Monday, February 28, 2011

Movie Monday: Grand Theft Auto

This week's film was another suggestion from my Facebook page: Ron Howard's directorial debut, 1977's Grand Theft Auto!

GTA opens as a car (naturally) pulls up to a swanky mansion:
Inside are Sam and Paula (Ron Howard and Nancy Morgan) who are trying to convince Paula's parents that they should be allowed to get married.

Paula's parents are totally against it--not only is Sam from the wrong side of the tracks, but she already has a perfectly good boyfriend, the upper crust Collins Hedgeworth. On top of that, Paula's Dad plans to run for governor!
Sam storms out, and Paula, in tears, goes to her room. But Paula has more spunk than you'd think--she sneaks out of her window, stealing her parents' Rolls-Royce (but not before sabotaging her Dad's other car) and picking up Sam just down the road.

Sam gets in, and they decide to make a bee-line for Las Vegas to get married:
Actress Nancy Morgan really plants some serious kisses on Ron Howard here; none of this mashing the upper-lip stuff!

When Nancy's parents learn of this, they call Collins' mother, played by a familiar face:
...its Mrs. Cunningham herself, Marion Ross!

Mrs. Hedgeworth calls Collins, who looks and acts like the proverbial spoiled rich kid. Still in his equestrian riding outfit (well, la di da), he drops everything and jumps in his car in an attempt to catch Sam and Paula.

But he's not the only one interested in our young lovers: after he calls a local DJ, offering a $25,000 reward, suddenly everyone wants to find Sam and Paula!
Its at this point the film becomes narrated throughout; adding more and more characters who want to claim the reward (very reminiscent of the classic It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World)--a group of detectives (led by Rance Howard, Ron's Dad), some local cops, and even two grease monkeys who jump into their souped-up roadster, with dollar signs in their eyes.

As a director, Howard throws in some nice visual touches that showed he knew how this movie would play: in a couple of scenes, he plants his camera in the backseat of a car and we get a series of exciting POV shots:
A lot of the effect is lost watching this at home, but I bet seeing this on the big screen made it work like gangbusters.

Ron and Paula take some small country roads to evade their pursuers. Sam wants to go somewhere else to get married, but Paula wants to get married in Vegas. Its at this point that Sam starts to doubt why Paula really wants to marry him:
Paula professes her love, and says she doesn't care that Sam doesn't have much money. Sam is dubious about this, and tries to warn Paula that she's not prepared for a life without money since she's always had it.

Despite most of the silly goings-on in this movie, this is a pretty good scene. There's some genuine real-life stuff here, a nice break from the cartoony car chases that make up most of the film. Eventually, Paula assures Sam she loves him, and this whole thing is not just to spite her overbearing father. Reconciling, they head for Vegas.

The chase gets more and more chaotic as the couple gets closer to Vegas, and the stunts get wilder, like this cop car shot into the air while on fire:
At this point, there's extensive media coverage of the event, on TV and radio, and when Sam and Paula find themselves at a demolition derby (of course), the whole thing becomes a spectator sport:
The crowd, on Sam and Paula's side, help them escape Collins, the police, and the detectives, in a nice moment of populist indignation. As the crowd gangs up on our villains, Sam and Paula make it to the chapel:
This is another nice scene that contrasts well against all the other craziness. Director Howard quiets things down, and using a series of quick fades (as opposed to cuts), he brings a certain amount of emotional heft to the wedding scene.

As they leave the chapel, a crowd has formed offering them all sorts of wedding gifts, including a free limo! They climb in, practically aglow they managed to pull this off. Sam pledges eternal love, and the limo speeds off. The end. revealed in the audio commentary track by Howard and producer Roger Corman (who allowed Howard to direct this film in exchange for appearing in another one of his low-budget productions), Corman felt the film needed one more big scene, so he contrived a final scene where the DJ, now determined to claim the reward himself, chases after the limo.

They manage, via some hairpin turns, to evade him, and the DJ's car ends up plowing into a nearby home, driving straight through it:
You can see why Corman, who was always eyeing the bottom line, thought it would be better to add one more smash-em-up moment to this film (it is titled Grand Theft Auto, after all, not Sam and Paula Get Married), but nevertheless it is a little regretful that Howard manages to create some sort of emotional payoff, only for Corman to throw in some more silliness at the end. That said, it is a good stunt--the car goes through the house, ending up in the backyard pool, flattening it.

Overall, Grand Theft Auto is definitely a cut above your average Roger Corman picture--you can tell someone with some skill was behind the camera and was striving to make a cohesive, genuine movie. But that also makes it a little less fun to watch, sort of, because it never sinks to the so-howlingly-bad-its-hilarious level that some of Corman's worse films achieved (is that the right word in this context?). Its a solid B-movie, worth watching now mostly with the hindsight that this was the beginning of a major Hollywood directing career.

I imagine seeing Grand Theft Auto on a Saturday night at a drive-in, with your girl and some beer, was probably a pretty damn good time.

This week's film suggested by Nikki IlVento!

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