Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Film #121: Smokey and the Bandit

I can still vividly remember, as a 10-year-old Atlanta kid, first seeing Smokey and the Bandit. My parents had taken me to the Northeast Expressway Drive-In Theater on opening night (if you look at the top right hand corner of this blog, you can see a torn ticket from the theater). The film's star, Burt Reynolds, was then the number one box office attraction in the country, and nowhere was this more evident than in the South. Even though he was born in Michigan but raised in Florida, Burt was pretty much adopted as a hometown boy after his breakout performance in 1972's Georgia-filmed Deliverance, he was pretty much. He returned to the state to shoot White Lightning (1973), Gator (1976) and, in 1977, Smokey and the Bandit. So seeing the latter open at an Atlanta drive-in was a big event.

My father wheeled his much-adored red-and-white '57 Chevy onto the drive-in lot way before dusk, and we sat and waited for the light to change so we could see this film we'd been hearing about for so long. The action-comedy had been in production all throughout 1976, filmed primarily in neighboring Jonesboro and McDonough, with major scenes filmed at the Atlanta's Lakewood Fairgrounds, where a gigantic racetrack and rollercoaster were situated. It was unbelievably exciting for my ten-year-old self to be at the Northeast Expressway Drive-In Theater on opening night; only Burt's very presence could have made it more so.

When darkness fell, we settled in with our snacks and waited for the joy. And so it began, and the film was just gearing up when disaster struck. The frames fluttered and then cooked brightly on the screen, and we knew what this meant: the print had been damaged. The screen lights flashed on in surprise, and I remember instantly looking out the back window and seeing the second screen at the drive-in (this was the first multi-screened drive-in in Atlanta). Smokey was going to be such a Georgia hit that the managers had booked it on the other screen as well, and there, the film was still playing fine. Now, horns on our side were honking in protest as we all waited impatiently for the situation to be fixed. When the projector powered up again, we got a shock: we weren't gonna be seeing Smokey and the Bandit; instead, the second feature, Tobe Hooper's Eaten Alive flickered forth.

Now, I don't know if you've ever seen Eaten Alive, but no matter how much love gorehounds may have for it, it ain't no Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and it CERTAINLY ain't no Smokey and the Bandit. It's a nasty, scuzzy, unfrightening, totally mean-spirited piece of crap that has Neville Brand as a hotel owner who chops the heads off his guests with his scythe and feeds the corpses to his pet alligator. My mother, an avid animal lover (as we all were) was particularly scarred by the filmed feeding of a guest's pooch to the 'gator (to this day, my mother won't watch scary movies where a dog or a cat appears, because she's sure they're going to be killed off, and she's almost always right; it's a trend that's thankfully almost died off). Anyway, needless to say, we were mightilly pissed. But we stayed steadfast for Smokey, because Burt was our man. Happily, we weren't disappointed.

In it, Reynolds plays Bo "Bandit" Darville, a fast-talking, fast-moving rig driver who makes a massive wager with a bizarre, cocky pair of Texas businessmen (Big Enos and Little Enos, played by Pat McCormick and Paul Williams). They challenge the Bandit to deliver of truckload of Coors beer from Texarkana, TX to Atlanta, GA--a little under 1500 miles--in 28 hours (which was a little more difficult back when the speed limit was only 55 MPH). At any rate, Bandit has no problem with this. He hops into his black Trans Am (you know--the one with the T-top and the firey eagle on the hood) and gits, enlisting the help of Cletus ("When You're Hot, You're Hot" country singer Jerry Reed), who's to drive the actual payload while the Bandit's Trans Am serves as a decoy for the po-lice.

Only problem is, Reynolds takes the time to pick up Sally Field, who's decked out in a wedding dress and is thumbing a ride on the highway, escaping her marriage to a doofus played by former football star Mike Henry (who'd played alongside Reynolds in The Longest Yard). Henry's father happens to be a foul-mouthed, over-zealous country sheriff named Buford T. Justice (a dynamic, career-reviving, Southern-fried turn for certified New Yorker Jackie Gleason), who makes it his mission to catch the Bandit and foil his delivery of that Coors beer. So then we get nearly an hour of terrific car chase stunt-work from director Hal Needham, a former stuntman himself. Drive-in audiences (and four-wall audiences, too) wouldn't see so many cars pulverized for another three years, when John Landis' The Blues Brothers hit the screen. Next to that and H.B. Halicki's Gone in 60 Seconds, there has never been more wholesale destruction of Detroit product ever recorded on film. This makes Smokey and the Bandit one of the greatest drive-in movies ever (not one of the film's scenes takes place at night, which made it great for drive-ins, as it was hard to see, under the stars, scenes filmed in darkness).

Scripted by James Lee Barrett (The Greatest Story Ever Told) and Charles Shyer (Private Benjamin), the film was tight, funny, and fast. It may seem stupid today--and it is, really. But I defy you to admit you're not entertained at least a bit by it upon first viewing. Reynolds and Fields are a searing-hot couple (they'd go on to a real-life relationship that lasted for four years; together, they'd go on to appear in Smokey 2, Hooper, and the excellent Reynolds- directed comedy The End); Gleason, with his cornpone Southern accent, is ridiculously funny as the bumbling sheriff (I love it, against my better judgment, when he lets loose with the undying catchphrase "I'm gonna barbecue your ass," but my truly favorite scene--one that still makes me giggle like a kid--occurs when Justice walks out of a restaurant with a long stream of toilet paper improbably hooked onto his treasured smokey's hat). Henry also gets laughs as his idiot-boy son, always there making sure his dad's hat is secure (even after the top's been lopped off of their patrol car). Once cast as a villain in Gator, another Reynolds vehicle, Reed is quite charming (his "boogety, boogety, boogety" has become a rallying cry at present-day NASCAR events, and his songs "Eastbound and Down" and "They Call Him The Bandit" have become country classics). And my mom even got to instantly get over her distaste at the death of that dog in Eaten Alive, because Smokey starred a yelping basset hound named Fred as Reed's sidekick.

According to Box Office Mojo's ALL TIME BOX OFFICE CHAMPS adjusted for inflation list, Smokey and the Bandit ended up making more than $408 million, and became the centerpiece for the CB craze of the 1970s. Two sequels followed--the second was just okay, and the third was one of the most hilariously bad movies ever made); it also spawned countless rip-offs. My mom and dad liked it so much they ended up shelling out for a black Trans Am in 1978; now, THAT was bitchin' (though it broke down so much my parents swore never to buy another American-made car again). So, even now, after seeing all the Bergmans, Antonionis, Kubricks and Kurosawas the world has to offer, my fondness for Smokey and the Bandit remains as indelible as my love for fried chicken, cicadas, dogwood trees, and drive-ins.