Attaboy, Luther!: Don Knotts in THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN (Universal 1966)

When the conversation turns to great screen comedians, Don Knotts doesn’t get a lot of respect among the cognescenti. Talk to his loyal fandom, including celebrities like Jim Carrey and John Waters, and you’ll hear a different tune. They all agree – Knotts was a talented and funny comic actor, the quintessential Everyman buffeted about by the cruelties of fate who eventually triumphs against the odds. Following his Emmy-winning five-year run as Deputy Barney Fife on THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW , Knotts signed a movie contract with Universal, and his first feature for the studio was the perfect vehicle for his peculiar talents: a scare comedy titled THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN.

Knotts plays Luther Heggs, a meek typesetter for his local newspaper in the small town of Rachel, Kansas. He’s also somewhat of the town laughing-stock, bullied by the paper’s ace reporter Ollie, his rival for the affections of sweet young Alma. Luther dreams of becoming a reporter himself (after all, he has “a certificate from the Kansas City Correspondence School of Journalism”), and one day Luther, goaded on by his coworker Kelsey, writes a filler piece on Rachel’s infamous Simmons mansion, where a ghastly murder/suicide occurred twenty years ago, and the locals believe is haunted by the deceased.

Luther’s little column causes quite a stir, and the editor (also goaded by Kelsey) gets the idea to have someone spend the night in “The Murder House” and write a story – namely Luther! The cowardly Luther is reluctant at first, but after being embarrassed by Ollie in front of Alma, decides to go through with it. This sets the stage for the bug-eyed, rubber-faced Knotts to engage in his patented ‘fraidy cat’ buffoonery, as he encounters unexplained noises, secret passageways, eerie music from an organ that plays itself, and a portrait stabbed with garden shears dripping blood!

The story makes Luther the talk of the town, and the Chamber of Commerce throws a town picnic in his honor (a sign reads “Rachel, Kansas – Home Plate for Wheat and Democracy”!). But Nicholas Simmons, heir to the Simmons mansion, claims it’s a complete fabrication, and sues him for libel. The raucous trial culminates at the “Murder House”, where Luther’s story is debunked, but with a little help from his friends, Luther is vindicated and the mystery of the Simmons murders is finally solved.

For all intents and purposes, Luther Heggs is Barney Fife under an assumed name, even wearing Barney’s old salt-and-pepper Sunday-go-to-meeting suit! Rachel might as well be Mayberry transplanted to the Midwest, and that Mayberry flavor is no coincidence. Screenwriters Jim Fritzell and Everrett Greenbaum worked on some of the GRIFFITH SHOW’s classic episodes, as did director Alan Rafkin, and Mayberry citizens Hal Smith (Otis), Hope Summers (Clara), and Burt Mustin (Old Jud Fletcher) appear in small roles. Another Mayberry figure had a hand in the film – Andy Griffith himself, who was called in by Knotts to help punch up the script! The plot recalls a GRIFFITH episode entitled “The Haunted House”, those “karate skills” were on display in another, and that speech Don gives at the picnic is a riff on his old  ‘Nervous Man’ persona. Yet THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN isn’t just a rehash of Don’s greatest hits; it’s a showcase for his incredible comic timing, and became a box office hit.

Producer Edward Montagne (who’d created another successful 60’s sitcom, MCHALE’S NAVY, featuring Don’s future comedy partner Tim Conway) filled his cast with dependable Familiar Faces from the worlds of film and TV. Pretty former Playmate Joan Staley (BROADSIDE, ROUSTABOUT) plays Alma, mean Skip Homeier is mean Ollie, and George Chandler, Ellen Corby, Robert Cornthwaite , Herbie Faye, Sandra Gould, Florence Lake, sourpuss Charles Lane , Cliff Norton, Phillip Ober, Eddie Quillan, Liam Redmond, Dick Sargent (as Luther’s editor/boss), Reta Shaw (funny as leader of Rachel’s ‘Psychic Occult Society’), Lurene Tuttle, Nydia Westman, and Dick “Please Don’t Squeeze The Charmin” Wilson all engage in the frenetic madness (and that’s screenwriter Greenbaum’s voice doing the “Attaboy, Luther” shouts offscreen).

