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Monday, February 08, 2021

College Park Bound and Down


When Rednecks Ruled The Road

1977 and still in school, breaks spent amidst wretched environ of the College Park Cinema, would-be rival to the Liberty, but lacking utterly charm of the latter, CP a pointed rebuke to substance and style even small-town theatres once had, its screen largely a platform for Billy Jack, Buford Pusser, the “Preacherman” series (Cinema Treasures has no entry for the College Park --- did it not exist? Did I merely dream it?) They opened with What’s Up Doc in 1972 and slid from there. We were figured for rednecks who liked best redneck movies. Easy to forget glut during the 70’s, and not just from snatch-grab independents. Twentieth did The Last American Hero about our hometown bootlegger and race driver Junior Johnson (renamed “Jackson”) with too much serious intent beneath its trash lid. We needed less an understanding of our primitive regional culture than more car crashing and Junior outrunning Feds (always transplanted Northerners, as they should be). Peter Fonda made rag-tag road pictures after Easy Rider worship was done and out, all hits with us (poor Henry Fonda even ended up in one). Peter could have signed autographs at the College Park anytime. Atop pile of compost was Smokey and the Bandit, more auto misshaping than up-to-then recorded, Burt Reynolds down home enough (born/raised in Florida) to suggest a genuine article. College Park should have bought a print for all the times they ran Smokey. Not since Thunder Road had there been a picture that so belonged to us (and I’m not excluding Thunder in Carolina, with Rory Calhoun).

I lately re-saw Smokey and the Bandit, forty years sufficient to forget detail, except one … it is a fine action comedy, 97 minutes stripped to essentials, and if not so funny alone as with College Park’s crowd, has still appeal I did not expect. Was it nostalgia for going in 1977? I’d say not for but partial glimpses at the time courtesy friendly management not obliging me to buy tickets, Smokey seen more in chunks than whole, idea to observe tumult of one full house,
another, still more that followed. Locals laughed, loved it, came back repeatedly. A friend confessed to me yesterday (confessed? She was proud) of ’77 seeing Smokey seven times, in fact was the one who inveigled me to this week watch again.

College Park was largely a flea market to sample from, little worthy of seeing whole other than, say, canonical Freebie and The Bean or Sorcerer (more CP lore via these links). We’d break from to-dawn card play to assemble, then watch, whatever the Thursday night truck delivered for a next day’s opening. This being the 70’s, most were kennel rations (excitement over a midnight sneak of The Deep? --- none). Sometimes I would aim my 16mm Bell and Howell from the booth and run Son of Frankenstein or some such as dawn approached for roughly dozen of us who used the theatre like a clubhouse. New movies had ceased to interest me much after 1967, an odd admission for 2300 posts so far at Greenbriar, but how many of those address topics beyond that year? (not when there’s Norma Talmadge to glow over) I look at Smokey less as treasured memory than bug on a microscope slide, as if somebody other than me caught it first-run. Spending the 70’s largely in blinders, wondering why movies couldn’t be the way they were before I was born, was anything but sensible, maybe not healthy either. Collecting was a guilty party, Adventures of Robin Hood, Red Dust, or The Black Cat on 16mm to argue a since damnation of films. I could count 70’s pictures I liked on one hand, spare fingers enough to hold a drink cup, smug in my statistic then, hopefully less so now. Resolution then, is to visit or revisit what I've long ignored or down-graded, Smokey a start.

Jackie Gleason’s Buford T. Justice seemed to me a part unworthy of him. I deplored the mustache, thought he overplayed, liked better the Miami Beach setting, him in elegant attire introducing the June Taylor dancers. Others strain for laughs, Jerry Reed especially busting a gut. Was Burt Reynolds so magnetic as his Bandit appears to think? Boxoffice evidence said yes, up to a point. Smokey has a cast largely gone now, Mike Henry most recent. I think the best performance was Sally Field’s. She reacts nimbly to others trying too hard, staying for most part on-script while they tear off improv and ad-libs. Reynolds wrote that he got Field the part, even argued with Wasserman on her behalf, latter no stranger to hick comedies, Universal having harbored the Kettles, Francis, and Don Knotts. Smokey and the Bandit was a first in some ways, a last in others. No more would there be road trips so lean, done true places, and with real folks for background. I bet there are fans who have identified every spot drivers passed or stopped at. Reynolds lost his audience not just for repeating Smokey’s formula, but for letting his Cannonball and Stroker Aces be too insider show-biz, cameo-heavy, willful separation of stars from a public they fully expect to adore them.

