The Gangster Mamas (and Other Lady Outlaws) of Big Bad Corman – DVDs of the Week
Big Bad Mama / Big Bad Mama II Double Feature (Shout! Factory)
Crazy Mama / The Lady In Red Double Feature (Shout! Factory)
One of the less recognized genres that director/producer/indie-exploitation movie mogul Roger Corman adopted as a minor specialty was the depression-era gangster movie. As a director he turned out Machine Gun Kelly (1958), The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967) and (most importantly for the purposes of this piece) Bloody Mama (1970), his perversely Oedipal take on the Ma Barker story with Shelley Winters as the machine gun mama leading her sons through a bank-robbing spree and keeping them a little too close for comfort on their days off.
Jump ahead a few years and Corman, now retired from directing to run his own independent studio, turns back to the period gangster thriller with a femme-centric twist (which proved so effective in Boxcar Bertha, the 1972 feature he produced for AIP and with an up-and-coming young filmmaker at the helm taking first shot at directing a real Hollywood film: Martin Scorsese). Bloody Mama and Boxcar Bertha are the two godmothers of the four films featured in a pair of double features from Shout! Factory, including three that carried on the legacy of Corman’s gangster Mamas: all previously available but newly remastered for posterity presented at good prices.
Angie Dickinson takes the driver’s seat in the getaway car of Big Bad Mama (1974) and powers the low-rent Bonnie and Clyde as the feisty Wilma McClatchie, a sexy and strong-willed depression-era widow with two teenage daughters blossoming into sexual creatures. Angry, outspoken and determined to take back her share (and a little more) from the fat cats and corrupt authority figures that took everything from her, she puts a stop to her daughter’s wedding with a rabble-rousing speech about social injustice and then hits the road with a fun-loving bootlegger on the run from the Feds (one of them played by Corman familiar Dick Miller). It’s the just beginning of her outlaw education on the road to bigger and better crimes, from small-time robberies and race track heist to high society capers, with two new partners: rough and ready bank robber Fred Diller (Tom Skerritt) who literally has his bank robbery hijacked by Wilma and smirking con man William Baxter (William Shatner) who seduces Wilma right out of Fred’s arms. Her girls, Billy Jean (Susan Sennett) and Polly (Robbie Lee), are quick to fill the void in Fred’s bed. He’s nothing if not adaptable.
This is a classic Corman drive-in picture combining crime-movie spectacle, period color and sexploitation diversions between the capers, and director Steve Carver delivers the goods. Dickinson, fresh from Police Woman, was considered past her prime as a sex symbol, which may have helped Corman talk the actress out of her clothes for this production, a low-budget picture by Hollywood standards. In the interviews in the accompanying featurette she discusses her discomfort with the nudity and sex scenes but it doesn’t show on screen, where her character is always in charge. That’s not to say this is some feminist manifesto; she may take charge in the sex scenes but she’s still taking her clothes off for the male audience to ogle. Corman is famous for having it both ways and does so here, making Wilma an empowered woman who has the moxie to lead her growing gang of thieves and sleep with whoever she chooses, and a dynamic and entertaining heroine who delivers the requisite nudity for a Corman exploitation action picture. William Shatner’s accent tends to drift as the con man with honeyed southern tones but his smarmy grins and cool confidence (which gives in to nervous desperation as their capers get more dangerous) is perfect for the character, and Tom Skerritt is the rock on which the gang is built, loyal to the end to Wilma and her girls. It’s no forgotten gangster masterpiece, but the snappy, fast-paced picture is better than its legacy or its reputation would suggest. As a trivia note, the high-energy folk score by Dave Grisman features an uncredited Jerry Garcia jamming along.
