Thursday, March 27, 2008
If I ever had the chance to go back in time and work as a director in 1970’s American cinema there would be a certain number of specific actresses I would relish working with. They wouldn’t be the ‘great actors’ of the day like Fonda, Redgrave, Dunaway etc (although I love all of them) but instead would be any number of the remarkable women who were best known for their work in the A.I.P. type exploitation flicks I have come to love so much. You can bet that the likes of Roberta Collins, Rainbeaux Smith, and Candice Rialson would have been badgered constantly to appear in every film I would have made. I would perhaps not badger any as much as I would have the late Claudia Jennings though, a force on the seventies independent scene whose personality, beauty and spark still resonate to this day almost thirty years after her tragic death.
Mary Eileen Chesterson was born in Evanston, Illinois in 1949 but was raised mostly around Milwaukee. Just before her twentieth birthday she moved to Chicago and got a job at the Playboy Offices as a receptionist. It wasn’t long after that the extraordinarily beautiful red-head was noticed, and her first appearance in the magazine came in November of 1969 under the name of Claudia Jennings.
There is something touching and sweet about the photos of Claudia in this period and it’s not surprising she quickly became one of the most popular playmates in history, earning the title Playmate of the Year in 1970. She would appear in the magazine throughout the seventies but it was her role as an actress in Hollywood that really set her apart from most of the models that had appeared in Hefner’s publication.
From her earliest work in Jud (1971) to her memorable Brady Bunch appearance up until her final role in David Cronenberg’s Fast Company (1979) there was something special about Jennings. Exuding charm, charisma and most importantly intelligence, Jennings came across incredibly natural on the screen in whatever role she was playing. This was never more true than it was in a series of popular drive in pictures she made from 1972 to 1978, often under the banner of Roger Corman’s New World Pictures.
I recently re-watched two of Claudia’s key films, 1972’s Unholy Rollers and 1974’s Gator Bait and was struck by just how enduring a screen presence she remains and just how good an actress she was. Of the two, I definitely prefer the delicious and delirious Unholy Rollers (surely one of the most entertaining movies of its kind from the seventies) although the very odd and rather dark Gator Bait certainly has its charms as well.
Unholy Rollers, directed with zing by Vernon Zimmerman with editing by Martin Scorsese, premiered in November 0f 1972 about three months after Raquel Welch’s smashing Kansas City Bomber had wowed audiences. Think of Unholy Rollers as a down and dirty version of Kansas City Bomber and you kind of have the picture in a nutshell.
Claudia stars as a feisty and angry former factory worker named Karen who gets to realize her violent roller-derby dreams when she joins a local team. She quickly becomes the star of the league while managing to alienate and anger everyone around her with her piss and vinegar attitude. Defiant, independent and in total control, Jenning’s Karen is a notable addition to the great ‘new woman’ roles that were coming out in the early seventies…she is a major badass and she relishes in it.
Zimmerman didn’t have that prolific of a career as he has just a handful of titles to his name with the most famous being 1980’s terrific Fade To Black. I love his work on Unholy Rollers though and the film zips along at lightning speed thanks to his no budget no problem style and Scorsese’s clever cutting which is especially potent during the exciting Roller Derby scenes.
Working from a script by New World writer Howard R. Cohen with a solid and at times surprisingly subtle score by Kendall Schmidt, Zimmerman’s Unholy Rollers is an absolute blast that perhaps sacrifice’s the heart of Kansas City Bomber for an infectious jolt of 90 minutes worth of pure adrenaline.
While the film belongs to Claudia, who appears in almost every scene and is at her absolute physical peak, some of the supporting cast is also very notable. First and foremost is the inclusion of the great Roberta Collins and her scenes with Claudia are absolutely electric.
The always undervalued and always excellent Collins provides a perfect chilly blond counterpoint to Jenning’s sizzling red-headed persona. Seeing the two together on screen all these years later is still incredible and might even bring a tear to the eyes of people like myself obsessed with these films from a period very much gone.
Lots of other familiar faces pop up from Sugar Hill’s Betty Anne Rees to a young Victor Argo as the team’s irritable trainer. Unholy Rollers is a potpourri of remembered faces but often forgotten names from this great period in American filmmaking and it’s a fun experience just going through and attempting to pick them out.
Claudia is just amazing in this film and it might very well be her greatest role. It is at the very least one of her strongest and its hard to imagine any man or woman controller her as her Karen is absolutely and unapologetically ferocious. She has a chip on both shoulders and her final moment in the film where she defiantly flashes her team tattoo to a street filled with astonished onlookers and cops is one of the most iconic moments from American exploitation cinema in the seventies. She’s a knockout in every possible meaning of the word…
Unholy Rollers is strangely enough not available on DVD which is a real and unfortunate oversight. Copies of the old VHS, from which these screenshots were taken, can be found but they are not cheap. A full blown special edition of the film would be most welcome and would be a great tribute to Jennings who really worked her ass off in this role. As someone stated in a review on Amazon, Unholy Rollers is “a cult movie in need of a cult” and I wholeheartedly agree.
Even more popular, although nowhere near as strong, than Unholy Rollers is a film that Claudia shot two years later set in the sticky swamps of Thibodaux, Louisiana by husband and wife directing team Beverly and Ferd Sebastian.
Gator Bait is a surprisingly unpleasant and mean little film that has all of the necessary ingredients for this type of redneck exploitation that was so popular for a short while in the mid seventies…namely incest, backwoods humor, murder, rape and revenge.
Inspired by Burt Reynold’s name in 1973’s fantastic White Lightning, Gator Bait is a simple revenge story set around a mysterious red head Gator hunter named Desiree who haunts the swamps setting traps and breaking hearts.
The film, directed rather flatly by the Sebastians, is probably mostly remembered for its very striking one sheet and VHS artwork and for the images of a wild looking Claudia in cut off shorts running around in the woods. I am always taken aback when I revisit it by just how nasty a little number it is and how it lacks the energy and fun that so many of these types of films possessed in this period.
Gator Bait, despite all its flaws, is an interesting film though that is worth another look. While the Sebastians aren’t great filmmakers one has to respect how much they did (direction, script, editing and music) on what must have been a difficult production to mount, stage and complete. Anyone who has ever felt the sticky humidity of the south will know how oppressive and exhausting it could be and the fact that Gator Bait exists as a completed film at all is probably worth celebrating.
The small cast surrounding Claudia is fine, especially Janit Baldwin who really has to endure some rough and violent scenes. Claudia herself is great in what is almost a silent role but truth be told she is almost a supporting player who just pops up occasionally almost like a ghost creeping through the swamps.
The ending still surprises me as it trades in the trademark coda of the revenge genre for a more existential final that is actually one of the more effective parts of the film. Gator Bait is a sweaty little stinger of a film that I suspect would lose a lot of its menace on a polished widescreen DVD as its ugly quality seems almost tailor maid for an ancient full frame VHS…which isn’t to say that I wouldn’t welcome a disc of it…
Some of Claudia’s best work would follow in the five years after Gator Bait before her tragic death in a Malibu car accident. Watching her small body of work today is still exhilarating and I plan on posting a few more of these double feature looks at some more of her key works. There’s no telling what the eighties and beyond might have held for Claudia Jennings, but as it is she is frozen in time as one of the loveliest and most powerful actresses of the seventies even though she rarely gets her due for it.