More that would fade: CB radio, “Citizen’s Band” … was there a hotter, or briefer, fad? Earlier equivalent might have been ham sets at home, or wireless hounds wanting to pick up Japan. Do truckers get as much fun from modern technology as they did CB? Or maybe CB is still thriving, and I’m not aware of it. And what of Coors Beer? I can testify to people smuggling same into frat houses well before “Bandit” made his trip, us assured that Coors tasted way better than anybody’s brew, a relief for me as I was still trying to cultivate a taste for the nasty stuff. Finally had a swig circa ’73, just one was enough to know that beer would never float my boat. Gone for sure: onscreen impressions of George “Gabby” Hayes --- Reynolds does one. He knew movies, was a fan, was a collector. I knew someone who sold him a 35mm print of Sullivan’s Travels. It went vinegar, the dealer citing bad storage climate at Burt’s Florida estate. Reynolds cultivated friendship of old stars. Once I saw him on a talk show where Carol Burnett said how big a fan of Linda Darnell she was growing up. Reynolds said casual, “Yeah, I did Tea and Sympathy with her in summer stock.” Right then, they broke for a commercial, came back after seeming eternity, only to light upon another topic. Last of Smokey nods toward past time: a Broderick Crawford joke. We’ve about run out of live people who'd pick up on those.

There were sequels, horrid sequels. Burt Reynolds and Sally Field did one, a refute of what we liked about the first Smokey. Jerry Reed was the bandit for a third, which I have never seen and would dread to. Gleason stayed through the lot, surely for money alone. Did he die with impression his Buford would be prized over Ralph Kramden, Reggie, the Poor Soul? If so, the cash must have been small comfort. Smokey roads wind on … maintained by fans dedicated beyond energy I have, or had, for any show. Some have done trailers for an imaginary fourth Smokey, so authentic to make you think a #4 had been done. Devotees dedicated enough don’t want their favorites ever to stop, and so there are imagi-previews for Forrest Gump 2, more Back To The Futures, even another Titanic, as if the first did not settle matters. There have been modern-day races staged, Bandit’s Trans-Am against the “General Lee” from The Dukes of Hazard. Original cars used for Smokey and the Bandit numbered four, all destroyed after production, according to Universal. Reynolds had three “exact” replicas made and sold them off one by one over leaner years, the last going at auction for $550K in 2016. He flew out to Arizona to help stimulate the bids. Association with hot driving would cling to a star himself passing eighty. A spooky scene from The Last Movie Star (2017), has present-day Reynolds as passenger in the Trans Am with “Bandit” of forty years earlier at the wheel, old Burt cautioning his younger self against “bad life decisions.” Fans that grew up watching Reynolds were chilled to find him so fragile, millennials better equipped to celebrate their idea of a film “legend.” Chances are the rest saw too much of themselves in what had happened to him.


Blogger Barry Rivadue said...

I don't want to sound patronizing about Smokey and the Bandit (1977), but it's my definition of a guilty pleasure. It has nothing to be ashamed of--it's fast, funny and worth repeated viewings. It just clicks. How hard a feat that is can be shown by the awful sequels. The original remains just plain good. Is it my imagination or did Hitchcock, screening movies at Universal, actually say he liked this movie? I'm almost certain I read of that somewhere.

11:29 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

From what I have read, Alfred Hitchcock was a big fan of SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT. He also liked ANIMAL HOUSE a lot.

11:51 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

From Scott MacGillivray:

Hi, John — Just read your post about the College Park, and one of your recollections threw me. I gather this was a legitimate 35mm movie theater on or near your campus, but you said you ran things like Son of Frankenstein at dawn, on your 16mm projector. I don’t quite get how you had such free access to a 35mm house, especially after hours.

How was this possible? Was this a “student union” type of house, where the projection booth and the auditorium were on college property and thus you had access anytime? Me, I spent many, many hours in many Boston University booths, my favorite being the one at the student union. (Where I spent 14 continuous hours editing an amateur production for a film class. Felt like I was working for Mascot!)

