Drive-In Saturday Night #5: MALIBU BEACH (Crown-International 1978) & VAN NUYS BOULEVARD (Crown-International 1979)

The kids are back in school, the days are getting shorter, and the nights are getting cooler. Yes, my friends, summer’s almost over, but before it ends, let’s take one more trip to the drive-in and enjoy a pair of Crown-International Exploitation classics. Crown was responsible for a slew of “teen sex” drive-in flicks  in the 70’s and early 80’s. You know the type: the “teens” are all over 21, and the “sex” consists mainly of topless babes and some heavy necking!

Our first feature, 1978’s MALIBU BEACH, is the quintessential Crown-International “teen sex” romp. School’s out, and all the hardbodied California kids head to said beach for some frolicking in the sand and surf. Pretty Dina gets a summer job as a lifeguard, and meets handsome football hunk Bobby. A leather jacket wearing musclehead named Dugan tries to get between them, but we all know he’s got no shot! And that’s about it for plot in this harmless but likable little effort – nothing really happens, but it’s a fun way to kill an hour and a half, and good for a few chuckles along the way.

We get all your basic stereotypes (like nerdy rich kid Claude and hot’n’horny Gloriana), a pair of lunkheaded cops, lots of bouncing boobs, pot smoking, beer drinking, hell raising, and a dog that likes to steals bikini tops, all set to a generic rock score. We even get a silly little JAWS parody thrown in at the end for good measure! True, it doesn’t sound like much (and really, it isn’t), but MALIBU BEACH has a certain charm about it, and I liked it a lot. It’s shot well, the cast is appealing, and I found myself laughing out loud at some of the shenanigans going on. What more do you want from a drive-in flick, anyway?

The cast is made up of mostly unknowns, with a few exceptions. Pretty Kim Lankford, best known as Ginger on the prime time soap KNOTS LANDING, plays pretty Dina. James Daughton (Bobby) challenged Fonzie to “jump the shark” in that infamous episode of HAPPY DAYS that coined the infamous phrase, but will forever be remembered as Greg Marmalade, arch enemy of the Deltas in NATIONAL LAMPOON’S ANIMAL HOUSE! And Stephen Oliver, who plays the creep Dugan, played creep Lee Webber on the hit series PEYTON PLACE, and was typecast as a creepy biker in films like ANGELS FROM HELL, the cult classic WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS , and Russ Meyer’s MOTORPSYCHO.

Now let’s all head to the snack bar before our second feature:

Got all your snacks and soft drinks? Good, let’s look at our next film, 1979’s VAN NUYS BLVD…

…this one set in the 70’s milieu of aimlessly cruising up and down the main drag. Makes me nostalgic for cruising the Ave in my Chevy Nova back in the day; it’s just not the same in a Hyundai! But I digress. Like MALIBU BEACH, the plot of VAN NUYS BLVD is skimpier than the carhop’s uniforms. Country boy Bobby decides to jump in his customized van and head to where the action is, namely cruising up and down Van Nuys Blvd. He meets gorgeous van driver Moon, and they engage in a running battle of the sexes. They’re both competitive, trying to outdo each other, so you know by the end they’ll be madly in love, because that’s how these things work!

In between, we get some comic set pieces, including a pig loose on the beach, and the plight of skeezy Officer Zass, the scourge of the cruisers. We also get some disco dancing, with the Kansas City Glitter Girls doing a dance number called “Boogie Down the Boulevard”, a silly but entertaining bit of filler. There’s hot rods and muscle cars, an overaged cruiser with an impressive moustache named Chooch, lots of T-N-A, and smutty jokes that managed to make me laugh despite myself. It’s all goofy, trivial nonsense, but well done far as these exploitation flicks go.

Director William Sachs was also responsible for one of Crown-International’s best known films, 1980’s GALAXINA, starring the doomed Playmate Dorothy Stratton (whose story was filmed as Bob Fosse’s STAR 80). Another ex-Playmate, Cynthia Wood, plays Moon, while costar Bill Adler (Bobby) was a Crown International regular (THE POM POM GIRLS, THE VAN  ) who’s also in Jack Hill’s SWITCHBLADE SISTERS. You probably won’t recognize anyone else in the cast unless you’re an Exploitation fan: Tara Strohmeier (carhop Wanda, who winds up with Chooch) appeared in such fare as THE STUDENT TEACHERS, CANDY STRIPE NURSES, COVER GIRL MODELS, THE GREAT TEXAS DYNAMITE CHASE, and HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD (and plays horny Gloriana in MALIBU BEACH).