You can call THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN, or Don’s other films, just silly family comedies geared to the kiddie matinée crowd if you want. But for me, and millions of other Don Knotts fans, he was an inventive comic actor who made some hysterically funny films. He may not have reached the lofty heights of a Chaplin or Keaton, but he definitely followed in their tradition. Scoff if you wish, but he still manages to make me (and many others) laugh out loud, and that’s what matters most!

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Kung-Foolery: Jackie Chan in DRUNKEN MASTER (Seasonal Film Corp. 1978)

Jackie Chan’s  combination of slapstick comedy and kung-fu action helped make him a worldwide superstar, and DRUNKEN MASTER put him over the top as a cinematic force to be reckoned with. While I’m no expert on the genre, I’ve seen my fare share, and I can tell you this movie’s more than a few belts above because of Chan’s natural charm and comic timing.

As per usual with these films, the plot’s thinner as a Chow Mein noodle, which is okay because who needs a plot when you’ve got Jackie Chan? The dubbed version I saw casts Jackie as Freddie Wong, a rascally scamp whose father runs a kung-fu school. Pop tries to break the spirited Freddie without success, so he sends for Great-Uncle So Hi, a tough old buzzard with a fondness for saki (hence the title!). So Hi drives Freddie so hard with his grueling training the youngster runs away! But an encounter with the deadly assassin Thunderleg, in which Freddie suffers abject humiliation, finds Freddie crawling back to his Drunken Master to perfect the Technique of the 8 Drunken Gods. And just in time, for Pop’s unscrupulous enemies have hired Thunderleg to kill him, resulting in a Freddie vs Thunderleg rematch that’s a dizzying display of both athletic grace and Jackie’s comic gifts.

The film’s an almost non-stop orgy of graceful kung-fu action scenes highlighted by Jackie’s comedic talents. It’s a “star vehicle” all the way, and launched Chan to international acclaim. He’d been around the Hong Kong film scene awhile, as a child actor in the 60’s, a stuntman in the 70’s (working on the Bruce Lee films FISTS OF FURY, ENTER THE DRAGON , and GAME OF DEATH), and even a Hong Kong porn flick before finally breaking through with SNAKE IN THE EAGLE’S SHADOW and this movie, catapulting him to “overnight” stardom. His athletic martial arts moves have a balletic quality to him, and his comedic chops are impeccable.

Chan didn’t really break through stateside until 1995’s RUMBLE ON THE DOCKS, though he’d been seen here in 1980’s THE BIG BRAWL and Burt Reynolds’s CANNONBALL RUN movies. Thanks to VHS and DVD, fans quickly caught up on his Hong Kong-made Kung-Foolery, and mainstream films like RUSH HOUR and SHANGHAI NOON elevated him to his rightful place as a major action star. DRUNKEN MASTER was the second film for director Yuen Woo-ping, who also made SNAKE IN THE EAGLE’S SHADOW with Jackie (and whose father Yuen Siu-tien plays Master So Hi), and his talents led him to mainstream work as well, choreographing the action scenes in the MATRIX and KILL BILL movies.

DRUNKEN MASTER gives fans the opportunity to see a young Jackie Chan honing his screen persona, and doing what he does best – giving audiences plenty of laughs to go along with plenty of action! Like I said, I’m no expert on Martial Arts movies, but I know what I like, and I liked this one a lot. Chances are, you will, too!

Brute Farce: Wilder & Pryor Go STIR CRAZY (Columbia 1980)

Gene Wilder  and Richard Pryor weren’t really a comedy team at all, just two incredibly funny comic actors who happened to work well together.  Both were stars in their own right, first appearing together in the 1976 comedy-thriller SILVER STREAK, with Pryor in the pivotal supporting role as a thief who aides the in-danger Wilder. Audiences loved the chemistry between the two, and of course Hollywood took notice. STIR CRAZY is not a sequel, but a funny film of its own allowing Gene and Richard to be their loveably loony selves.

