|Big Bad Mama (Special Edition)|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 13 December 2005|
The financial and critical success of “Bonnie and Clyde” prompted a mini-boom in period gangster movies, many of which were backed by Roger Corman. “Big Bad Mama,” directed by Steve Carver, was one of the later examples, but turned out entertaining and profitable enough that Corman made a belated sequel in 1987, also starring Angie Dickinson.
One of the more unexpected developments in DVD during 2005 was when Roger Corman signed a deal with Buena Vista Home Entertainment—the DVD arm of Disney—to release a lot of his older films. Corman himself seems to enjoy doing commentary tracks and talking-head documentaries for these projects, as he’s on both this and the simultaneously-released “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.” Corman is an agreeable sort of guy with a big smile and a winning personality. He never seems to be taking any of this any too seriously, a sign that we shouldn’t, either.
In eastern rural Texas in 1932, Wilma McClatchie (Dickinson) abruptly breaks up the wedding of her teenaged daughter Polly (Robbie Lee); together with her other teen daughter Billy Jean (Susan Sennett), she simply heads away from their farm in the car of a friend. He’s killed by passing Feds (one of whom is Corman regular Dick Miller), so the three take over his moonshine run, then soon branch out to other kinds of crime.
When they’re about to rob a bank, another pair of holdup men burst in; one is killed and the other, Fred Diller (Tom Skerritt), is wounded so the McClatchie trio take him along. Soon enough, he’s sweet on Wilma, but both Billy Jean and Polly have their eyes on him, too. Later at a race track, Wilma meets smooth-talking con man William J. Baxter (William Shatner), and he joins the team, too, quickly becoming Wilma’s lover. Conflicts ensue.
“Big Bad Mama” is briskly directed by Steve Carver, an occasional director of Corman projects. It’s not a very stylish movie, but it has a ramshackle charm and energy. There’s little sense of story development; this kind of thing happens a while, then other things happen, then the movie ends. Also, there are nude scenes, including full-frontal shots of the spectacular Dickinson. She’s also very good with her clothes on, an ideal performer to hang this kind of movie on.
Carver uses lots of old-fashioned irises and wipes, probably because of the period setting. The movie was shot in Southern California, and if you watch the background carefully, you can see things like aluminum windows and other modern artifacts. The score includes standards of the time as well as even older songs like “The Yellow Rose of Texas” and “Bury Me Beneath the Willow.” In the documentary, someone mentions that the lively musical track included guitar and banjo work by Jerry Garcia.
Shatner is also full of typical Shatner charm and bluster; there haven’t been very many actors who so clearly love performing, and he can give a director anything necessary from slapstick comedy to stark drama. Tom Skerritt is a bit more serious than Shatner, but he’s comfortable in the role of Fred, who’s no smarter than he should be.
The original trailer is included, but oddly there are few if any allusions to “Big Bad Mama II.” “Mama Knows Best” is a cheerful documentary on the movie featuring Corman and Dickinson (who also provide the mediocre commentary track), writer Frances Doel, co-writer William Noarton and director Steve Carver. There are somewhat contradictory stories about Dickinson’s nude scenes, but everybody seems to be having a good time. You probably will, too.