I’ve already written a few pieces on life in my college apartment awhile back, and every once in awhile, something comes along that takes me right back to those days. The other night, I came across a certain flick while channel-flipping…
Every college apartment has those one or two movies that are almost nightly viewing…the Big Lebowskis, the Monty Python & The Holy Grails…where the dialogue, gestures, even facial expressions become a treasure trove of inside jokes and the secret language of roommates. For me and my college roommates, it was 1977’s Smokey And The Bandit. We had a VHS copy with warbly sound and a discolored rainbow effect down one side of the screen, but it did its duty, night after night. Individual lines of dialogue that made no sense outside of the immediate context of the film came out of our mouths to the exclusion of actual conversation:
“Lemme have a Diablo sammich and a Dr. Pepper and make it fast I’m in a goddamn hurry!”
“Hold up on that car wash, gentlemen.”
“What we gonna do, kidnap the pope or somethin’?” (Proper response: “How’d ya guess?”)
“If they’d-a cremated that sumbitch, I’d be kicking that Mr. Bandit’s ass around the moon by now…”
“What-I-owe?” (while pointing at someone with both the index finger and pinkie extended.)
“I’m gonna barbecue yo’ ass in MOLASSES!!”
“Thank you, nice lady.”
Each of those lines, and many, many others, meant something to us in Apartment-speak. (Respectively, “I’m hungry,” “stop what you’re doing,” “what’s your plan/idea?” “this traffic jam sucks,” “how much do I owe you?” “I’m very upset with you,” “oh my goodness,” and, uh, “thank you, nice lady.”) Again, there were many others. I almost considered compiling a glossary for this piece.
The film’s story is a simple premise — for reasons that don’t seem to extend beyond their own twisted amusement and taste for sub-par beer, millionaire Texans Big Enos Burdette and his adult-but-diminutive son Little Enos Burdette travel through the South offering truck drivers (“gearjammers”) exorbitant amounts of cash to haul Coors beer outside of its legal distribution zone. In the 1970s, Coors was available only west of the Mississippi, and people who couldn’t get it became obsessed with it, despite the fact it is very, very shitty beer. (I’d like to see a movie where someone has to haul a truckload of White Castle sliders to California.) They make the offer to “truck-driving legend” Bo “Bandit” Darville. (“Looks like a legend and an out-of-work bum look a lot alike, Daddy” Little Enos observes.) According to the terms of the wager, Bandit must travel to Texarkana, Texas, acquire his cargo, and return to Atlanta in 28 hours. He eagerly accepts, enlisting his pal Cledus “Snowman” Snow to actually drive the truck, while he speeds around in a flashy Pontiac Trans-Am as a “blocker,” drawing the attention of any law enforcement in the vicinity away from the truck and its illicit load. Along the way, he picks up Carrie, a runaway bride. Add to this mix a dogged, vengeful Texas sheriff who fanatically tails him far beyond his jurisdiction. Revving engines, squealing tires, high-speed chases, and crashed police cars ensue as the characters exchange witticisms via CB radio.
Veteran stunt coordinator & driver Hal Needham made his directorial debut with this film, and he never bettered it (not even with his 1986 BMX epic Rad). The project was originally meant to be a low-budget B-movie targeted to rural drive-ins, capitalizing on the CB radio fad and truck-driver worship sweeping the country in the mid-1970s. (You can start singing “Convoy” to yourself now. And the term “smokey” was CB slang for a state policeman, due to their Smokey the Bear-style park ranger hats.) It would feature country singer and part-time actor Jerry Reed as the titular Bandit…until Reed’s friend, Gator co-star, and bona fide celebrity Burt Reynolds expressed an interest in starring. Universal Studios thought that was a great idea. The budget was duly inflated, Reed got bumped to the sidekick role, and it was released as a main feature in theaters across the country, to critical indifference and massive popular success. The only film to make more money that year was Star Wars.
