SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT
"Why are we doing this? 'Cause it ain't ever been done!"
THE INSIDE TRACK
What can you say about the movie that created the mold?
"Smokey and the Bandit" hit theatre screens in 1977 and was the #3 movie of the year behind "Star Wars" and "Close Encounters", grossing $127 million. "Smokey" turned Burt from a star, into a mega star, and made him the #1 box office attraction in North America for six years running. To get an idea what an impact "Smokey" made, reflect that $127 million in 1977 would translate to close to twice that today. A major hit any way you slice it, and a big surprise for a movie the studio had pegged for a quick drive-in playoff.
The B-Movie studios had started off the "good old boy" car movie trend with stuff like the Ron Howard starrer "Eat My Dust" (1976), but "Smokey" was the first out of the starting gate to add a major studio budget and star to the formula. The car stunts, though pedestrian today, were pretty exciting stuff for 1977. Obviously, there was an audience waiting, and it created a pattern for Burt's career. Each year he'd star in a "real movie", alternated with a car flick to rev up his fans. The formula worked pretty well until "Cannonball II" in 1984, at which point the formula petered out, along with Burt's reign as box office king.
"Smokey" also brought Jackie Gleason back to prominence. After several years of living on past glories, he became a star again. "Smokey II" (1980) and his last film, the Tom Hanks dramedy "Nothing Common" (1986) were hits. "The Sting II" (1983), the Burt-less "Smokey 3"(1983), and the Richard Pryor vehicle "They Toy" (1982) were not, but it was still a return to form after seven years off the screen. He passed on in June of 1987, still in demand. One of Jackie's biggest behind the scenes contributions to "Smokey" was the cafe scene between he and Burt- it wasn't in the original script. Jackie felt the two main characters should meet at some point in the story so the scene was written and filmed.
Sally Field became the most highly respected star to come out of "Smokey", winning an Oscar in 1979 for "Norma Rae", a trick she repeated in 1984 for "Place In The Heart". Her "You like me, you really like me!", Oscar speech for "Places" is legendary.
Needham used the capital achieved with "Smokey's" box office success to make his tribute to stuntmen, "Hooper" in 1978 and a Burt-less western comedy called "The Villain" in 1979. Though "The Villain" was not a hit, it is of dubious historical value, being the first film to harness the comedic potential of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Critics were not kind to "Smokey" on it's initial release, but box office spoke louder than words, and it's still got a dedicated cult following. Rumours of a comeback crop up every so often. In February of 2004, rumours hit the internet of a film called "Smokey and the Bandit 4000", which was to take place in outer space in the year, you guessed it, 4000. It's probably all crap- you don't just "happen" upon a director prepping a film in a series you, by the way, have encyclopedic knowledge of, but it's fun speculation. You can read about it HERE. They've got a point about Vince Vaughn, however...
"Smokey and the Bandit II" followed in 1980 and was another big hit. It's easy to see why "Smokey and the Bandit Part 3", in 1983 was not ( and why it's not really covered on this web site). Burt appears only in a brief cameo in "Smokey 3" and Needham sat this one out completely. The film started shooting as "Smokey IS the Bandit", with Gleason playing both roles. Test audiences were confused and the film was re-shot with Jerry Reed in the Bandit role. What became of the footage with Gleason in both parts is unknown, but what remains is a terrible excuse for a comedy. If the original "Smokey" movies were wilfully mindless, this one is downright retarded, and despite it's troubled production history, it was dumped by Universal in the dog days of August 1983. There it bombed and disappeared quickly. Yes the whole car flick genre was petering out by this point- "Stroker Ace" didn't do much better earlier that Summer- but this one deserved, and got, a quick death.
THE classic of southern good old boy car chase movies. If you like this kind of movie, or are even interested in the genre from a historical perspective, this is the place to start. So what makes this more than the sum of its parts? Why did this succeed and spawn so many imitators when so many like it failed? Sure there's cool car chases, lots of laughs, and a rural vibe that you just don't get in car chase movies anymore ("Fast and the Furious" etc.), but I'd venture to say it's mostly due to the cast.
Jackie Gleason gives it his all. Buford T. Justice is a racist, pompous ass. But Gleason doesn't sugar coat. He's got the nominal villain role, yet he's so committed to the character he becomes somewhat likeable. There's a man inside this caricature, and Gleason finds him.
Jerry Reed is a whole lot of fun here. I'm surprised he didn't have a big movie career. Look at him in the Bandit movies and in the under rated Robin Williams comedy "The Survivors" and tell me anyone can play an unassuming good old boy with a sarcastic edge as well.
Then there's Sally Field. I'm not surprised she DID have a big movie career. She's got a great sarcastic edge to her that separates her from the arm candy you usually find in these kind of films. She doesn't take crap from anybody, and you can see how she could tame a good old boy like the Bandit. I absolutely love the scene where they stop for a few minutes in the woods and find out they kind of like each other. It's quiet, surprisingly sweet, and, unlike most of the movies in this genre, slows down the movie for a few minutes so you actually have time to care about the characters as people. As for the chemistry between her and Burt...well, it's clear they were falling in love in real as well as reel life.
The supporting characters,? I've never been a big fan of Mike Henry's Junior character, but I guess Buford needs a foil. His utter stupidity gets real grating real fast. Big Enos and Little Enos? Well, see "Smokey III" to see what a mistake it is to have three obnoxious blowhards as main characters.
Then there's Burt. it takes a lot of charm to carry a movie about main character who is a self involved macho jerk at heart, but he pulls it off. I can think of few actors who could carry this material and not only make it fun, but raise it to an iconic level. Burt is great here playing, what many will tell you at the time, was more or less just Burt being Burt.
"Smokey and the Bandit" ain't art, but it's a fun movie that created a subgenre all its own.
THOUGHTS WHILE WATCHING
The woman who plays Jerry Reed's wife looks and sounds a hell of a lot like "Halloween" and "Rock N' Roll High School" star P.J. Soles. I was convinced it was her for the longest time, until IMDB set me straight. She's an actress by the name of Linda McClure who also appears in the first "Cannonball" as the woman saying "That's the dumbest thing I've seen since that dimwit tried to jump the grand canyon".
Uh...somewhat lacking. Sonny Shroyer who later played Enos on "The Dukes of Hazzard" appears as a motorcycle cop, and Alfie Wise, who played Batman in "Cannonball" is a highway patrol man, but that's about it.
Available from Universal Home video, most recently as a Special Edition with a Making Of documentary featuring new interviews with Burt, Hal Needham, and Paul Williams, as well as a "CB Tutorial". It's also been remastered with crisper picture and a stereo soundtrack.
Prior to that, Universal released it as a single with no extras, and again as part of their 'Franchise Collection'. What they call the "Smokey and the Bandit Pursuit Pack" includes all three movies on one double sided disc. No extras, not even trailers, but the trilogy is presented in widescreen.
Burt Reynolds, Jackie Gleason, Jerry Reed, Sally Field, Paul Williams, Pat McCormick