Best wishes — Scott

JOHN REPLIES: The College Park was so-called because it was located near our Community College, which I did not attend. It was a 35mm, commercial house, which a group of us had free access to at all hours, thus 16mm screenings from time to time, these run well after closing, and not to the public. The projected image for SON OF FRANKENSTEIN and others actually looked pretty good, as the auditorium was fairly small (the College Park was a single-screen venue).

12:13 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

I remember seeing "Hooper", which was halfway between the good old boy films and the Hollywood insider films, and "W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings", which mixed cars with light mockery of country music ("Mama Was a Convict"). Clint Eastwood had his good old boy comedy phase as well.

There were trucker songs on the radio and in K-Tel collections, usually performed by a deep voice talk-singing some urban legend.

When "At Long Last Love" came out I was old enough to choose to miss it (have yet to see more than bits). It was initially promoted as what it was: a lavish, mock-30s musical starring Burt Reynolds and Cybill Shepherd. Once it began to sink like a rock a new ad appeared in one of the local papers: A big picture of Reynolds in boxer shorts with the various female leads pasted in around him and headlined, "It's BURT ... Doing what he does BEST!" About the same time "Day of the Locust" briefly floated a print ad promising tender, pastoral romance.

Maybe a last gasp for that level of desperate repositioning, although I saw a solitary TV spot for the grim docudrama "Foxcatcher" that tried to present it as uplifting, with Steve Carell's homicidal character as a sympathetic underdog. Of course, the "All Quiet on the Western Front" ad featuring pinup girls (see "The Art of Selling Movies") set a high bar for all who followed.

3:46 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Griff considers SMOKEY, its sequels, and other "good old boy" comedies from the 70's (Part One):

Dear John:

My wife and I saw SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT at a perhaps one-third filled Radio City Music Hall in early June of 1977. I think the rather restrained (subdued, actually) Gotham response to the movie, which had premiered at the Music Hall in late May, probably worried Universal execs... but such concerns vanished immediately when SMOKEY opened in the hinterlands and drew in the masses for many months. It would vie with CLOSE ENCOUNTERS and THE SPY WHO LOVED ME for the position of the #2 top-grossing movie of the year (and the economically produced SMOKEY would ultimately rank among the most profitable films Universal ever released).

We admired the way it was made. It's very fluidly staged and photographed and intensely mobile, even for a road movie. Kinetic as all get out. [George Miller must have screened this a few times before making the MAD MAX movies.]

But it didn't make us laugh; it wasn't witty, or even terribly clever, except for the terrific car and truck stuff. I was embarrassed for Gleason, a long-time personal idol and comedy icon, here profanely blundering and blustering through the picture. I'd never seen him so over-the-top. A waste. [Earlier in the year, Gleason -- making movies again after a hiatus of several years, this time in character roles -- had been the comic highlight of Jonathan Kaplan's uneven MR. BILLION, skillfully playing a devious swindler.]

Well, I might not have laughed, but the joke was on me -- his Sheriff Buford T. Justice became a signature role for the comedian.

The 1980 sequel -- swollen and over-produced -- was another hit, though, as you note, it did tend to refute everything that was worthwhile about the first picture. There was an unfunny subplot about how Reynolds' Bandit had fallen on hard times, the victim of his own success (a subplot even less funny today, given Burt's last years) and a flat joke about his unsuccessful Cole Porter album (I remember thinking, hey -- no one made you star in AT LONG LAST LOVE, just let it lie, pal). There was also a hard to take soundtrack ballad performed by Roy Rogers and The Sons of the Pioneers called, "Ride Concrete Cowboy, Ride," lyrically extolling the Bandit character.

"If there's an ambush up ahead... And you see Smokey's lights flashing red... Remember Trigger and me will be by your side."

I can see the Bandit's raffish and insouciant appeal, and he was played by Reynolds near the peak of his stardom, but this was basically a guy whose only skill was breaking the speed limit and mostly getting away with it; in a number of Roy Rogers' movies, Roy would have been obliged to arrest someone like that.

5:29 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Two from Griff:

The third picture (directed by Dick Lowry; Hal Needham had bailed after the second movie), which almost entirely focuses on Gleason's Sheriff, was egregiously terrible. The back-story in the trades about this one were hard to follow. Apparently the movie had been shot and assembled for previews with Gleason playing BOTH the Sheriff and the Bandit (sort of); the original title was supposedly SMOKEY IS THE BANDIT. Test audiences reportedly couldn't make much out of this, and after some rewrites, the picture went back into production for a while (Jerry Reed came in to shoot an extended cameo as the Bandit) and was somewhat restructured.