Its roots as drive-in fodder are still there. It’s a distinctly Southern movie, and luckily for the film, Southern culture seemed to be in the national consciousness right about then in a way it wouldn’t be ever again. In the air in ‘77 were the aforementioned obsession with CB radio and trucker culture (short-lived), prime-time variety shows (which were still a thing) always featuring some countrypolitan artist or another (Crystal Gale, Glen Campbell, etc.), the Dallas Cowboys’ domination of the NFL, and Loretta Lynn extolling the virtues of Crisco shortening on an endless series of TV commercials.
In conducting my preliminary research (don’t look so surprised), I downloaded every episode of film-related podcasts I could find that featured Smokey And The Bandit. I love podcasts, but I generally and snobbishly restrict myself to podcasts hosted by professional comedians or broadcasters, and there is a reason for this. 95% of pop-culture podcasts out there are hosted by young twentysomething types. That in and of itself is not a problem. If podcasts existed when the Holy Bee was a twentysomething, would I have whipped on those headphones and began blathering into a microphone with no encouragement (or audience) needed? That’s a big ten-four, good buddy. The difference is that today’s Damn Kids (™) are, by and large, clueless. And that’s OK, too. I’m clueless about many things. But they’re clueless about their cluelessness. At least I know enough to not try to write a blog entry on opera or photosynthesis. These amateur podcasters are kind of aware this movie was an Event at one time, and it still shows up on TV a lot, although not as much as it used to. They like the movie, but seem vaguely ashamed of liking it. They also have little to no frame of reference for the 1970s, Southern culture, or ability to quote a piece of dialogue without mangling or misunderstanding it. Their idea of “research” is reading the movie’s IMDB trivia page as they’re recording. This happened on literally every single Smokey-themed podcast I tried to listen to. I gave up on all of them in disgust, but several questions occurred to me as I attempted to get through them.
Why did those podcasters admit they liked it only grudgingly? Is its unabashed “redneckness” and outdated viewpoints really that awkward to a young millennial viewing audience? Can a movie like this even be made in today’s cultural climate? IS there a “Southern” culture that is in any way mainstream? Has it been totally homogenized by the bland dogshit that is country radio and soapy trash like ABC’s Nashville? Or is it doomed to be a reality show punchline, a la Honey Boo Boo or Buckwild? Even an acclaimed and very funny show like East Bound And Down (I wonder where they got that title?) plays upon the obtuseness of its Southern protagonists.
Smokey And The Bandit does not trumpet or showcase its Southern-ness, but is totally steeped in it. The references, idioms, and colloquialisms are simply part of its fabric. They aren’t spelled out or used as ends to themselves, which is what leads to that annoying bemusement when well-meaning twentysomething podcasters from California try to talk about it. The only time the film itself addresses the culture gap is during one of the few slow-moving scenes, where Bandit and Carrie the outsider (from New York!) attempt to kindle a romance, and he confesses to never seeing A Chorus Line or being much of an Elton John fan, and she’s never even heard of Richard Petty or Waylon Jennings. “When you tell somebody something, it depends what part of the United States you’re standing in as to just how dumb you are,” the Bandit remarks. I suspect there’s a lot more Carries than Bandits in today’s audience.
Speaking of today’s audience, there are a few squirm-inducing moments that induce squirms because times have changed. The PG rating barely exists these days, seeing as most family films get the G, and teen-appropriate stuff the PG-13. With no PG-13 (which was introduced in 1985), a PG rating in the 70s was not necessarily indicative of all-ages family entertainment. Smokey And The Bandit is far from truly explicit, but some of those old 70s values often on display sound the lone sour note to our socially-advanced ears. The term “beaver” for the female nether regions is tossed around willy-nilly (this is not the only 70s movie guilty of this — I guess modern body-grooming has made comparison with a large rodent blessedly obsolete), and some of Jackie Gleason’s over-the-top line readings about “knockers” and “fags” nowadays land with a thud, rather than the elbow-nudging chuckles which they were intended to elicit. Again, its not really “foul,” but the sheer lasciviousness and broad stereotyping that was once treated as harmless fun (Mel Brooks movies sail in similar waters) can make a viewer of 21st-century sensibilities more uncomfortable, ironically, than any number of f-bombs and graphic nudity that parade across HBO on a nightly basis.
