New World Pictures had a distinctly curious relationship with feminism. Like any producer of drive-in fare, it trafficked heavily in R-rated films that relied on female nudity, sex and a certain amount of women-in-jeopardy situations to appeal to its rough & ready target audience. However, New World’s version of this fare also presented strong female characters who fought back and frequently went toe to toe with their male oppressors. Corman was also very fond of giving female writers and directors a shot at making features – and his story editor was a very gifted woman, one Frances Doel.
The archetypal example of Corman’s “exploitative feminism” approach to drive-in cinema can be found in Michael Pressman’s The Great Texas Dynamite Chase. For starters, the heroes are a pair of outlaw women. The veteran of the duo is Candy (Claudia Jennings), who breaks out of prison as the movie opens and robs a bank – using a stick of dynamite! – to secure the money that will save her family’s homestead. She’s helped by Ellie-Jo (Jocelyn Jones), a bank teller who just lost her job and uses Candy’s robbery as a chance to avenge her mistreatment by a judgmental boss.
Ellie Jo hitches a ride out of town and suggests to Candy that they form a bank-robbing partnership. The two drive their way through the countryside, learning the art of dynamite-fueled bank robbing and spending their profits on the ultimate, high-living road trip. They even pick up a boyfriend for Ellie-Jo in the form of Slim (Johnny Crawford), who poses as a “hostage” in later bank robberies. However, their odyssey darkens as their legend spreads via newspapers and the cops get more tenacious – and their struggle to escape the law becomes as challenging as it is dangerous.
The Great Texas Dynamite Chase is sometimes criticized for being too episodic and lacking a strong villain to add dramatic impetus to the “chase” of the title. However, that critique overlooks what the main point of the movie is: despite the bank robbing and periodic action scenes, this is a feminist variation on the 1970’s road movie. Both of the heroines are trying to find themselves and take back the power that their dead-end lives have denied them. When the going gets rough, the bond of sisterhood they’ve developed in their adventures sees them through (an idea that was no doubt an influence on the later, similar Thelma And Louise). This is more important to the film than any chase-driven plotting and the filmmakers put it front and center.
More importantly, their rebellion against society and law gets them in touch with the power of their femininity: they take what they want – be it money or men – and do it all on their own terms. When there is a sex scene, it is Candy and Ellie-Jo that do the choosing and the seducing – and this makes the sex scenes uniquely erotic instead of merely exploitative. True, the mainly male audience for this film may be getting the boob shots they were lusting after but they are also getting a very potent image of women in charge.
It helps that the film boasts two of the best actresses to ever grace a 1970’s exploitation flick as the leads. Jennings is the better-known of the two, an iconic presence amongst b-movie fans thanks to her roles in flicks like Unholy Rollers and Truck Stop Women. She was confident enough in her abilities by this point that she could underplay and still make a vivid impression on charisma alone. She informs her work here with a sly, knowing quality that fits her veteran-of-hard-luck characterization.
Conversely, Jocelyn Jones – a lesser-known actress who had a vivid cameo in The Enforcer and a strong lead role in the underrated horror flick Tourist Trap – gives a bright, energetic turn as Ellie-Jo. There’s an almost screwball comedy energy to her work here: she all but gives off sparks as her face and vocal inflections viscerally convey the joy she feels at taking control for the first time in her life. She functions as the light to Jennings’ shade and their combined yin-yang presence gives the film both drive and unexpected emotional depth.
Finally, and very importantly, The Great Texas Dynamite Chase is a confidently packaged enterprise. Peter MacGregor Scott’s script boasts a unique hook in the robbery-via-dynamite concept and it has a lot of fun setting the conventions of the crime and road movie genres on their ear with its own shot of drive-in feminism. Pressman directs the film in an energetic, colorful style that handles both the humor and action with flair. When things get riskier in the third act, Pressman handles the shift in tone effectively and gets strong dramatic moments from his leads. Praise must also go to Craig Safan for a novel score that mixes country, soul and folk elements into a very distinctive musical stew.
In short, The Great Texas Dynamite Chase is one of the New World Pictures classics and an effective crash course in how b-movie filmmakers handled the concept of empowered women during the 1970’s. It might not fit a textbook definition of feminism… but damn if it ain’t fun to watch.