The Drive-In’s now closed for the season, as we’re getting ready to hunker down for the winter months. Hopefully, we will reopen next spring to take a look at more Exploitation delights. Don’t forget to remove the speakers from your windows before driving off, and ya’ll come back now, ya hear?

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Hellhound On My Trail: Walter Hill’s CROSSROADS (Columbia 1986)

‘Well the blues had a baby/and they named it rock and roll” –

Muddy Waters

Hi, my name’s Gary, and I’m a bluesoholic! Whether it’s Deep South Delta or Electric Chicago, distilled in Great Britain or Sunny California, the blues has always been the foundation upon which rock’n’roll was built. Yet there aren’t a lot of films out there depicting this totally original American art form. One I viewed recently was 1986’s CROSSROADS, directed by another American original whose work I enjoy, Walter Hill.

Hill was responsible for cult classics filled with violence and laced with humor, like HARD TIMES (with Charles Bronson as a 1930’s bare knuckles brawler), the highly stylized THE WARRIORS , the gritty Western THE LONG RIDERS, and SOUTHERN COMFORT (a kind of MOST DANGEROUS GAME On The Bayou). He scored box office gold with the 1982 action-comedy 48 HRS, making a movie star out of SNL’s Eddie Murphy (for better or worse), but his  follow up STREETS OF FIRE (a “rock and roll fable”) tanked at theaters.

Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues (1911-1938)

CROSSROADS is a different type of Walter Hill film. While keeping the ‘buddy movie’ aspect and the humor, Hill tones down the violence quotient considerably to tell his tale, based somewhat loosely on the legend of Robert Johnson. the seminal Mississippi bluesman who allegedly “sold his soul to the devil” to achieve fame and fortune. Johnson’s output of music recorded before his death in 1938 at age 27 consists of just 29 songs, including future blues standards “Come On In My Kitchen”, “Dust My Broom”, “Love in Vain”, ‘Ramblin’ On My Mind”, “Sweet Home Chicago”, and of course “Crossroad Blues”.

CROSSROADS is about a quest to discover Johnson’s missing thirtieth song, as a young Julliard student named Eugene Martone, who wants to be a bluesman, finds elderly Willie Brown (aka Blind Dog Fulton), Johnson’s former harmonica player, in an old folks home. Martone is obsessed with finding the lost song, and the crusty, crotchety Willie agrees to help him, if he’ll help Willie escape from the home. He does, and they go ‘hoboing’ down the backroads headed to the Mississippi Delta, where Willie claims he, like Robert Johnson, once sold his soul to the devil, and now wants it back!

Along the way, they meet young runaway Frances, and go on the adventure of a lifetime, as Eugene (dubbed by Willie ‘The Lighting Kid’) learns what it’s really like to live the life of an itinerant  bluesman. Willie finally makes it back to the crossroads, coming face to face with The Devil himself, and a mystical, mojo-fueled guitar duel takes place between Eugene and The Devil’s own shredder (demonically played by guitar whiz Steve Vai) for both their immortal souls…

Joe Seneca is marvelous as cranky Willie, full of piss and vinegar, and makes a totally believable bluesman. Ralph Macchio, who I usually find quite annoying, as Eugene is good as well. Jami Gertz (LESS THAN ZERO) is appealing as the runaway Frances. Joe Morton (BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET) is The Devil’s Assistant, while Robert Judd (who acted with Seneca in the original Broadway production of MA RAINY’S BLACK BOTTOM) makes an evil, leering Devil (here called Scratch). And it’s a real treat to see veteran Harry Carey Jr. pop up in the brief role of the bartender in a redneck country joint!

Slide guitarist extraordinaire Ry Cooder contributes the rootsy soundtrack, aided immensely by the harp blowing of legendary bluesman Sonny Terry. Other musicians contributing include Frank Frost (harp), Otis Taylor (guitar), and Jim Keltner (drums). Walter Hill has crafted a totally likable musical fairy tale with CROSSROADS, a must-see for lovers of the blues.

