Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Happy Birthday Angie Dickinson !! BIG BAD MAMA 1974

A Machine Gun Totin' Angie Blasts Her Way Through Depression 
Era Texas In This Roger Corman Exploitation Drive-In Classic !

"Hot Lead - Hot Cars - Hot Damn !"

"Men, Money and Moonshine : When It Comes To Vice Mama Know Best !" 

     Throughout his career Roger Corman always showed a certain affinity for the gangster film genre as perhaps like the biker films he also worked on the notion of rebels living outside the law appealed to his streak of independence as a filmmaker. Starting out in 1958 with MACHINE GUN KELLY (starring a young Charles "pre- Bronson" Buchinsky) & the fictional I, MOBSTER and later through his first New World film BLOODY MAMA from 1970 which chronicled the story via the drive-in of Ma Barker's gang of drug addled & psychotic offspring with Shelly Winters in the title role (with Robert DeNiro & Don Stroud among her sons). Down the road and his deal with Fox there was THE ST. VALENTINES DAY MASSACRE and Ben Gazzara as a scenery chewing Al Capone in CAPONE. 
     In 1974 Angie Dickinson was a forty something year old actress who seemed to be most famous for being the on again off again wife of singer Burt Bacharach. During her film career in the 60's and early 70's she seemed to have a unique affinity for attaching herself to projects that while maybe not box office gold at the time of release have gone on to be cult classics such as John Borman's psychedelic neo-noir POINT BLANK and Roger Vadim's PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW (which was the subject of last years Angie birthday post) along with ones that are looked upon with a new appreciation (Howard Hawk's RIO BRAVO) or now considered "hip" (OCEANS 11) and some that are even waiting to be discovered such as 1972's THE OUTSIDE MAN.

     However 1974 was an auspicious year for Angie, as a couple of serendipitous events occurred for her career-wise. She appeared in an episode of the anthology TV show POLICE STORY entitled The Gamble and was approached by Roger Corman to star in a low budget depression era gangster movie. The Gamble was picked up for a regular series as POLICE WOMAN and Angie went on to star in BIG BAD MAMA for New World Pictures. Corman cannily held up the release for his movie, tying it into POLICE WOMAN's premiere on Sept. 13 as BIG BAD MAMA opened in theatres across the country within a week of the shows first episode (Roger even premiered it in Angie's home state of North Dakota).
    The instant success of POLICE WOMAN along with Angie's publicity fueled BIG BAD MAMA nude scenes (pictures of which that seemed to show up in every men's magazine published at the time) meant that Roger had a box office bonanza on his hands as BIG BAD MAMA went on to make roughly $5,00,000 in ticket sales and played for years on the drive-in circuit. It later (probably a bit too later) spawned a sequel with Angie in the form of 1987's BIG BAD MAMA II (which isn't nearly as bad as some folks say) and there was even talk of a third entry in the early 90's which never materialized.

     Directed by Steve Carver (THE ARENA) and written by William Norton (WHITE LIGHTNING) & Frances Doel (DEATHSPORT) BIG BAD MAMA sticks to the usual New World game plan of blood or boobs every 15 minutes or so and in its 84 minutes barely stops to catch its breath. Along with Corman's biker films it plays up a bit of the "anti-establishment" plot that also channels a bit of Arthur Penn's BONNIE AND CLYDE from 1967.
    Filmed in various spots around Southern California (filling in for "West Texas" during the plot's first half before moving to a more convenient So Cal setting for the second half), it was shot in a breakneck 20 days for a budget of approx. $400,000. Under that tight shooting schedule Carver obliviously had to set up shots quickly, but there's only the occasional stray contemporary streetlight in the background to betray the film's time frame - although I'm not sure Angie's brightly colored bell bottom slacks were a fashion item in the 1930's.
    Wilma McClatchie (Angie) is a widow eking out an existence in 1930's Depression era Texas with her two daughters Billy Jean (Susan Stennett THE CANDY SNATCHERS and the OZZIE'S GIRLS TV show) and Polly (Robbie Lee SWITCHBLADE SISTERS). After breaking up the impending marriage of the younger & more innocent doll carrying Polly, Wilma hooks up bootlegger "Uncle Barney" played by Noble Washington (FIGHTING MAD). Alternately pawing at both Wilma and her daughters ol' Barney is soon killed by a couple of G-Men led by "that guy" Dick Miller. Wilma unsuccessfully tries to carry on in the bootleg business and while later coming up short as waitress she catches her daughters in the midst of an impromptu striptease performance for a bunch of drunken lodge members whereupon she decides to turn to a life of crime.

