Friday, December 20, 2013

Happy Birthday Claudia Jennings !! (Unholy Rollers 1972)

Claudia Jennings Movie Night # 4 ! Roller Derby Queen Claudia Kicks Butt All Over The Place !!

"A Locker Room Look At The Toughest Broads In The World !"

  Born on this day in 1949, a very special birthday remembrance for actress & Playboy model (plus Playmate of the Year for 1969 !) Claudia Jennings. With the release this month on DVD of one of her best remembered roles as a ass kickin’ take-no-prisoners roller derby babe in 1972’s Unholy Rollers, this is a good time to take a moment to remember this truly iconic drive-in movie actress (and a much under appreciated actress to boot).

    Made to cash in on the publicity that was being generated by Raquel Welch in Kansas City Bomber (which itself was a major studio attempt on the exploitation/drive-in market) this 1972 low budget Roger Corman produced effort from A.I.P. features editing by a young Martin Scorsese and a really driven almost crazy “with a few screws loose” performance from Claudia (her character defiantly has some anger issues lurking around). She literally OWNS this film (she’s in almost every scene) and along with Gator Bait this is the ultimate Claudia Jennings movie viewing experience.

Claudia's got a Joe Cocker Mad Dogs & Englishmen poster decorating her pad !

    Karen Walker (Claudia) toils away in a cat food factory and after getting sick & tired of getting pawed by her lecherous boss she quits and tries out for a spot on the local roller derby team the L.A. Avengers whereupon she makes it (and gets pawed by the lecherous team doctor). Once there she begins her gritty climb to the top beating up and/or running over teammates & opponents alike while running afoul of lesbian teammate and the # 1 roller gal Mickey (Betty Ann Rees SUGAR HILL). Resisting the advances of Mickey during a team get together at a bar Karen is held down by her teammates on a pool table and has her clothes ripped off !

   Coming to her rescue team captain Nick (Jay Warela) angrily brandishes a pool cue and they skip out of the bar together and begin a rather tempestuous relationship (which seems to consist of riding around on a motorcycle while shooting out neon signs and occasionally getting into brawls with each other). Their first night however Nick takes her to the Avenger’s arena where he shows her some rolling skating moves while Claudia does a striptease while slowly skating around the track (where if not cut short like it is here would surely have been one of the highlights of 70’s drive-in cinema).

    Now as being goaded on by team owner Mr. Stern (Luis Quinn SUPERCHICK) Karen sets her sights on Mickey and the # 1 position all the while going into full psycho primadona mode - “That girl knows showmanship!!” Along the way she visits her trailer park mother played by Jerry Lewis regular Kathleen Freeman, gets a tattoo of the team logo on her forearm (which she raises in triumph to get the crowds pumped up), blasts around town in her tricked out muscle car that has a large silver horse glued on the hood and after making the big time buys some of the most hideously ugly 70's furniture you've ever seen.
   Director Vernon Zimmerman keeps the plot moving along at a fast forward pace and the rapid firing editing of Scorsese really gives the races a frantic swirling feeling. As if all this weren't enough you got the cute as heck Candice Roman (THE BIG BIRD CAGE) as Karen's charmingly scatter-brained stripper roommate Donna, Alan Vint (MACON COUNTY LINE) as Donna's not to bright car thief boyfriend Greg and Roberta Collins (CAGED HEAT) as team rival Jennifer.

    Claudia (as does most of the cast) does all of her own aggressive roller skating including taking falls and ramming other skaters (and she looks to be having a wonderful time doing it). At first glance with her high forehead and lanky build most people today would probably never consider her a classic beauty (one can't even imagine her in today's photoshop & silicone Playboy), but when looking at her pictures in Playboy and her early film roles there's a very wonderful natural sweetness & beauty about her. One can really see why she was one of the most popular Playmates during the 70's. Down the road in her life she would sadly battle some personal demons and have problems on movie shoots (labeling her "difficult to work with"). Tragically on Oct. 3 1979 she was killed in an automobile accident.
   After years of being unavailable Unholy Rollers was recently released by Shout Factory in one of their 4 movie packs (which can be kinda hit or miss). It would be nice to report for Claudia's birthday that this was a definitive release but it does have some issues. Although early internet reviews claimed it being full frame IT IS anamorphic widescreen, but most likely because of compression issues doesn't have as nice contrast & colors as the transfer that ran awhile back on the MGM HD channel. Plus all the Chuck Berry songs (sung by a cover band in the movie) have been removed because of music rights issues (they were intact on the broadcast version however) and replaced by generic instrumentals. Not a perfect release, but its all we got for now and anytime we get some Claudia Jennings on DVD that's a good thing.
    Here is an excellent article on her that is well worth reading.

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