Existential Exploitation: BOBBIE JO & THE OUTLAW (AIP 1976)

I discussed filmmaker Vernon Zimmerman in a post on his UNHOLY ROLLERS back in January. Zimmerman wrote the script (but did not direct) for 1976’s BOBBIE JO & THE OUTLAW, which on the surface is just another sex’n’violence laden redneck exploitation film. Yet after a recent viewing, it seemed to me Zimmerman was not just delving into exploitation, but exploring something more: disaffected youth, gun culture, the cult of personality, and violence in America, themes that still resonate today.

Former child evangelist turned rock star turned actor Marjoe Gortner is Lyle Wheeler, a drifter who enters quick draw contests and idolizes Billy the Kid. Lyle’s a hustler, as we find out as he pulls into a gas station and steals a Mustang from a travelling salesman. Lyle outruns a police car hot on his tail, causing the cop to go off the road, and revs into the next town, where he meets Bobbie Jo.

She’s played by Lynda Carter, a small town carhop with big dreams of country music success. Bobbie Jo has a mother (B Western vet Peggy Stewart) who nags and drinks on the sly, and a sister Pearl (Merrie Lynn Ross) who left home to be a stripper. She doesn’t date the local boys, who quite frankly are just lusting after her big boobs, but when outsider Lyle shows up, the two find an immediate attraction and hook up.

The young lovers, along with Bobbie Jo’s hippie pal Essie (Belinda Balaski), hit the road for a series of adventures that includes trouble with some tough Mexicans at a bar and tripping on mushrooms in the mountains with an Indian shaman. They visit sister Pearl and her sleazy boyfriend Slick Callahan (Exploitation star Jesse Vint), who pulls a payroll robbery that ends when Lyle shoots and kills the guard. Now the quintet, like a modern-day Barrow gang, are hunted outlaws, and when scared Essie drops a dime to the sheriff, she’s killed in the crossfire of a deadly shootout. Lyle vows retribution by pulling off a bank robbery, leading to a crime and murder spree across New Mexico….

Zimmerman’s script transplants BONNIE & CLYDE to mid-70’s America and is peppered with cinematic allusions, including a doomed deputy named Abel Gance. He shows us the ennui of the character’s lives, all of whom are societal outcasts that together form their own version of the nuclear family unit. Mark L. Lester takes the director’s chair; he’s known for some interesting Exploitation films of his own (TRUCK STOP WOMEN, CLASS OF 1999, FIRESTARTER, COMMANDO, SHOWDOWN IN LITTLE TOKYO), as well as the notorious dud ROLLER BOOGIE. Two side notes: this was the first film for future director Chuck Russell (NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS, THE MASK, THE SCORPION KING), who worked on the film as Production Supervisor, 2nd Assistant Director, and appears as one of the deputies. Former Monogram/Allied Artists president Steve Broidy (who knew a thing or two about exploitation films) served as co-producer.

Marjoe Gortner, never the greatest of actors, does yeoman’s work as the delusional Lyle, and a pre-WONDER WOMAN Lynda Carter is fine indeed as Bobbie Jo.  The movie is famous for being the only time Lynda goes topless onscreen, but there’s much more to it than that. BOBBIE JO & THE OUTLAW may not rank as one of the 70’s best films, but I posit here it is certainly one of the most underrated. Am I reading too much into it? Should I just enjoy the violent joyride and the nubile charms of Lynda Carter? All movies are subjective; watch it and judge for yourselves, and see if you agree or disagree.

 

 

Sk8er Girl: Claudia Jennings in UNHOLY ROLLERS (AIP 1972)

UNHOLY ROLLERS combines two of my favorite 1970’s obsessions – Roller Derby and Claudia Jennings! Back in the day, the exploits of Roller Derby teams like the San Francisco Bay Bombers and Philadelphia Warriors, and stars like Charlie O’Connell and “Pretty” Judy Arnold, were broadcast Saturdays on the local UHF outlets alongside professional wrestling. We’d travel down to the Providence Civic Center (now known as Dunkin’ Donuts Center) to catch the violent banked track action live and in person, a rowdy good time for the whole family!

