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.

To subscribe to my blog, go to the upper right hand corner and enter your email address.  It is free and can be cancelled at any time.