The double-feature disc is completed by Big Bad Mama II (1987), a belated sequel that could be a remake: it opens with Wilma and her daughters (now played by former child actress Danielle Brisebois and Playboy Playmate Julie McCullough) watching her husband killed by the lawmen trying to foreclose on their farm and follows her revenge on the authorities, specifically the banker (Bruce Glover) who foreclosed on the property. He’s now running for Governor and Wilma has big plans to derail his campaign, starting with kidnapping the man’s son. Robert Culp co-stars as a newspaperman who sees a big story in Wilma—the dispossessed victim turned folk hero outlaw—and ends up helping her mission of revenge. It’s the second feature for director Jim Wynorski, a minor genre figure who began his career with more potential and enthusiasm than talent and quite improved upon either, and this is surely one of the biggest budgets he ever had at his disposal. Unfortunately, it never quite distinguishes itself.
Both films have been previously released and this newly remastered edition features most (but not all) of the supplements from earlier releases, including a good 15-minute featurette “Mama Knows Best: A Retrospective” from 2005, where Corman, Carver and Shatner all offer self-serving perspectives on Dickinson’s nude scene that are sharply contradicted by Dickinson. It’s almost like they are trying to convince themselves that she was just fine with the whole thing. That little moment is as revealing a portrait of exploitation filmmaking as anything you’ll see. Also features archival interviews with Roger Corman conducted by Leonard Maltin (from 2002) and commentary on each film: a new track with director Steve Carver and director of photography Bruce Logan on Big Bad Mama (the commentary by Corman and Angie Dickinson from the previous Disney DVD is not included) and director Jim Wynorski on Big Bad Mama II (from 2002).
Crazy Mama (1976), the second feature by Jonathan Demme, also begins in the depression (the prologue anticipates Big Bad Mama II) then jumps ahead to the fifties, where this crime spree plays out to a jukebox score of fifties rock and roll tunes, all of them bouncy and many of them on the obscure side. Cloris Leachman (between Mel Brooks movies and Mary Tyler Moore appearances) is the Crazy Mama this time, single mom Melba Stokes, who teams up with her beach girl daughter, Cheryl (Linda Purl), and her sassy mother Sheba (Ann Sothern) to take on the man (Jim Backus) who foreclosed on the family beauty shop. Three generations of women are joined by Cheryl’s boyfriend (Donny Most, bringing a little Happy Days flavor along with him), a motorcycle tough named Snake (Bryan Englund) and a fun-loving gambler named Jim Bob (Stuart Whitman), a good ol’ boy Texas sheriff on a Vegas vacation. The charming philanderer falls for Melba and joins the gang for the sheer fun of it as they rob a Vegas wedding chapel and an off-road race track before Melba starts feeling guilty. Not for turning robber, but for robbing the wrong folks. So Jim Bob sells her on a better payday: pretend to kidnap him and let his wife (whose family is loaded) pay the ransom.
This lighthearted lark of a crime spree remains in PG zone, despite a brief flash of nudity and a budding ménage a trois between Purl and her two beaus, the devoted, lovesick tagalong (and father of her unborn child) played by Most and the ready-for-anything Snake, who gamely jumps into every heist with all cylinders firing and is just as cool about turning bedtime into a (fairly chaste) threesome. Of course this can’t continue without someone getting hurt and the film turns, if not exactly darker, at least more fatal, and the casualties along the way might surprise you. Demme revisited this territory in the far superior Something Wild, where he took the left turn into seriously dark territory and made the stakes into something significant. He either doesn’t have the opportunity or inclination to follow it through here, but he does treat those deaths with dignity and respect, putting the slapstick spree on pause to mourn the losses before revving back up. The film is relies more on momentum and personality than narrative but that’s just fine for this misfit crime spree road comedy. Demme likes their company and their spunk and he gives Cloris Leachman plenty of opportunity to play funny and sexy. She does both quite well.
Jonathan Demme apparently had a great relationship with Corman. He directed three films for the producer (including his directorial debut Caged Heat, also available from Shout! Factory) and then cast Corman as an actor in some of his biggest movies (among them Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia). So when Demme and Corman team up for a commentary track and an interview (from sometime around 2002), it’s a reunion between friends and colleagues. They have an easy rapport as they discuss the era and the sensibility of making movies the Corman way in the seventies as much as they talk about the movie itself.
