Friday, February 27, 2009

Ticket for the Wind

In the previous two posts, I talked about my adolescent experiences seeing both Smokey and the Bandit and Smokey and the Bandit II. For me, these movies fall into that strange category of films where they are so bad, they are good. However, I still thought they could have been better than they were. Not so much the first one, but the sequel definitely could have easily been improved with a more sensible plot and a faster tempo. I really didn't think the studio would risk a third installment after the embarrassment of the second, but the studio and Jackie Gleason were not ready to let go of the franchise just yet.

After seeing the horrible Cannonball Run in the summer of '81, I swore I would never see another one of these movies ever again. My resolve was only strengthened when I read that the third installment of the Smokey saga would feature Jackie Gleason in both roles and be called Smokey IS the Bandit. I couldn't get my mind around how this would work. Was Buford going to get knocked on the head and suddenly think he was the Bandit? If so, who would be chasing him as the sheriff? My mind boggled, but I still had no thought of seeing it, at least not in the theatre. Later, in the spring of '83, I read that the test audiences hated the dual-role idea and the studio was hastily shooting new footage to remake the movie in time for a summer release. It finally came out as Smokey and the Bandit Part 3 in late summer (why it was "Part 3" and not "III" is unclear). The bad-movie lover in me was tempted to see how they cobbled this mess together, but the only theatre showing it in my area was a dirty little dump that actually became a porn theatre later that same year. I took a pass.

The following summer, Smokey and the Bandit Part 3 popped up on cable, so I watched it. I was surprised that I didn't dislike it as much as I thought I would. At least they did remember to fill the movie with lots of high speed car stunts, and they kept the story hopping at a rapid clip (at only 85 minutes running time, they had no choice). In the revised version, a retired Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason) decides to take a challenge from Big Enos and Little Enos Burdette (Pat McCormick and Paul Williams) because he is bored. To hedge their bet, they enlist Cledus Snow (Jerry Reed) to pretend to be the Bandit and generally get in Buford's way. The Enos boys also create diversions of their own, including trying to blow Buford and his son to bits with explosives. Why these two would want to become murderers to protect their bet is not explained.

While watching the hijinks, I'm always distracted by the thought of how the movie looked in its original form. During the car stunts involving the Trans Am, you can see that the person in the driver's seat is made up to look like a fat, older version of the Bandit, in keeping with the original premise of Jackie Gleason playing both parts. The fact that Jerry Reed has to wear a bad fake moustache to look vaguely like the Bandit is also disconcerting. Although the movie has a disconnected feel no doubt created by the large amount of reshooting, the old and new footage meshes better than you would expect and you sometimes believe that Gleason and Reed may have actually been on the same set at the same time. Nevertheless, this movie is cringe-worthy in countless ways.

Burt Reynolds makes a cameo at the end which is utterly nonsensical, but I think the producers wanted to somehow make up for the Burt-lessness of the previous 80 or so minutes of the movie. It doesn't help. Just when you are feeling completely depressed for watching this travesty, the ending credits roll with a song from former Kingston Trio head John Stewart titled, "Ticket for the Wind." Although it's a great song, the downbeat quality is completely inappropriate for a farcical comedy. Think "Tom Dooley" with an 80s electronic beat. You can listen to it here.

I remember getting to this part of the movie and just feeling so sorry for the entire cast. They actually tried to be entertaining, but ended up embarrassing themselves. Around this time, Gleason seemed to be embarrassing himself on a regular basis with such films as The Toy and The Sting II. Somehow, his reputation remained unsullied, though. I guess people loved The Honeymooners so much, they could forgive him.

I can't leave this final segment on the Smokey and the Bandit saga without mentioning the dubbing. While in the first two installments they used character actor Henry Corden to overdub Gleason's voice in certain scenes, for the third installment, they couldn't even get his services. In Part 3, some scenes feature overdubs by someone who doesn't sound even remotely like Gleason. It's kinda like the sound engineer just went into the studio and took a crack at it. Although unintentional, it's the funniest thing in the movie.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Texas Bound and Flyin'

In my previous post, I talked about my adolescent memories of seeing Smokey and the Bandit. While I was growing tired of the car chase formula, the unabashed silliness and fast-paced action of Smokey sucked me in. When the sequel was announced, I wasn't so sure they could strike lightning twice, and I had no intention of seeing the movie when it came out. Things changed, however.