Pre-Code Confidential #29: Joan Blondell is BLONDIE JOHNSON (Warner Bros 1933)

There are many contenders for the crown Queen of Pre-Code – Jean Harlow, Miriam Hopkins, Barbara Stanwyck, Mae West, and a slew of other dames – but there’s only one Joan Blondell! Rose Joan Blondell was “born in a trunk” (as they say) to vaudevillian parents on August 30, 1906, and made her stage debut at the tender age of four months. Little Joanie took to show biz like a duck to water, and worked her way up to Broadway, costarring with a young actor named James Cagney in 1930’s PENNY ARCADE; the pair went to Hollywood for the film version, retitled SINNERS’ HOLIDAY, their first of seven screen teamings.

Our Girl Joanie struck a chord with Depression Era audiences: she was a tough, wisecracking, fast-talking, been-around-the-block tomato whose tough-as-leather veneer cloaked a heart of gold. Joan and Glenda Farrell had ’em rolling in the aisles as a pair of Gold Digging Dames in nine movies, and she more than held her own with screen tough guys Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, and their ilk. In BLONDIE JOHNSON, Joan plays no mere gangster’s moll, but a full-fledged Queen of the Rackets in a fast-paced outing directed by Warner workhorse Ray Enright , opposite another movie tough guy, Chester Morris.

We meet Blondie at the Welfare and Relief Office looking for help. It’s the midst of the Depression, and she hasn’t worked in four months (“The boss wouldn’t let me alone”). Blondie and her sick mom are living in the back of a drug store, and when the old lady dies of pneumonia, Blondie vows not to go down to poverty: “I’m gonna get money and I’m gonna get plenty of it!”. She works up a sob-story racket with cabbie friend Red (Sterling Holloway), and her first victim is the somewhat dimwitted, gum chomping Danny (Morris), right hand man to racket boss Maxie (Arthur Vinton).

Danny gets wise, but Blondie comes up with a scheme to get fellow hood Louie (Allen Jenkins) off on charges – by pretending to be his pregnant fiance, playing on the jury’s sympathy! She then uses Danny to move up in rank, and when Maxie’s rubbed out in a rat-a-tat hail of machine gun fire, Blondie’s in charge. Danny tries to get Blondie out of the way so he can marry rich actress Gladys (Calire Dodd), but Blondie’s way too smart for him, and Danny finds himself outside looking in. Later, the boys think Danny’s turned squealer and decide to pay him a visit without Blondie’s okay…

Joan is dynamite as Blondie, and Depression audiences must’ve sympathized with her portrayal of a woman who, abused and abandoned by the system, strikes out on her own to take what she needs… and then some! Blondie’s all business, no time for cut-rate romances, and she concentrates on stealing everything in sight… including the movie! Joan and Chester have some pretty good chemistry here, with some crackling hard-boiled dialog by screenwriter Earl Baldwin (DOCTOR X, WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD, BROTHER ORCHID). The supporting cast is top-shelf, and besides those Familiar Faces I’ve already mentioned, you’ll spot Mae Busch (who’a a real hoot as a gangland gal), Joseph Cawthorn, Earle Foxe, Olin Howland, Eddie Kane, Tom Kennedy, Charles Lane, Sam McDaniel, and Toshia Mori (fresh off her success in THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN).

Joan Blondell’s a lot of fun to watch in BLONDIE JOHNSON, and she continued to be for another 46 years of screen and TV appearances. Always brassy, always sassy, and never bashful, Joan torched the screen in whatever era she acted in, but it’s her Pre-Code catalog we’ll forever cherish. Whenever this tough-talking dame comes into the picture, film lover’s know they’ll be getting their money’s worth!

Ride the Trail to DODGE CITY with Errol & Olivia (Warner Brothers 1939)

1939 has been proclaimed by many to be Hollywood’s Greatest Year. I could make a case for 1947, but I won’t go there… for the moment. Be that as it may, 1939 saw the release of some true classics that have stood the test of time, including in the Western genre: DESTRY RIDES AGAIN, JESSE JAMES, STAGECOACH , and UNION PACIFIC. One that doesn’t get a lot of attention anymore is DODGE CITY, the 5th screen pairing in four years of one of Hollywood’s greatest romantic duos, heroic Errol Flynn and beautiful Olivia de Havilland.

DODGE CITY was Warner Brothers’ biggest hit of 1939, and the 6th highest grossing picture that year, beating out classics like GOODBYE MR. CHIPS, GUNGA DIN, NINOTCHKA, and THE WIZARD OF OZ. It’s a rousing actioner with plenty of romance and humor thrown in, shot in Glorious Technicolor by Warners’ ace director Michael Curtiz . And with a cast that includes Errol, Olivia, Ann Sheridan, Alan Hale, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, and a trio of Hollywood’s orneriest baddies (Bruce Cabot, Victor Jory, Douglas Fowley), it’s hard not to love this exciting sagebrush saga!

