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Big Bad Mama

84 minutes
action, comedy, crime

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This entry created 8 May 2018. Last revised on 8 May 2018.

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©1994-2024 Bill Armintrout
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Big Bad Mama

Rating: gold star gold star gold star gold star gold star gold star gold star no star no star no star (7.00)

Let's review this classic Roger Corman film, and discuss its gaming potential.

Roger Corman – the "King of the B-Movies" – asked his writers to give him a script about a female gangster. When the writers couldn't find a suitable historical figure, they created Wilma McClatchie – a woman driven to provide a future for her wild teenage daughters, Billy Jean and Polly.

The movie begins in 1932 Texas, where Polly is about to marry into just another life of poverty. At the church, Wilma rebels against this and flees with her daughters… but, pursued by an angry crowd and when her own car won't start (crank starter!), she's forced to flee with family friend 'Uncle Barney'… but the law is after Barney, who promptly ends up dead… leaving Wilma to take over his moonshine operation! Thus begins Wilma's life of crime…

For the rest of the movie, Wilma and her daughters go from crisis to crisis (and from crime to crime), just trying to make enough money to retire and live in California. Along the way, she picks up Fred Diller, a bank robber, and William J. Baxter, a gambling man.

Angie Dickinson was in her early 40s when she accepted the role of Wilma in this low budget gangster movie, and she demonstrated she could handle an action role (she would soon go on to star in the Police Story TV series).

Tom Skerritt plays Diller, and William Shatner plays Baxter, the two competing love interests for Wilma. Tom, perhaps in a bit of method acting, fought with Shatner on and off screen. (Tom likes to improvise; Bill likes to work off a script.) Both are excellent in their roles.

In a bit of Hollywood magic, voluptuous 20-something actresses play the (teenage?) daughters. Susan Sennett plays the older daughter growing up to be just like her mother; and Robbie Lee plays the younger daughter still clutching her doll. Again, both are convincing in their roles.

The plot is classed as 'neo-noir', meaning that values have been turned upside down, with a bank robber being the heroine, and the bad side being shown of police, veterans, and upper class society.

There's a large cast of supporting actors, including Royal Dano as a reverend, Dick Miller (a Corman favorite) as a bumbling lawman, William O'Connell as another preacher (you might recognize him as the Andorean from Trek's Journey to Babel), and award-winning actress Sally Kirkland in a brief nude scene.

Let's talk nudity. Roger Corman freely admits his movies exploited women, which he tried to compensate for by featuring strong female characters. As he says, nudity is the cheapest special effect there is. This movie has an amazing amount of female nudity. Angie, who was initially reluctant about doing nude scenes, seemingly warmed up to the idea and did more than asked for. Susan, Robbie, Tom and Bill all are in nude scenes, and so are several extras (including a tassle-spinning stripper). If you're offended by nudity in movies, avoid this one.

On a related note, the characters in this movie in terms of sex are more 1970s than 1930s. Wilma has sex scenes with Fred and Baxter; Fred has sex scenes with every female in sight; and there's a three-way that was considered scandalous at the time this movie was released.

The DVD I have includes interviews with Roger Corman and Bill Shatner, and two sets of audio commentary – with Roger and Angie, and with the film director and directory of photography (both are interesting).

Some don't like Shatner's acting, but I will just point out that both Angie and the director are very complimentary of the way he handled his role in the movie, lots of little touches that work.

So how do you make a movie about a bank robber without alienating viewers? The approach in this movie is to keep the mayhem 'light' through most of the movie – lots of guns firing, people falling down, cars crashing, inept cops, Wilma firing her machinegun, but not a lot of people actually getting shot (until the climax).

As a movie, this is a good movie that still fun to watch. It seems much better than its budget, it looks historically correct, every performance in this film is excellent, so it's recommended (unless the nudity or noir bother you).

Can You Game It?

The basic plot – an escalation from one crime scene to another, culminating in a final shout-out – would easily make a gaming campaign. A simple system could introduce new characters along the way (i.e., Fred and Baxter), and offer Wilma the chance to retire successfully or keep trying for the big win. The real issue would be how to handle the fighting, whether to keep it slapstick and low impact or to go with a more realistic approach.

It would also be interesting to consider scale. In 28mm, you could see the characters better, but it would require a large tabletop to stage some of the automobile shoot-outs; in 15mm, you could stage the fights with cars driving around.