1/22/10

Kansas City Bomber (1972): Raquel Welch and Roller Derby. Need I Say More?

Before we get into the post today, I want to thank B-Sol for having me on his new podcast Conversations in the Dark. Go on over to the Vault of Horror and check out the podcast to hear what happens when B-Sol meets the B-ugg to talk about upcoming releases. Of course, check it out after this installment of Beautiful Ladies of Genre.

The seventies were a magical time. The idea that originated in the sixties, that anything was possible, seemed to be coming true. Unfortunately, it mainly focused its power on messed up stuff. Take for example roller derby. Nowadays, when the sport comes up all you see is tattooed, rockabilly/punk girls skating under names like Eva Destruction, but at one time roller derby’s stock was up. In 1972, franchises were being set up, televised bouts of both male and female teams were popping up on network television, and roller derby was becoming big business. Naturally, someone had to make a film. A gritty look into the world of professional roller derby, and who better to play the lead role in Kansas City Bomber than one of the hottest ladies that the seventies could offer, Raquel Welch.

Ms. Welch stars as K.C. Carr, a star skater of the Kansas City team, but K.C. is traded off after she catches the attention of Portland based derby promoter Burt Henry (Kevin McCarthy). He sees star potential in K.C, but this doesn’t sit too well with the rest of the Portland Loggers. Current star skater Jackie Burdett (Helena Kallianiotes) definitely takes a disliking to K.C., and Jackie retreats into constant drinking while K.C. takes her place. Trying to juggle her job, her friends, her two kids, and the expectations of her corporate stooge boyfriend, K.C. struggles to keep her life together and be the best and baddest on eight wheels.

Kansas City Bomber is simply enough a mash-up of melodrama and roller derby, and despite what you might expect, it actually works pretty well. I’ve always really liked Raquel Welch’s acting. Not only is she exceedingly beautiful to look at, she also has turned in some great performances in films like Myra Breckinridge and 1969’s 100 Rifles. Her performance as K.C. Carr is really the glue that holds the narrative and the spliced in skating action together. I will have to say that there is precious little of the skating performed by the actress. She makes up for athletic feats with a sensitive performance of a woman trying to find her way in a literally violent world. Welch comes off as strong, independent, and little out of control, and this performance should have silenced critics of her acting.

The critics had another darling in mind to laud though. Helena Kallianiotes really brings the alcoholic, bitter, haggard Jackie Burdett to life, and while she was nominated for a Golden Globe for the performance, I thought it was rather one note. She does have an awesome look, and it’s a long way from her debut performance as a belly dancer in the Monkees’ film Head. The other performance that deserves a mention is Norman Alden as Horrible Hank Hopkins, a simpleton skater that is constantly the target of abuse. Alden doesn’t go too far over the top (at least not until his story concludes), and his shy flirtation with Welch’s character actually brings about an emotional conclusion that could easily ended up a hamfisted mess.

For all these good performances, one of the best things to see is the roller derby footage. Looking into this film, I saw some mentions of members of the team being actual players, and the action on the track is sometimes great to see. I actually did not realize that there were men’s roller derby teams, but I still think the ladies are much fiercer and fun to watch on the track. Seeing both the skating, and the crowds that they assembled to watch the events, really put you into the wayback machine for a look at middle America rather than the gritty cities that dominated seventies cinema. Roller derby itself is portrayed as the dangerous violent sport that it can be, but it also worked in the personality and spectacle of a professional wrestling event.

Kansas City Bomber is no classic example of how to shoot a movie, but it does have a grit to it that is enhanced by the seedy underbelly of the roller derby business. Director Jerrold Freedman mostly worked in television, and while he made several TV films, he only made two more features, 1980’s Borderline with Charles Bronson and 1986’s Native Son with, um, Matt Dillon and Oprah. So, Freedman never made it big, but Kansas City Bomber deserves to be remembered. This would have been an absolute classic to see at a drive in, but even now, it stands up beyond its reputation as an oddity.

If you like good looking girls on skates, seventies cinema, Raquel Welch, the guy who was the bad guy in UHF, or seeing what Midwestern hicks looked like thirty seven years ago, then this is the perfect film for you. It was nearly the perfect film for me, but it got bogged down by the melodrama and lacked any kind of lighter side of the story to keep it from being a bummer. The combination of all the elements that are there do deliver more than I expected, and I had some hope for this one going in. If you only see one movie about roller derby, do you really want it to be Whip It? I say you take a pass on that one and go back to when the derby was skating its way to the top.

Bugg Rating

This trailer is looking pretty rough, but I kind of liked that. The second video down is a song by folkie Phil Ochs which was intended for this film, but never used.


3 comments:

  1. You’ve been nominated for a Kreativ blogger award. Congrats!

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  2. I've had a lot of time for Raquel Welch since seing her in Myra Breckinridge. Her problem was that she always seemed to produce her best acting performances in odd quirky films that the critics hated. Now I simply must find a copy of Kansas City Bomber!

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  3. Awesome review, and I agree 100% Kansas City Bomber should have silenced the ridiculous "Raquel Welch can't act her way out of a paper bag"......For that matter, they should have been silenced with Hannie Caulder, Myra Breckinridge, Fathom.....Have to agree again with you!.....I thought the same thing with the over-rated praise of Helena's Jackie....One note character and performance......

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