Let's Roll

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Oct. 2 2009 10:28 AM

Let's Roll

Drew Barrymore’s Whip It , which opens this Friday, marks the return of a long-neglected, gloriously low-rent genre: the roller derby film. Roller skating exhibitions and competitive marathons date to the 19 th century, but it wasn’t until the 1930s that sportswriter Damon Runyon and promoter Leo Seltzer created the "roller derby"—a full-contact spectacle. Like professional wrestling, which similarly straddles the line between entertainment and athletics, roller derby fell into and out of favor over the years. But popular interest spiked during the late ’60s and early ’70s, with breathless talk in the press of "America’s fastest growing sport" and a legacy of derby-themed films. Herewith, a brief history of the roller derby in cinema:

The Fireball (1950)  

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Tag line: Rooney Runs Riot in the Toughest Game of All

Mickey Rooney plays Johnny—a tough-luck street kid who escapes from an orphanage to become a roller skating star. Suddenly the toast of the town, Johnny carouses with gold diggers like Polly (Marilyn Monroe) while neglecting the good girl who loved him from the beginning. In a grim twist, he contracts polio, and his high-skating days come to an end.  

Tag line: A Locker Room Look at the Toughest Broads in the World!

1970 Playboy Playmate of the Year Claudia Jennings stars as a cannery worker who quits her job to join the roller derby. Her dangerous curves and rebellious ways alienate her teammates, guaranteeing that her path to stardom will be lined with hard knocks and flying elbows.  

Tag line: The Hottest Thing on Wheels

The tag line says it all. Brunette bombshell Raquel Welch stars as K.C. Carr, a classy lady by day and skate-stomping firebrand by night. A rivalry between teammates Carr and Jackie Burdette (saucy statuette Helena Kallianiotes) culminates in a heated race.

Tag line: In the Not-Too-Distant Future, Wars Will No Longer Exist. But There Will Be Rollerball.

The roller derby genre here graduates from mildly titillating sports romp to brutal, dystopian action film. In 2018, with corporations ruling the world, crime and wars have been replaced by a controlled bloodsport: Rollerball. James Caan plays leather-clad baller Jonathan E., a veteran of the game who refuses to hang up his wheels and thus incurs the wrath of team/league/world CEO Bartholomew (John Houseman). This derby is all about testosterone, and is punctuated by bearded motorcycle marauders, fierce jai alai action, and giant pinballs.

Tag line: In the Future, the Streets Will Belong to the Rollerboys

Rollerball meets Gleaming the Cube meets License to Drive in this neo-futurist skate odyssey. Corey Haim plays an honest pizza delivery boy recruited by the police to infiltrate a rolling Los Angeles gang. Will a young, sultry Patricia Arquette hook up with goofy, neon headbanded Haim? Will Haim earn his stripes as a Rollerboy and save the world from slicked-back mullets?

Tag line: Get in the Game

All you need to know about this pointless remake of the 1975 exploitation classic is that protagonist Jonathan, originally portrayed by seedy hunk James Caan, is played here by bland nonstarter Chris Klein. Hyperactive editing and nonsequiter pyrotechnics obscure the in-line skate action, but professional amateurs LL Cool J and Rebecca Romijn gamely summon the spirit of '70s camp.

 

 

Eric Hynes is a New York-based journalist and film critic.

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