unlike Killer Brood’s Lurene Tuttle’s rigidly controlled Ma, Shelley is soft and earthy, and endearingly sloppy; her flesh puffs out of her costumes and her eyes go weird and crazy. She hams it up shamelessly and owns the show. Whatever else, Shelley is having a ball.

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BONUS CLIP:  Roger Corman on ‘Trailers From Hell’ narrates his trailer for Bloody Mama

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