First feature: Derby (1971)
“In 1928 it was tree-sitting. In 1930 it was dance marathons. In 1932 it was Walkathons. Last week it appeared possible that in 1936 the U.S. appetite for preposterous endurance might take an even more eccentric form: the Roller Derby.” So reads the opening of a 1936 Time article about the then-new sport of roller derby (or, as its copyrighted name would have it, “Roller Derby”). Tree-sitting and dance marathons have faded, and walkathons have become the stuff of charity drives, but roller derby has proven stubbornly enduring over the years, even though it tends to fade in and out of fashion every decade or so. And as tastes change, so does the sport.
Founded in Chicago by Leo “Bromo” Seltzer, roller derby began as an endurance sport fashioned, as the Time article explains, “roughly after six-day bicycle races,” with contestants sleeping “in full view of the spectators and each other on cots in the center of the ring.” From there, with the input of Seltzer’s friend Damon Runyon, it evolved into a team event that emphasized the “contact” in “contact sport.” Roller derby has employed exaggeration—and sometimes outright fakery—in varying degrees throughout its existence, but the danger of high speed, elbows-throwing skating on a tight track is always real.
That danger has always been central to the appeal of the sport, which flared in popularity in the early days of television, then enjoyed a comeback toward the end of the 1960s, thanks again to television and the efforts of Leo Seltzer’s son Jerry, by then the sport’s commissioner. The coed matches borrowed theatricality—and “face vs. heel” divisions—from professional wrestling, and captured the imaginations of viewers across America. It also inspired some to give the sport a try for themselves.
Robert Kaylor’s 1971 documentary Derby began as a survey of the sport, but its focus shifted as Kaylor’s cameras rolled. The film contains interviews with skaters at every level of the profession, but it keeps returning to 23-year-old Mike Snell, an aspiring roller-derby star living in Dayton, Ohio, and working for a tire factory, at least when he bothers to show up. Over the course of the film, Snell largely spends his days hanging around bars, calling in sick, and attempting to get a loan to buy a motorcycle. At night, he and a buddy drive muscle cars, visit bars, and cheat on their wives with whoever’s around, particularly those the men can describe as a “guaranteed piece.”
Yet as often as the camera drifts from the roller rink, it remains a film about roller derby, both those who play it and those who watch it. Kaylor films Charlie O’Connell, a derby superstar at the time, living in California luxury, but he also talks to a veteran skater who’s learned to carry a gun because the violent nature of the sport sometimes spills out beyond the matches. Snell is a slacker and a cheat, but he’s also a dreamer, tired of driving around in circles and getting in the same scrapes. Roller derby seems like a way out, and while it’s only the latest in a series of ways out he’s explored, it’s still something. (He at least has more going on than his brother Butch, who lives in the basement, surrounded by Playboy centerfolds.) The best moments of the film capture the divide between the wild spectacle that unfolds in the rink and on television, and the deadening surroundings of those who love it.
It’s also a fine snapshot of the time in which it was made. Mike and his girlfriend smoke cigarettes while holding their children. Sad-looking go-go dancers shake it to Creedence Clearwater Revival. Mike and Butch talk Vietnam with a veteran friend fresh from the battlefield. A little girl, asked what she likes about roller derby, says, “I like to see the fights!” Kaylor admits on the commentary track that he sometimes asked his subjects to repeat dialogue and explore certain topics, and, however fundamentally true the film, the cracks in Derby’s vérité show. That usually works in its favor, however. Kaylor captures something real, then enhances it—not unlike roller derby itself.
Second feature: Whip It (2009)
Roller derby’s most recent resurgence came thanks to the all-women amateur leagues that first emerged in Austin, Texas, in the early 2000s. The modern derby emphasizes attitude via noms de sport like “Sybil Disobedience,” and it simultaneously exploits and subverts bad-girl iconography. The circumstances have changed since Derby, but the promise of escape remains for those who want to doll up for the chance to throw down and spend a few hours as a tough femme.
The derby revival serves as the setting of Drew Barrymore’s 2009 directorial debut, in which Ellen Page winningly plays Bliss Cavendar, a Texas teenager groomed for beauty pageants, but drawn to the rink after a chance encounter with some derby-leaguers in an Austin boutique. Though the film, adapted by Shauna Cross from her novel, eventually descends into predictability as Bliss’ enthusiasm for the sport puts her at odds with her parents just before the big match, Whip It is consistently enjoyable. But the early scenes, in which Bliss falls in love with the sport, are what make it memorable. Whip It is about roller derby, but it’s also about someone getting unstuck, and discovering the world is not only larger than previously imagined, it’s filled with people who might understand her better than those who’ve been around her for her entire life. And if that discovery means dressing up in a silly uniform and kicking some ass, all the better.
From dusk ’til dawn: Want to keep going? First, take five minutes to watch “Roller Derby Girl,” a 1949 documentary short made at the height of the sport’s 1940s popularity. Jean Porter had been skating since age 15, and as an 18-year-old, she plays a rookie skater learning the ropes while a narrator espouses the sports’ virtues. (“It’s a good way to make a living. Especially for a girl… And if there’s a wedding ring on your mind, there’s a men’s team.”) The action looks tough, but the film also stresses the women’s sensitivity. Hey, even Midge “Toughy” Brasuhn cries sometimes. And again, the theme of escape dominates when the narration talks about roller derby as the perfect place for “a kid fresh off the local roller rinks. A kid who figures maybe she’s tired of the cows, or chickens, or an assembly line, or slinging hash.”
Roger Corman was never one to shy away from turning a trend into a movie, and his AIP released The Unholy Rollers in 1972. Though it isn’t one of the studio’s liveliest efforts, it’s filled with the requisite casual nudity and gratuitous violence, much of both courtesy of Playmate-turned-actress Claudia Jennings, playing an antisocial, brawl-prone skater who rises quickly through the ranks, then lets fame go to her head. (The snap in the skating scenes might be attributable to the film’s young supervising editor, one Martin Scorsese.)
Best to avoid: Also released in 1972, just as roller derby was about to disappear again, Kansas City Bomber is far more serious than a roller-derby film starring Raquel Welch has any right to be. Welch plays a struggling single mom kept away from her kids by the sport, but she looks far too glamorous for the part. Director Jerrold Freedman borrows liberally from the prevailing styles of the time—lots of location photography and languorous pacing—but the material doesn’t match the mood. It’s an old-fashioned melodrama dressed up in mod clothes, and the skating scenes are nothing special. (The climax, in which a pair of stunt doubles in face-obscuring wigs do battle, is memorably clunky, however.)