Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Hungering for a Female Hero

The Hunger Games is coming. Struck by photos of Jennifer Lawrence -- in character as Katniss Everdeen – coolly aiming bow and arrow at her prey, I started remembering back to the bold, tough heroines favored by Roger Corman. From his earliest films onward, Roger liked women who were neither shrinking violets nor clinging vines. The typical Corman heroine is more like a cactus, soft and juicy at the center, but prickly as hell on the surface.

Take Beverly Garland in Roger’s 1956 western, Gunslinger. She played a frontier gal who put on the sheriff’s star after her husband was slain by outlaws. Naturally she did a lot of riding, shooting, and rassling, while also playing a lusty romantic scene staged, for some reason, in a tree. Alas for Garland and male lead John Ireland, said tree was home turf for a colony of red biting ants – ouch!

To make a Corman movie, especially in the early years, women had to be tough off-screen as well as on. The seven-day rain-sodden shoot was so taxing that co-star Allison Hayes, who played a conniving saloon keeper, legendarily snarled to Roger, “Who do you have to fuck to get off this picture?” But she got no reprieve, even when she fell from a horse and broke her arm. Garland described for me years later how she herself badly sprained her ankle during a scene that required her to run down a flight of stairs, then leap onto a horse’s back. The following day, with the movie’s climactic cat-fight scheduled, she couldn’t even hobble, until Roger summoned a mysterious doctor with a large syringe: “And in a few minutes I could walk, I could jump, I could do everything. And I worked all day.” Ultimately she paid the price: “I didn’t work for three or four months after that, because I couldn’t walk very well. But that’s Roger; the show goes on.”

Other Corman heroines were equally feisty and physical, with a strong penchant for taking charge. Long before Ripley kicked intergalactic butt in Alien and its sequels, Pam Grier was showing (in films like The Big Doll House and The Arena) that women are hardly the gentle sex. I was at New World Pictures when Roger persuaded Angie Dickinson to star as Wilma McClatchie, a one-woman Bonnie-and-Clyde who robbed the rich and kept the loot in Big Bad Mama. Typically for a Corman film, Wilma had her soft side (she loved her two nubile teenage daughters) and her sexy side (she loved both Tom Skerritt and William Shatner). But she was also mighty handy with a gun, and she never backed down when the going got tough. Just as our production ended, Angie won the top role on the Police Woman series: TV has never been the same since.

At Corman’s Concorde-New Horizons, we created scores of plucky heroines. Over the years we introduced strong female cops (Silk), strong female martial artists (Angel Fist), and strong female superheroes (Black Scorpion). We gave the late Lana Clarkson her signature role, as the Amazonian leading lady in the sword-and-sorcery epic, Barbarian Queen. Of course these smart, savvy females all had great bodies, and performed feats of derring-do while wearing next to nothing. When the Black Scorpion character (lady cop by day, superhero by night), found her way into a Corman-produced TV series, Roger proudly told TV Guide that “where we economized was on the Scorpion’s costume—it doesn’t cover up a lot of her.”

Corman heroines were never meant as role-models for little girls. It was definitely their big brothers we were keeping in mind.


  1. And we appreciate every one of them too. I think those prickly heroines are part of the reason I enjoy Roger Corman's movies so much. What a list of wonderful actresses - Garland, Hayes, Grier. *sigh* Let's also give a little shout out (from memory, mind you) to Cec Verrell in Silk, Cat Sassoon in Angel Fist, and Joan Severance (movies) and Michelle Lintel (TV series) in Black Scorpion. Wonderful women all - and a wonderful woman posting about them! Cheers!

  2. Your memory is impressive, Craig, and I thank you for the compliment. I'm well past my skimpy costume days, though.

  3. That's an hilarious remark from the 50 FOOT WOMAN! I've not seen GUNSLINGER, but what a cast. John Ireland has seemingly been in every type of film imaginable and in a slew of foreign genre work. I had a big crush on Joan Severance years back. A stunning woman and I think a big part of my crush on her was that she was a big fan of kung fu movies (a style of cinema that really put some serious female tough gals up on screen).

    Oh, and one of the biggest and toughest 70s tough gals would have to be Cheri Caffaro of the GINGER movies and TOO HOT TO HANDLE, which Corman distributed in '77 I think it was. Caffaro is on fire in that one. Not so much in her fight scenes, but she oozes sexuality and charisma as this anti-heroic hit woman. The closest foreign approximation to both Caffaro and Grier would HAVE to be HK's Taiwanese then Queen of Exploitation, Chen Ping. She even did an even more sleazier version of Grier's COFFY in the form of 1976's THE SEXY KILLER aka THE DRUG CONNECTION.

    I do find it fascinating how the 1970s (further pushing boundaries from previous decades of what would be perceived as trashy) portrayed its women onscreen as sex objects; these strong forces of female ferocity that had little problem in overtaking/overpowering their male counterparts with their bodies whether through sexuality or their strength. It was far more graphic and prominent in 70s pictures at least, or possessed the more famous examples as opposed to what came in the 80s from the likes of Corman, Wynorski and Fred Olen Ray.

    Clarkson also made an impression on me as a little kid seeing DEATHSTALKER for the first time in '85 when it hit video. I recall my dad leaving me home alone yet again, lol, this time armed with the triple threat that was DEATHSTALKER, THE BEING and Mattei's NIGHT OF THE ZOMBIES. Naturally I assumed the first film was a horror picture, so I was shocked to find it was a barbarian movie. Despite being all about monsters as a youngster, the sheer amount of bare flesh didn't go unnoticed on this then ten year old monster kids impressionable mind, lol.

  4. Thanks for the memories, Brian. What do you think about Russ Meyer flicks starring bodacious femmes fatales like Tura Satana?

  5. I've honestly not seen many of his movies, although I had intended on picking up a number of his works to see how I would like them overall. Of what I've seen, not much comes to mind aside from strong roles for women and large breasts during a time when pornography straddled the line between the artistic and the trashy.

    Speaking of that industry, my father had a lot of those movies on VHS tape and I would occasionally run across them while perusing for horror or monster movies he may have recorded off one of our local channels. He didn't know I was doing this, of course, as he was fiercely protective over his 3 or 4 VCRs he had at the time, lol.

    As a small child whose interests were solely in the fantastic, what little of this sort of thing I had been exposed to stuck in my mind and I guess from what I've seen in later years, Meyer's movies worked on the same level, only less graphic. But yes, I am interested in seeing more of his cinematic resume to formulate a better opinion. It's funny that you mention him, Beverly, as I have become interested in exploring his work further in recent months.

    Despite many of these movies having stronger than usual female characterizations, I can see where others might still see the films as sexist since said women can't simply be shown as strong in mind and body without revealing said body. Even so (and much like the blaxploitation pictures of the same time period), these movies gave their actors/actresses the freedom to "let it all out" in more ways than one and still come out on top...in more ways than one, lol.

    Speaking of Russ Meyer, it would be suitable to also mention the movies of Andy Sidaris. He put a lot of buxom centerfold girls in his Bondian styled B movies. I remember those used to come on cable a lot throughout the 1980s typically past the bedtime of young kids who had school the next day.

    1. I certainly don't pretend to be a Russ Meyer expert. There was a time when I knew him only by name. Then Ron Hogan of Beatrice.com invited me to read a fat Russ Meyer biography and post a brief comparison between Meyer and Roger Corman. I'm pleased with how it came out. Peruse it at http://www.beatrice.com/archives/001633.html, or find a copy under the Articles section of my website. (And thanks, as always, for your memories, Brian.)