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Bloody Mama

Bloody Mama(1970)

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Branded by FBI director by J. Edgar Hoover as "the most vicious, dangerous, and resourceful criminal brain of the last decade," Kate Barker - purported head of a family of career criminals and ruthless killers who terrorized the American Midwest during the Great Depression - died in a hail of bullets exchanged with federal agents on the banks of Florida's Lake Weir in January 1935. Though those who knew her well claimed that Barker never participated in the crimes committed by her four sons but the association struck a nerve with the American public and "Ma Barker" became a familiar criminal prototype. Barkeresque figures appeared in popular entertainment almost immediately, from Dick Tracy's remorseless comic strip matriarch Maw Famon to the murderous Ma Webster played by Blanche Yurka in Paramount's Queen of the Mob (1940). Subsequent film and TV chronicles of Ma Barker's exploits swung wide of even the undisputed facts, in such films as Guns Don't Argue (1957) with Jean Harvey and Ma Barker's Killer Brood (1960) starring Lurene Tuttle, as well as on episodes of The Untouchables (where a deglamorized Claire Trevor played Kate Barker) and CBS' short-lived The Witness (where Joan Blondell's Ma Barker appears with her knitting before a Kefauver Commission-style tribunal to answer for her sins).

Roger Corman had agreed to make Bloody Mama (1970) for American International Pictures with a mind toward cashing in on the success of Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967) but the sociopolitical and violence of the following year (in particular, the assassinations of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., and presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy within two months of one another) prompted Corman to table the project. By the end of 1969, Corman felt the timing was at last right to unleash Bloody Mama upon American moviegoers. To play the eponymous criminal matriarch, Corman cast Shelley Winters, a two-time Academy Award winner then transitioning from leading lady roles to character parts. (Winters had already played a comic variation on the historical figure, as supervillain Ma Parker on TV's Batman.) It was Winters's inspiration to assign the part of Barker's heroin-addicted son Lloyd to Robert DeNiro, whose resume to that point consisted of roles in New York-based experimental and independent films (most notably those of Brian De Palma). Additional parts were meted out to Don Stroud, Clint Kimbrough, and Robert Walden (as Ma Barker's other sons), Pat Hingle as a wealthy kidnap victim, former Peyton Place star Diane Varsi as an Ozarks gun moll, and Bruce Dern as a character patterned after Ma Barker's alleged partner in crime, Alvin "Creepy" Karpis.

With a budget of $600,000, Bloody Mama began filming in Batesville, Arkansas, in August 1969. As triple digit temperatures and faulty air conditioners tested the mettle of the hired talent (in particular winters, who became a flight risk until repairs to her trailer's cooling unit could be made), the film's inclusion of onscreen nudity prompted several locally-hired extras to flee for the sanctity of their church groups. Though cast and crew got along famously through the four weeks of principal photography (which wrapped in Little Rock in September), Winters and DeNiro often seemed to be in competition to see who was more dedicated to the Stanislavsky "Method." While Winters had to pack on extra pounds to play the famously corpulent Kate Barker, DeNiro shed thirty to sell the effects of Lloyd Barker's opiate addiction. When it came time for Winters to film the funeral scene for DeNiro's character, the actress whipped herself up into an emotive frenzy by blasting Italian opera; even though he had been wrapped from the production following his death scene, DeNiro stuck around for the funeral, even dropping down into the freshly-dug grave to give his onscreen family something to cry about. The vibe of verisimilitude prevailed and in another scene, in which Winters was required to slap Don Stroud, Stroud reacted in character and punched back, knocking Winters to the ground and sending her to a local hospital for x-rays.

Bloody Mama made money for AIP but Corman realized the central casting of the nearly 50 year-old Winters had hurt ticket sales. He hired budding filmmaker Martin Scorsese to helm another Depression era gangster tale, Boxcar Bertha (1972), this time starring 23 year-old Barbara Hershey. Breaking with AIP, Corman further retooled the Kate Barker mythos with Big Bad Mama (1974), released by his own New World Pictures and starring fortyish Angie Dickinson as the matriarch of a criminal gang of nubile young girls, and Crazy Mama (1975), an early film for filmmaker manqu Jonathan Demme. As for Shelley Winters, the actress would find herself nominated for another Oscar two years later for playing a survivor of maritime disaster in Ronald Neame's The Poseidon Adventure (1972); at the 45th presentation of the Academy Awards in March 1973, Winters would lose the statue to Best Actress in a Supporting Role to Butterflies Are Free's Eileen Heckart, who would go on to play Ma Barker herself in the 1974 NBC telefilm The F.B.I. Story: The FBI versus Alvin Karpis, Public Enemy Number One.

by Richard Harland Smith

Sources:

How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime by Roger Corman, with Jim Jerome (Da Capo Press, 1998)
'Shooting My Way Out of Trouble': The Films of Roger Corman by Alan Frank (BT Batsford, Ltd., 1998)
Roger Corman: An Unauthorized Life by Beverly Gray (Thunder's Mouth Press, 2000)
Roger Corman Interviews, edited by Constantine Nasr (University Press of Mississippi, 2011)
Roger Corman: Metaphysics on a Shoestring by Alain Silver and James Ursini (Silman-James Press, 2006)
Flying Through Hollywood By the Seat of My Pants: By the Man Who Brought You Was a Teenage Werewolf and Muscle Beach Party by Sam Arkoff, with Richard Trubo (Birch Lane Press, 1992
The Films of Robert DeNiro by Douglas Brode (Citadel Press, 2000)
Untouchable: Robert DeNiro Unauthorized by Andy Dougan (Random House, 2011)
Martin Scorsese: A Biography by Vincent Lo Brutto (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2008)
Crime Movies: An Illustrated History by Carlos Clarens (W. W. Norton & Company, 1980)

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