New Yorkers Skip Donahue (Wilder) and Harry Monroe (Pryor) are a couple of buds who’ve both lost their jobs. Playwright Skip’s a dreamer, while aspiring actor Harry’s a realist, but somehow Skip talks his pal into leaving The Big Apple to seek fame and fortune in Hollywood. Their cross-country trek ends when Harry’s decrepit Dodge van breaks down in the Southwestern town of Glenboro. Running low on cash, they take a job doing a song-and-dance routine promoting a local bank. Oh, and they’re dressed as giant woodpeckers!

While taking a lunch break (and notice all the shameless product placement: Dunkin’ Donuts, Coke, Perrier, Heineken… all in the first fifteen minutes!), a couple of crooks steal their woodpecker suits and rob the bank. Skip and Harry are arrested, tried, and sentenced to 125 years in state prison, where they encounter some mean hombres, none meaner than Grossberger, “the biggest mass murderer in the Southwest”. City slicker Skip demonstrates an amazing aptitude for riding the warden’s mechanical bull, and the warden wants him to compete in the annual prison rodeo. Skip holds out in order to name his own crew, who’re planning a jailbreak, and the warden and captain of the guards try everything to break him. They don’t succeed, and Skip, Harry, and the boys create an elaborate escape plan…

“That’s right, we bad!”

It’s pretty obvious Wilder and Pryor threw the script out the window in many scenes and just ad-libbed, riffing off each other like a pair of jazz musicians. It’s equally obvious Pryor was coked out of his skull during much of the movie; his mannerisms are a dead giveaway. Be that as it may, both men are hysterically funny throughout, and the scene where they enter jail for the first time, with Pryor trying to teach Wilder to act like a badass (“That’s right, we bad, uh-huh”) is still a laugh-out-loud classic. The pair teamed again for two more films, 1989’s SEE NO EVIL, HEAR NO EVIL and 1991’s ANOTHER YOU, neither of which was successful; both try too hard, and can’t old a candle to SILVER STREAK or STIR CRAZY.

Sidney Poitier had directed five previous films with himself as star, and here he gives Wilder and Pryor free rein. Poitier does good work balancing comedy and suspense in the film’s ending, and one wishes he’d done more directing (except for GHOST DAD!). Humorist Bruce Jay Friedman wrote the absurd screenplay, at least those parts where Wilder and Pryor aren’t ad-libbing. Among the cast are Georg Stanford Brown (or as we called him, “Hey, it’s the guy from THE ROOKIES”) as a gay con with a crush on Pryor, JoBeth Williams as Wilder’s love interest, Barry Corbin (NORTHERN EXPOSURE) as Warden Beatty (get it?), Craig T. Nelson (JoBeth’s husband in POLTERGEIST) as the cruel guard captain, and the massive Erland van Lidth de Juede, a computer scientist, opera singer, and part-time actor (action fans know him as Dynamo in THE RUNNING MAN) as Grossberger. And yes, that’s the big man’s real voice singing “Down in the Valley”! (A side note: I could be wrong, but I’d swear that’s former Our Gang member Matthew “Stymie” Beard seen briefly sitting in the rodeo crowd behind the warden). STIR CRAZY was, as you can imagine, a huge hit, with the zany team of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor doing what they did best – making people laugh. The film’s just as funny today as when first released, a testament to the marvelous manic energy and comic chemistry between them.

Nothin’ Dirty Goin’ On: THE CHEYENNE SOCIAL CLUB (National General 1970)

THE CHEYENNE SOCIAL CLUB isn’t a great movie, but it’s not a bad one, either. It couldn’t be; not with all that talent in front of and behind the cameras. You’ve got two legendary leads, James Stewart and Henry Fonda , Oscar winner Shirley Jones, Gene Kelly in the director’s chair, and John Wayne’s favorite cinematographer William Clothier . Still, the film, while amusing, should’ve been so much better.