[Sidebar: This is one of the best (i.e., worst) “edited-for-TV” movies ever. I never understood why they try to replace the dialogue of too-dirty-for-TV theatrical films, rather than simply dropping the audio altogether for a second or two. Trying to fit a clean word or phrase to the lip movements of the censored one results in some stupid, surreal new dialogue that can take you right out of the movie. Jackie Gleason’s Sheriff Buford T. Justice is hilariously profane in the uncut version, but his “safe” replacement dialogue for TV takes hilarity to a weird new level. And the voice you hear speaking the new words is not Gleason’s — it’s Henry Corden, who also voiced Fred Flintstone in the 70s and 80s. Gleason’s character from the old Honeymooners show, Ralph Cramden, was, of course, the inspiration for the original Fred Flintstone (voiced by Alan Reed before Corden took over). So it comes full circle, and it frequently sounds like the TV edit of Smokey And The Bandit is about to break out into a Fruity Pebbles commercial.]
Cultural issues aside, why are we talking about this film? Why did people flock to see it in 1977? Why did my roommates and I love it so much back in that old apartment in 1994? Why are fledgling podcasters ineptly dissecting it to this very day? With an old-school stuntman at the helm, the action sequences are great. The driving, the jumping, the crashing (oh, the crashing! So much crashing!) all appeal to the eight-year-old in us. There’s some spectacular set pieces (the part where the car loses its roof driving under the truck trailer is still gasp-inspiring.) And no CGI anywhere!
There’s lots of little moments that I wish I had the space to delve into. All right, here’s just one: A bloodied and dejected Snowman gets tossed from a truck stop after being on the losing end of a one-sided brawl. He staggers to his truck, stoically pays the attendant for the gas, climbs into the cab, fires up the engine, and, finally breaking into an ear-to-ear grin, takes glorious revenge on the bikers who jumped him — all in one fluid, uninterrupted take. But there’s lots of forgotten car-chase movies, and they may have had some wonderful moments as well. What makes Smokey And The Bandit so damn special?
It all comes down to the sheer, giddy charisma of the performers. The whole thing just looks joyous. Sometimes it’s said of a movie that it looked like more fun to make than it was to watch (see the Needham-Reynolds follow-up, Cannonball Run, for an example of this), but in this case, the fun the actors are having is infectious. So let’s meet them:
BURT REYNOLDS as The Bandit. Fashion changes, but the effortless cool exuded by Burt Reynolds as the Bandit does not. We know that the sweaty Western-style shirt revealing a generous portion of chest hair, the hip-hugging bell bottom jeans, the fluffy sideburns and pervy mustache are all just trappings of a bygone era. What we truly see when we look at him is self-confidence personified — brash yet laidback, ready with a wry quip at all times, but also a man of action with, as the opening song states, “a foot like lead and nerves like steel.” He is an earth-bound Han Solo. Ferris Bueller and Captain Jack Sparrow are his spiritual children. Reynolds had been working steadily since the early 1960s on TV shows and in westerns. Beginning in the 1970s, he graduated to being the lead in several genre films (“Shamus,” “The Longest Yard,” etc.) and was already a very bankable star, but Smokey And The Bandit launched him into the stratosphere, and he’s been cashing in on his sly, charming “Bandit” persona ever since. (Yes, he was already wearing the toupee in ‘77. That’s why he keeps that Stetson on through most of the film.)
