Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Big Bad DVD

All Wilma wants is the very best for her daughters. Isn’t that what all mothers want? And if it just so happens that she has to wave a Tommy gun around to get it, well, then, that’s just what she’ll do.

A middle-aged widow didn’t have many options in Depression-era Texas, not even one as feisty, as intelligent, and as beautiful as Wilma McClatchie (Angie Dickinson). BIG BAD MAMA, as directed by Steve Carver (DRUM) and written by Frances Doel (DEATHSPORT) and William Norton (WHITE LIGHTNING), finds the fortyish mother scrounging to make a good life for her two teenagers. The oldest girl, Billie Jean (Susan Sennett, THE CANDY SNATCHERS), didn’t fall far from the tree, able to sass, smoke, screw, and shoot in her mama’s image. Younger Polly (Robbie Lee, SWITCHBLADE SISTERS) is still a little girl trapped in a burgeoning woman’s body, built for pleasure, but still reliant on a teddy bear for security.

The McClatchie women find themselves quickly on the move out of eastern Texas after their bootlegging business comes to a violent end. With a pair of bumbling G-men hot on their trail, Wilma schemes to take her family to California to start a new life, an honest one. Her plan doesn’t work out when Wilma, aghast at discovering her daughters performing an ersatz striptease for a bunch of drunken vets, pulls a pistol and robs the joint.

Rationalizing that “we need it more than they do,” Wilma escalates to bank robbery, using her luscious confederates as a distraction. One such heist is interrupted by Fred Diller (Tom Skerritt), who tries robbing the same bank at the same time and ends up sharing Wilma’s spoils as a member of her gang and as her lover. With Fred’s hotheaded attitude and skills with a machine gun, the McClatchies begin making a name for themselves, brashly knocking over more banks and even an oil field in broad daylight.

Roger Corman produced BIG BAD MAMA for his New World production company, which was perhaps the most exciting and most profitable independent Hollywood studios of the 1970s. One reason for New World’s success was Corman’s instinct for what an audience wanted to see: namely nudity and violence. BIG BAD MAMA certainly delivers on that front, serving up like clockwork a smorgasbord of bloody gun battles, car crashes, undraped females, and sweaty sex scenes. It has been said that Corman’s only rule for his directors was to deliver a “bump”—something exploitable—every ten minutes. Carver took Corman’s advice to heart and then some; BIG BAD MAMA is one of the company’s best-paced and most frenetic pictures.

However, what set New World movies apart from others playing at the drive-in were the social commentary and relevant human drama that often lurked beneath the surface. Dickinson, a ‘50s ingénue who would experience the biggest success of her long career in POLICE WOMAN a few months after BIG BAD MAMA’s premiere, plays Wilma ahead of her time as a fully emancipated woman who certainly didn’t need a man to complete her, but surely enjoyed the company of one when it suited her purpose. Women weren’t allowed to be openly sexual beings in 1933, when the movie is set, and that goes double for teenage girls. BIG BAD MAMA exploits that taboo by letting Skerritt’s character explore open relationships with all three McClatchie women.

The gang’s crime spree takes a turn with the arrival of Southern smoothie William J. Baxter (William Shatner), whom Wilma picks up during a racetrack heist. The money-grubbing weakling quickly replaces Fred as Wilma’s bed partner, freeing Diller to hop into the sack with Billie Jean first and then both girls simultaneously. The complex relationships among the five leading characters are quite unusual for a low-budget action movie of the period, endowing the sex and violence with a human element that forces you to care about the next car chase or shootout beyond whether it delivers viscerally or not.

The game cast is mostly responsible for the dramatic weight. Dickinson, at age 42, is a tremendous sport, not only agreeing to appear nude in several scenes (which undoubtedly contributed to the film’s box office), but performing much of her own stuntwork and deftly handling the responsibility of transforming Norton and Doel’s lead into a fully rounded woman. Both Skerritt and Shatner are able foils for Dickinson. Shatner’s post-Kirk image may have taken a slight beating, considering his amusing characterization of a weak-willed, mealy-mouthed card sharp, but the result was worth it. He’s a joy to watch, and so is BIG BAD MAMA, a ribaldly entertaining action/comedy that stands, out of literally hundreds of Roger Corman productions, among his most satisfying.

Wilma dies in the closing shot of BIG BAD MAMA, which didn’t stop Corman from reviving her thirteen years later. BIG BAD MAMA II isn’t a helluva lot different than the original, however. The screenplay by director Jim Wynorski (NOT OF THIS EARTH) and R.J. Robertson (FORBIDDEN WORLD) is more of a remake than a sequel.

Wilma McClatchie (Dickinson, still looking foxy in her 50s) is still robbing the rich with her two sexy underage daughters, played by TV good girls Danielle Brisebois (ARCHIE BUNKER’S PLACE) and Julie McCullough (GROWING PAINS). To provide the romance, again like the original, she recruits a young stud, Jordan Crawford (Jeff Yagher) and a crafty older journalist, Daryl Pearson (Robert Culp). Out for revenge against Morgan Crawford (Bruce Glover), the venal millionaire who stole her farm and murdered her husband, Wilma pulls her Thompson out of storage and goes on a violent rampage. Along for the ride and romancing Wilma in the process, Pearson smells Pulitzer and crafts his weekly column to promote Wilma as a heroine.

Wynorski keeps the action rolling along, but the production just isn’t as much fun the second time around. The sequel features less action, less nudity, and even less production value. Wynorski lets his typical sloppiness slip in on occasion—for instance, the mullets on the 1930s extras and the use of action footage pulled from the first BIG BAD MAMA. Dickinson doesn’t doff her clothes this time, but the choice of much younger body doubles to play Angie and Culp in the love scene is hilarious.

Both BIG BAD MAMAs are available from Shout Factory on a new Roger Corman Cult Classics DVD. It’s the third time the original has been on disc, although the first in its preferred 1.85:1 aspect ratio. BIG BAD MAMA II was a VHS and cable staple, but has never been on DVD before now. You can watch the films separately or as part of the “Grindhouse Experience” as a double feature with trailers and other bits.

Both films have been blessed with audio commentary tracks by their makers. Corman and Angie Dickinson’s track from the Buena Vista DVD is included here, along with a new commentary by director Carver and director of photography Bruce Logan. The hapless Walter Olsen moderates the track with his typical disdain for preparation. Director Wynorski goes solo on the BIG BAD MAMA II track, which was included on New Concorde’s 2002 DVD. He’s one of the few directors who can handle a feature-length commentary by himself, but he seems bored here. He’s certainly less candid than he can be, diplomatically discussing Robert Culp, an actor he has said publicly he hated.

Also ported over from the Buena Vista DVD is a short featurette on BIG BAD MAMA featuring Dickinson, Shatner, Corman, Carver, and the film’s writers, as well as Leonard Maltin interviews with Corman. Olsen sits Bruce Glover before a camera for a short interview. Also included are trailers for both films, as well as future Shout Factory releases CRAZY MAMA (a trailer I haven’t seen before that really pushes its 1950s setting), SMOKEY BITES THE DUST, JACKSON COUNTY JAIL, and THE LADY IN RED.

1 comment:

Reel Distraction said...

I've had this bookmarked for a while. Excellent review. I need to pick this disc up.