Built For Speed: Richard Pryor in GREASED LIGHTNING (Warner Brothers 1977)

Richard Pryor  (1940-2005) has been hailed as a comedy genius, and rightly so. But Pryor could also more than hold his own in a dramatic role. Films like WILD IN THE STREETS, LADY SINGS THE BLUES, and BLUE COLLAR gave him the opportunity to strut his thespic stuff, and GREASED LIGHTNING gave him top billing as Wendell Scott, the first African-American NASCAR driver. Pryor plays it straight in this highly fictionalized biopic about a man determined to break the color barrier in the predominantly white sport of stock car racing.

We see Scott returning to his rural Danville, VA hometown after serving in WWII.  He tells everyone he wants to drive a cab and someday open a garage, but his secret wish is to become “a champion race car driver”. He meets and falls in love with Mary (Pam Grier, who’s never looked more beautiful), and they eventually marry. Meanwhile, Wendell and his friend Peewee (the always welcome Cleavon Little ) begin running moonshine, eluding local Sheriff Cotton (Vincent Gardenia) for five years before finally getting busted.

A local race promoter (Noble Willingham) who’s heard of Wendell’s driving skills bails him out, wanting to put him in a car and “make some money offa his black ass”, believing blacks will turn out in droves to cheer him on, while the whites will want to see him crash and burn – literally! With loyal mechanic Woodrow (singer Richie Havens) and white ex-driver Hutch (Beau Bridges) as his pit crew, Wendell battles the odds, not to mention redneck rival Beau Wells (Earl Hindman, neighbor Wilson of TV’s HOME IMPROVEMENT), as he races in Darlington, Atlanta, Bristol, Charlotte, Daytona, and other famous tracks, until becoming a bona fide star. A serious crash puts Wendell out of racing, but he stages a miraculous comeback (really, is there any other kind in these films?) against Mary’s wishes, entering the Grand National and winning the checkered flag!

Pryor plays the NASCAR legend with grit and determination, not letting anything stop him from achieving his dream, including the prejudice of the era. He and Pam Grier began dating around the time of GREASED LIGHTNING, and the affection the two had between them shows onscreen. The supporting cast is terrific, and Hindman’s Beau Wells is a composite of several NASCAR drivers, including legend Richard Petty. Others in the cast include civil rights activist Julian Bond in the small role of Pam’s first boyfriend, Lucy Saroyan (daughter of writer William) as Bridges’ wife, and Bill Cobbs as Pam’s dad.

Director Michael Schultz keeps the pedal to the metal, and has quite a decent resume himself: COOLEY HIGH, CAR WASH, the Pryor comedies WHICH WAY IS UP? and BUSTIN’ LOOSE, and KRUSH GROOVE (we won’t talk about SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND or DISORDERLIES!). The real stars of GREASED LIGHTNING may be stunt coordinator Ted Duncan and his team of drivers, who make the track action look real, along with some skillful editing by Randy Roberts and Bob Wyman. Filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles (SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG) is among four credited writers.

GREASED LIGHTNING may not be entirely factual, but it is entirely entertaining, and was obviously a labor of love for Richard Pryor. The story of a man overcoming all obstacles to achieve his dream is something Richard Pryor could definitely relate to, and through all his real-life trials and tribulations and, like Wendell Scott, he did just that.

The real Wendell Scott (1921-1990)

Way Out West: BLAZING SADDLES (Warner Brothers 1974)

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So last night I tried watching Seth MacFarlane’s A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST. At about the twenty minute mark, I came to the conclusion the film totally sucked, and deleted it from the DVR. I was still in the mood for some Western comedy though, and fortunately I had Mel Brooks’ BLAZING SADDLES in the queue and ready to roll. BLAZING SADDLES never fails to make me laugh out loud no matter how many times I watch it. Nobody does fart jokes like Mel Brooks:

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The story revolves around Cleavon Little as Bart, a black man appointed sheriff of Rock Ridge by Governor LePetomane (Google it!). This doesn’t go over well with the God-fearin’ town citizens, since Bart is black, and they’re a bunch of redneck racists. It’s all a scheme by the Gov’s crooked Attorney General Hedy Lamarr…oops, that’s HEDLEY!  You see, Hedy (err, Hedley) knows the railroad is going to go through Rock Ridge and wants to drive the townsfolk out so he can buy up all the land. No one stands by Bart’s side except The Waco Kid (Gene Wilder), formerly the fastest gun in the West, now a broken down drunkard.

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Hedy (ahem, Hedley!) sends Mongo, the meanest man in the West, to terrorize Rock Ridge and get rid of Bart. Unfortunately, Mongo has a brain the size of a pea, and is easily outwitted by Bart. So the devious Hedy (THAT’S HEDLEY!) sends his ace in the hole, German chanteuse Lily Von Schtupp to seduce him. The tables are turned when Lily finds out just how “gifted” Bart is! Finally, the most dastardly villains of the West are assembled, “an army of…rustlers, cutthroats, murderers, bounty hunters…muggers, buggerers, horse thieves, bull dykes”  to raid Rock Ridge and kill everyone in sight! The grand finale breaks the fourth wall as a wild and wooly slapstick melee ends up going through the Warner Brothers lot!

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Little is a riot as Bart, his cartoonish antics making him a black Bugs Bunny come to life. Wilder gives a sly performance as The Waco Kid, and Harvey Korman is hysterical as the fiendish Hedley Lamarr (whom everyone calls Hedy in a running joke). Western vet Slim Pickens is funny too, as Hedley’s lunkheaded henchman Taggart. Madeline Kahn does her best Marlene Dietrich impression as Lily Von Schtupp, with the pronunciation of Elmer Fudd. Her song, “I’m Tired”, is one of many highlights. Football legend Alex Karras plays the hulking Mongo as an overgrown kid, while John Hillerman, David Huddleston, George Furth, and Dom DeLuise also add to the fun.