The railroad comes to Kansas, bringing progress and prosperity to the frontier town of Dodge City. Handsome Wade Hatton (Errol, of course!) and his pardners Rusty and Tex (Hale, Williams) have cleared the territory of buffalo years before, as well as clearing it of buffalo poachers Jeff Surrett (Cabot) and his henchmen Yancey (Jory) and Munger (Fowley). Now Wade’s leading a combination cattle drive/wagon train from Texas to Dodge, including beautiful young Abbie Irving (Olivia) and her wastrel brother Lee (William Lundigan), whose drunken shooting causes a cattle stampede to trample him, and Abbie blames Wade for it.

Meanwhile, back in Dodge, Surrett and his goons have turned the town into a lawless jungle of “gambling, drinking, and killing”, with his saloon girl Ruby (Sheridan) by his side. Surrett’s reign of terror has made Dodge the most lawless town in the West, until old rival Wade pulls into town, gets himself elected sheriff, and rounds up all the rowdies into the hoosegow. Surrett’s not licked yet though, but when Wade’s young pard Harry (child star Bobs Watson) is caught in a crossfire and dragged by horses to his death, the kid gloves come off…

It all culminates in an exciting climax aboard a burning railway car, and it’s not a spoiler to tell you the good guys emerge victorious, and Errol and Olivia live happily ever after! DODGE CITY serves as the template for many a Western to come, and Curtiz does his usual fine job in handling both the actors and the action. Some of the highlights include Hale swearing off liquor (!!!) and joining a Ladies’ Pure Prairie League meeting while a knock-down, drag-out saloon brawl rages on next door; the shadowy murder of crusading newspaper editor Frank McHugh ; and the aforementioned stampede, horse-dragging, and fiery finale. All of it brilliantly captured in Technicolor by Sol Polito and set to a typically majestic Max Steiner score!

And you want Familiar Faces? DODGE CITY has ’em in droves: classic era actors like Clem Bevans (the town barber), Monte Blue, Ward Bond (who has a good scene as one of Cabot’s henchmen), Wally Brown , George Chesebro, Chester Clute, Joseph Crehan, Thurston Hall (the railroad man), Charles Halton (Surrett’s weaselly lawyer), Gloria Holden (sympathetic as the little boy’s mom), Milton Kibbee, John Litel, Henry O’Neill (Col. Dodge himself!), Renie Riano (leader of the Pure Prairie League!), Russell Simpson, Henry Travers (as Olivia’s uncle), Cora Witherspoon, and others too numerous to mention!

Errol shines in his first of many Westerns to come, Olivia is more than a match for him, Hale and Williams are always welcome, Sheridan gets to belt a couple of tunes, Bobs Watson does his crying thing, the bad guys are totally hissable, and there’s enough material here for at least a half dozen other Westerns! DODGE CITY may not get as much love as other 1939 hits, but it deserves it’s place as one of the all-time greats.

 

Monster Con: Vincent Price in THE BARON OF ARIZONA (Lippert 1950)

We all know and love Vincent Price for his creepy performances in horror films, from his demented Henry Jarrod in HOUSE OF WAX, to all those AIP/Roger Corman/Edgar Allan Poe shockers, to his turn as The Inventor in EDWARD SCISSORHANDS. But the actor was more than just a screen fiend, playing in many a film noir, comedies, costume swashbucklers, and even the Western genre. Our Man Vinnie got top billing in a strange little oater titled THE BARON OF ARIZONA, and as a bonus for film fans the director is a young tyro by the name of Samuel Fuller!

In this bloodless but gripping outing, Price plays James Addison Revis, a swindler, con man, and forger who  concocts an elaborate, grandiose scheme to gain control over the Arizona Territory in 1882. He begins his con game ten years earlier by grooming an orphaned waif named Sofia to later be declared heir to Spanish land grants, then marrying the girl when she becomes of age. The local cowboys are up in arms when Revis and his bride claim the territory as their own, going as far as throwing a bomb through the Revis’ window!

