Kansas City Bomber (1972) or The Unholy Rollers (1972) … Pick Your Roller Derby Queen. Raquel Welch or Claudia Jennings?
“She’s the Hottest Thing On Wheels!”
I’m inclined to agree with that statement looking back to the movie houses of 1972 and what one might find playing on any given Friday night. Starting off with a pregame skate and the National Anthem (Sounds just like Slap Shot), Miss Raquel tears up the track when turned loose. The whole derby game wreaks of the WWF promotion style made for TV events when Welch goes toe to toe with a “Big Bertha”, the villain of the track. It’s going to be a one on one event featuring five laps and no rules, meaning one can beat the hell out of the other and the loser leaves town.
Thankfully Welch finds a sympathetic ear in neighboring promoter and team owner Kevin McCarthy. She’s been shamed out of Kansas City and off to play for Kevin’s team in Portland. Welch just seems to find trouble from fellow teammates in most any town. And why not? When you look as good as she does, most any female player on the team knows Welch is being groomed as the star player and every man on the track is trying to bed her. Unsuccessfully until team owner Kevin turns on the charm.
MGM and director Jerrold Freedman (Borderline) try to keep the drama coming both on the track and off by allowing Racquel’s Bomber a life behind the fame. She’s a single Mom with two children currently living with their grandmother. An hey, isn’t that a tiny Jodie Foster as her little girl!
Unruly fans, a faded skating star ( Helena Kallianiotes) hooked on drugs and alcohol and a simple minded “thug” (Norman Alden) of the track who befriends Welch are the plot devices used over the final hour of the film to keep the story moving along. This and the fact that our skating beauty isn’t quite sure of McCarthy’s intentions which do seem a might overly possessive.
Performance wise the film does nothing to advance Miss Welch in the opinion of her critics of the day and though she may have hoped to stretch her acting chops here, the script just isn’t that compelling and her fans of the male variety probably liked the action sequences but came away wondering why they didn’t see more sexy outfits and flashes of skin from one of the leading sex symbols of the day. Character player Norman Alden gets the “Lenny” role here and does his best at injecting pathos into the scenery. McCarthy gets to play something a bit different than his usual fare but lurking beneath the surface is that character we all know he excelled at.
Bill McKinney, Jeanne Cooper as a den mother and a physical role here for Raquel though I suspect some of those scenes with supposed Raquel in long shot and a mess of hair covering her face are really her stunt double. That long hair just doesn’t look silky smooth on her stunt double which gives the ruse away.
“Bomber” has a far better feel to it during the action sequences of the Derby matches than the exploitation release that followed later in the year from exactly who we should expect, producer Roger Corman. The film? The Unholy Rollers.
Pin Up model, Claudia Jennings gets the coveted role here of Karen Walker, a derby queen whose fame is on the rise. This after tiring of the low pay and constant sexual harassment she’s been subjected to at the local factory. Sexual harassment is a major part of this Corman produced effort that actually has Martin Scorsese credited as the supervising editor! Perhaps not so surprising when one considers Scorsese directed Boxcar Bertha under the Corman banner.
After Claudia attends a Derby tryout, she wins a place on the team and is quickly subjected to some major hazing from the aggressive ladies of the track. Like any exploitation film of the era, nudity and groping doctors play a major part for the drive-in marketing campaign. It’s not just Claudia that’s going to be flashing skin throughout the ninety minute running time either. There’s her roommate who always seems to be caught having sex with boyfriend Alan Vint and then there are the ladies parading around the locker room minus articles of clothing. Sounds like I’ve wound up in Tom Green’s story telling sequence of Road Trip. Claudia like Raquel before her will have to fend off the various male chauvinists who attempt to bed them.
Claudia’s star is quickly rising as she becomes the top player on the L.A. Avengers. Cars, commercials and an unappreciative Mother played by one of my favorite character ladies, Kathleen Freeman surround her ascending ego. Interestingly, the Claudia character here is self destructive and aggressive in nature. She could easily morph into the aging character that Raquel had to contend with in the drunken Helena Kallianiotes from the earlier film.
While Corman was known to give many future leading directors their break (see Coppola and Scorsese) Vernon Zimmerman doesn’t appear to be one of them. This was the first of only three features he would direct. While Kansas City Bomber is far from being a good film, it obviously had a budget compared to the Corman product and plays far better when the derby matches are in action. I for one don’t recall the Roller Derby craze that well. I was just too small at the time though I do recall it was frequently on TV. Just how the hell points are scored is beyond me. The whole thing just smacks of that low budget WWF promotion style of product for me. Mops, tables, chairs and helmets are included in the beatings dished out during the matches.
While Raquel’s career continued on for the decades ahead the same cannot be said for Miss Jennings. The petite Playboy model’s life came to a sad ending when she was killed in a car crash in 1979. Some of her other films include David Cronenberg’s Fast Company and the David Carradine actioner Deathsport.
The two films are a natural double feature for the drive in crowd but in the end, neither film is all that memorable though fans of the leading ladies will want to tune in for nostalgic reasons. That and a look back at the days when Roller Derby was a popular sport on afternoon television or playing live at your home town arena. Perhaps they should have went for outright comedy as the stories hold a certain amount of kinship with the hilarious Slap Shot. Minor league sporting team on the road with colorful characters and outrageous fight scenes.
Which of the two would be my Derby Queen you ask?