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Monday, August 03, 2015

None Bigger Where We Live

Thunder Road (1958) Looms Large in North Carolina

I woke to this topic thanks to outstanding Blu-Ray coverage from Glenn Erikson (DVD Savant), his the best discussion on Thunder Road I've seen, and that includes the well-regarded chapter in King Of The B's. I'll expand on Glenn's thorough analysis by citing Thunder Road as the most popular motion picture that was ever shown in North Carolina. A tall claim, but I stand by it, and challenge anyone to show me a feature that had more NC bookings. Thunder Road ran in my state on continual basis from May 1958 release into the 80's, and I'm talking theatres, not TV. The fact it went to ABC as of 3-10-63, with a 5-19-63 repeat, followed by non-stop syndication, made not a whit of difference to paying customers, who'd continue filling drive-ins and hardtops for years to come. Thunder Road belonged to us. United Artists saw the evergreen and refused to rent the film to NC venues on anything other than percentage basis. Overall number of US theatrical bookings crushed records --- a staggering 34, 303 (through 11/30/91) --- more than any of 60's James Bond (Dr. No, for instance had 29,782 dates, including reissues), Pink Panthers, "Dollar" westerns, whatever. Thunder Road was our own cultural phenomenon, even if it's remembered just by old-timers reliving Cruise Nights and wishing drive-in movies were still a going thing.

We initially had Thunder Road in May 1958 minus a heavy drumbeat. No one then had inkling of what it would do. One exhibitor, in neighboring West Jefferson, went to a UA exchange screening and thought little enough of Thunder Road not to seek an immediate date. Some towns in the vicinity (including mine) had it first at hardtops, while drive-ins stood behind for several-weeks-or months-later play. Thunder Road had made news for being shot in nearby counties, Robert Mitchum sighted, and said to be polite toward locals. Our first Liberty ad helpfully mentioned Road's shooting title, "The Whippoorwill," so we'd know that this was the movie completed lately on NC locations. There was no holdover beyond four days Thunder Road was booked (Sunday-Thursday, May 25-28), a combo of Juvenile Jungle and Young and Wild arriving on schedule behind it. "Asheville Natives!" in the cast were mentioned, that town two hours away over roads then-rough as ones Bob hauled moonshine over in the film.

Our North Wilkesboro Drive-In was site of outdoor breakout, Thunder Road arriving there on July 7 for a three-day stand. The Hunchback Of Notre Dame was scheduled to take its place afterward. What showed up was lines that would be remembered, as in "We could not accommodate everyone wishing to see this great movie." Tony Quinn's Hunchback was thus bumped, and Thunder Road held another two days. Nearby Statesville set an even larger table, as according to Then Playing host Mike Cline, that town kept Thunder Road a whopping three weeks at the town's Villa Heights Drive-In (owned/operated by Mike's family). Venues lucky enough to secure Thunder Road were even advertising in out-of-town newspapers, as with West Jefferson's Drive-In pushing its late July booking in our Journal-Patriot. The word spread wide in summer '58 --- Thunder Road was the show everyone had to see, and preferably through windows of their parked car. There was run-off benefit to other Robert Mitchum features, even ones from furthest back in the vault, as here with our Starlite Drive-In run of Nevada, a 1944 RKO "B" with pre-stardom Bob, its ad mention augmented with key art from Thunder Road.

Bring-backs were frequent, Thunder Road a surest thing toward filling lots for a next twenty years, whatever the weather. It could play as a single, often did, or as part of a "hot car" dusk-dawn marathon. Typical of these was Fayetteville foursome (an army base town) for 1/25/64 at the Midway Drive-In. No matter that it was winter, when many outdoor screens were dark: Thunder Road clicked even where viewed through veils of sleet or snow. One of co-features Red Hot Wheels, by the way, was a retitled To Please A Lady, MGM's midget race meller from 1950 with Clark Gable and Barbara Stanwyck. By the mid-sixties, Thunder Road was showing its age, but only in terms of battered prints run to death since 1958. Customers had begun to notice and complain of scratching with jumps in the action. Greensboro's Park Drive-In answered via emphasis on a now-primary selling point: Un-Cut ... New Print! There's no calculating how many runs Thunder Road had in North Carolina. Many hundreds, at the least. And always on percentage, per United Artists edict.