Beautiful Minnesota native Claudia Jennings was an exploitation star of the first magnitude. 1970’s PLAYBOY Playmate of the Year made her film debut with a small part in JUD (1971), and later starred in a series of drive-in action flicks: TRUCK STOP WOMEN, GATOR BAIT, MOONSHINE COUNTY EXPRESS, THE GREAT TEXAS DYNAMITE CHASE, DEATHSPORT, and David Cronenberg’s FAST COMPANY. UNHOLY ROLLERS was her first starring role, and Claudia’s natural charisma is in full effect.

She plays Karen Walker, stuck in a crummy job at a cat food cannery with a sexually harassing boss, surrounded by loser friends like her stripper roommate Donna and Donna’s small-time crook boyfriend. One day Karen decides to chuck it all, quitting her job (and smushing cat food in her creepoid boss’s face!) and trying out for local low-budget Roller Derby team the L.A. Avengers. Team owner Stern likes her “showmanship”, and soon Karen’s crowd pleasing antics take her to the top, alienating her fellow skaters in the process.

Karen’s a pretty screwed-up chick, a feisty wild child straight outta the trailer park (as we see in a scene featuring veteran Kathleen Freeman as her chain-smoking mom). The girl’s got issues, to be sure, and a bad attitude to boot. Roller Derby fame becomes her identity, and of course eventually becomes her downfall. Claudia Jennings shows off some decent acting chops, as well as her body, since she spends much of the movie in various states of undress – not that I’m complaining!! With the right part, Claudia Jennings could’ve been much more than a cult star, but a problem with cocaine caused her to be labeled ‘difficult’, and kept her locked in the exploitation field. Sadly, a head-on collision ended her brief life on October 3, 1979. Claudia Jennings was just 29 years old.

UNHOLY ROLLERS is the feature film debut of writer/director Vernon Zimmerman, who, like the film’s executive producer Roger Corman before him, overcomes the miniscule budget and creates a pretty damn good movie. The seedy world of the Roller Derby and its sleazy denizens form the backdrop for a fine character study of an obviously disturbed young woman. Zimmerman populates this milieu with outrageous yet believable characters, and I especially enjoyed the play-by-play announcing team’s running commentary during the action scenes – it was on point! Zimmerman went on to write and/or direct memorable cult films like the trucker comedy DEADHEAD MILES, HEX (a biker/western/horror hybrid), and BOBBIE JO AND THE OUTLAW (starring WONDER WOMAN’s Lynda Carter and ex-evangelist Marjoe Gortner). His most well-known film is undoubtedly 1980’s FADE TO BLACK, a movie buff’s dream, with Dennis Christopher as a demented horror film fan.

The supporting cast features rotund actress Maxine Gates in her last role as whip-toting team manager Angie Striker, Louis Quinn (TV’s 77 SUNSET STRIP) as owner Stern, and Joe E. Tata (owner of BEVERLY HILLS 90210’s Peach Pit!) as Stern’s dense son-in-law. Exploitation vets Roberta Collins ( DEATH RACE 2000), Princess Livingston (BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS ), Betty Anne Rees (SUGAR HILL ), Candice Roman (THE BIG BIRD CAGE), and Alan Vint (MACON COUNTY LINE) appear, as do a couple of Familiar Faces out of the past: Dan Seymour (unrecognizable as a used car dealer) and John Harmon, who made his film debut in 1935, as the team’s quack doctor.

UNHOLY ROLLERS credits a young man on his way up as supervising editor: Martin Scorsese, who cut his cinematic teeth on fare like this and BOXCAR BERTHA. The 50’s rock score is credited to songwriter Bobby Hart of Boyce & Hart fame (“(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone”, “Last Train to Clarksville”), who was dating Jennings at the time. The vintage songs are performed by Louie and the Rockets, who sound like precursors to The Stray Cats. UNHOLY ROLLERS may not be to everybody’s taste, but I liked the film a lot, and even if you’re not a fan of Roller Derby or Claudia Jennings (and seriously, how can you not be??), if you give it a shot you’re in for a surprising treat.

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