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

cracked rear viewer

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…

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A Movie A Day #182: FM (1978, directed by John A. Alonzo)

Hey, California!  Are you ready to soft rock!?

That is the question asked by FM, a movie about rock that tries to stick it to the man with some of the safest, least revolutionary music ever recorded.

FM is centered around Q-Sky, an FM radio station in Los Angeles.  Because the laid back station manager (Michael Brandon) allows his DJs to program their own music with little commercial interruption, Q-Sky has become one of the most popular radio stations in California.  The corporate suits, though, demand that Q-Sky play less music and air more commercials, especially one that is specifically designed to get mellow Californians to join the Army.  When Brandon refuses, he is fired.  Outraged, Q-Sky’s motley crew of DJs (who include Martin Mull, Cleavon Little, Eileen Brennan, and even former football great Alex Karras) barricade themselves in the station and lead a protest by playing their music without commercials.

That would all be well and good except that the DJs spend most of their time playing songs by such noted rockers as Jimmy Buffett, Billy Joel, and REO Speedwagon.  A major set piece of the film is Q-Sky’s attempt to secretly broadcast a Linda Ronstadt concert that is being sponsored by a rival station.  At a time when Johnny Rotten was still singing Anarchy in the UK,  Q-Sky’s idea of rebellion was to go from Bob Seger to James Taylor with limited commercial interruption.

The always reliable Martin Mull is always good for some laughs and this was the only movie directed by award-winning cinematographer John A. Alonzo so, if nothing else, FM always looks good.  With its ensemble cast and episodic narrative, FM tries hard to be an Altmanesque satire but, ultimately, it fails because the revolution is not going to sound like The Doobie Brothers.

(Even though The Doobie Brothers clearly rock.)

“Who likes The Doobie Brothers?”

Because Michael Brandon looked like Gary Sandy and Martin Mull possessed a passing resemblance to Howard Hesseman, some reference books state that FM was the inspiration for WKRP in Cincinatti.  However, the first season of WKRP was already in production before FM was released to theaters and FM was such a financial flop that it is doubtful it inspired anything.

Add to that, while Venus Flytrap probably could have made it work, Dr. Johnny Fever would never have fit in at Q-Sky.  Johnny’s frequent acid flashbacks would have unnerved the mellow Q-Sky vibes.  Herb Tarlek, on the other hand…

“It must be a struggle to match the belt with the shoes.”
“Sometimes, I can’t do it.”


A Movie A Day #114: Scavenger Hunt (1979, directed by Michael Schultz)

When game designer Milton Parker (Vincent Price) dies, all of his greedy relatives and his servants gather for the reading of his will.  Parker’s lawyer, Benstein (Robert Morley), explains that Parker is leaving behind a $200 million dollar estate to whoever can win an elaborate scavenger hunt.  Dividing into five teams, the beneficiaries head out to track down as many items as they can by five o’clock that evening.  Among the items that they have to find: a toilet, a cash register, an ostrich, a microscope, and an obese person.  Hardy har har.

The five teams are made up of a who’s who of sitcom and television actors who had time to kill in 1979.  The Odd Couple‘s Tony Randall is Henry Motely, who is Parker’s son-in-law and who works with his four children.  Soap‘s Richard Mulligan plays a blue-collar taxi driver named Marvin Dummitz (because funny names are funny) who teams up with his friend, Merle (Stephen Furst).  The Mary Tyler Moore Show‘s Cloris Leachman (an Oscar winner, no less) gets stuck with the role of Milton’s greedy sister, Mildred.  She works with her conniving lawyer (Richard Benjamin) and her stupid son (Richard Masur).  Maureen Teefy plays Milton’s niece while his nephews are played by Willie Aames and Dirk Benedict.  Cleavon Little, James Coco, Roddy McDowall, and Stephanie Faracy play the servants.

It doesn’t stop there, though.  Avery Schreiber plays a zookeeper.  Meat Loaf plays a biker who beats up Richard Benjamin.  Ruth Gordon, Stuart Pankin, Pat McCormick, and Scatman Crothers all have cameos.  Even Arnold Schwarzenegger makes an appearance as a gym instructor who knocks Tony Randall out of a second story window.

There are a lot of famous people in Scavenger Hunt.  It’s just too bad that the movie itself is barely watchable and not at all funny.  It tries to go for the zaniness of It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World but, unless watching Willie Aames steal a clown head from Jack in the Box is your idea of hilarity, the film never comes close to succeeding.  Michael Schultz directed some classic films (like Car Wash) during the 1970s but, unfortunately, he also directed Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and this.

Scavenger Hunt used to show up on a late night television, where it was always advertised as starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.  (He barely has five minutes of screentime.)  It was released on DVD/Blu-ray earlier this year but watching for the cameos is the only reason to take part in this Scavenger Hunt.