The story’s fairy simple: two old Texas cowhands, John O’Hanlon (Stewart) and Harley Sullivan (Fonda) are plying their trade when John receives a letter. Seems John’s brother has died and left him an inheritance – The Cheyenne Social Club in Cheyenne, Wyoming. John and his old pal head north, and it turns out The Cheyenne Social Club is a cathouse, run by Madame Jenny (Jones), and she and the girls warmly greet the perplexed duo. Uptight John, who’s always wanted to be a “man of property”, decides he’s going to fire the girls and open a boarding house, but Harley doesn’t seem to mind the set-up, sampling all the fine young wares!

The girls are upset when John gives them the news, and the townsfolk are up in arms. There’s an obligatory barroom brawl which lands John in the pokey, and he then discovers if he gets rid of the girls, he loses the property, due to an agreement his brother, “the late DJ”, made with the railroad. Jenny receives a brutal beating from irate customer Corey Bannister, and John straps on his shootin’ iron (even though he’s “no hand with a gun”) and goes after him. Thanks to Harley’s inveterate habit of cracking nuts, John wins the gunfight, only to have the entire Bannister clan descend on Cheyenne for the inevitable shootout scene….

Critics of the time called the film “smutty”, but it’s pretty harmless when seen today. There’s a lot of chuckles to be had, but like I said it’s not the great movie it could’ve been. The problem as I see it is two-fold, the first being Gene Kelly’s meandering direction. Kelly is my favorite among Golden Age dancers (sorry, Fred Astaire), and co-directed one of my all-time favorite films, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN. But his career as a solo director was hit-or-miss, and the pacing in this Western comedy is off by a country mile. Someone like Burt Kennedy would’ve had a ball with this material, but Kelly is out of his element. Then again, James Lee Barrett’s script doesn’t help matters. It’s far too talky and lacks characterization. Only the three main stars get anything resembling distinctive, motivated parts; everyone else is a cardboard cut-out.

Fonda and Stewart, of course, can do no wrong. The two actors had been friends since their salad days at the University Playhouse on Cape Cod, and became lifelong friends despite the differences in their personalities. Both men became major stars, and appeared together in three films: the 1948 anthology ON OUR MERRY WAY, the Western drama FIRECREEK (1968), and this one (both were in the all-star HOW THE WEST WAS WON, but appeared separately). Jimmy’s still being Jimmy here, but the usually taciturn Fonda’s Harley is a garrulous, randy old coot, and gives the funnier performance. Stewart and Fonda never let their political differences get in the way of their friendship (something sorely lacking today), and even got to satirize it in this exchange:

John: “Solid, respectable, Republican business. That’s what makes America, Harley.”

Harley: “Our folks were Democrats, John.”

John: “Yeah, and where did it get you. A lifetime on the range and sweat in the summer and freezin’ in the winter, and sleeping on the ground and fightin’ wolves and the rattlesnakes… oh no, Harley. There can’t be a finer calling in the world than being a Republican businessman.”

Harley: “I don’t like to dispute you, John, but didn’t you always vote Democratic?”

John (in that trademark Jimmy Stewart hemming and hawing): “Wal, wal, that was when I didn’t know any better.”

And later in the exchange – Harley: “John, you don’t mind if I still vote Democratic, do you?”

John: “Just so long as you’re not seen with me when you do it. Be bad for business.”

Shirley Jones won the Oscar for playing a prostitute in ELMER GANTRY, and she’s a bawdy good time here. Her Jenny is the only one of the girls – Sue Ane Langdon , Jackie Joseph, Elaine Devry, Jackie Russell, Sharon DeBord, all capable actresses – with a fully fleshed out character. Jean Willes is entertaining as Alice, a saloon girl with her sights set on Harley, but again she’s just a stock character, as are the other Familiar Faces here: John Dehner, Dabbs Greer, Myron Healy, Arch Johnson, Robert Middleton, J. Pat O’Malley, Charles Tyner, Jason Wingreen. I’ll usually watch THE CHEYENNE SOCIAL CLUB whenever it’s aired (and have many times), but I can’t help but wonder how much better it could’ve been with tighter direction and a richer script. James Stewart and Henry Fonda together on film for the last time is what makes it worthwhile for me.