But Revis is second to none when it comes to deviousness, and his forgeries are almost perfect. The U.S. Government even offers him 25 million for the rights to Arizona, but Revis turns them down flat, and sues the Feds instead! But when Department of the Interior agent John Griff begins his investigation, things slowly start to unravel for Revis one strand at a time. When the con is revealed, Revis is almost lynched by an angry mob (in a scene that’s pure Fuller!) before he makes it to the Federal pen…

James Addison Revis is a part that’s tailor-made for the talents of Vincent Price. Based on a true story, Price’s Revis is a charming con artist who almost pulls his scheme off, and Vinnie’s at his best in THE BARON OF ARIZONA. Price has a field day as the grandiose bunco artist, and as always he’s able to say more with one arched eyebrow than any dozen lesser actors! Though he’s a thoroughly despicable cheat and crook, he also displays a tender side, truly in love with Sofia, who loves him back despite his obvious faults.

Sofia is played by another horror vet, Ellen Drew (1941’s THE MAD DOCTOR and THE MONSTER AND THE GIRL), who also does good work here, and is a standout during the courtroom scene. Seems like almost all the cast has some kind of horror connection: Vladimir Sokoloff (Pepito) later played in such fare as MONSTER FROM GREEN HELL, I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF, and MR. SARDONICUS; Beulah Bondi (Sofia’s duenna Loma) costarred with Karloff and Lugosi in THE INVISIBLE RAY ; Angelo Rossitto (the gypsy Angelo) was in FREAKS and many other spookfests. And hero Reed Hadley (Griff), who also narrates, ended his career in the Al Adamson “classic” BRAIN OF BLOOD!

The legendary Sam Fuller

Sam Fuller worked as a crime reporter and pulp novelist before beginning his Hollywood career as a scenarist. After returning home from WWII, he was given a chance to direct with the low-budget Western I SHOT JESSE JAMES. The 1951 war drama THE STEEL HELMET put him on the map as a filmmaker to be reckoned with, and a string of critically acclaimed movies followed: SCANDAL SHEET, PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET, HELL AND HIGH WATER, THE CRIMSON KIMONO, SHOCK CORRIDOR. Fuller refused to play the Hollywood game, or abide by the rules, and his films are stamped with his singular artistic vision. My personal favorite is 1980’s THE BIG RED ONE, a WWII epic starring an equally singular man, Lee Marvin. Most of his movies are both violent and low-budget, yet Samuel Fuller’s films never let his audience down.

An interesting side note: Allegedly, future PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE auteur Ed Wood worked on THE BARON OF ARIZONA as a stuntman. Is it possible that’s Ed doubling for Vincent Price when he tumbles off that wagon in long shot?? I don’t have any proof to back that up, but hey… stranger things have happened in Hollyweird!!

Yo-Ho-Hollywood!: TREASURE ISLAND (MGM 1934)

Robert Louis Stevenson’s  venerable 1883 adventure novel TREASURE ISLAND has been filmed over 50 times throughout the years, beginning with a 1918 silent version. There was a 1920 silent starring Charles Ogle (the original screen FRANKENSTEIN monster!) as that dastardly pirate Long John Silver, a 1972 adaptation with Orson Welles, a 1990 TV Movie headlined by Charlton Heston, and even a 1996 Muppet version! Most movie buffs cite Disney’s 1950 film as the definitive screen TREASURE ISLAND, with Bobby Driscoll as young Jim Hawkins and Robert Newton as Long John (and Newton would go on to star in the TV series LONG JOHN SILVER, practically making a career out of playing the infamous fictional buccaneer), but…

…a case can certainly be made for MGM’s star-studded 1934 interpretation of the story, teaming Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper as Long John and Jim. This was the first talking TREASURE ISLAND, and the 3rd of 4 screen pairings  for Beery and Cooper, as likable (and unlikely!) a movie team as there even was. Though it’s not 100% faithful to the novel – and what film adaptation is? – it’s pretty damn close, and can stand on it’s own as a rousing pirate adventure.

One dark and stormy night, young Jim Hawkins (Cooper) and his widowed mom (Dorothy Peterson) are visited at their Admiral Benbow Inn by the mysterious drunken sailor Billy Bones, played to the hammy hilt by a scenery-chewing Lionel Barrymore . The rum-soaked Billy, travelling with a sea chest containing “pieces of eight, pearls as big as ostrich eggs, all the gold yer ‘eart can desire”, tells Jim to alert him if a “one-legged seafaring man” arrives. After being visited by pirate cronies Black Dog (Charles McNaughton) and the one-eyed Pew (William V. Mong), drunk Billy takes a tumble down the stairs, dead.

