The Filmography of Roller Derby


Roller Derby has been portrayed in a number of films and documentaries over the years.  I haven’t seen them all, but I am excited about “Derby Baby” showing at the Atlanta Film Festival in late March and at the Sonoma International Film Festival on April 14th (www.sonomafilmfest.org).

Illustration by Billy Alexander from stock.xchng.com.

Because Roller Derby had played at the Pan Pacific continually since the 30’s in Los Angeles, a number of film companies had wanted to come up with projects but none materialized.   Then an independent producer named Bert Friedlob was able to make a movie on the cheap in 1950 called “The Fireball” with Mickey Rooney, Pat O’Brien (surprise, playing a priest), and Marilyn Monroe in a bit part.  He didn’t make it with Roller Derby, and it was called something else.  Roller Derby skaters Bert Wall and Paul Milane appeared in the film (Paul was Mike Gammon’s father), with Paul doing the skating for Rooney.  Not a great movie, but fun to watch.

In the sixties Richard Lester who had directed the Beatles in their films and also who later did Superman 2 and 3, directed a film called “Petulia” with George  Scott (“Patton”) and Julie Christie (“Dr. Zhivago”) and they required a scene in which the two leading actors were watching a Roller Derby game…It was filmed at Winterland, later used by Bill Graham for all his main rock and roll shows.  The women’s teams skated and were right on their mark.

There was a film called “KC Bomber” which was about roller games and showed women fighting etc.  I have never seen it.

In 1969 as we were preparing for our annual road trip to the rest of the country, I came up with the idea of creating a film with the leading Bomber and other stars showing them on the road.  I had hopes for a theatrical release.  I met with the director, a young man who worked with Westinghouse TV named Robert Kaylor, and we set a budget for about $75,000.  He had a hard time putting a story together (no script), but came across a tire worker in Dayton, Ohio, named Mike Snell whose life goal was to get into Roller Derby.

The film followed the Bombers on the road and the three days shooting in Dayton were incorporated so you got the feeling you were following two parallel lives.  Mike cheated on the job, womanized, but was still very appealing; Charlie played the role of a superstar, which he was ….this was a documentary but ended up feeling like a scripted film.  I had to fight the line producer who wanted to leave in violent scenes of people fighting, etc. and I told him that was not why people came to the games.  And that feeling persisted among subsequent films.

We entered it into the San Francisco Film Festival where it received the most accolades of any film in the festival…it went on to similar results at the Dallas film festival, Toronto, London, Atlanta and more.  Film critics raved about it:  Roger Ebert gave it four stars, as did the Washington Post, New York Times, and other leading film critics.  And it made the best 10 list of Ebert, N Y Times, Saturday Review and others.  Even Sports Illustrated gave it a good review with the classic lines “If you loved the Knute Rockne Story (a film about the coach at Notre Dame, played by Pat O’Brien, and the role of the “Gipper” probably got Reagan elected president), you will hate Derby”, calling it the first honest film about sports, yet with a suspect sport.

Well, Cinerama distributed the film and unfortunately America was not ready for documentaries in theaters; the skaters hated it because of the way it portrayed Mike Snell, so it disappeared.  If you see it, remember it was made 40 years ago when cinema verite was a novelty and so looks dated.  Some of the scenes in the film are amazing, and it is difficult to remember that 6 foot five-inch Kaylor was filming with a large beard in redneck country and was able to capture these memorable scenes.  I still have some VHS copies if any of you are interested.

Image by Emre Nacigil from stock.xchng.com.

So in recent years there have been a number of projects done on modern Roller Derby, from a college produced documentary called “A Four-Wheeled Fascination-The Evolution of Roller Derby” (an excellent half-hour film with some good words from the Commissioner; you have to be patient through the 40 seconds of color bars)  to an A & E program, and  “Whip It”. Some of the documentaries are good, and some are very exploitive showing fighting, bad behavior, and all the things that would appeal to whom they think their audience would be, but I feel does Derby no good.  Then there was a film about the one existing old-style game with old-time skaters who I used to admire that really made me sad.   There have been some additional excellent documentaries and you can find references to them on you tube.

