Drive-In Saturday Night 3: MACON COUNTY LINE (AIP 1974)/RETURN TO MACON COUNTY (AIP 1975)


Yee-haw! Southern Fried Exploitation was box office gold during the 1970’s, a  genre that usually had one or more of the following elements: race cars, moonshine, redneck sheriffs, scantily clad country girls, shotguns, and/or Burt Reynolds .  One of the foremost practitioners of this art was Max Baer, namesake son of the heavyweight boxer and erstwhile Jethro Bodine of TV’s THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, who scored a surprise hit when he produced, wrote, and costarred in 1974’s MACON COUNTY LINE.

The story’s set in the 50’s, complete with some vintage tunes on the soundtrack (The Chords’ “Sh-Boom”, Laverne Baker’s “Jim Dandy”, Big Joe Turner’s “Corrine, Corrina”). “The story is true”, reads a pre-credits scrawl, “only the names have been changed” (Actually, the story was concocted by Baer and director Richard Compton, but what the hey…). Brothers Chris and Wayne Dixon (played by brothers Alan and Jesse Vint ) are a pair of fun lovin’ cats on a road trip through the Deep South before heading into the service. They pick up hitchhiking hottie Jenny Scott (Cheryl Waters) in Louisiana, and the three of them drift along down the highway.

The lighthearted tone ends on the return trip when the brother’s ’49 Chrysler breaks down in Georgia. The hick garage mechanic (Geoffrey Lewis in a funny part that seems almost improvised) tells them they need a fuel pump, but they don’t have enough cash, so he jury-rigs it for them. Gun-loving Macon County Deputy Reed Morgan (Baer) pulls into the garage and hassles the trio, letting them know in no uncertain terms to get out of town when their car’s repaired or be arrested for vagrancy. Morgan heads to pick up his son (Leif Garrett) at military school while the Dixons and Jenny wait for the slow-poke hick to fix the damn car.

While Morgan’s out of town, a pair of home-invading creeps (James Gammon, Timothy Scott) force their way into his house and rape and murder his wife (Joan Blackman ). The creeps also smoke a cop who pulls them over, but end up caught by the cop’s partner (Sam Gilman) after a car crash. Meanwhile, Morgan returns home with his boy to discover the carnage inside, sees the Dixon’s abandoned car near his house (the pump shit the bed again), and all hell breaks loose, as Morgan hunts down the trio into the dark Georgia night. The final portion of MACON COUNTY LINE plays like a horror film, with Chris, Wayne, and Jenny trapped in a nightmare, and a shocking surprise ending that packs a lethal punch!

The camerawork by DP Daniel Lacambre is startlingly good for a low-budget effort like this, and Compton’s direction helps ratchet up the tension. Baer gives a surprisingly effective performance as the ramrod-straight Morgan, shattering his country bumpkin Jethro image forever. Bobbie Gentry sings the closing credits theme song “Another Place, Another Time”, and Baer would later produce and direct the film adaptation of her biggest hit, “Ode to Billy Joe”. MACON COUNTY LINE was the most profitable film of the year, costing $225,000 and raking in over $30 million worldwide, so you just know a sequel was inevitable.

While Jesse and Alan Vint never rose much above low-budget Exploitation fare, the stars of 1975’s RETURN TO MACON COUNTY – Don Johnson and Nick Nolte – certainly did. Baer wasn’t involved in this, so writer/director Compton takes sole responsibility for this 1958-set sequel (despite several anachronisms, like Hamburger Helper on the general store shelves and a 70’s-era Smokey the Bear public service billboard), and guess what – it’s not bad! Compton seems to be going for an AMERICAN GRAFFITI vibe, only with a harder and darker edge. Like it’s predecessor, RETURN TO MACON COUNTY is peppered with classic 50’s rock on the soundtrack (Fats Domino, Chuck Berry , Eddie Cochran, Ricky Nelson , The Fleetwoods, The Ventures), otherwise it has little to no relationship to the original besides the title.