The film isn't any good, but these details fascinate me. I sometimes wish there was an ur-Criterion Collection, which would produce annotated special disc editions of less than stellar movies... like the American version of REPTILICUS, paired with the hard-to-see Danish version... Hopper's THE LAST MOVIE, paired with Chinchero, Universal's linear re-edit for TV syndication... and, of course, SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT PART III, ideally paired with that disastrous preview version.

I may not have cared for some of his biggest hits, but I did like Reynolds. After the early '80s, it seemed as though the wind had gone off his sails, as the expression used to go. He rallied in the late '90s with an interesting supporting part in Anderson's BOOGIE NIGHTS; he seemed engaged and present in a way he hadn't been in years. But his last years -- his final two decades -- are sad to recall. Your post strikes a nice tone about him, remembering him in palmier days.

-- Griff

5:29 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

'Smokey and the Bandit', silly as it is, yet has a simple, straightforward directness to it, as many of the best movies do.
As to your mention of 1967: once the production code had left the building, so to speak, the movies simply became too sensational. Thus it was for my late parents, who would have been centenarians by now - you could predict if they'd like a film by whether it had been released before 1967, or after. They considered "Smokey" to be trash too, but they did nevertheless enjoy it for the presence of Jackie Gleason.
Reading some of the comments, it occurs to me that I've never even been in the same room as a 35 mm projector - never been in the "booth", that is - and that its now been many decades since I was in a room with a 16 mm. Yet nevertheless watching films has never been better for quality nor easier as to cost than it is right now - and there's a much greater variety of available titles for viewing to boot. Bless those technologists!

10:30 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

REPTILICUS is pretty awful. As a kid all I got was the Charlton Comic Book which I liked. Finally seeing the movie was a tremendous let down. Could the Danish version be any better? REPTILICUS itself was the problem for me.

I have never seen SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT. Now, it seems what with Covid boredom and all, I must. Are we all looking at things we thought we never would?

Gleason's work is so great that anyone drawn to explore it, no matter what the impetus, is going to find themselves wanting to see more.

The same would happen with anyone whose first exposure to Charles Chaplin is A KING IN NEW YORK or THE COUNTESS FROM HONG KONG.

We all grow old. Only the great horror stars were able to stay in demand as the years settled on them.

10:37 AM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

"Why you young whippersnapper...!"
I liked lean, funny stunt movies and I thought BANDIT was a prime example. It amazed me that the folk who made the sequel seemed to have absolutely no idea what had made the original work.

12:26 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

I have a lot of fondness for SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT. Back in my childhood when people began to own 8mm film projectors there were people buying and presenting abridged versions of movies for family and friends. Those of us, my parents, who didn't or couldn't afford a projector were able to rent one with some movies. In this vein I was able to watch this Burt Reynolds vehicle in two parts and the film was mostly complete. Eventually, I was able to watch the movie on television were indeed it played in its full length and not really much was left out for the home market from the days before VHS. The original film is OK but not memorable and some of the action scenes were later staged again for the SHERIFF LOBO TV series, which only lasted two seasons, but that television repeated constantly and daily for ten years. The SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT sequel, was not as good as the original, the plot was sillier and the only memorable thing from it were the outakes shown during the closing credits.

2:07 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Burt Reynolds is the (literal) poster boy for a talent wasted.

2:54 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

I was too much a movie snob to admit I liked it in the year I saw things like Aguirre, the Wrath of God. But seeing it again recently... Reynolds and Field have chemistry if anyone ever did in movies, and charisma to burn; the movie is sloppily but cheerfully made, and delivers on action laughs. Showed it to my car-mad son, he's probably watched it 5 times since. There are worse legacies for a star to leave.

10:19 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

Burt Reynolds’ remains find home at Hollywood cemetery

4:53 PM  
Blogger brickadoodle said...

I ran that place, College Park Cinema, in the early ‘70s, till I had a falling out with its owner, who is long-deceased. I learned a lot there, just enough to know that show business wasn’t for me — or anyone else that wants to actually make a living. Still, I have fond memories of College Park Cinema, and no regrets about the experience.

9:22 PM  

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