Hooray for Harold Lloyd!: MOVIE CRAZY (Paramount 1932)

Harold Lloyd  made a smooth transition from silent films to talkies beginning with 1929’s WELCOME DANGER. Unlike Charlie Chaplin (who stubbornly clung to making silents until 1940), and Buster Keaton (whose MGM contract took away much of his artistic freedom), Lloyd retained both his comic visual style while integrating verbal gags in the new medium and kept control of the pictures he made. And while his popularity had begun to wane by the 1930’s, Harold Lloyd’s early talkies are definitely worth watching – because they’re flat-out funny! Case in point: 1932’s MOVIE CRAZY.

MOVIE CRAZY is one of those “Hollywood-behind-the-scenes” stories you know I love so much, so it automatically scored cool points with me! Kansas farm boy Harold Hall lives with his parents and daydreams of being a movie star. One day, he sends his picture and a letter to Planet Films exec O’Brien – only the inept Harold accidentally sends a pic of a collar-ad, good-looking guy instead of his nerdy self! O’Brien sends a reply asking Harold to come to Hollywood for a screen test, and the bumbling bumpkin goes west, immediately causing havoc at a location shoot. It’s also here he first lays eyes on actress Mary Sears, in character as a Spanish senorita.

One funny scene (among many) has Harold caught in a rainstorm, chasing his errant shoe as it floats down the street, finally landing on his keister and splashing Mary, now out of costume (though he doesn’t realize it’s the same person) and having car problems. His attempts to help her result in a series of comic mishaps, and earns him the nickname “Trouble”. She takes him home to get out of his wet clothes (wearing one of her outfits!) and her actor boyfriend, the drunken lout Vance, bullies our Harold. His screen test is a bust, though he’s led to believe he’s a hit, and Mary dumps him when she finds out he’s cheating (actually with her, as the senorita!), all culminating with Harold attending a swanky studio party, where he mistakenly switches jackets with a stage magician, causing more chaos with a water-squirting boutonniere, rabbits, and a box of white mice. Dejected, rejected, Harold gets beat up at the studio by the obnoxious Vance. When he comes to, a scene being filmed makes him think Vance is really assaulting Mary, and he finally vanquishes the bully, winding up with a studio contract, and Mary to boot!

There’s so many laughs in MOVIE CRAZY I could barely stop and take notes! Harold’s clumsy, naïve yet likeable persona serves him well as the hayseed in Hollywood, and he and costar Constance Cummings (Mary) make a cute couple. Spencer Charters as O’Brien takes the brunt of Harold’s ineptitude, and Kenneth Thomson’s Vance makes a hissable villain. Among the Familiar Faces are Louise Closser Hale as the studio boss’s dowager wife, Arthur Housman as a soused partygoer, and Grady Sutton in a brief but memorable cameo. The backstage scenes are well done, giving us a glimpse of those halcyon days of early talkies.

A plethora of writers worked on MOVIE CRAZY: the story’s credited to Felix Adler , John Grey, and Agnes Christine Johnson, screenplay to Vincent Lawrence, and ‘continuity’ to Lex Neal, Frank Terry, and Clyde Bruckman (with an uncredited assist to Lloyd and “Nancy and Sluggo” creator Ernie Bushmiller!). Bruckman also gets the director’s credit, though Lloyd had to take over much of the time due to Bruckman’s hard-drinking ways. Clyde Bruckman had been around since the early days of slapstick comedy, and worked with all the greats: Buster Keaton, W.C. Fields , The Three Stooges , Laurel & Hardy, so many others. His drinking curtailed his directorial career (his last was Fields’ MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE), but he could still get work as a gag man. However, Bruckman had a habit of “borrowing” (some would say stealing) old material and reworking it (The Stooges’ short LOCO BOY MAKES GOOD repeats the magician’s coat routine almost verbatim). Lloyd and his lawyers sued Bruckman’s then-employers, Universal, when evidence of this “borrowing” became blatant, and Clyde Bruckman never worked in features again. He was persona non grata around town, though  Abbott & Costello did hire him for their TV series, where his penchant for recycling other comedians’ old material once again found him in hot legal waters. Drinking heavily, unemployable, and nearly destitute, Bruckman borrowed a gun from his old friend Keaton and blew his brains out in a restaurant bathroom in 1955.