Since most of the protagonists in MACON COUNTY LINE wound up dead, we’re introduced to Nolte and Johnson as Bo and Luke – umm, that’s Bo and Harley – and their spiffy, fuel-injected ’57 Chevy, which they plan on driving out to California to enter and win the Grand National. Along the way, they pick up wild child waitress Junelle (Robin Mattson) and cruise on down the highway. When Harley gets in a jam with some local JD’s (that’s Juvenile Delinquents) and loses all their money, the trio go back to town to retrieve it, with crazy Junelle pulling a gun on the JD’s! They cause quite a ruckus, and run afoul of Macon County Police Sgt. Wittaker (the always-hissable Robert Viharo). Bo punches the cop out, and the chase is on, with both the JD’s and a pissed off Wittaker out for revenge…

Johnson and Nolte are both likeable in early roles, but it’s Mattson who stands out as the off-center (and obviously disturbed) Junelle. She went on to fame as a Soap Opera Queen on shows like GENERAL HOSPITAL, SANTA BARBARA, and ALL MY CHILDREN (and as an aside to all you film buffs, the Script Supervisor listed in the credits is Shirley Ulmer, widow of cult director Edgar G. Ulmer ). The oddball ending of the film is completely unexpected, but it did  leave me feeling satisfied.  RETURN TO MACON COUNTY didn’t do nearly as well as the first film, but stands on its own as a good example of Southern Fried Exploitation. I’d recommend both of these films, each for different reasons. What do ya’ll think, Burt?…

Burt agrees- both!

 

 

Existential Exploitation: BOBBIE JO & THE OUTLAW (AIP 1976)

I discussed filmmaker Vernon Zimmerman in a post on his UNHOLY ROLLERS back in January. Zimmerman wrote the script (but did not direct) for 1976’s BOBBIE JO & THE OUTLAW, which on the surface is just another sex’n’violence laden redneck exploitation film. Yet after a recent viewing, it seemed to me Zimmerman was not just delving into exploitation, but exploring something more: disaffected youth, gun culture, the cult of personality, and violence in America, themes that still resonate today.

Former child evangelist turned rock star turned actor Marjoe Gortner is Lyle Wheeler, a drifter who enters quick draw contests and idolizes Billy the Kid. Lyle’s a hustler, as we find out as he pulls into a gas station and steals a Mustang from a travelling salesman. Lyle outruns a police car hot on his tail, causing the cop to go off the road, and revs into the next town, where he meets Bobbie Jo.

She’s played by Lynda Carter, a small town carhop with big dreams of country music success. Bobbie Jo has a mother (B Western vet Peggy Stewart) who nags and drinks on the sly, and a sister Pearl (Merrie Lynn Ross) who left home to be a stripper. She doesn’t date the local boys, who quite frankly are just lusting after her big boobs, but when outsider Lyle shows up, the two find an immediate attraction and hook up.

The young lovers, along with Bobbie Jo’s hippie pal Essie (Belinda Balaski), hit the road for a series of adventures that includes trouble with some tough Mexicans at a bar and tripping on mushrooms in the mountains with an Indian shaman. They visit sister Pearl and her sleazy boyfriend Slick Callahan (Exploitation star Jesse Vint), who pulls a payroll robbery that ends when Lyle shoots and kills the guard. Now the quintet, like a modern-day Barrow gang, are hunted outlaws, and when scared Essie drops a dime to the sheriff, she’s killed in the crossfire of a deadly shootout. Lyle vows retribution by pulling off a bank robbery, leading to a crime and murder spree across New Mexico….

Zimmerman’s script transplants BONNIE & CLYDE to mid-70’s America and is peppered with cinematic allusions, including a doomed deputy named Abel Gance. He shows us the ennui of the character’s lives, all of whom are societal outcasts that together form their own version of the nuclear family unit. Mark L. Lester takes the director’s chair; he’s known for some interesting Exploitation films of his own (TRUCK STOP WOMEN, CLASS OF 1999, FIRESTARTER, COMMANDO, SHOWDOWN IN LITTLE TOKYO), as well as the notorious dud ROLLER BOOGIE. Two side notes: this was the first film for future director Chuck Russell (NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS, THE MASK, THE SCORPION KING), who worked on the film as Production Supervisor, 2nd Assistant Director, and appears as one of the deputies. Former Monogram/Allied Artists president Steve Broidy (who knew a thing or two about exploitation films) served as co-producer.

Marjoe Gortner, never the greatest of actors, does yeoman’s work as the delusional Lyle, and a pre-WONDER WOMAN Lynda Carter is fine indeed as Bobbie Jo.  The movie is famous for being the only time Lynda goes topless onscreen, but there’s much more to it than that. BOBBIE JO & THE OUTLAW may not rank as one of the 70’s best films, but I posit here it is certainly one of the most underrated. Am I reading too much into it? Should I just enjoy the violent joyride and the nubile charms of Lynda Carter? All movies are subjective; watch it and judge for yourselves, and see if you agree or disagree.