Saturday, May 19, 2007


Keep your wheels spinnin' and the beavers grinnin': Smokey and the Bandit at 30

By Wagstaff
Breaker, breaker, son. It was 30 years ago today that Smokey and the Bandit first raced across American movie screens. Burt Reynolds was then at the height of his popularity. His name was box office gold. He was a popular star in the true sense of the word “popular.” He had a cockiness that was charming and comical. It rested on a wink of self-deprecation that meant things were never serious. He was a good-looking man. As Bo Darville, a.k.a. “The Bandit,” Burt sports a mustache beneath a Stetson hat. He wears a bright red sateen shirt and ball-tight jeans. Reynolds’ obvious vanity felt forgivable — was even likable. He didn’t have a swagger that said “I’m hot stuff.” He had a swagger that said “Life is good.”

Just look at the screengrab up top. The Bandit has just eluded the police. He eases the Trans Am up to the camera, stops and smiles directly at us, and then drives on. Tarantino pays homage to it in Death Proof. It’s odd that director Hal Needham had to insist on this bit over Burt’s objections. Breaking the fourth wall came naturally to Burt. In a sense, most of his career broke the fourth wall.

The plot of Smokey and the Bandit is as simple as they come. The Bandit makes a wager with Big Enos and Little Enos Burdette (Pat McCormick, Paul Williams looking hysterically ridiculous in matching blue western-cut leisure suits). The pair bet $80,000 that the Bandit can’t truck from Atlanta, Georgia, to Texarkana, Texas, pick up 400 cases of Coors, and haul it back to Atlanta within 28 hours. Coors beer is illegal east of the Mississippi, so that makes it bootlegging. That’s about it. When Bandit asks why Big Enos needs all that beer so fast, Little Enos answers “Because he’s thirsty, dummy.” Bo enlists the aid of his good buddy Cledus Snow (Jerry Reed) a.k.a. the “Snowman.” Cledus will drive the big rig while Bandit runs blocker in a black Trans Am — “a speedy car … speedier than that.” Like I said, that’s all ye need to know. There’ll be more on that Trans Am later, but first a word about Bandit’s rig. It’s a real beaut, with a tricked-out Kenworth tractor and a trailer that has a full-size mural painted on the side depicting the robbery of a Western stagecoach. Our good buddies dodge some bears and reach Texarkana in good time and with relative ease, but the real trouble starts on the flip-flop back.

Sally Field plays Carrie, the good-looking seat cover Bandit picks up in the middle of the road. Carrie is a runaway bride. She starts out in a wedding dress before changing into blue jeans tighter than Burt’s. The Flying Nun got a chance to shock audiences in 1977 by saying things like “holy shit” before moving on to more serious roles. Bo gives her the handle "Frog" because in his words “you hop around a lot, you’re kinda cute like a frog, and I want to jump you.” Frog certainly jumped away from the groom at the altar, Junior Justice, and this puts a Smokey at Bandit’s back door. Bandit has really run afoul of the Law this time. You see, that’s Junior Justice, son of legendary Texas lawman Sheriff Buford T. Justice. Buford knows that a black Trans Am with license BAN-ONE picked her up, and “nobody, and I mean NOBODY, makes Buford T. Justice look like a possum’s pecker.” The rest of the movie is one long stunt-filled car chase back to Atlanta with Buford T. in hot pursuit.

What can you say about The Great One, Jackie Gleason? His Buford T. Justice is like Yosemite Sam with profanity. Justice is a complete buffoon and a total bigot. He’s an attention getter. What comes out of his mouth can be truly disconcerting. If you’ve seen Smokey and the Bandit on TV, you know that most of his lines were dubbed. Well, friend, I’m here to tell you that even in the uncut version many of his lines seem dubbed. Who knows how many line readings Gleason improvised to yield such gems as calling someone a “tick turd” a “pile of monkey nuts” or saying “I’m gonna barbecue your ass in molasses.” Buford T. Justice cluelessly thinks everyone else is a clueless jerk. He chokes down a Diablo sandwich and a Dr Pepper right next to a stranger he never suspects is the Bandit. (And son, let me tell you that when Jackie Gleason acts like he has heartburn, I believe him.) He tells his moronic son Junior “There’s no way, no way, that you could come from my loins. When I get home the first thing I’m gonna do is punch your mamma in the mouth.” Supposedly, Buford T. Justice was modeled on Burt Reynolds’ own father, a Georgia sheriff who popularized via Gleason the pronunciation “Sombitch” instead of “Son of a bitch.”

My favorite gear-jammer, though, is Jerry Reed, who does some of the nicest “acting” in the picture, besides providing the three songs on the soundtrack. Reed reportedly wrote the hit “East Bound and Down” in a couple of hours. The song “Legend” is just as good. Snowman, in his Caterpillar hat, jacket vest, and red bell bottoms is the epitome of a Southern trucker. Reed is natural on screen. Look at the scene where Snowman gets into a fight with some bikers over his basset hound Fred. A roundhouse punch sends him crashing out the door. He picks himself up, wipes his bloody nose, and notices something. In the same long take we see the faint beginnings of a plan take shape on his face as he walks back to his rig. He fires it up, smiles, and then drives the 18-wheeler over their choppers. A crowded audience will go wild, of course.

Burt and Sally have a pleasant chemistry together. These not-so-opposites attract. He’s never heard of Stephen Sondheim; she’s never heard of Richard Petty. She asks him if he ever takes his hat off. He says that he takes it off for one thing only. Then he takes his hat off. It seems there’s still time within those 28 hours for a silly romantic interlude. She asks what he does.
BANDIT: “I just go from place to place and do what I do best.”
CARRIE: “What’s that?”
BANDIT: “Show off.” (He flashes a grin.)
CARRIE: “Yeah. You do do that well.”

