Wednesday, October 2, 2019


The Shelley Winters Blogathon hosted by Realweegiemidget Reviews Poppity Talks Classic Film

"MEET MA BARKER who took her bibles, her hymn book and her tommy
 gun and raised four sons and raised more hell the most of the mobs in Chicago"

     Produced and directed by "B" movie mogul Roger Corman and released by A.I.P. in 1970 BLOODY MAMA, was a drive-in answer to Arthur Penn's BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967) with eschewing (for the most part) Penn & Beatty's European art house/French New Wave aspirations. Although geared toward the exploitation market, Corman always gave his films some artistic flourishes (it's often forgotten what a technically skilled director he was and how beautiful looking his movies were) and BLOODY MAMA does show that Corman was an avid watcher of films and was aware of what was going on at the time artistic-wise in Hollywood and overseas.
     In the late 60's Hollywood's obsession with the youth market met that many classic Hollywood greats and Oscar winners were regulated to the sidelines and forced into secondary roles or leading roles in exploitation movies. For the men these often-meant roles as emasculated or evilly corrupt authority figures standing in the way of the under 30 anti-heroes. For women it often came down to playing shrieking harpies in the so-called "hag horror" that began with Robert Aldrich's WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE (1962) and was still growing strong in the late '60s along with bizarre exploitation fare like Lana Turner on LSD in THE BIG CUBE (1969) and the fascinating Jennifer Jones train wreck of  ANGEL, ANGEL DOWN WE GO  from 1969 (which was written by Robert Thom who also wrote the screenplay for BLOODY MAMA).

    Winters who by the time of BLOODY MAMA had two best-supporting actress wins and had been one of the better respected supporting actresses in Hollywood was seeing her career regulated to TV (she had played "Ma Parker" in the BATMAN TV series) and had begun to tip her toe into the exploitation genre with THE MAD ROOM & WILD IN THE STREETS in 1969. She would later appear in Curtis Harrington's fascinating takes on the "hag horror" genre with WHO SLEW AUNTIE ROO? and WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? in 1971. Although when looked at the time her role of Ma Barker would have seemed a bit shocking Winters always took great gusto in these later roles which in spite of the bluster would always show what a fine actress she was and with her mainstream career fading she would more & more go into full-on "Shelley Winters" persona in roles and on the talk show circuit.
    Along with Winters BLOODY MAMA contains a fascinating mixture of up & comers, character faces and ingenues on the downside. Although a gangster picture at its heart, Corman & screenwriter Thom are more interested in the characters rather than their exploits (there's only one actual bank robbery in the course of the film) and the film features some marvelous performances. With these characters come at times a very vile and sordid story with rape, incest, and drug addiction taking center stage often in the proceedings.
    Opening de rigor for a gangster film banjo-driven main title theme this one by composer Don Randi we're shown 14-year-old Kate being pursued through the woods before being violently held down by two boys and being raped by an older man who we learn is her brothers and father. Jumping forward we find a now-adult Kate Barker (Winters) in rural depression-era Arkansas with her brood including Herman (Don Stroud THE HOUSE BY THE LAKE), Arthur (Clint Kimbrough NIGHT CALL NURSES), Fred (Robert Walden TV's LOU GRANT), and an almost impossibly young Robert De Niro as Lloyd.

     Forcing to flee after the boys are accused of the vicious gang rape of a local girl that resulted in her broken arm, Kate loads the boys into a car stolen from the sheriff and bids good-bye to meek mannered husband George (Alex Nicol THE SCREAMING SKULL) with the parting words "you never did know how to mount me right". It's pretty amazing how much seediness the film packs into its opening moments.
    Once on the road, the gang/family quickly resorts to a life of crime with Stroud's Herman showing himself to be the most dangerous as he is a psychotic killer who occasionally needs to be cradled in Ma's arms and taken to her bed and Lloyd becomes more dependent on his morphine addiction with the occasional glue sniffing ("you sure start acting funny when your building those model planes..."). Along the way, they pick up a prostitute named Mona whose played by Diana Varso who has previously appeared with Winters in WILD IN THE STREETS and was nominated for an Academy Award for PEYTON PLACE in 1957. Although nominally attached to Herman, she's not above climbing in the back seat with Arthur while Herman is driving.
    Herman and Fred are thrown into jail for attempting to rob a charity benefit and while in jail Fred becomes involved in an S&M relationship with Kevin (Bruce Dern) who upon release joins the gang and sometimes shares Winters's bed when she's not with one of her brood. Things escalate with the brutal murder of a young girl and the kidnapping of a banker (a wonderful performance by the great Pat Hingle) and the climatic and bloody shootout at the gang's FL. hideaway. it's during the extended kidnapping scene with Hingle that Corman and Thom really let the characters stretch out (especially Winters and Stroud) as the boys begin to bond with the kidnapped banker seeing in him a father figure they never had.

    Winters is a true force of nature here, not only making the character of Ma Barker seem almost larger than life, but she spews forth her dialogue with a visceral force that must be heard to be believed. Alternately quoting the bible and dispensing with her own version of social justice, she sings spirituals while condemning the entire human race as immoral and berating the "rich heathens". If not for the talent of a great supporting cast, she would push them all to the background. De Niro, in particular, is fascinating to watch as you can't take your eyes off him even when he's lurking in the background.
     Opening with the title card "Any similarity to Kate Barker and her sons is intentional" the screenplay by Thom is more indebted to the gangster fantasy that Penn & screenwriters David Newman & Robert Benton (along with an uncredited Robert Towne) put forth in 1967 to BONNIE AND CLYDE. Corman takes the basic story of the outlaw gang and infuses it with seediness and sordid details along with requisite violence that makes for a great drive-in exploitation movie. But as mentioned before the characters are all well developed and Corman shoots some sequences with almost a poetry like ambiance such as the beginning with a young girl running slowly through the woods in a gunny sack dress and later at the climax when groups of spectators silently watch the bloody shootout (which is based on actual fact).
     Bruce Dern's character Kevin is based upon Alvin "Creepy" Karpis who was the last surviving member of the Ma Barker gang and later befriended Charles Manson in jail and taught Manson how to play guitar. There's still much debate on how much of a criminal mind "Ma" really was and many believe that Hoover inflated her reputation in order to justify her violent death at the hands of authorities. The house in Ocklawaha, FL. where the hours-long shootout took place is still standing (complete with bullet holes) and in reality, only Kate "Ma" Barker and Fred were there at the time. Hollywood had previously tackled the story in 1960 with MA BARKER'S KILLER BROOD starring Lurene Tuttle which was released by Something Weird on DVD (in a nifty Dbl. feature with GANGBUSTERS) and BLOODY MAMA has been released on DVD and Blu-ray by Scorpion.

The above screen caps are from the Scorpion DVD


  1. Thanks Dick for this sterling review, this film sounds like my choice of her movies with one that Shelley puts her all into a role which I agree she definitely needs the support of fantastic co-stars. Will definitely check this out, and thanks for joining the blogathon with this film.

    1. She is wonderful in this! Thanks so much for putting this Blogathon together.

  2. Still have not seen this, and now I must. Your gorgeously written and illustrated article brings it all to vivid life! Amazing cast, and Winters in all her flamboyant glory!

  3. I shamefully have not experienced this film.
    It sounds right up my alley, as is most of Corman's films.
    Thanks for the entertaining and illuminating review!

  4. I shamefully have not experienced this film.
    It sounds right up my alley, as is most of Corman's films.
    Thanks for the entertaining and illuminating review!

  5. Based on your excellent review, I need to check this out. It looks like a hoot!