Thursday, June 02, 2011

He's A High-Speed Disaster

Shout Factory continues its superlative Roger Corman's Cult Classics series with this 2-disc DVD containing two car-crash features starring Ron Howard, then the star of ABC's hit HAPPY DAYS.

How did New World Pictures head Corman get big-time TV star Howard to do a cheap drive-in movie? By promising the former child actor a chance to make his own movie, which became GRAND THEFT AUTO. EAT MY DUST, released in 1976, was written and directed by Charles B. Griffith, a terrific screenwriter who provided Corman with dark comic stories for LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS and BUCKET OF BLOOD, but fell miserably short in the films he directed. UP FROM THE DEPTHS and SMOKEY BITES THE DUST are woeful movies, but EAT MY DUST gets by on the strength of its charming actors and copious highway destruction.

Howard plays Hoover Niebold (Griffith loved to give his characters silly names), a girl-crazy teenager who steals a race car belonging to Big Bubba Jones (Dave Madden, the harried manager of THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY) to impress snobbish blonde Darlene (TRAPPER JOHN, M.D.’s Christopher Norris, looking fine in yellow hotpants and white go-go boots). That’s all the impetus Griffith needs to smash a gaggle of police cruisers and stock cars in pursuit of Hoover and his friends. Warren Kemmerling acts properly harried as Hoover’s dad, the local sheriff, and Griffith peppers the narrative with sight gags and puns to break up the chases. Madden’s creative cursing (“Bull-double-dee-goddamn-loney”) and sneaky in-jokes referencing other Corman pictures are fun. Barbara Peeters, who went on to direct New World movies (HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP), directed the second unit, and actor Bill Paxton (ALIENS) was a set decorator.

Corman lived up to his word, and one year later, Howard, who would one day win an Academy Award for A BEAUTIFUL MIND, was directing his first film at the age of 22. Wanting to capitalize on the box-office success of EAT MY DUST, Corman asked Ron and his actor father Rance to write another screenplay with basically the same idea--a young couple on the run surrounded by car crashes.

Howard’s reputation for getting more bang for his bucks must have started on GRAND THEFT AUTO, as cars chase, crash, smash, and blow up with surprising regularity. He plays Sam Freeman, a poor youth engaged to be married to Paula Powers (fresh-faced Nancy Morgan), the daughter of snobbish gubernatorial candidate Bigby Powers (Barry Cahill). When Bigby opposes his daughter’s marriage—he’s already arranged her engagement to whiny polo player Collins Hedgeworth (Paul Linke)—Paula steals his Rolls Royce and makes a mad dash with Sam for Vegas to elope—a feat made more difficult by an army of pursuers after a $25,000 bounty offered by Bigby.

Reportedly filmed for $600,000, GRAND THEFT AUTO is decent drive-in fare with enough broad humor and car crashes to keep audiences awake. It isn’t particularly sophisticated, but it is quickly paced by Howard (who also penned the script with his actor father Rance) and sharply edited by Joe Dante, who was directing New World pictures himself (HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD). Howard gets goofy supporting performances from his brother Clint and Peter Isacksen (the tall doofus from CPO SHARKEY) as a pair of hot-rodding idiots, Hoke Howell as a greedy minister, and TV mom Marion Ross (HAPPY DAYS) as a rich woman who wrestles a cop.

The funky score is by Peter Ivers, who never again worked in film before his murder six years later. Dante, producer Jon Davison (AIRPLANE!), second unit director Allan Arkush (ROCK AND ROLL HIGH SCHOOL), and unit production manager Michael Finnell (THE HOWLING) went on to work together several times in various combinations.

The Ron Howard double feature receives ace treatment from Shout Factory, putting them out in letterboxed presentations for the first time and drenching them with extras. For EAT MY DUST, Shout Factory produced a new interview with Howard and a new featurette on poster artist John Solie to go with a previously released making-of doc (starring Christopher Norris, editor Tina Hirsch, and cinematographer Eric Saarinen) and a short conversation between Corman and critic Leonard Maltin. GRAND THEFT AUTO contains two audio commentaries--Howard and Corman ported over from the old New Concorde DVD and a new one starring Dante, Arkush, Rance Howard, and second unit key grip Ben Haller. The other new extra is a short piece on Rance and Clint Howard, who also appears in both films. A Ron Howard/Corman conversation and a Corman/Maltin chat are carried over, and trailers for both movies are included.

Howard’s next directorial efforts were in television until breaking through with the hilarious NIGHT SHIFT in 1982. He more or less retired from acting then.

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