In a film that’s none too deep, the following line from the Bandit is what passes for wisdom: “When you tell somebody somethin’, it depends on what part of the United States you’re standin’ in … as to just how dumb you are.” That’s not too bad.

I saw Smokey and the Bandit at a theater in Helena, Arkansas. It was the first movie I saw in a real theater since I was a tot. We went with my relatives during a family reunion. Most of the men were truckers. They laughed their asses off. They got a kick out of Bandit’s ostentatious rig. When that black Trans Am with T-tops rolled off the trailer, all shiny and new, a collective gasp was heard in the audience. Such a sweet, sweet car. Trans Am sales went up 700%. The president of General Motors was so happy he promised to give Burt Reynolds a new one every year, but he died and the new president wouldn’t fulfill the promise. Burt had to buy one himself. Smokey and the Bandit made no pretense to anything resembling artistic merit. The list of goofs, continuity errors, and instances of general sloppiness is a mile long over at IMDb. No sir, it was a fast paced good ol’ boy comedy that put CB culture on the map, a popcorn ride, and not much more. It was boffo at the box office, though, and came in second only behind Star Wars in 1977. It spawned two awful sequels and countless movie and TV car crash copycats, most notably The Dukes of Hazzard. I think it was Goethe who observed that it was never wise to underestimate popular taste. So if you’re looking for something highbrow, or even remotely middlebrow, negatory, negatory, son, stay away, but if you’re looking to put the pedal to the metal for some lightning-paced lowbrow antics and high speed pursuit, the Bandit is always on the run.

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How's this for a lineup of previews on the Smokey and the Bandit special edition dvd?

Brokeback Mountain
Saturday Night Live, the Best of Cheri Oteri, the Best od commercial parodies
The Rockford Files, seasons 1 and 2
The Blues Brothers

Is that tailor made for Smokey's demo or what?
A sick part of me wonders what it would have been like if the truly dreadful Part 3 had been done the way they originally set out to make it -- as Smokey Is the Bandit with Jackie Gleason playing both parts. I'm sure it probably would have been bad, but it couldn't have been much worse than what they ended up with.
This was, I am sorry to say, one of the key films of my childhood. The kids in my neighborhood had it memorized, and there was one kid who actually did a Burt Reynolds impression (it consisted mainly of chewing gum while smirking, and occasionally laughing that weirdly un-macho Reynolds laugh: Hee-HEEEE). I actually asked for and got a CB radio for Christmas, 1977. My handle was kibo-Z.
I recently wrote about Idaho's oldest drive-in, and they said the most popular movie they ever showed was Smokey and the Bandit. More than any of the Star Wars sequels or E.T. or Raiders of the Lost Ark, it was Smokey that packed the place like no other.
Shameful movies from kibo-Z's past? Where does that handle come from, Matt? When I think of a little kid at home talkin' to the truckers on the CB, I can't help but recall Red Sovine's song "Teddy Bear".

Anyway, I wouldn't be too embarassed, at least the film dates well and holds up. Or perhaps you were thinking of Burt's ball tight pants (an excellent phrase, Wagstaff)?
Ed, nothing could've saved Smokey III.

Matt, I know what you mean. I thought Smokey was the best thing since sliced bread. Of course, only a few months later I saw Star Wars. I never had a CB though. I listened to my grandfather's. But hey guys, it's only 4 more years till the 30th anniversary of that other seminal Hal Needham classic, The Cannonball Run. Sadly, I have most of that one memorized too.

Adam Ross, thanks for that link.
Adam Ross - that's pretty fitting. Smokey just seems like the perfect Drive-in movie.
I saw Smokey and the Bandit at the long-defunct Newark Drive-In when it came out. It played on a double bill with White Line Fever, the Jan Michael Vincent trucker revenge movie. All I remember about WLF was that they spent half the movie beating that guy's ass. And his name was Carol Jo or something.

I didn't have a CB, but I do remember that hideous song "Teddy Bear." I also remember the glut of CB movies that came out, including Breaker, Breaker which, if memory serves correctly, starred Chuck Norris.

As for Smokey Is The Bandit, it couldn't have been worse than that movie Jackie Gleason did with Richard Pryor, The Toy. Rich White kid wants Black man for Christmas. Ralph Kramden buys him a profane genius drug addict comedian. Kid grows up to be porn actor as a result (I'm not kidding). Who greenlit that movie? And between that and Skidoo, why didn't Jackie Gleason murder his agent?
My family and I too got caught up in the CB craze, though I changed my handle so often I can't remember them all. I do remember though the first time I saw Smokey that when Burt suggests that they start on channel 1 and then move up to each odd channel to throw the cops off that it didn't take into account that channel 9 was reserved for the police and other emergency officials.
Wags -

We're kin, yeah?

I read the first sentence or two of the piece, headed to the vid store and rented a DVD with all 3 installments. (I'm sure #1 will least for tonight.) Haven't seen it in at least 20 years!

OK - somebody please tell I'm not alone in having once heard SMOKEY was one of Kubrick's favorite movies? I've "known" this for years, but a Google search confirmed nada. Yet I know I didn't imagine this. Hell - even if it's NOT true, it's something I'd like to believe.

Jeffrey -

Your mention of Red Sovine moves me in ways that can't be put into words. We're kin, yeah?

I'd like to say I'll be back after my viewing with more comments, but there's a good chance Wags said all there is to say.
It was not Kubrick that referenced SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT as a guilty pleasure ... it was another great ... ALFRED HITCHCOCK.
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