SALLY FIELD as Carrie (“Frog”) — Just coming into her own as a serious actress after the sitcom fluff of Gidget (1965-66) and The Flying Nun (1967-70), Field was basking in the acclaim of her Emmy-winning performance in Sybil, a harrowing 1976 TV movie about multiple-personality disorder. Carrie (or “Frog” as the Bandit re-christens her) is not your typical glamorous leading lady normally seen in an action comedy of this era. She’s an impulsive, hyperactive chatterbox who’s downright annoying at times (she got her nickname by “always hopping around”), but quick-witted and independent in a way that seems far more modern than other elements of the film. The opposites-attract banter between her and Reynolds is a little touch of Tracy & Hepburn at 110 miles per hour. And, like a lot of the movie, it was improvised by the actors.
JERRY REED as Snowman. Arguably one of the greatest guitarists in country music (Chet Atkins himself said so), Reed was an in-demand session player through the 1960s, and a successful singer-songwriter beginning in the 1970s (“When You’re Hot, You’re Hot” and “She Got The Goldmine, I Got The Shaft” both went to #1, among his many other Top 10 and 20 hits). He was also a good actor with a great sense of fun, although he appeared in only a handful of films. He imbues Snowman with almost as much reckless, devil-may-care attitude as the Bandit himself, despite being what could be called the occasional voice of caution as events get under way. As the only native Georgian in the cast, his dialogue is delivered in a honeyed drawl that drips authenticity. Praiseworthy as his performance is, his greatest contribution to the film is the two original songs he wrote and performed for the soundtrack.
The opening title song “The Legend” tells the story of the Bandit, folk-ballad style, and the mighty “East Bound And Down” really deserves its own separate write-up. (The third song performed by Reed on the soundtrack, the mawkishly romantic “The Bandit,” came on during the “love scene,” was written by the unfortunately-named Dick Feller, and its usually the part the college roommates and I would fast-forward.)
PAT McCORMICK and PAUL WILLIAMS as Big & Little Enos Burdette. Neither of these guys made acting their primary career, but when they did, they always made an impression. The 6’7” McCormick was a comedy writer for such shows as The Danny Kaye Show, Get Smart!, Candid Camera, and was one of the head writers for The Tonight Show. Paul Williams (5’2”) was a songwriter, penning a lot of 70s soft-rock stuff for the likes of The Carpenters and Barbara Streisand. He redeemed himself with his scrappy performance in this film, and by writing “The Rainbow Connection” for The Muppet Movie.
JACKIE GLEASON as Sheriff Buford T. Justice. Big in voice and stature, and one of the great showmen of the middle of the last century, Gleason began as a contract player for Warner Brothers in the 1940s, playing tons of supporting and character parts. But he truly blossomed in the early era of television, hosting a self-titled groundbreaking variety/sketch show. He invented a gallery of colorful characters, playing them with a litheness and grace that belied his size. A popular Jackie Gleason Show sketch was spun off into The Honeymooners, one of the first “blue collar” situation comedies. Heavyset, blowhard cartoon dads from Fred Flintstone (see sidebar) to Peter Griffin are all imitations in one way or another of Gleason. He had been out of the public eye for awhile by 1977, so his role as Sheriff Justice was seen as a triumphant comeback. Needham gave him free rein to improvise and ad lib, and most of the stuff that came out of his mouth was pure gold. (Almost all of our Apartment-speak lines were “Justice-isms.”) For a native Brooklynite, he managed to perfectly embody a Texas sheriff, full of bombast and bluster. It would all be a little much if he didn’t also include some more subtle grace notes, like a deeply ingrained notion of Southern courtliness (he often refers to Reynolds’ character as “Mr. Bandit,” and when a funeral procession cuts off his pursuit, he remembers to gently remove his hat and place it over his heart, despite being apoplectically furious.) It’s those little touches that made Gleason a great actor, and what makes this a great performance.
1977 PONTIAC FIREBIRD TRANS-AM as The Blocker. With its 403 cubic-inch V8 power plant, and seemingly magical ability to stay dirt- and scratch-free no matter what paces it was put through, this “speedy car” can also be considered a star of the movie, just like the shark in Jaws. Its lack of anti-lock brakes also made for some long, loud wonderful skids across the blacktop.
And just like Jaws, stick with the original Smokey and skip the vastly inferior sequels.