Fun movie about a gun toting Ozark clan that rebels against their Depression-era poverty by stealing, threatening, robbing banks, kidnapping, and killing their way into infamy. The clan’s leader is colorful Ma (Kate) Barker (Shelley Winters), self-confident, forceful, and determined to get some high-style living for her and her four boys, whatever is required.
Interspersed through the plot are real-life B&W flashbacks to the 1920s and 30s, which enhance a sense of realism, as does the casting of non-actors in minor roles in some scenes. The dialogue is at times clever, like during one of the B&W flashback scenes when, in V.O., Ma tells us: “1929 was a bad year for a lot of folks. The rich men was jumpin’ out of the windows and, as usual, they fell on the poor”.
In addition to clever dialogue, Shelley Winters makes the film fun, mostly as a result of her over-the-top Southern accent. And there’s something quite ironic about her character. For all of Kate’s gun-loving ways, she’s actually quite religious and anti-war. In one sequence, she sits down at the piano to play, and starts singing a song to spark some life into her four dejected sons; they eventually join in. “I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier; I brought him up to be my pride and joy … there’d be no war today, if mothers all would say, I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier”, which also sums up her familial bond with her sons.
The film’s color cinematography is acceptable, though nothing special. Prod design and costumes seem accurate for the era, though Shelley’s long eyelashes look more like something from the 1960s than the 1920s. The film’s songs are good; I really like that title song.
A lot of viewers don’t like this movie, for a variety of reasons. No, it isn’t a realistic portrayal of the real Ma Barker. And no, the story is not altogether accurate, though some plot points are. But it’s a fun movie and worth watching, mostly for the entertaining performance of Shelley Winters.