The woman originally named Arizona Donnie Clark (yes, for real) managed to top even the wildest potential of that given moniker by reinventing herself as world-famous outlaw matriarch “Ma Barker.”Related: Serial Killer Cinema — 10 Movies Based on Bonnie and Clyde
Throughout the Great Depression’s “public enemy” era, Ma Barker fronted the Barker-Karpis Gang. Chief among the outfit’s members were her own four sons, along with Alvin Karpis, a friend her youngest boy made in prison.
Between 1931 and 1935, the gang barnstormed the Midwest and southern states with a multitude of robberies, kidnappings, and murders.
From the start, the public found it hard to resist Ma overseeing her boys’ bank heists and backwoods shootouts. That image — of Ma Barker as a plump, down-home, hard-as-nails but unmistakably motherly crime queen with a fresh pie in one hand and Tommy gun in the other — quickly became iconic.
The real Ma Barker bit the dust on January 16, 1935, during an FBI raid on her hideout in Oklahowa, Florida. From there, though, Ma’s legend only took fuller flight.
No proof exists that Ma Barker ever actually killed anyone, but FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover nonetheless once deemed her “the most vicious, dangerous, and resourceful criminal brain of the last decade.” In fact, some historians contend that Ma Barker didn’t have as much to do with her sons’ operations as popularly suggested, but instead served as an particularly potent scapegoat for Hoover’s war on any and all wrongdoing.
Regardless, decades later, Ma Barker continues to blast her way all over pop culture. Here are 10 especially effective, mother-loving examples.DICK TRACY — “Ma Famon” (1935)
America’s favorite comic strip crime fighter Dick Tracy took on “Ma Famon,” the mother of rural ruffians Cut and Muscle Famon. Clearly based on the Barker gang, Ma Famon even died in a shoot-’em-up with authorities — but not before she could switch clothes with her son Cut so he could get away. Dick Tracy’s work is just never done. [Dick Tracy Wiki]
Director: James P. Hogan
Cast: Blanche Yurka, Ralph Bellamy, J. Carrol Nash
Based on the book Persons in Hiding by J. Edgar Hoover himself, Queen of the Mob is an entertaining outburst of G-man propaganda in which “Ma Webster” (Blanche Yurka) leads her bad brood on an array of illegal escapades.
The Feds themselves monkeyed with some of the true story’s details, including, most dramatically, an ending in which Ma Webster not only doesn’t catch at least a dozen bullets, she actually turns herself over to the law. [TCM]
WHITE HEAT (1949)
Director: Raoul Walsh
Cast: James Cagney, Edmond O’Brien, Margaret Wycherly
Raoul Walsh’s brilliant film noir burns from beginning to end. Scorching the screen first and foremost is James Cagney in what many believe to be his single greatest role. Cagney blows away all comers as Cody Jarret, America’s most ruthless gangster who’s fired up in large part by an unhealthy fixation on his own mother, “Ma” Jarret (Margaret Wycherly).
While White Heat is clearly Cody’s story, the presence of Ma — who, like Ma Barker, watches over the Jarret mob like a mother hen — informs everything he does, up to an including the literally explosive finale, wherein the doomed killer goes up in flames while screaming, “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” [Roger Ebert]
THE UNTOUCHABLES – “Ma Barker and Her Boys” (1959)
Director: Joe Parker
Cast: Robert Stack, Claire Trevor, Vaughn Taylor
The Untouchables, early-era TV’s sensationally violent chronicle of Prohibition agent Elliot Ness (Robert Stack), often took on characters based on real-life crime figures. The episode simply titled “Ma Barker and Her Boys” obviously proves to be no exception.
Classic Hollywood actress Claire Trevor makes a powerful Ma Barker. It all ends with a recreation of the Florida raid that broke up the Barker band for good — only this time, Elliot Ness leads the charge. [DVD Talk]
MA BARKER’S KILLER BROOD (1960)
Director: Bill Karn
Cast: Lurene Tuttle, Tristam Coffin, Dubov
Upping its gangster exploitation potential considerably, the punchy B-flick Ma Barker’s Killer Brood manages to work in an entire rogue’s gallery of legendary Depression-era gang lords.
Radio star Lurene Tuttle tears it up in the title role, battling toe-to-toe — and bullet-by-bullet — alongside the likes of John Dillinger (Eric Sinclair), Baby Face Nelson (Robert Kendall), and Machine Gun Kelly (Victor Lundin). [DVD Drive-In]
BATMAN — “MA PARKER” (1966)
Director: Oscar Rudolph
Cast: Adam West, Burt Ward, Shelley Winters
TV’s original madcap, pop-art Batman series cast aging glamour girl Shelley Winters as “Ma Parker” in a couple of memorable episodes wherein her backwater brood invades the big city of Gotham. Winters camps it up fabulously and never more so than when she warns the Caped Crusader himself, “It isn’t easy to foil the greatest mother of them all!” [TOR]
BLOODY MAMA (1970)
Director: Roger Corman
Cast: Shelley Winters, Don Stroud, Pat Hingle
After having huge fun with Ma Barker on Batman, Shelley Winters returned to the archetype anew in Bloody Mama, drive-in kingpin Roger Corman’s fantastically savage spin on the true-life saga of maternal mayhem. Winters booms like a blasted bank vault in every scene, and she’s backed by a shockingly talented cast of up-and-comers as her sons, including Robert De Niro, Bruce Dern, and Don Stroud. [New York Times]
“MA BAKER” by BONEY M. (1977)
German disco band Boney M. scored an international dance-club smash with this pulsating musical salute to America’s most fearsome mom. The lyrics clearly celebrate Ma Barker (“They left a trail of crime/ across the USA/ and when one boy was killed/ she really made them pay”). Asked why, then, they called the ditty “Ma Baker,” songwriter Fred Jay simply said, “It sounded better.” [Song Facts]
PUBLIC ENEMIES (1996)
Director: Mark L. Lester
Cast: Theresa Russell, Eric Roberts, Alyssa Milano
Not to be confused with the 2009 Hollywood epic starring Johnny Depp as John Dillinger, director Mark L. Lester’s low-budget Public Enemies features Theresa Russell as Ma Barker and casts her in an unusually sympathetic light.
The film posits that Ma Barker turned her sons to crime after growing up sexually abused by her own brothers. It’s an interesting angle, and Lester does a nifty job with the material. The supporting cast is a dream come true for 1990s direct-to-video movie fans, as it includes Alyssa Milano, Dane Cortese, and — as Alvin Karpis — Frank Stallone. [TV Guide]Related: Patty Hearst — 5 Pop Culture Highlights of the Heiress-Turned-Terrorist Case
MA BARKER: AMERICA’S MOST WANTED MOTHER by Howard Kazanjian and Chris Enss (2016)
Coauthors Chris Enss and Howard Kazanjian bring vivid life to Ma Barker: America’s Most Wanted Mother. In what may be the most complete book on Ma to date, stories roar off the page with you-are-there intensity, and numerous questions that have lingered for more than 70 years finally get answered. Plus, this book makes a blast of a Mother’s Day gift! [Goodreads]
For more Murderous Moms, watch full episodes of Investigation Discovery’s Evil Stepmothers, Deadly Women, and more on ID GO.
Main image: Bloody Mama (1970), movie poster detail [promotional image]