I was thinking about a Mother’s Day movie for today and realized I had not done a review of this one. Of course, you don’t even have to wait for me to tell you what it is. You already know. In all of movie land there is one mother who stands out above all others. She’s the one who shows us what motherhood is all about. In this movie mother, “Ma Jarret,” is played by that ever loving and irreplaceable Margaret Wycherly.
Cody Jarret is her little boy, played by James Cagney. But little Cody has been a bad boy. How bad? Just take a look at the opening scenes. Little Cody and his friends are in their car. They are racing to meet the train, but they don’t have tickets. They don’t intend to ride the train. They have guns. They intend to rob the train.
Cody and his gang make off with over $300,000, but things go badly. The robbers kill four on the train, and one of the robbers is scalded by hot steam during the altercation. This is an old movie from 1949, and this is a coal-burning steam locomotive. And the movie is White Heat.
Cody’s gang doesn’t stop there. There is a subsequent bank robbery (reported on the radio), and more people are killed. The robbers seek refuge in their hideout in the mountains. It’s a nice mountain bungalow, but it’s cold and stifling for Cody’s glamorous and worthless wife Verna, played by luscious Virginia Mayo. Ma Jarret keeps things running. She’s a tough old bird.
Ma Jarret has not married well, and Cody’s father has previously died in a mental institution. Cody is certifiably psychopathic, said character being the running theme of the movie.
The character of Ma Jarret is apparently inspired by real-life Ma Barker:
Arizona Donnie Barker (October 8, 1873 – January 16, 1935) better known as Ma Barker, and sometimes as Kate Barker, was the mother of several criminals who ran the Barker gang from the “public enemy era”, when the exploits of gangs of criminals in the U.S. Midwest gripped the American people and press. Under various pseudonyms, she traveled with her sons during their criminal careers.
After she was killed during a shoot-out with the FBI she acquired a reputation as a ruthless crime matriarch, who controlled and organized her sons’ crimes. J. Edgar Hoover described her as “the most vicious, dangerous and resourceful criminal brain of the last decade”. Because of this, Ma Barker has been presented as a monstrous mother in films, songs and literature. However, her personal acquaintances insisted she had no active role in criminal activity and “couldn’t plan breakfast”, as one gang associate said.
As the police close in Cody escapes their clutches by pleading guilty in Illinois to a hotel robbery that occurred simultaneously with the train robbery. He gets one to three years in the Illinois slammer with Ma left to watch over the remainder of the gang, including Big Ed, who has eyes to take over the gang, and sweet Verna, who has eyes for Big Ed.
Without getting into the details of the plot (see the movie) Ma Jarret visits little Cody in prison wearing her old woman’s print dress and tells him what’s going on with Big Ed and Verna. Cody plans to break out, but Ma assures him she will take care of Big Ed. She tells little Cody that any time she can’t take care of somebody like Big Ed, then she’s getting old. She’s getting old. Cody learns in prison that his mother is dead, and we later learn that Verna shot her in the back.
Cody escapes and reconciles with sweet Verna, killing Big Ed. He still thinks it was Big Ed who killed his mother and never learns about Verna. The climax comes when the gang stages a payroll heist at a large chemical plant in Long Beach, California. Only there’s an undercover police agent, played by Edmond O’Brien, who has infiltrated the gang. The gang gets mostly wiped out in a shootout with police at the chemical plant, and Cody’s run ends atop a huge spherical chemical tank that explodes spectacularly. He has finally maxed out. He’s shouting “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!“
But this is Mother’s Day, so this is really about Margaret Wycherly. Just a few years prior to White Heat she played Mother York in Sergeant York. Gary Cooper is the World War One hero and Medal of Honor winner, but his mother is the one who is holding the family together and keeping the wayward Alvin York on the straight and narrow while he gets his life together before going off to war. From the movie:
Rosie York: Ma, what’re they fighin’ for over there?
Mother York: Don’t rightly know, Child. Don’t rightly know.
Margaret Wycherly, this day’s for you. Top of the world.