April 15th, 2009


When I was a kid, I used to spend summers with my aunt who fed me a steady diet of Chuck Norris, Charles Bronson and Burt Reynolds movies on VHS.  Out of all of the movies I was exposed to at her house, The Cannonball Run was probably our most watched flick of Burt’s oeuvre and remains one of my favorite Burt movies of all time.  While it’s no Smokey and the Bandit (and let’s face it, what could be?), Cannonball features enough famous faces, cool cars, and double entendres to put a smile on just about anybody’s face.


Basically Burt and Dom DeLuise want to win the titular race that will take them coast to coast.  To keep the cops off their tail, they drive an ambulance complete with a drunken doctor (Jack Elam) and foxy patient (Farrah Fawcett.)  Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Roger Moore, Jackie Chan, Jamie Farr, Adrienne Barbeau, Tara Buckman, and Mel Tillis also want to win too, so Burt’s got to keep the pedal to the metal to be the first one across the finish line.


The Cannonball Run works because of Burt’s star power and the sheer number of guest stars and cameos.  Sure, the stunts are pretty good too, but for me this flick was all about Burt slapping the shit out of DeLuise, Barbeau’s massive cleavage, and a clearly drunk as a skunk Dino struggling to get through his scenes without cracking up (or passing out).  This flick also served as my introduction to Jackie Chan and while he only gets one scene to show off his Kung Fu prowess, it’s a good one.  Seriously folks, how can you not like a movie in which Jackie Chan fights Peter Fonda?  You don’t see that everyday. 


Another thing you gotta love about The Cannonball Run is the outtakes at the end.  Seeing Burt, Dom, and Dean cracking up at their own jokes is hysterical.  Director Hal Needham (who also directed Smokey) would soon make a tradition out of including the outtakes at the end, but it was Chan who made the most of them in his later films.


The film isn’t quite in the same league as Smokey and the Bandit, mostly because all the focus is on the racers.  Smokey had the benefit of a wonderful performance by Jackie Gleason as the vengeful “County Mountie”.  All the cops in Cannonball are pretty much all faceless and pose zero threat to the racers.  (All they do is hand out tickets.)  Also, the flick is pretty uneven laugh wise and it takes a good half an hour for the film to really get itself in gear.  Luckily, once director Needham literally gets things on the road, its damn good times.


Out of the enormous cast, it’s probably Jack Elam who gets the most laughs as the perpetually drunk proctologist.  I dare you not to laugh when he says, “I gave her a little prick… with this!” and then holds up a syringe.  Priceless.  It’s Burt though who gets the best line of the movie when he says, “We could get a black Trans Am… naw, it’s already been done.”


Louise (Fay Spain), the titular hip chick is torn between the affections of two racing rebels.  Jim (Steven Terrell) is a sensitive blue collar kid and Fred (John Ashley) is the bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks that has a chip on his shoulder and something to prove.  Both Jim and Fred try to woo Louise by drag racing on small town streets where they almost hit pedestrians and women with baby carriages.  Eventually the two warring Romeos turn to duking it out in their favorite pizza parlor and participate in “Chicky Runs” to win Louise’s love.  Louise finally settles for Jim and that makes Fred so mad that he goes out and steals Jim’s hot rod.  While speeding through the town, Fred accidentally runs down a pedestrian.  Naturally, the police think Jim did it so they haul him away just before the big race between him and Fred.  Luckily, Louise is a hellcat behind the wheel and takes Jim’s place, winning the race and proving her man’s innocence at the same time.


Dragstrip Girl is 69 minutes of pure innocuous 50’s teenage fun.  Directed by Edward L. Cahn; a veteran of such memorable flicks like Girls in Prison, The She Creature, and Invisible Invaders; Dragstrip Girl is one of the better hot rod movies of the late 50’s and is a nice time capsule for the racing subculture.  What makes Dragstrip Girl stand out from the rest of the pack is that even though the story is cliché, the characters are not.  None of the teens are portrayed as juvenile delinquents and they're all three dimensional (more or less) and immensely likable.  Also unique is the fact that the authority figures aren’t seen as enemies to the kids.  The parents are really cool (they allow them to have parties where kids neck in the dark) and the fuzz is sympathetic enough to overlook their hot rodding (as long as they do it on the track that is). 


The performances help out a lot.  Spain plays her role with a nice amount of spunk and Ashley is quite good as the brooding hot-tempered Fred.  It’s Frank (The Riddler) Gorshin though who is easily the funniest and most memorable actor in the flick.  He gives a tour de force performance as Tommy, the goofy grease monkey who eats pizza topped with ice cream.  Gorshin and Ashley also sing the great theme song.  Its way too short (only about 45 seconds really), but you’ll wish it was much longer.


I know some of you out there will be miffed that the Girl doesn’t make it to the Dragstrip until the next-to-the-last reel.  Me, I didn’t mind too much.  There were enough scenes of kids dancing to “crazy” music on the jukebox, driving like maniacs, and spouting lots of hilarious teenage jive talk (My favorite:  “They’re taking the kicks out of all that jazz!”) to qualify Dragstrip Girl as a mini-classic. 


Fun fact:  Later in the year, Cahn directed Terrell in the immortal Invasion of the Saucer Men.  That film was later remade seven years later as Attack of the Eye Creatures, which amazingly enough starred Ashley in Terrell’s role.