Curious Jim opens the chest, only to find it empty… except for a mapbook containing the location of Capt. Flint’s treasure on a Caribbean isle. Pew and his pirates storm the inn, and Jim and his mom are forced to flee, rescued by the straight-arrow Dr. Livesey (played by the straight-arrow Otto Kruger ), who  along with scatterbrained Squire Trewaleny (who else but Nigel Bruce? ) and Jim, hires the ship Hispaniola, under the command of stalwart Capt. Smollet (played by stalwart Judge Hardy himself, Lewis Stone ). Then that “one-legged seafaring man”, Long John Silver (Beery), talks his way into becoming the ship’s cook, filling the crew with his scurvy pirate cronies, and young Jim sets sail for the adventure of a lifetime…

The role of Long John Silver was custom made for the talents of Wallace Beery, Hollywood’s greatest lovable rogue, and young Jackie makes a spirited Jim Hawkins. The mismatched pair are always a delight to see together, with an unmatched screen chemistry. Offscreen, the grouchy Beery disliked Cooper, and the younger actor later accused Beery of constantly trying to steal scenes (and he was notorious for that!), but while the cameras were rolling, the two made movie magic together. Barrymore’s bit is brief but a lot of fun, and besides those mentioned earlier, vaudeville vet Chic Sale stands out as crazy hermit Ben Gunn, as does screen villain par excellence Douglass Dumbrille  as the murderous pirate Israel Hands.

TREASURE ISLAND has some pretty gruesome moments scattered through it, coming as it did at the tail end of the Pre-Code Era (Will Hays’ Hollywood do’s & don’ts went into effect a few weeks before the film’s release). Victor Fleming was one of MGM’s top directors, and he keeps a lively pace throughout the 105 minute running time, with nary a wasted scene. Fleming doesn’t get discussed a lot among film bloggers these days, but anybody with movies like THE VIRGINIAN, RED DUST , RECKLESS, CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS, THE WIZARD OF OZ, and GONE WITH THE freakin’ WIND on his resume must’ve known a thing or two about moviemaking!!

This was the first time I’d seen the 1934 TREASURE ISLAND, having been much more familiar with the 1950 Disney version. I wouldn’t dare try to pick between the two, so I’ll just say that both are fine films in their own rights, and leave it at that. But with sincerest apologies to Robert Newton, it’s pretty difficult not to choose Wallace Beery as the definitive screen Long John Silver!

Wasn’t Born to Follow: RIP Peter Fonda

It’s ironic that on this, the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock Festival, one of our biggest counter-culture icons has passed away. When I saw Peter Fonda had died at age 79, my first reaction was, “Gee, I didn’t know he was that old” (while sitting in an audience waiting for a concert by 72 -year-old Dennis DeYoung of Styx fame!). But we don’t really think of our pop culture heroes as ever aging, do we? I mean, c’mon… how could EASY RIDER’s Wyatt (aka Captain America) possibly be 79??

Be that as it may, Peter Fonda was born into Hollywood royalty February 23. 1940. Henry Fonda was already a star before Peter arrived, thanks to classics like YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE, JEZEBEL, YOUNG MR. LINCOLN, DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK, and THE GRAPES OF WRATH (released a month before Peter’s birth). Henry has often been described as cold and aloof, not showering much in the way of affection on young Peter and his older sister Jane. Their mother, Frances, committed suicide in a psych hospital, where she’d been admitted after the devastating news Henry wanted a divorce, in 1950, when Peter was just ten.

With Sandra Dee in “Tammy and the Doctor”

Despite (or more likely, because of) his father distance, young Peter began studying acting in college, hoping to follow in Henry’s footsteps. He began getting work in the early 60’s doing TV guest shots (NAKED CITY, WAGON TRAIN, THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR) and some movies (TAMMY AND THE DOCTOR, THE VICTORS, THE YOUNG LOVERS), nothing very memorable. He then became involved with the 60’s counter culture movement, getting arrested during the Sunset Strip riots and tripping on acid with The Beatles (the line “I know what it’s like to be dead” from The Fab Four’s “She Said She Said” is attributed to Fonda). As his hair got longer and his trips more frequent, acting work seemed to dry up… until Roger Corman came a-calling!