*ahem* well, that was a bit of a downer, wasn’t it? Instead of pondering the fate of the unfortunate Clyde Bruckman, let’s instead celebrate Harold Lloyd and MOVIE CRAZY, a hilarious concoction of comedy from an artist too often overlooked by modern audiences:

Campus Kooks: The Ritz Brothers in LIFE BEGINS IN COLLEGE (20th Century Fox 1937)


I haven’t posted anything on The Ritz Brothers since January of 2016 , so when TCM aired a trio of their films this weekend, I chose to review what I consider their best solo effort, 1937’s LIFE BEGINS IN COLLEGE. This was their first name-above-the-title movie, and features Harry, Jimmy, and Al at their zaniest, with the added bonus of comedienne Joan Davis as a kooky coed with her sights on Native American football hero Nat Pendleton.

Collegiate musical comedies were a popular sub-genre in the 30’s: COLLEGE HUMOR, PIGSKIN PARADE, COLLEGE SWING, COLLEGE HOLIDAY, et al, so it seemed the perfect milieu for the Ritzes to showcase their peculiar brand of nuttiness. The story is typical campus corniness, as George “Little Black Cloud” Black arrives at Lombardy College (crashing his motorcycle for an entrance) wanting to join the football team, and immediately developing a rivalry with football team captain Bob. There’s Coach O’Hara, in danger of losing his job after three losing seasons, and his daughter Janet, a love triangle with Janet, Bob, and Southern belle Cuddles, and of course the Big Game against Midwestern, where it’s revealed George is ineligible to play because of his pro past.

However, the plot is strictly secondary to the Ritz lunacy. They’re a trio of tailors who’ve been working their way through college for seven years, without much success (they’re lousy tailors!). They befriend George, who suffered a hazing by Bob and his jock friends early on, and find out the kid’s loaded (Oklahoma oil wells), which he doesn’t want the other students to know about. The brothers act as a “front” and give the dean a huge endowment ( driving him crazy in the process!), with the provision that Coach keeps his job and they get to play on the team (they’ve been sitting on the bench those seven years!). This is all an excuse for the boys to show off their precision timing in some nonsensical song-and-dance routines (a hilarious ‘Latin’ number with Harry in drag, an ‘Indian’ number with them as not-so-brave braves, the fan favorite ‘Spirit of ’76’), and the physical and verbal clowning that made other comedians green with envy! Of course, they get into the Big Game in the final two minutes, and almost blow it before making one of the most ridiculous winning touchdowns in the history of these college football moves!

Gloria Stuart  makes a pleasing Janet, and even gets to sing “Why Talk About Love?” (though I think she’s dubbed), but Dick Baldwin as Bob is dull as a butter knife. Nat Pendleton talkum like Tonto as George, but his comic timing is solid and he’s believable as an athlete (he won a Silver Medal in wrestling at the 1920 Olympics). Joan Davis was a fine clown in her own right, and performs a solo number highlighting her limber slapstick moves. Tony Martin’s on hand as a band leader, though he doesn’t get to do much except introduce the tune “Sweet Varsity Sue”. Veteran Fred Stone is the Coach, and among the Familiar Faces you’ll find two very young actors: a pre-noir Elisha Cook Jr. as the team manager, and a pre-horror Lon Chaney Jr. as one of the football players!

