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Case Number 04417: Small Claims Court

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Ma Barker's Killer Brood / Gang Busters

Something Weird Video // 1954 // 164 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron (Retired) // May 15th, 2004

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All Rise...

After watching this DVD, Judge Bill Gibron understands much more about The Price is Right.

The Charge

Everything squeals when it dies…

The Case

It's Sunday, and Katherine "Ma" Barker is taking her sons to church to teach them some very important life lessons—the main one being how to steal from the collection plate. Apparently, Ma is sick and tired of living with her poor but proud husband and wants to interject a little larceny into their lives. Masterminding several local heists (including the burglary of a traveling carnival), Barker and her boys are booted out of town by a clueless sheriff, only to set up shop in some other part of the easy-pickings USA.

Eventually, the little pitchers are full-grown goons, and the blatant Barkers—behind Ma's mental missives—start carving a carefree path through the armored cars and savings and loans of Middle America. They even pull jobs for Machine Gun Kelly and work with that cute-as-a-button bad guy, "Johnny" Dillinger. But soon, all the kidnapping and burglary catch up with the gang, and Ma has to figure out a way to save the day. Her answer? Plugging the nearest lawman full of tommy gun lead. No wonder her offspring are so wicked. They're fully weaned members of Ma Barker's Killer Brood.

As one of the Federal Bureau of Investigations' Ten Most Wanted criminals (sadly, he could only place fourth), John Omar Pinson is a pathological felon full of criminal cravings. But he is usually spiffed up like a three-penny playboy. Only able to stay on the lam for a few hours at time, Pinson is always the right kind of jailbait. Whenever he is captured, he immediately surrounds himself with a rogues' gallery of goofy-looking guys, hoping to showcase how "GQ" his manly mug really is. But when little "punk" Wayne Long falls head over heels in larceny lust for the big galoot, Pinson has even more reason to break out of the hoosegow.

Once again an escaped con, Pinny tries to cure a fellow inmate's jaw cancer with some painkiller, is accidentally buried alive, and finds a way to resurrect his chances of seeing another seersucker day. But try as he might, Pinson can't shake his shank stalker. Wayne finally gets out of jail and goes on a deadly crime spree, hoping that his various vile acts will give him enough publicity to turn Pinson's head. All it ends up doing is turning the audience's stomach as tedium matches temerity to give everyone a Gang Busters case of half-baked hooligan heartburn.

As a movie, Ma Barker's Killer Brood runs at full throttle for so long that when it finally does jackknife over a decidedly dumb Dead Man's Curve plot point, the film takes such a tumble that it can never fully recover. Before this brainless blunder, the saga of the sweet-as-sulfuric-acid matron and her merry band of antisocial malcontents is an over-the-top treat in juvenile and jughead criminality. After all, it's not every day that we get to see Robbie Douglas of My Three Sons fame (the dyspeptic Don Grady) crying like a whelping little wuss, or the little old lady (Lurene Tuttle) who runs the boarding house in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken mindlessly murdering people in cold blood (hopefully, she remembered to use Bon Ami). This tabloid tall tale about the famous Oklahoma family of felons is short on facts and long on ludicrous legendary coincidence. After all, we are supposed to believe that Barker hung out with all the big names in New Deal dastardliness (Nelson, Kelly, Dillinger) and yet managed to keep such a low profile that she could enter baking contests—apparently, her pies are…to die for.

But just as the guns are blasting, the corpses are falling, and the sociopathology of our main characters is showcased in crazy crime sprees, along comes a hopelessly hokey, downright dopey musical number to mess everything up. At a party for practically every famous felon in the Depression era (how Al Capone and Bonnie and Clyde missed an invitation is anyone's guess), the whole miscreant mess of mooks watches as a hideous she-male songstress belts out a terrible torch song to criminal intent. This boring blackjack ballad stops the entire film dead in its tracks. All the wonderfully wicked wildness the movie stored up and every bit of blarney it avoided come crashing together to make a complete sham of the atmosphere. Instead of a crazy delight, Ma Barker's Killer Brood transforms into a crass commercial clump. Frankly, this "favor to the producer's daughter" moment makes all that happens afterward seem like useless mundane melodramatics. While it was wallowing in fictional excess, Ma Barker's Killer Brood was a boldfaced vice charade. But after the sheep dip serenade, it's just another murderous mother/son mismatch of non-Oedipal proportions.