The Leader of the Pack: 1966’s “The Wild Angels”

Fonda’s two mid-60’s films with Corman solidified his image as a Hollywood rebel. THE WILD ANGELS was the prototype for all those bikersploitation flicks to come, with Fonda as leader of the pack Heavenly Blues, and another  Child of Tinseltown, Nancy Sinatra, as his ol’ lady. The film’s practically plotless, allowing Corman and uncredited script doctor Peter Bogdanovich to indulge in their outlaw biker fantasies, including this now-classic moment:

Next up was THE TRIP , and if you thought WILD ANGELES lacked in the plot department – hoo boy! This psychedelic 60’s ode to LSD was written by Jack Nicholson , and stars Fonda as an uptight director of TV commercials who tunes in, turns on, and drops out. In my 2017 review, I wrote that THE TRIP is “a visual and aural assault on the senses filled with kaleidoscopic imagery, stunning light show effects, and hallucinogenic nightmare sequences… (that) becomes pure film”. It was on this film Fonda met another Hollywood rebel struggling within the system…

…Dennis Hopper, who’d starred in his own AIP outlaw biker flick, THE GLORY STOMPERS . The two hit it off, and decided to make their own movie, their own way, with Fonda producing and Hopper directing.

Fonda and Hopper in 1969’s “Easy Rider”

Envisioned as a modern-day Western road trip, 1969’s EASY RIDER caught the 60’s counterculture zeitgeist perfectly, and became a huge hit. Largely improvised (though screenwriter Terry Southern always denied it), the film’s structure is about as loose as you can get, following Wyatt (Fonda) and Billy (Hopper) as they ride their choppers from LA to New Orleans after a successful cocaine deal to attend Mardi Gras. Their journey across America takes them to an Arizona farm, a hippie commune, and a night in a New Mexican jail, where they meet alcoholic lawyer Jack Nicholson (who copped his first Oscar nom here) before reaching The Big Easy, and that fateful final encounter with the dark side of America on a lonely stretch of highway. EASY RIDER’s look and attitude helped launch the New Hollywood movement, and featured a seminal rock score by artists like The Band, The Byrds, Jimi Hendrix, and Steppenwolf.

1971’s “The Hired Hand”

The success of EASY RIDER gave Fonda some clout, and his next picture THE HIRED HAND found him directing and starring as an Old West drifter who returns to his wife (Verna Bloom) after seven years. It’s a dark, moody piece that audiences didn’t quite get when first released; seen today, THE HIRED HAND has a lot going for it, including the performances of Fonda, Bloom, and Warren Oates, and some stunning cinematography from Vilmos Zsigmond.

With Brooke Shields in “Wanda Nevada”

After the box office failure of THE HIRED HAND, the bloom was off Fonda’s rose, and he spent most of the 70’s in a series of action flicks: DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY, RACE WITH THE DEVIL, KILLER FORCE, the sci-fi sequel FUTUREWORLD, FIGHTING MAD, OUTLAW BLUES, HIGH-BALLIN’ . Most are good, solid drive-in fare, but Peter’s really not given much to do. He returned to the director’s chair with 1979’s WANDA NEVADA, starring as a gambler who wins 13-year-old Brooke Shields in a card game, and the two hunt for hidden gold in the Grand Canyon. Critics of the day savaged the movie, but I’ve always liked it, and would recommend it to those interested in Fonda’s work. Plus, dad Henry Fonda has a cameo as a grizzled old prospector; it’s your only chance to see Fonda pere and fils share a screen moment together!

With Vanessa Zinn in “Ulee’s Gold”

To paraphrase Dylan, the times they were a-changin’, and Peter Fonda’s 80’s output isn’t all that interesting, except his cameo as a biker in Burt Reynolds’ THE CANNONBALL RUN, and his turn as a cult leader in Ted Kotcheff’s SPLIT IMAGE. But he made a major comeback with 1997’s ULEE’S GOLD, as a Florida bee (not ‘B’) keeper whose drug addicted daughter-in-law brings chaos into his well structured life. There’s a lot of the real-life Henry Fonda in Peter’s reticent Ulee Jackson, and he received an Oscar nomination for his performance, losing to old pal Jack Nicholson for AS GOOD AS IT GETS.

Most of the next twenty years found Peter Fonda doing supporting parts or brief cameos. The Sixties had come and gone, that free-spirited era existing only in nostalgic memory. But as long as the music and movies of the times are with us, as long as there’s a biker cruising down the highway on his (or her) Harley, the spirit of those times, and of Peter Fonda, will always be with us. Rest in peace, Captain America.