As a grade schooler who harbored a sizable crush on Angie Dickinson watching her as Pepper Anderson in the mid-'70s TV series "Police Woman," I always wanted to see her in "Big Bad Mama" whenever it popped up on cable. Naturally, with it being rated R, I wasn't allowed.
Now that director Steve Carver's 1974 hit is paired with its 1987 sequel on one DVD, I've finally gotten around to it. While Dickinson's certainly radiant in it, the vehicle showcasing her is somewhat of a disappointment.
She fills the role of Wilma McClatchie, single mom to simpleminded, slutty daughters Billy Jean and Polly (Susan Sennett and Robbie Lee) who aid her in a bootlegging whiskey operation. This being post-Prohibition, there's little money to keep them afloat. Sick of being poor, Wilma and the girls turn to more felonious hobbies, like robbing banks.
They fleece the wealthy and insult the obese ("Must be hell on tires," Wilma snaps at one rotund lady), running into prostitutes, con men and extra-chromosome rednecks on their tour of treachery. Wilma also gains a bad-influence beau in Tom Skerritt (who gets to utter lines like "I've just never, uh, felt the titties of a millionaire before" and "You bastard. You fruitcake bastard!"), but dumps him later for William Shatner.
Skerritt responds by bedding both Billy Jean and Polly "? at the same time, which is pretty creepy considering at least once of them is underage. Earlier, that doesn't stop the sisters from learning the art of the onstage striptease in a bawdy hall full of sweaty men with corncob pipes jammed in their lips.
"Mama" is a meandering mishmash of hokey, cornpone humor, where the law is full the kind of fat guys who loudly lick their fingers after eating jelly rolls. And it's all set to a banjo-pluckin' score, partially provided by Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead. The gender-flipped gangster movie is a fresh idea "? this Bonnie doesn't always need a Clyde "? and while I enjoyed a few scenes here and there, "Mama" failed to excite and/or entertain to a strong degree.
When "Big Bad Mama II" finally rolled around 12 years later, Carver's director's chair was ceded to Jim Wynorski, one of his first such gigs for producer Roger Corman. Dickinson returned, still sassy and gorgeous, but her daughters were now played and upgraded in the curves department, this being Wynorski ? by former child sitcom star Danielle Brisebois and former Playboy centerfold Julie McCullough.
Spoiler ahead, so skip to the next paragraph if you're that touchy. Now, your question might be, "How can Dickinson return at all? Didn't Wilma die at the end of the first one?" That's an excellent question, and Wynorski's answer is ... to ignore it. He aims to distract with many a bared breast.
With Wilma's credo remaining unchanged ? "The best way to fight poverty is to not be poor yourself," she says the trio makes bank by taking it from the rich. They rob banks, they rob political fundraisers, they rob virile men ? including aging big-city journalist Robert Culp ? of their seed. They cause trouble at a carnival, they cause trouble at a whorehouse, they cause me to yawn.
And this is even with one of the girls hiding TNT in her Raggedy Ann doll, not to mention "makin' whoopie with the son of the bastard" who murdered her father. The proceedings are ambling and aimless, but the most desperate moment occurs at the tail end: a setup for a never-happened "Big Bad Mama III" set in modern times, with a gray-haired Wilma hitting the road alongside her Valley Girl granddaughter. Dickinson actually winks at the camera as she gives it a thumbs-up. Oh, Lordy.
Still, the two movies enjoy a cult, so if you're among those admirers ? or simply just curious as I was ? be sure to view the disc in "Grindhouse Experience" mode. That way, you'll get a bunch of trailers for Corman's other crime pics smattered around the features, including 1981's historic car-chase comedy "Smokey Bites the Dust." Disclaimer: It's only historic for being the only movie to be marketed with this rhyming narration: "It's Jimmy McNichol! He's got the law in a pickle! ... Jimmy McNichol shifts into gear, then turns the county on its ear!" ?Rod Lott