In the annals of American movie-making history, very few filmmakers have cut as illustrious a career path as Ron Howard. Beginning his career as a child actor at the age of five, Howard quickly entered the collective national consciousness with his casting as Opie Taylor on the classic television show, The Andy Griffith Show. He managed to avoid the fate of career free-fall that befalls many child actors that enter their teen years when he was cast by George Lucas to co-star in the iconic coming-of-age film, American Graffiti. This was followed by the lead role in the equally timeless television sitcom, Happy Days.
But while Howard was enjoying this incredible run of success as an actor, he nonetheless longed to be a creator, and so he approached the king of low-budget filmmaking, Roger Corman. Corman had previously launched the careers of such Hollywood notables as Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Peter Bogdanovitch.
After some negotiations, Corman and Howard struck a deal: Howard would star in a stolen stock car film called Eat My Dust that Corman was producing, and in return would be able to direct and star in another car theft romp that would become Grand Theft Auto. This month’s installment of Rob’s Car Movie Review is a first time double-feature, taking a look at this duo of automotive movies that launched the career of a directing genius!
Produced and distributed by Corman’s New World Pictures, Eat My Dust (1976) was directed by Charles B. Griffith, stars Howard as main protagonist Hoover Niebold, and features Christopher Norris, Dave Madden, Kathy O’Dare, Warren J. Kemmerling and, as in the case of many of Ron Howard’s future films, Ron Howard’s brother Clint Howard.
Hoover Niebold is a youngster who’s down on himself. The son of a small California town’s Sherriff (Kemmerling), Hoover works a dead-end job delivering paper towels to the bathroom’s of the town’s businesses, dreams of one day becoming a professional stock car driver, and yearns for the attention of Darlene Kurtz (Norris), the bombshell at his high school that seems to have time for every boy but him.
One day, while delivering paper towels to the local short track, the solution to all of his problems becomes clear when Darlene relents to going for a ride with him, but only if it’s in Mabel, the winning stock car from that day’s race. Hoover doesn’t have to think twice, promptly stealing Mabel from winner’s circle and piling Darlene and some friends in the back. From there, the film turns in to one long hot pursuit, as Mabel’s owner/driver Big Bubba Jones (Madden), his fellow stock car drivers, Hoover’s father and his force of deputies attempt to rein in Hoover’s fun.
Eat My Dust is typical 1970s low-budget fare, with some fairly bad screenwriting, silly, slapstick cause and effect set-ups and barely nominal editing. Nonetheless, Ron Howard manages to avail himself with a good performance, as does Norris, who is also pretty easy on the eyes in her hot-pants and white go-go boots.
But what Dust lacks in terms of cinematic proficiency, it more than makes up for in terms of cars to ogle. Mabel, a bright-orange, 1968 Chevy Camaro in full race trim is the star. And what a luminous automotive icon she is. Replete with full roll cage, bulging tires, race seats and a big magic 8-ball emblazoned on the doors, she looks and moreover sounds great!
Some of the pursuit vehicles are no less fabulous, and include a 1968 Ford Fairlane stocker, a 1966 Ford Galaxie 500, a 1964 Dodge 330, and a 1966 Buick LaSabre.
The second film in our double-feature, Grand Theft Auto (1977), was also produced and released by New World Pictures, and as previously mentioned, saw Ron Howard starring and helming for the very first time. The film features Nancy Morgan, Marion Ross (who played Howard’s mom on Happy Days), Barry Cahill, Garry Marshall (the creator of Happy Days), Paul Linke, “The Real” Don Steele, and yup, you got it, Howard’s brother Clint.
The plot concerns two young lovers, Sam Feeman (Ron Howard) and Paula Powers (Morgan) who are desperate to be married. When Paula introduces Sam to her wealthy and politically ambitious parents, they disapprove, suggesting that an arranged marriage to scion Collins Hedgeworth (Linke) is in her future. Rebelling against her parents’ attempt to control her life, Paula steals her father’s Rolls Royce and along with Sam beats a path to Las Vegas where they plan to marry in a local chapel.
This sets off a mad pursuit, as Paula’s father Bigby (Cahill) and Hedgeworth attempt to stop them. Compounding the situation is a $25,000 cash reward that Bigby offers live on a radio station for his daughter’s return, which motivates a motley bunch of bounty hunting miscreants including the radio station’s DJ (Steele) to join the hunt. Who will prevail in the race to Vegas – the young lovers, or their pursuers?
Grand Theft Auto fares quite a bit better than Eat My Dust. While no Lawrence of Arabia, it features a much better script, superior acting, and most of all, much better direction. In spite of only being twenty-three years old at the time, Ron Howard was clearly qualified enough to pilot this ship, and in fact gives us many moments of true artistic vision. Many of the camera angles and set-ups are sophisticated, and the blocking of the action sequences and stunts are of high competency.
The cars in the film are also wisely chosen, and include the aforementioned 1959 Rolls Royce Silver Cloud I Standard Saloon, along with a gorgeous Canary Yellow 1969 Porsche 911 Carrera, a muscly, brown 1968 Dodge Charger 500, a 1962 Chevrolet Bel Air low-rider, a pair of sleek, black 1963 suicide Lincoln Continentals, a host of 1972 Dodge Monaco police cars and an even larger group of vintage cars in a demolition derby sequence.
While neither Eat My Dust nor Grand Theft Auto will ever go down as iconic car movies, together they elucidate a moment in time when drive-ins still ruled and this type of fare was the fodder for the imagination of many a young future car nut. Further, they serve as an interesting Genesis for the feature film career of Ron Howard.
I give Eat My Dust five out of ten pistons, and Grand Theft Auto six out of ten pistons.
About The Author: Rob Finkelman is a freelance writer for Street Muscle Magazine. He attended and graduated from New York University’s film school in 1992, and subsequently worked in the movie business for twenty years as a documentarian and screenwriter. Combining his two great passions in life – films and cars – and writing about them is a dream job for him. He will be bringing us a Car Movie Review each month, and he’s open to suggestions so list yours below.