So in 2010 when I was in Denver Chuck Morris introduced me to Robin Bond and her associates and said she was doing a documentary on the current game and would I be interviewed.  I was, and I immediately know these people understood who all the participants were, how they got there, what there lives were, and they approached the game from a sympathetic position (not as a “house” film, but from a realistic point of view).  And I ran into them again at Rollercon and at the nationals, and saw they were cutting as wide a swath as possible to be with teams and cities and the women and the men involved, and frankly I kind of forgot about them.

Then a few nights ago I saw the short trailer for “Derby Baby” which you can download from this posting, and I realized that these Emmy winning film makers had got it right:  Derby is presented as it is.  Robin’s hope now is to either get a major distributor or showing on major cable.  I can’t wait to see the entire film.  And for those who nitpick at the trailer (I say there are 522 leagues when I was interviewed last May), it will all be updated when it is released this fall.  Robin’s partner Dave went to the UK in early June to meet with leagues there and in Ireland to discuss the film and show an expanded trailer.   And luckily, I saw a rough cut of the film when Kevin McNeely of the Sonoma film fest saw it, and all I can say is you will not be disappointed!  And those who attend the showing in Sonoma will also get to see some of the leagues do live skating in front of the Sebastiani Theater.

I want to see Roller Derby continue to succeed and everyone to be seen as they are.  You are not angels but you are doing good work and need to be recognized.  It will just get better and better.

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9 comments on “The Filmography of Roller Derby

  1. Jerry, thanks so much for posting. Exciting news! I’ve seen Petulia (thanks to my hubby for that one) and it’s a great movie on it’s own…what a treat it was to see derby in there too! Aside from that, so far Derby Baby is not represented on IMDB.com (at least I didn’t find it)…not sure how this is remedied, but I imagine it’d help the film etc., if it were soon. Best!

    • Liza, since they only publicly announced the film this week (with the trailer) I imagine they intentionally haven’t set up an IMDB page for it yet. For a film like this, having it listed in IMDB doesn’t really help the film. I imagine what they need to finish it is money. Investment follows legitimacy. And if you already have an Emmy and a trailer of this quality, an IMDB listing won’t lend any more legitimacy to the project. It sounds like there is lots of production still to be done, which means they probably can’t say for sure even who’s going to be in the film. So it may be premature from that perspective, too.

  2. I finally bought “The Fireball” and it was enjoyable to watch. Mickey Rooney was always an underappreciated actor, especially by today’s generation. I also recently bought Kansas City Bomber (with Raquel Welch) to replace my VHS copy of it I loaned to an injured derby girl and who never returned it to me. (Consequently I now don’t loan out any roller derby tapes and if I don’t get them back they’re impossible to replace.)

    Rusty Wheeler

  3. …Jerry, I seem to recall there was a clip of a Roller Derby game in MEDIUM COOL, with co-stars Robert Forster and Verna Bloom seated at rinkside. You also may want to know that Jodie Foster, who had played Raquel Welch’s daughter in the earlier scenes of KANSAS CITY BOMBER, hadn’t seen the movie herself until about ten years ago (almost four decades after it was released). Her comments about it, to say the least, validate your having never watched the thing. MGM, which distributed it, commissioned a theme song for the movie to be composed and performed by the great folk-rock singer Phil Ochs; when MGM bypassed it for some considerably more pedestrian music by Don Ellis, Ochs had A&M Records put it out as a single anyway. Ochs wanted to “world premiere” the record by performing the song on the infield during a Los Angeles Thunderbirds halftime, but either Bill Griffiths or MGM (or both) refused…

  4. of course there was the original Rollerball will James Caan…..although not a real Roller Derby movie, there were a lot of our skaters in it…..

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