The Lady in Red (1979), based loosely on the real story of Polly Hamilton, the woman on John Dillinger’s arm when he was gunned down in front of the Biograph Theatre in Chicago, and scripted by John Sayles, completes the quartet of outlaw women. Pamela Sue Martin kicked off the goody two shoes from her Nancy Drew image to play the feisty farmer’s daughter (renamed Polly Franklin for the film) with Hollywood dreams who hopscotched from the sweatshop to the dance hall to prison and finally to the cathouse during the depression. The innocent gets tough and smart real fast, but even she doesn’t realize that her sweet, gentlemanly boyfriend “Jimmy” is really Dillinger in hiding. (And yes, in this version, she’s a patsy set-up to look like a stoolie by the real traitor to the code.) Robert Conrad’s Dillinger only shows up in the second act and is killed soon after, but he makes an impression in the role, the gentleman gangster who treats Polly like a lady, but the unsung hero of the piece is Robert Forster, uncredited but indelible as a hitman who falls for fallen woman Polly.
Like so many Corman films, it lets the ladies be tough cookies and leaders and slips social commentary (the sweatshops, the union-busting thugs, the corrupt cops and politicians, the rampant sexism and racism) between the crime movie spectacle and sexy interludes. This is populist moviemaking, Corman style, courtesy of that old lefty John Sayles. Lewis Teague’s direction doesn’t have the snap or personality of Demme or the mix of grit and good clean dirty fun of Carver in Big Bad Mama but he makes it work just fine. And the score is an early stand-out by James Horner, who works in Busby Berkely musical numbers (especially 42nd Street) as running commentary on the dreams of success and fortune in desperate times.
Features two new commentary tracks: one by director Lewis Teague and actor Robert Forster, the other by producer Julie Corman and screenwriter John Sayles.
All four films have been remastered for these sets, presented for the first time in anamorphic widescreen. Don’t expect stellar restorations—these were not produced under the greatest conditions for preserved with the care of a major studio library—but they look just fine, with good color and strong images, and the minor moments of damage simply remind us where these films came from. And you can always watch these in the “Grindhouse Experience,” which plays the double feature through with trailers, movie bumpers and snack bar promos before and between the films.
The feature debut of Guillermo del Toro is an alchemic twist on vampire lore and the costs of eternal life. Federico Luppi is a curio shop owner who stumbles upon a clockwork device that looks like some Quay Brothers creation and revives his fading energy while creating a drug-like addiction and a craving for blood. As the old man’s granddaughter plays angel to the devils of his addiction, a Howard Hughes-like millionaire recluse sends a henchman nephew (Ron Perlman) to retrieve the immortality device. Part melodrama, part morality play, part thriller, it’s as much Dorian Gray as Bram Stoker and features a weird, heady alchemic brew of antiquated clockwork mechanism, mutant organisms, demented villains driven by a greed for youth, and one man’s struggle for his soul. Cool, creepy, tempered with a clever gallows humor and anchored by a passion for life and love.
It’s been previously available on DVD, but of course Criterion remasters it from scratch for both DVD and the Blu-ray debut. Features the two commentary tracks from the 2003 DVD release—one by director Guillermo Del Toro (in English) and one by producers Alejandro Springal, Bertha Navarro (in Spanish with optional English subtitles) and Arthur H. Gorson (in English)—and the 5 minute archival interview featurette “Making Cronos With Federico Luppi” (in Spanish with English subtitles) illustrated with behind the scenes footage and film clips, and completes the set with new supplements. In a new interview with Guillermo del Toro, who is both passionate and articulate, he is frank about what he thinks didn’t work in the film (and how he learned from it) and describes his feature debut as his only true “lapsed Catholic movie.” There are also new interviews (circa 2009) with cinematographer Guillermo Navarro and star Ron Perlman (who del Toro subsequently cast in numerous films, including the starring role in the Hellboy features) and “Welcome to Bleak House,” a ten-minute vide tour guided tour through del Toro’s home, his way of introducing us to his influences, the closest thing to letting us into his mind, he explains, plus Geometria, a 1987 unreleased short horror film finished by del Toro for this release.