Gang Busters, on the other hand, has got to have one of the worst, most bumbling placeholders for a Public Enemy of all time. We are supposed to find our fourth-place felon John Omar Pinson a dapper and dangerous hood, with enough chutzpah to break out of prison concealed in a flax sack. Theoretically, Pinson's exploits as a two-bit thug, snappy dresser, and downright dumb judge of character are intended to make us feel the cold heart of vicarious villainy in action. Only problem is, actor Myron Healy makes this jailhouse jackanapes a Beefeater businessman who happens to kill for his take-home pay. The only thing sinister about this antisocial enthusiast turned pusillanimous punk is the way he wears light colored suits during the summer (how gauche!). Indeed, fashion designers of the late '50s must have marked this maniac as the Best Dressed Desperado and shipped his sinister clothing statements off to Christian Dior for instant duplication. Even in his cellblock grays he looks fit as a fiddle and ready for bent-over-the-bunk-bed love.

And this is why Gang Busters is so unbelievable. Aside from the boring step-by-step presentation style that makes Jack Webb's Dragnet seem like an apocalyptic Michael Bay production, the fact that every criminal looks like a Central Casting reject decked out in his Sunday best cramps the film's cops-and-robbers style. Why anyone would focus solely on Pinson seems silly; after all, he doesn't have the sensational selling points of other would-be Hollywood hoodlums. According to this movie, Pinson merely wanted to break out of the penitentiary and play dress-up. The occasional homicide or stick-up was a natural by-product of his silk-suit-and-blocked-hat existence.

Something Weird Video puts together a wonderfully warped package of these Bill Karn-directed doozies. Karn was famous for a quartet of movies all dealing with crime. His signature shot (and the one that starts both of the films here) was a getaway car illuminating a pair of bodies in a dark alley. Here's hoping that one day, the rest of his crime canon (Guns Don't Argue and Five Minutes to Live) is released on DVD. For what is offered here, SWV does a very nice job. Both movies are monochrome delights with minimal print damage (Gang Busters has the most scratches and flaws) and a sharp, distinct 1.33:1 transfer. We are also hit with a half-dozen of the daffiest trailers ever to shriek from a SWV release, each with its own promise to expose the seedy underbelly of such crime capitals as Miami and the most felony-filled of them all—Portland, Oregon!

Additionally, the single archival short, Gun Girls, is 30 minutes of outright trampy fun. Our slutty little ladies get married martini drinkers in the back seats of their hotrods, where they make out a little before rolling the guys for their dough. When a gun comes into play, you know an unintentional corpse is about to be created. But whom it ends up being—and the reasons behind it—are wonderful examples of what most juvenile delinquency films thought young adult behavior centered around (namely…S-E-X).

Too bad Ma Barker's Killer Brood / Gang Busters couldn't have been so crafty. While each film has its strengths, the wanton weaknesses they also show are as irritating as a self-assured stool pigeon with diarrhea of the mouth. Crime may not pay, but someone, somewhere had better be demanding compensation from Karn for letting his potentially explosive crime exploitations piss away their thrill-killing coolness. If modern movies romanticize violence, these films are sadism's saltpeter.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 75

Perp Profile

Studio: Something Weird Video
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
• None
Running Time: 164 Minutes
Release Year: 1954
MPAA Rating: Unrated
• Classic
• Crime
• Exploitation

Distinguishing Marks

• Archival Short Subject: Gun Girls
• Trailers

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