Reeling Backward: Big Bad Mama (1974)

Less a gritty crime drama a la "Bonnie and Clyde" and more scampy sexploitation, "Big Bad Mama" is the tale of a singularly determined woman who flaunts her brains, body and ambitions.

It isn't hard to glimpse the genealogy of "Big Bad Mama." Movies about rebels and outlaws were popular during the late 1960s and early '70s, especially if it was set in oldentimes to create some distance to comment on the ongoing political and social strife. "Bonnie and Clyde" was a critical and cultural hit, so we got a lot more similar films to follow in its wake.

It's the story of a tough, single-minded woman who goes on a cross-country crime spree with her two teenage daughters, along with a couple of hanger-on men in tow.

This was also a period where mainstream movies had very suddenly become much naughtier, with swearing, explicit violence and nudity virtually verboten just a few years earlier. "Mama" has a copious display of boobs and butts, including star Angie Dickinson. There was a brief era of "sexploitation" films before the advent of hardcore pornography into theaters, sort of a sweet appetizer before the less appetizing main course.

Excoriated at the time for lowering America's morals, these fleshy flicks seem almost quaint today.

I admit I was expecting a little more substance from the movie, even though I knew it came from the cheap oeuvre of schlock producer Roger Corman. It's basically just a repetitive string of various heists, which always end with Mama and her crew riding off in their car with a pile of cash, firing off a tommy gun to scare off pursuers as fast-paced banjo music plays, with sex scenes for the interludes between.

"Big Bad Mama" was essentially a remake of Corman's "Bloody Mama" from a few years earlier starring Shelley Winters. Whatever you want to say about him, Corman gave a lot of opportunities for youngsters like Ron Howard to make their first movies, or older waning stars to stay in the limelight. 

The movie also stars William Shatner during his wilderness years between the Star Trek TV show and movies, and a young Tom Skerritt. Sally Kirkland shows up in a brief bit role.

Dickinson, who'd seen her own luster fade after leading roles in the 1950s and '60s, rejuvenated her career with "Mama" turning her into a sex symbol in her 40s, going on to star in the hit TV show "Police Woman" and other projects. Little did I know, but Corman and Dickinson would reunite 13 years later for a prequel, which tells how Wilma McClatchie first lost her husband and farm, turning to a life of crime.

It's too bad "Mama" relies so much on skin and shootin', because there's the bones of a good story here. Wilma is a proto-feminist rebel, a woman who's lost everything and is determined to take it all back, and then some, on her own terms. She loves her two teenage daughters, and is happy to steal and kill to give them the finer things in life.

She's also unabashedly domineering, the boss of her criminal enterprise and her bedroom, too. She takes on a hot-tempered bank robber, Fred Diller (Skerritt), and makes him her plaything. But when a better prospect comes along in the form of a dashing gambler, William J. Baxter (Shatner), she switches sheets partners without even so much as a by-the-way conversation.

Later, after elder daughter Billy Jean (Susan Sennett) has taken on Diller as a lover and shared him with sister Polly (Robbie Lee), Wilma gives Baxter the boot and then promotes Diller back to the top spot. I imagine the idea of a mother and daughter bed-hopping with two different men seemed pretty scandalous when the movie came out.

The daughters are an interesting pair, and I wish the screenplay by William Norton (who also did "White Lightning") and Frances Doel had developed them a little more. Polly is childish and innocent, even carrying around a doll, though she's very curious about sex. As the movie open she's set to marry some country bumpkin, but Wilma blows up the ceremony because she doesn't want to see Polly consigned to a life of kitchen drudgery like she was.

Billy Jean is a little older and a little wiser, and definitely has some of her mother's steel in her spine. She has a penchant for teasing and playing jokes, and like Wilma she's definitely the alpha in her relationship with Diller. When Wilma claims him back, we can see the unspoken hurt in Billy Jean's eyes. 

They first get their start in crime by partnering with Uncle Barney (Willingham), a prospering moonshiner, though it's unclear if this is actually William's brother-in-law or the uncle appellation is just a familiar term for the girls. When he's killed by some lawmen, Wilma takes over his practice.

After being forced to pay off a fat, corrupt Southern sheriff -- is there any other kind in the movies? -- Wilma vows to always be the one taking cash, not handing it over, from now on.

They move on from one scheme to the next, Wilma careful never to repeat her M.O. They rip off a veterans reunion where Billy Jean and Polly had been recruited as strippers, using her false effrontery at a mother angry about having her (not so) innocent daughters despoiled to make off with a pile of cash. A shyster preacher preaching the good word so he can run away with the donation basket finds himself plucked and booted out of his own car.

One curious job has them robbing an oil drilling company -- I'm a little unclear why such an industrial operation would have large wads of money lying around. They pick up Baxter, a smooth Louisville operating currently experiencing "an embarrassment of funds," at a horse track they stick up. They also pass themselves off as high-society types so they can rob an entire party full of rich snobs.

This leads to Wilma's grandest scheme to kidnap a snooty heiress, Jane Kingston (Joan Prather), and ransom her for a cool million, which will set them up for life. It seems to be going well, until the ongoing enmity between Baxter and Diller boils over, and the girl seduces Diller and then gives him the slip, and Baxter lets her go. 

Eventually he brings the cops for ubiquitous final shoot-out where he, Diller and Wilma all wind up dead.

A pair of federal agents in black suits and a black car, with Dick Miller as the senior of the two, wind up as the comic relief, constantly being run off into ditches or dumped into a pile of horse manure. 

The three-way dynamic between Wilma and the two men is curious, mostly for the fact they defer to her in every way. Diller loathes the fancy-pants Baxter, hurling constant insults and insinuations about his sexuality, though the latter never responds beyond mortified shock at the rude manners. He finally challenges Diller to a fistfight, boasting that he was a college boxing champion, though Diller simply swings his long-barrelled pistol into review -- phallic taunts much? -- and Baxter backs down.

I think Wilma is congenitally more attuned to a simple, violent but authentic soul like Diller, though she sees Baxter as a more genteel sort better suited to her ambitions in life. Though she eventually sees through his conniving facade to the sniveling coward beneath.

Dickinson's sex scenes with Shatner are pretty loopy to watch, if only from a pop culture standpoint -- Captain Kirk in the buff! -- but also for their total lack of real lovemaking. Baxter caresses Wilma's body with itchy fingers and wide eyes, as if in awe of her beauty, more like Thorin fingering dragon's gold than a lusty beast sowing his seed. He is a man who covets, and once he has something, that want turns to something else. 

For her part, Wilma is the sort of woman who doesn't shy away from worship.

Once I got over the fact "Big Bad Mama" was meant to be a fun scamp rather than a gritty crime story, I settled back and enjoyed the ride. Director Steve Carver keeps things moving along at a brisk pace, though I quickly grew tired of David Grisman's cotton-picking music.

It's the rambling, rambunctious story of a powerful women who flexes her smarts and determination, uses men and tosses them aside as she pleases. Sure, she flaunts her body, because flaunting is just what she does.