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The film's working title was Ma Barker. After a brief prologue that shows the adult Barker sons burning "Dr. Guelffe" alive, the following written statement appears: "This story is true; documented from police records, newspaper files and eye witness reports. It is the sadistic career of Katherine Clark Barker, master of crime, who taught her sons that the only crime was to 'get caught'. So cunning was this evil genius that in almost two decades of robbery, kidnapping and murder, she herself was never once arrested. Ma Barker, mother to the underworld and public enemy." Except for the title, which follows, all other credits run at the end of the film.
The sequence in which the doctor is killed is repeated in the middle of the picture. In a few scenes, Lurene Tuttle, as "Ma Barker," provides voice-over narration. In addition, at the end of the film, an uncredited male voice describes the fates of the various criminals. There was no film editor credited onscreen or available in contemporary sources. The church sequence at the beginning of the film was shot at the Little Brown Church in the Valley in Sherman Oaks, CA.
As shown in the film, the Barker-Karpis gang was one of the most notorious criminal rings of the twentieth century and consisted mainly of Alvin Karpis and the four Barker sons, Herman, Lloyd, Arthur "Doc" and Freddie. From 1931-1935, they committed numerous robberies, kidnappings and murders. It is unclear, however, whether or not Ma Barker actually participated in the crimes, or merely traveled along with her sons to care for them. Many sources maintain that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover created the legend of her as a vicious criminal mastermind in order to deflect public criticism after FBI agents killed her, along with Fred, in Florida in 1935. Karpis stated in his autobiography that Ma had nothing to do with her sons' activities.
In July 1959, Daily Variety noted that Miriam Hopkins had been cast as Ma Barker. After one day of shooting, however, Hollywood Reporter reported that Hopkins cited exhaustion and was replaced by Tuttle. Although a July 27, 1959 Hollywood Reporter news item stated that Frank Hill had written the story, only F. Paul Hall is credited onscreen, as the writer of the screenplay.
According to a October 15, 1970 Daily Variety news item, production company Screen Classics sued distributor Filmservice Distributors Corp. for $100,000, claiming that although the film's rights were to revert to Screen Classics after five years, Filmservice still held the negative. The disposition of the suit has not been determined.