By the time I got my driver's license, Smokey and the Bandit II was in the theatres. In fact, on the day after I received my license, my mom let me borrow the car for the day and my friend Vince and I went out to exploit our new found freedom. We ended up at the mall where we wanted to see a movie. Unfortunately, the only film at the multiplex that was not rated R (we were both still under 17) was the new Smokey movie. Although I liked the first one, I had bad feelings about the sequel and my reservations were well founded.

Instead of a light, rapid-fire comedy, we were treated to a plodding, stupid story with a drunken, loser Bandit (Burt Reynolds) acting like an ass and generally bumming everyone out. In a nutshell, Big Enos and Little Enos Burdette (Pat McCormick and Paul Williams) resurface to make a proposition to Cledus "Snowman" Snow (Jerry Reed). They want Cledus and Bo "Bandit" Darville (Burt Reynolds) to transport a mystery package from Miami to Dallas, Texas in three days. Fairly simple, except the Bandit has disappeared. His 15 minutes of fame after the Texarkana to Altanta run had expired and Bo is now hiding in a sleazy Florida motel drinking himself to death. Meanwhile, Carrie (Sally Field) has left him and is about to once again marry the son of Sheriff Buford T. Justice. Justice (Jackie Gleason) is none too pleased with the arrangement, but when Carrie decides to run off again and save the Bandit, he holds her at gun point to stop her. After she escapes, Justice and his son (Mike Henry) are once again in "hot pursuit."

There's a lot of time wasted as Carrie and Cledus try to detoxify the Bandit. When they finally pick up the package, which turns out to be a female elephant, and get on the road, Justice has tracked them down and tries to stop them. From this point, the story plods along in fits and starts. The elephant turns out to be pregnant, so they pick up an Italian doctor (Dom Deluise) to watch after her. They have to stop frequently to accommodate the elephant's delicate condition, leaving plenty of time for Bo and Carrie to fight and for Bo to act like an insensitive jerk to the elephant. While the first movie was driven by the tight 28-hour deadline to get Coors Beer from Texarkana to Atlanta, there's no sense of urgency in the sequel and the gang spends most of the time out of their vehicles arguing with each other. Meanwhile, Buford T. Justice is supposed to be in "hot pursuit," but there is no explanation as to what he's up to while the heroes are mulling around. He just pops up conveniently when he's needed to chase them around.

Finally, in a feeble attempt to liven up the finale, Sheriff Justice enlists the help of his law officer cousins to lure the Bandit into an ambush. The ambush occurs in a desert environment where the law officers descend on the Bandit from the surrounding hills in their police cruisers. Although the visual metaphor of old-time movie Indians attacking the settlers in their stage coaches is obvious, the whole fiasco makes no sense since there are no desert areas anywhere between Miami and Dallas. Even if you are willing to suspend disbelief, dozens of cars smashing into each other like a demolition derby is not really the same as the thrill of watching high speed car stunts. It's just mindless destruction, and it gets monotonous real fast.

Since the theatre was mostly empty, Vince and I entertained ourselves by calling out remarks at the screen, mocking the whole mess while it spooled out onto the screen. The only redeeming factor was that I got to hear Buford's salty dialogue as it was meant to be heard, uttered by Jackie Gleason himself. As mentioned in the previous post, Gleason's redubbed dialogue for the TV version was voiced by character actor Henry Corden. As it would turn out, Corden would also provide the redubbed language in the TV version of the sequel. I still cringe at hearing Fred Flinstone's voice coming out of Gleason's mouth.

For days and weeks after seeing the debacle that was Smokey and the Bandit II, I kept pondering how the movie could have been so much better. By this time, I fancied myself a writer and had already scribbled out two novels, two screenplays, and numerous short stories. I knew I could come up with a better script than this horrid piece of junk.