But LIFE BEGINS IN COLLEGE is all about The Ritz Brothers, and as you watch, you’ll find out where comics like Sid Caesar, Danny Kaye, and Jerry Lewis learned their schticks. No less than Mel Brooks called Harry Ritz “the funniest man ever” – high praise coming from a comic genius like Mel! If you’ve never experienced the comedy of The Ritz Brothers, this film’s a good place to start. OR…. you can start here, with this rare clip of Harry, Jimmy, and Al’s appearance on the 1961 TV series JACKPOT BOWLING, hosted by another of their admirers, Milton Berle:

Smashmouth Football: Burt Reynolds in THE LONGEST YARD (Paramount 1974)

Dedicated to the memory of Burt Reynolds (2/11/1936-9/6/2018)

If it was producer Albert Ruddy’s idea to team macho actor Burt Reynolds with macho director Robert Aldrich for THE LONGEST YARD, then the man’s a bloody genius (Ruddy was no stranger to machismo himself, having previously produced THE GODFATHER)! This testosterone-fueled tale of an ex-NFL star turned convict, forced to assemble a football team of hardened criminals to take on the sports-mad warden’s goon squad of guards, is one of Burt’s best vehicles, and a comeback of sorts for Aldrich, who hadn’t scored a hit since 1967’s THE DIRTY DOZEN . Both men hit the end zone with this sports-themed film, and led the way for an onslaught of football films to come.

Former star quarterback Paul Crewe (Reynolds), who was thrown out of the NFL in a points shaving scandal, finds himself under arrest after fighting with his girlfriend, stealing her car, and leading the Miami police on a drunken car chase. He’s sent to Citrus State Prison, where Warden Hazen (Eddie Albert ) is a huge football fan obsessed with winning the prison league championship. Hazen wants Crewe to help coach his team, but the con balks at the idea, earning the wrath of Hazen and Captain Knauer (Ed Lauter).

After taking his lumps, Crewe agrees to put together a team of cons to play a tune-up game with the guards. Along with veteran con and ex-New York Giant Nate Scarboro (Michael Conrad), Crewe assembles a team of the biggest miscreants in stir, coaching them to be viscious, violent, and mostly importantly, cheat! Hazen sends around his trustee Unger (Charles Tyner) to spy on the team, now-dubbed ‘The Mean Machine’, and when he gets busted for being a rat he tries to kill Crewe with a booby trap, only to murder team manager and supreme scrounger Caretaker (James Hampton) instead. The day of the big game finds The Mean Machine up big at halftime, until Hazen warns Crewe his team must lose or he’ll face an additional twenty years as an accessory to Caretaker’s death….

THE LONGEST YARD, Ed Lauter, Eddie Albert, 1974
Macho Men: Robert Tessier, Burt, Sonny Sixkiller

Burt knew a thing or two about football, having played briefly for Florida State before injuries curtailed his college career. He certainly looks the part of an ex-jock, and carries himself well on the field. Eddie Albert is a real slimeball as Warden Hazen, obsessed with football and his own little power trip. All the actors are of the tough guy variety, above all Robert Tessier as Shokner, “the very baddest cat in the joint”, and one of my favorite badass character actors. Many of the others are former NFL and college players themselves, such as ex-Tarzan Mike Henry (later the dunderheaded Junior in Burt’s SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT films), Hall of Famer Ray Nitschke of the Green Bay Packers, Joe Kapp of the Minnesota Vikings, and Washington Huskies QB Sonny Sixkiller. Among the non-footballers there’s Richard “Jaws” Kiel, Harry Caesar, Bernadette Peters (as Hazen’s horny secretary), John Steadman (because every sports movie’s gotta have a guy named “Pop”), and ex-pro wrestler Pepper Martin.

Aldrich captures the violent worlds both behind the walls and on the field, and utilizes some cool split-screen work to give things that big-game feel. Screenwriter Tracy Keenan Wynn comes from a long line of Hollywood royalty (father Keenan, grandfather Ed), and was also responsible for the TV Movies TRIBES, THE GLASS HOUSE, and THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MISS JANE PITTMAN, and big screen ventures THE DROWNING POOL and THE DEEP. THE LONGEST YARD was his feature debut, and he came up with a real championship of a story. It’s the perfect way to get ready for the season… and oh, just one more thing:


LET’S GO, PATRIOTS!

(Hey, you knew that was coming, right?)