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Blog Posted in avatar   Mark E. DeSnow's Blog

'Boxcar Barbara'

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By Mark E. DeSnow
Posted Feb 9, 2010 in Arts
'Boxcar Bertha' (1973)
Let's face it, the only reason that anyone is going to watch 'Boxcar Bertha' today is because of Barbara Hershey's nude scenes; she certainly looks good with her clothes off! Hershey had THE look of the early Seventies; long straight hair, a killer body, and a cute face which combined innocence with a knowing grin. She is one of the brightest memories of my misspent adolescence. Her actual performance as the title character is acceptable, but she went on to give much better ones.
After the enormous critical and commercial success of 'Bonnie and Clyde' (1967), it was only to be expected that there would be a few knock-offs; 'Bloody Mama' (1970), 'Boxcar Bertha' (1972) and 'Dillinger' (1973) were turned out quickly (and cheaply) by American International Pictures. Legendary A.I.P. director/producer Roger Corman produced two of these films; 'Bloody Mama' (1970 - which he also directed), and Bertha. Like 'Bonnie and Clyde', both are set in the 1930s and both were inspired by legendary historical figures of those years. Only 'Dillinger' (a film not directed or produced by Corman) managed to pay homage (the graphically violent shootouts, the sexual frankness, and the kinetic editing) to 'Bonnie and Clyde' without being derivative.
For 'Boxcar Bertha' Corman hired an unknown named Martin Scorsese to direct. It would be his second major film. Unfortunately, it doesn't rank among his best. His famous directorial style can be detected, to be sure, but he apparently had little control over the finished product. Maybe Corman was prominently wearing his producer's cap for this one. Of Scorsese's trademarks, it is sadism and Christian symbolism which are most in evidence. And when compared with what Scorsese’s contemporaries were doing at the time, there’s no way that he can be placed in the same league. At this same stage in their careers, all were making better crime movies. TerrenceMalick’s 'Badlands' (1973), Robert Altman’s 'Thieves Like Us' (1974 - also set during the Great Depression), and Steven Spielberg’s 'The Sugarland Express' (1974) clearly illustrate this point. These works showed a command of the medium that Scorsese was only beginning to grasp. Of course, many of this movie’s problems lie in it's script, which squanders most of the story's considerable cinematic potential.
Set during the Great Depression, 'Boxcar Bertha' follows Bertha (Hershey) and her male acquaintances as they turn to a life of crime. Whereas the Bonnie and Clyde gang robbed banks, Boxcar Bertha's gang's specialty is trains. Hershey manages to be likable throughout, even when she’s sticking a gun in someone’s face. Her coy sassiness never grates, but the film’s insistence that she should hold her head high for her actions often does. Bertha's is a curious morality indeed. During the course of the story Bertha links up with a union organizer (David Carradine - Hershey's real-life lover at the time *), a yankee jew, and a black ex-con. They form a family of sorts. Like 'Bonnie and Clyde' the story ends in tragedy, this time of Biblical proportions. Wait until you see Carradine's over the top symbolic demise! Heavy handed to say the least! (Curiously though, it is the movie's most memorable scene.)
The movie is based on a book called 'Sister of the Road' by Dr. Ben Reitman, first published in 1937. The book recounts a female hobo's depression-era adventures with pimps, hopheads, murderers, yeggs, and wobblies. Hobo jungles, bughouses, whorehouses, Chicago's Main Stem, IWW meeting halls, skid rows and open freight cars were the stomping grounds of the free thinking and free loving Bertha Thompson. Bertha's open admission that she traded sex to acquire the things she needed during her travels shocked bourgeois readers of the day. Reitman later admitted Bertha was an amalgam of three or four women he'd known (one of whom was likely Salt Chunk Mary from Jack Black's 'You Can't Win', another book about the same era.) I've never read Reitman's book, so I can't say how faithfully the movie follows it. My guess, though, is that considerable liberties were taken with the source material.
Unlike many Corman movies, this film makes at least a half-hearted attempt at social relevance. The film alludes to the workers' struggle to unionize against the railroads in the 30's. That serious subtext raises this film a cut above the usual grade B exploitation fare. There are some great camera set-ups too, especially the one in the final scene. It is shot down at Bertha from the top of a moving boxcar, following her as she tries to keep up with the speeding train. Pretty dramatic for the drive-ins that's for sure.
Of course, the film was not created to make a grand political statement or to exercise anyone's social conscience. A.I.P. was in the movie business to make $$$. Their formula was simple: keep costs low, fire plenty of bullets, flash plenty of hot young flesh, and recycle ideas and scripts from earlier successful movies. If social relevance would help to bring in the greenbacks, then throw in a healthy dose of that too. Actually, at the time, the 'social relevance' angle of Bertha was an economically sensible choice. During the period 1968-1975, movies HAD to have strong anti-establishment values if they were to entice the then massive youth audience to the cinemas. It is for this reason that 'Boxcar Bertha' possess loftier ideals than some of the other films I mentioned (the Carridine character wants to give his ill gotten booty to his union.) Still the film is firmly in the nihilistic 'Bonnie and Clyde' mold - a beautiful young couple who are popular with the common people while being despised by the authorities, engage in daring robberies.
In hindsight, 'Boxcar Bertha' should be regarded as a student film of sorts for Scorsese, a hands on learning experience at best. The following year he released 'Mean Streets', the first true Scorsese film. The rest is history.
* Trivia note - Barbara Hershey and David Carradine weren't fakin' it - they have both admitted that they were doin' the nasty for real.

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