Monday, February 23, 2009

East Bound and Down

After hearing the news that GM's sporty division Pontiac would become a small, niche car line with only a few models, I couldn't help but become nostalgic for the days when the Pontiac Trans Am was the American muscle car for the beer pocketbook set, helped in no small part by the Smokey and the Bandit movies. These films hold a special place in my vault of so-bad-they-are-good movies. I never sought them out when they were in the theatres, but I somehow ended up seeing each one several times and find myself dissecting them with a degree of analysis normally reserved for films like Citizen Kane or Casablanca. I think it's their very slip-shot nature that makes them endlessly fascinating since there are so many continuity issues, plot holes, and inconsistencies in character, you can't help but wonder why they wrote or shot what they did. To simply say, "It's a crappy movie!" isn't sufficient in my book.

The summer of 1977 seemed like the first true movie summer. Sure, Jaws had torn up the summer box office two years prior, but '77 was the first summer where the studios actively sought to put out crowd pleasing movies for the kidsc who were home from school and the parents who were on vacation. This was the summer of Star Wars, The Spy Who Loved Me, A Bridge Too Far, and Smokey and the Bandit. In fact, Smokey was the second highest grossing movie of the year. Even still, at the time, I didn't feel any great need to rush out and see it.

To me, Smokey was the culmination of a movie trend that was on the verge of playing itself out. Numerous car chase movies, usually dealing with good ol' boys who are runnin' moonshine or generally screwin' with the law, had been cluttering up the drive-ins for years. Initially, the movies were played straight, but audiences found the outrageous car stunts to be unintentionally funny. Also, watching the anti-heroes stick it to the corrupt, redneck sheriff usually brought about hoops and hollers of joy from the anti-establishment crowds of the 70s. After awhile, the filmmakers took a more lighthearted approach to these kinds of films. Even the producers of the Bond films inserted a comic-relief sheriff in two of their 70s films (Lie and Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun). It took director Hal Needham to finally jump in the deep end and create a car chase movie that was played for pure laughs. Burt Reynold and Jerry Reed had already taken a serious stab at such material in the movie Gator, so they were perfectly suited to lampoon the good ol' boy action film. Throw in (then) sitcom darling Sally Field and comic legend Jackie Gleason as the blustery sheriff, and you had a big budget spoof that had real potential to reach a mass audience.

The plot was fairly straightforward: Millionaire Big Enos Burdette (Pat McCormick) and his son Little Enos (Paul Williams) offer Bo "Bandit" Darville (Burt Reynolds) the princely sum (for the 1970s) of $80,000 if he can transport a truckload of Coor's Beer from Texarkana, Texas to Atlanta, Georgia in 28 hours. In those days, Coor's Beer could not be transported past the Mississippi, so this was flat-out bootlegging. Bo agrees and, to make the best possible time, he enlists the help of his friend Cledus "Snowman" Snow (Jerry Reed) to drive the truck while Bo runs interference with the police using his flashy Trans Am. All goes well on the trip to get the beer, but things go awry on the return leg when Bo picks up a pretty girl in a wedding dress. Turns out the woman, Carrie (Sally Field), is running away from marrying the son of a Texas sheriff. The sheriff, Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason), is not about to let her get away and soon, the Bandit has a permanent Smokey on his tail all the way to Atlanta.

Despite all the praise I was hearing about the movie, I was dubious. As I said, I had seen so many car chase movies already and even the star power of this one wasn't turning my head. It wasn't until two years later, when the movie finally popped up on broadcast television, that I gave it a chance. By this time, I was studying for my driver's license and I was becoming completely obsessed with automobiles. I studied everything I could get my hands on about how cars worked, the history and evolution of the car, the differences between the various makes and models, the whole nine yards. Suddenly, watching this flashy Trans Am do all these stunts and roar down the highway had new appeal. I liked the rapid pace of the story and the constant banter which, to a teenager, was far more clever than it would sound to me as an adult.

But I was also fascinated by the inexplicable oddities. I could chalk up the strange continuity issues to problems with matching the stunt shots with the principal photography, or the inexperience of a first-time director, but the odd dubbing of the broadcast television version was truly bizarre. When Smokey and the Bandit was originally released, it received an R rating, I assume for the harsh language. By the time it reached television, the movie had developed a huge following and I think the producers felt compelled to overdub virtually all the dialogue to wipe out any trace of foul language, lest they offend the Bible Belt viewers who were their primary audience. Burt, Sally, and Jerry all did their own overdubs, but for Jackie Gleason, it sounds like his voice was replaced with that of Henry Corden, a character actor best known for taking over the voice of Fred Flinstone after Alan Reed died. Not only does it look like Jackie Gleason is channeling the ghost of old Fred, the lines the writers came up with to replace the colorful metaphors are utterly inane and often unintelligible. All these years later, I've never been able to find a satisfactory answer as to why Gleason could not do his own overdubs.

A couple years later, cable TV invaded my neighborhood and the unedited version received regular rotation on channels like HBO and Showtime. With the original dialogue restored, I got a better understanding as to why everyone thought this movie was so funny. Still, I didn't have any burning desire to see the second entry in the series, but I did anyway...

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