      Kick starting their life outside the law by attempting pass a bogus check at a bank Wilma and her daughters are interrupted by bank robber Fred Diller (Tom Skerritt ALIEN). Joining together the group begins robbing banks with Wilma and Fred eventually sharing a bed while Billy Jean and Polly look on eagerly from the background. Eventually the quartet hooks with shifty con man William J. Baxter (a post STAR TREK William Shatner - with one of the strangest fading in and out Southern accents ever heard) with Baxter & Wilma eventually doing some nude frolicking together that drives Fred into the bed(s) of Billy Jean & Polly (sometimes both at the same time !).
     Looking to make one big score they kidnap heiress Joan Kingston (Joan Prather THE DEVILS RAIN) which unfortunately leads to their downfall as the growing animosity between the males (who's getting Angie tonight !?!) along with other sundry sexual tensions and a whiny backstabbing Capt. Kirk all lead to the climatic and bloody shoot-out with Dick Miller's G Men and a whole lot of squibs.
    Although filled out with several bloody shootings BIG BAD MAMA is far more lighter viewing experience then the more sleazy and nihilistic BLOODY MAMA as Angie's crime spree has a bit of humor attached to it while not totally shying away from the blood & violence. It's interesting to compare the fictional Wilma to Winter's portrayal of Ma Barker as their both strong willed woman looking out for their children and desperately trying to keep the family unit intact (although in BLOODY MAMA Ma Barker might be TOO close to her sons). Skerritt's character is only male in the film that shows much of a backbone or isn't there strictly for comic relief as the other men-folk are shown as weak willed and/or stupid slobs who are no more then a nuisance to Wilma's plans.
     She does let men into her world but its never in doubt who is in charge. Probably because of Frances Doel input to the script the film has a strong feminist slant that fits in with Angie's strong performance as a driven woman in a man's world.

    Along with Angie the entire female cast sheds their clothes at one point or another (including a totally gratuitous scene by Sally Kirkland playing a surprised hooker) and as Susan Stennett was just coming off the family friendly TV show OZZIE'S GIRLS her romping about in the all together with Tom Skerritt must have caused a bit of a stir. If there's a fault in the film, its that it attempts to introduce too many characters into the proceedings with the result being some underdeveloped plot points. Although its understandable that Wilma would allow Fred into the fold for his bank robbing expertise, we never really figure out what the heck Shatner is dong there and why Wilma would allow him into the gang (and it would have been nice to get some more Dick Miller). Plus being this close to his STAR TREK tenure Shatner seems to have just stepped out of that episode where the Enterprise ends up on that planet that's based upon gangland Chicago.
    Angie is simply terrific in this as she jumps into her part with total gusto and to her credit has never tried to shy away from her participation or disown the film. On the Shout Factory DVD she shares a light hearted & informative commentary with Corman, relating many amusing stories such as that although she was fine with the crew being around for her nude scenes Shatner insisted on a closed set. She also points out the exact frame that was reprinted in countless men's magazines and has many complimentary things to say about the production and practically the entire cast and crew.

All the above screen caps are from the Shout Factory DVD



  1. This post got me interested, so I went and did some research on this film and its sequel. Interestingly,one of my all time favorites, Monique Gabrielle, was Angie's body double in the second part.

    1. I never knew that ! I wonder what she's been up to as she really dropped out of sight ? I always loved DEATHSTALKER II and remember her from all those old Chiller Shows in New Jersey.

    2. Last thing I saw.. about... gosh, it had to have been at least 6 years ago, probably more, she did a more hardcore video for her website. But I think the site is gone now.

  2. I share a love of Ms. Dickinson with my father - who always touted her as his favorite and who never missed Police Woman during its run. I just watched her in The Norliss Tapes - it's always nice to see her. I of course love Big Bad Mama - but I will also say I think Big Bad Mama II is an excellent entry in the late 80's "Anything can get a sequel so it can sit next to the original on the video shelf" period that has now been supplanted by remakes of ANYTHING if execs feel even one person might remember the original. Although BBM II is really a "requel" (my term for a supposed sequel that basically just retells the story of the original film) it is well orchestrated by Jim Wynorski and has those gorgeous girls Danielle Brisbois and Julie McCullough keeping my eyes happy throughout.

    Happy Birthday to Angie Dickinson!