I’ve lived in Los Angeles for 27 years now. Though LA has changed significantly during that time, there is one thing that remains a constant: Los Angeles is a car-culture town.
We spend a disproportionate amount of time in our vehicles here, whether it is due to the vast distances we cover in our sprawling metropolis, or because of the infuriating traffic we have to endure. But this car guy doesn’t mind, because there’s no place I’d rather be than behind the wheel of one of my beloved vehicles.
There have been many films attempting to capture the essence of Los Angelino’s romance with their vehicles. Drive, King of the Mountain, and The Hollywood Knights are just a few I covered in past columns.
There is one car movie set in LA I have never seen before, though, and I felt it was high-time I did. So, in this month’s installment of “Rob’s Car Movie Review,” we’ll take a look at that film — Van Nuys Blvd!
Van Nuys Blvd. was produced in 1979 by Marimark Productions and distributed domestically by Crown International Pictures. The movie was written in just seven days by William Sachs, who also served as the film’s director. Filmed on a minuscule budget, the production lasted a mere 18 days, shot entirely on location in and around Los Angeles.
The slapstick comedy film featured a mostly unknown cast, which included lead actors Bill Adler, Dennis Bowen, Melissa Prophet, David Hayward, and Dana Gladstone. The only recognizable actor in the movie is Cynthia Wood, a former Playboy centerfold who had a small part depicting a Playmate in Apocalypse Now.
The plot of the movie is just about as sparse as you can get. A country boy, Bobby (Bill Adler), has grown weary of the dead-end town in which he lives. After seeing a news story about the hot cars and pretty girls populating a section of Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, he makes haste to move there. Once in LA, Bobby discovers a group of fast friends, a new love interest, and an appreciation for cruising and drag racing on the streets of his new home. That’s about it.
The story isn’t the only thing Van Nuys Blvd. lacks. The dialogue and setups in the film are fairly atrocious, so much so that in many instances, the goings-on make no sense. There are numerous totally-illogical cause-and-effect loops, with various character arcs that begin, but then have no resolution.
What’s more, the acting lowers the bar to the extent you find yourself laughing at unintentionally funny moments and unable to crack a smile at what is supposed to be riotous.
Some of the technical aspects of the film are likewise amateurish. The cinematographer, Joseph Mangine, could easily be bestowed the moniker of “The Prince of Darkness.” Many of the night scenes are horrendously underlit and lack contrast. He also seems to have never learned the stylistic concept of moving the camera, as much of the film is shot in tedious static shots.
My biggest gripe, though, would have to be with the editing by George Bowers. There are sequences in the film — which seem to go on forever — that have absolutely no purpose and do not advance the narrative in the slightest.
Of particular note would be the nightclub sequence, in which people are shown (in static shots, naturally) dancing for minutes on end — just dancing and dancing and dancing. After several minutes of it, I couldn’t help but hit the fast forward button on my remote.
Given Bowers’ poor work here, it’s shocking to realize that years later, he became an editor of some note, cutting such big-budget studio films as Sleeping with the Enemy, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, and From Hell.
Despite all the substandard filmmaking facets on display in Van Nuys Blvd., there is something the film gets very right.
Whether by the director’s efforts or the sheer fact the film was shot entirely on location and not on soundstages, it manages to capture the feel of Los Angeles in a bygone time. The movie exudes the freewheeling styles, carefree attitudes, and libidinous, pre-AIDS canoodling that epitomized the Disco Era of the late-1970s in every frame.
Thankfully for us, it also affords a parade of killer cars from the period.
If you lived through that time, as I did, you’d remember that (for a brief moment), the coolest thing you could roll in was a custom Chevy or Ford van. Tricked-out vans were a ubiquitous sight on the boulevards of America, usually outfitted with an array of mods such as performance drivetrains, captain’s chairs, bespoke interiors, mag wheels, bubble windows, and airbrushed murals on the sides.
Fans of this curious and uniquely ’70s anomaly will love this movie from the start. The very first shot of the film captures Bobby driving a primer gray 1963 Ford Econoline E100. The van has an aggressive stance, is raised in the back, and rides on aftermarket wheels.
Later in the film, Bobby claims the Econoline has a big-block V8 pushing serious ponies. In reality, owing to the film’s low budget and the need to destroy the vehicle at the film’s climax, the production purchased the cheapest van they could find that sported the aesthetic they wanted. As such, it barely ran, so sound effects and judicious camera angles were used to simulate speed.
Two more custom vans are featured in the movie. At the end of the film, Moon races Bobby’s van in a blue 1974 Dodge Tradesman with mag wheels, running boards, a bubble window, tacky side-panel murals, and an alleged big-block Mopar engine.
Another van, a 1971 Chevy, is seen a few times throughout the film rolling along Van Nuys Boulevard wearing a red candy paintjob, bubble window, mag wheels, wheel arch flares, and the legend “Wild Cherry” airbrushed on the sides. This van, subsequently restored by a fan of the movie, was recently the subject of a lawsuit regarding its rightful ownership.
I’m not much of a van guy, myself, so let’s move on to the cars in the film.
In an early scene set at a drive-in diner, we are treated to a gaggle of awesome rides. Amongst them are a classy-looking, sky blue 1955 Chevy Bel-Air four-door with a white top and side inlays; a mean-looking, chopped 1951 Mercury coupe in matte-dark-gray paint; a sweet, gold 1970 Pontiac Le Mans ragtop; a black ’72 Cadillac Fleetwood 75; a red ’77 Trans Am; and a pair of glorious SS Chevelles — one a 1970, and the other a ’71. I paused and rewound the scene several times to take in all those beauties.
Other souped-up beasts to make an appearance in the movie are a big, black, ’69 Cadillac Deville convertible with a performance engine under the hood, a modded 1970 Olds Cutlass Supreme, and several Mustangs of various configurations and model years.
But the real automotive star of the show is the custom hot rod owned by a character annoyingly named Chooch. The car is a famous 1932 Ford “Deuce Coupe,” known as the McGee/Scritchfield Roadster, after two of its past owners.
This Highboy Deuce has the fenders removed, no hood cowl, all trim such as door handles and hinges deleted, and a modified-flathead V8 under the hood with Federal-Mogul copper heads and a Burns intake.
The car was featured on the cover of numerous magazines beginning in 1948. In addition to this movie, it also made appearances in the film Hot Rod Gang, and television shows The Lawrence Welk Show, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, The Real McCoys, Happy Days, and Fantasy Island. Quite a car, and quite a pedigree!
Van Nuys Blvd. is not the most comfortable film to sit through. It lacks any semblance of a story and is essentially a series of slapstick vignettes and sight gags, with a bunch of nudity and sex thrown in for good measure. Were it not for the bevy of classics mentioned above adorning its celluloid landscape, the movie would be virtually irredeemable. The cars do save it from total oblivion, though. On this basis, I give Van Nuys Blvd. five out of ten pistons.