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Mel Brooks directed and had a hand in the screenplay, as well as playing three roles (The Gov, a Yiddish speaking Indian, and one of Lily’s Prussian back-up dancers). Like any Mel Brooks comedy, there’s enough here to offend everybody:  racist humor, politically incorrect gags, sexual innuendo, slapstick tomfoolery, plus lots of Hollywood in-jokes to savor in this no-holds-barred comedy classic. When it comes to spoofing the Western genre, sorry Seth, but Make Mine Mel! I’ll give the last word to that prairie philosopher, Mongo:

 

Highway Star: VANISHING POINT (20th Century Fox, 1971)

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VANISHING POINT is one of the best films of the 1970s. Much more than just an extended car chase, the movie explores the eternal struggle between the individual and the system. Though a product of its time, it still resonates as an exploration of the rejection people have for the establishment and the desire for liberty.

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The film starts at the end, as we see the police setting up bulldozers to block the road. News media are arriving, people are gathering in the streets, and helicopters fly overhead. A white Dodge Challenger, driven by a man only known as Kowalski (Barry Newman), is heading straight for the dozers at full speed. He bangs a U-turn, only to have three cop cars coming at him in the other direction. After smashing through a barbed wire fence to avoid the cops, he stops for a moment near some junked cars, then turns back on the road and heads toward the bulldozers….

The movie then switches gears to two days previous. Kowalski drops off a car in Denver and decides to immediately take another one to San Francisco. He stops at a biker bar to cop some speed from his dealer. Telling the dealer he’s going to make it to Frisco by tomorrow at 3:00pm, they make a bet that Kowalski won’t make it. He cruises down the open road at breakneck speed, when two motorcycle cops tell him to pull over. Kowalski runs then both off the road and the chase is on. Blind DJ Super Soul (Cleavon Little of BLAZING SADDLES) acts as his eyes and ears, guiding him past the police by monitoring their radio frequency. When some local yokels crash Super Soul’s station, beating up the DJ and his engineer (John Amos), Kowalski discovers he’s truly on his own, as police in three states try to hunt him down.

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We learn Kowalski’s background through a series of flashbacks. He’s a Vietnam veteran (and Medal of Honor winner) who became a cop. Discharged form the force on trumped up charges, he raced motocross and stock cars. His girlfriend (Victoria Medlin) died in a surfing accident, and Kowalski dropped out of society altogether, trying to outrun life itself by swallowing copious amounts of speed and delivering cars at a fast pace. He’s always on the move, restless, dissatisfied with the world as he knows it. Kowalski represents the last of the rugged individualists, a free spirit who’s decided to create his own world unencumbered by the restraints of establishment standards.

There are short vignettes through the picture highlighting Kowalski’s brief encounters with other humans. While driving through the desert to elude the cops, he gets a flat tire. A rattlesnake threatens him, but an old man (veteran actor Dean Jagger) appears and captures the snake, putting it in his basket with others. He’s also a societal dropout, trading the snakes for coffee and beans. The old timer helps Kowalski hide from police helicopters under some tumbleweeds, then takes him to some hippie “Jesus freaks” (led by character actor Severn Darden) to get some gas. The old man has what Kowalski longs for…total freedom from the world at large. But Kowalski always has to keep moving, unwilling to put roots down in one place.

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A biker named Angel (Timothy Scott) passes him on the highway, giving him the thumbs up. Kowalski is now a media sensation, thanks to Super Soul and the public’s hunger for sensationalism. Angel invites Kowalski to his shack and gives him more speed, when they hear Super Soul broadcasting the only way out is through Sonora. But the DJ’s voice sounds “mechanical, square” according to Angel’s completely nude (and uninhibited) girlfriend (Gilda Texter). Angel heads down the highway to check. Sure enough, there’s a roadblock waiting for Kowalski, so Angel devises a way for the Challenger to get through. Kowalski continues to the California border, as we see scenes of the ultra-efficient California Highway Patrol machine determined to stop him. The film circles back to the beginning now, as Kowalski heads towards the bulldozers. Putting the pedal to the metal, he rams head-on into them, going out his own way in a final, defiant blaze of glory.

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Director Richard C. Sarafian made some good movies (this one, MAN IN THE WILDERNESS, THE MAN WHO LOVED CAT DANCING) and some clunkers (SUNBURN, STREET JUSTICE, SOLAR CRISIS). VANISHING POINT is his best, from a script by Guillermo Cain. The beautiful Western scenery was shot by cinematographer John A. Alonzo, who cut his teeth on documentaries, then went on to lens Roger Corman’s BLOODY MAMA, HAROLD AND MAUDE, LADY SINGS THE BLUES, CHINATOWN (Osacr nominated), FAREWELL MY LOVELY, and SCARFACE. Editor Stefan Arnsten got his start with Hugo Haas (HIT AND RUN), then did mostly television; his film credits include HARPER and KID BLUE.

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The soundtrack features Delaney & Bonnie and Friends (who also appear as the Jesus freak’s hippie band), Mountain (doing their classic “Mississippi Queen”), Big Mama Thornton, Jerry Reed, Kim Carnes, and the Doug Dillard Expedition. VANSHING POINT was an influential film, inspiring Quentin Tarantino’s DEATH PROOF. The movie’s iconic ending was paid tribute in the series finale of SONS OF ANARCHY. I first saw it at the drive-in, and wanted a Dodge Challenger bad (I still do)! And I still want that elusive freedom sought by Kowalski, still elusive to many in this uptighter than ever world.

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