The company released a sort of TR rehash in 1975 called Moonrunners, filmed largely in Georgia, and featuring Robert Mitchum's son, James (elements of the yarn would eventually morph into TV's The Dukes Of Hazard). With perhaps less confidence based on finished product, UA sent out Thunder Road as a second feature just in case. The program was saturated through NC venues, mostly outdoors, where a new generation of good old boys got acquainted with 1958's folklore-maker. The oldie would continue getting dates well into the 80's. I wonder if there still aren't prints lying on former exchange shelves in Charlotte. Now, of course, we have Thunder Road on Blu-Ray, crisp at last in 1.85 and a much improved image. I couldn't recommend the disc higher.


Blogger Mike Cline said...

A three-week engagement at my family's VILLA HEIGHTS DRIVE-IN is correct. A full lot EVERY night. Two showings nightly, EXCEPT the first Friday-Saturday a second feature was added. (We ALWAYS had double or triple bills on those nights.) Complaints verbally made to my Dad, who ran the place, "We'd rather see TR twice than to see another movie," they said. So the following two weekends of TR's run, it played solo.

A phenom it was, that summer of 1958.

Nothing else, in our 13 years of exhibition, came close. GWTW and OLE YELLER ran a week, which was extraordinary. The remaining BIGGEST pictures of the 1950's ran three nights.

Having free rein to roam the 450-car field whenever I wanted, I recall fondly the THUNDER ROAD nights. Shortly after the engagement, I remember my father coming home one day in a new family auto, afforded probably by the coins in the family coffer provided by Mitchum and his movie.

10:37 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Big, big childhood memory, visiting my grandparents in Asheville the summer TR came out. Since much of it was filmed just months ago right there in and around town, we are talking about a HUGE community event. Seeing it in a local theater with a packed house, on a big screen is still super vivid. My own grandfather had a tiny bit part (two close-ups, as I remember, and a line "What does Luke think we should do?") I think my brother still has the Christmas card Mitchum sent Gramps (and, no doubt, all the other locals who ended up in the cast.)

1:34 PM  
Blogger rnigma said...

Yep, "Moonrunners" was indeed the inspiration for "The Dukes of Hazzard." Elements of the movie that ended up in the "Dukes": Uncle Jesse, Sheriff Roscoe Coltrane, the Boar's Nest saloon, and Waylon Jennings' narration.
Differences: Kiel Martin (later J.D. La Rue on "Hill Street Blues") and Jim Mitchum were the Hagg boys, not the Dukes, and they hailed from Shiloh County; their car was called Traveler (after General Lee's horse) and it didn't have a Confederate flag on its roof; there was no Boss Hogg as the villain was rival moonshiner Jake Rainey.

6:11 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

North Carolina may have been the prime THUNDER ROAD territory, but it fared pretty well elsewhere too.

I grew up in the Louisville, Ky. area and when I was still a kid, I started noticing that THUNDER ROAD always seemed to be on the bill at one of the local drive-ins. Sometimes leading off, sometimes in support, but it always seemed to be there somewhere.

My first viewing of TR was at a Louisville drive-in, somewhere between '69 and '72. I hummed or sang the title song for a month afterwards. Matter of fact, it's running through my head right now.

7:02 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Just watched it. Great movie. Would not have without this post. Thanks.

10:49 PM  
Blogger rnigma said...

One more bit of weird trivia: "Thunder Road" footage of a '57 Ford crashing was used in David Bradley's notorious turkey "They Saved Hitler's Brain" (made even more infamous when new footage shot in the Philippines was tacked onto the film a decade later; they even managed to find a '57 Ford to match the "Thunder Road" footage).

7:51 PM  
Blogger Randy Jepsen said...

I remember watching THUNDER ROAD on the late show (10:30) one Saturday night in the early 60s when I was a kid.

5:52 PM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

In addition to the newly released BRD, THUNDER ROAD will be shown on Turner Classic Movies later this month, presumably in HD.

3:51 PM  

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