At first, I thought the film would simply pick up where the last one left off. At the end of part one, the Enos's ask Bo, Carrie, and Cledus to run up to Boston and bring back a large quantity of baked beans. Since they only had 18 hours, perhaps they could employ airplanes or helicopters. Really open up the action. Then I thought better of that. After all, it had been three years later, and the filmmakers would want to use a new Trans Am, the iconic symbol of the series.

Fine, three years later it is. Although the Bandit could have built a celebrity status based on his stunts, he would still be facing numerous criminal charges from his behavior in the last movie. He would have to stay on the run or come to some arrangement with the law. Perhaps Carrie offers herself to Justice's son again as a way to get the sheriff to leave Bandit alone. Maybe she realizes that she can't stay with a guy like Bo long term, but she could still make a sacrifice for him out of love. That would provide some explanation for why she would try to marry Junior again, even if it was a weak one.

Okay, the Bandit is free and he is certainly no drunk, although he misses Carrie. The Enos's offer a big bet, but nothing involving cutesy elephants or kittens or koala bears. Maybe they have to bring Farrah Fawcett from Hollywood to take Little Enos's virginity? I don't know! Just keep the damn thing on the road and moving!

The feeble nature of the sequel's storyline only enhanced the unmistakeable sense that car chase movies were a thing of the past. All the CB jargon, so hip in the mid-70s, sounded tired and stupid by 1980. These characters and the whole genre was passe. When the chance to do a third movie cropped up, even Hal Needham and Burt Reynolds said, "no thanks." Jackie Gleason had other ideas though...

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...

Monday, February 16, 2009

Custom Figure - Silver-Age Iron Man

For years, I've wanted to create a custom Iron Man action figure along the lines of the Captain Action suit sets from the 60s. Although I was always more of a DC kid than a Marvel fan, Iron Man was one of the few exceptions. The tone of the stories seemed different than most of the other Marvel characters, with dashing Tony Stark fighting communists and other world dominators in his fancy, hi-tech armor. He was like Bruce Wayne and James Bond rolled into one, which was more my speed than whiny Peter Parker or those preachy X-Men. Iron Man was definitely one of the super heroes I had hoped Ideal would use for their Captain Action line of outfits. Alas, it was not so and, like the Flash and Green Lantern and so many others, I would have to do it myself. But how?

At first I toyed with the idea of creating an actual suit of armor using bits and pieces from other action figure sets, mostly relying on the armor pieces from the old Marx Noble Knights line. Unfortunately, that did not prove very feasible and it really wasn't in the spirit of the old Captain Action outfits, which were stretchy polyester leotards. Then, a couple years ago, Rauty's Toy Shop created a nifty Iron Man outfit for 1/6th scale figures sort of like the Mego figure. I'd provide a link for Rauty, but he doesn't seem to have a Web site at the moment. His stuff pops up regularly on eBay, however.

At least I knew I could get a costume, but what about the boots and gloves? Wes McCue of Classic Plastick makes all kinds of gloves and boots based on super heroes, but he didn't have anything like Iron Man's, which had little repulsor rays in the palms of the gloves and on the soles of the shoes. I was lamenting all this to my wife Kathy who, God love her, took all this in and set into action. She contacted Wes about whether or not he had such items and, while he didn't, he liked the idea of creating some. Kathy wanted to present me with these items for Christmas, but as Christmas approached, Wes had only created prototypes, so he sent her the prototypes to avoid her being empty handed. The gloves and boots were modeled on his existing stock, but with the little repulsor rays added to the palms and soles. He has since refined the design to feature rolled cuffs on the tops of the gloves and boots as well. I think the prototypes work just fine, though.

On Christmas Day, Kathy presented me with the suit, gloves, and boots. Needless to say, I was bowled over and couldn't wait to get started on my custom Iron Man. Of course, there was still the issue of the mask. Wes had suggested to my wife that I start with the back part of a vintage Phantom mask. That made a lot of sense, but I had already used my last spare Phantom mask to create a mask for my Space Ghost custom. I finally decided to mold one out of polyvinyl clay even though I knew the material would never be thin enough to have the proper proportions. It would have to do for the time being, however.

To mimic the sort of belt arrangement with the red discs on the sides of Iron Man's hips, I used a strip of red foam rubber and scored lines and a belt buckle shape into it with an X-Acto knife. For the red discs, I used some red push pins I found in the crafts store, and I secured the belt around his waist with velcro.

I was also stuck on how to fashion the round disc on Iron Man's chest, so I scoured my spare model parts until I found a wheel piece from a old car kit. After painting, I glued the female part of a snap to the back of the wheel piece, and sewed the male end of the snap to the chest of the costume. By using a snap, the disc stays securely on Iron Man's chest.

Except for the bobblehead effect of the helmet, I think the rest of the costume turned out pretty well. If I can get a vintage Phantom mask at some point, I may take another stab at the mask, or I may pursue some other approach all together.

I have to thank Rauty, Wes, and my lovely wife. I haven't had this much fun with a custom figure in a long time!

Monday, February 09, 2009

Three Boys and a Lighthouse

I've never been one of those people who romanticizes about the sea or sailing the ocean blue, but lighthouses have always held a certain appeal to me. Merely the sight of a lighthouse enthralls me, perched as it is on the edge of some rocky shore, sending out its lonely light to anyone who may or may not be out there. They're stoic and beneficent and courageous in their loneliness. At least that's what they represent, and I assume those who run them (or once ran them, I should say) had those same qualities. In some cockeyed romantic way, I could see myself living in a lighthouse. I love the idea of the solitude, and the chance to live in a cylindrical house. Of course, I'm sure at some point the job would require me to get in a boat and save somebody from the rocky coastline, and that would put me right off the job.

I think my fascination with lighthouses began with a book I read when I was 10 years old called Three Boys and a Lighthouse by Nina Hayden Agle and Ellen Wilson. I found it at my school library and, although it was aimed at a slightly younger audience, I was captivated by the illustrations by Marian Honigman. I'm not sure if they were linoleum block prints or simply drawn to look like that, but I loved the simple yet detailed illustrations. They were precise yet stylized, and perfectly evoked the idealized, boyhood notion of living in a lighthouse. In my cynical middle-agedness, I have to really flog my brain to recall how my ten-year-old self could so easily fall for such fantasies, but fall I did.

The story revolves around identical triplets named Abercrombie, Benjamin, and Christopher. Their mother is dead and their father runs a lighthouse, so they live with their grandmother. Finally, the father invites the boys to live with him at the lighthouse for the whole summer. To test the boy's meddle, he sends them off in row boats to each live on separate islands near the lighthouse. (The book was written in 1951, so no one would have screamed "child abuse" over such a plot twist back then.) When the boys show they can survive on their own, the father then sets about putting them through their paces, learning the tasks that come with running a lighthouse.

Finally, one foggy and stormy night, the lighthouse receives an SOS call and the father has to leave the boys to help the stranded seafarer. The father is gone for a day and a half and, in the era before cellphones, has no way of contacting the boys. However, the boys bravely carry on with the duties of running the lighthouse until the father eventually returns. For their bravery and devotion to duty, he gives his sons spiffy new lighthouse keeper hats with monograms on them.

Okay, not the most exciting story in the world, but I wanted so much to be one of those boys when I first read that book. It seemed like such an exciting life, and I carried the love of lighthouses with me long after I put the book down. Three years later, when I wrote my first "novel," the story was about a strange old guy who dressed like a sea captain and lived in an abandoned lighthouse. By that time, I had learned that most lighthouses were being shut down because they were unnecessary with the advent of modern navigational equipment, so the thought of living in an abandoned lighthouse seemed pretty cool. The strange old man turned out to be an alien who had a laboratory underneath the lighthouse where he built futuristic stuff, including a spaceship. Typically adolescent action yarn, and I'm not even sure if the length of it would technically put it in the category of a novel. It was about 150 handwritten pages in a composition tablet, so maybe more like a novella. Sadly, it got lost somewhere along the way, so I can't refer back to it.

The following Christmas, my brother gave me a framed print of a lighthouse. It was mostly blue, bathed in the night glow of a full moon as the waves crashed on the shoreline. Also sadly, the frame was broken and the print torn, so I had to throw it out. Such is the way with childhood memories. I still like lighthouses, though.