Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Barwood and Robbins

Mark Hamill in Corvette Summer (1978).

When TCM ran Corvette Summer not long ago, I decided to take another look at it. The last time I’d seen it was in a movie theatre in 1978 and I’d been surprised and delighted by it. It starred Mark Hamill – it was his first movie after the car accident that disfigured him during the shooting of Star Wars – as a graduating high-school senior from the suburbs of L.A. with a gift for auto mechanics (the auto shop teacher, played by Eugene Roche, is his hero) who is obsessed with a ’73 Corvette Stingray that he and his class rescued from a junkpile and reconstructed into a spangly, candy-apple, eye-popping gem. When it’s stolen and he learns that it’s been spotted in Las Vegas, he goes in search of it. The irresistible, uncategorizable Annie Potts – a wild card like Betty Hutton in her Preston Sturges comedies – plays the novice prostitute he meets when he arrives; eventually she overcomes his nervousness and gets him into bed, and then they become a couple. The movie turned out to be as much fun as I’d remembered, as great to look at, and as unusual in tone and texture. It was the first picture Matthew Robbins directed, and he inspired the usually lackluster cinematographer, Frank Stanley, to give it a rainbow palette and a neon glow. Corvette Summer is a road movie, a teen comedy and a coming-of-age movie, but it’s highly unconventional as an entry in all three of those genres. Yes, there’s a romance between Hamill’s Kenneth Dantley and Potts’s Vanessa (and a very satisfying one), but the real love story is between Kenneth and the Stingray. The story takes twists you don’t see coming, and not all of them work; neither do all the tonal shifts. But the movie’s charm never wears off, and more than four decades later it still feels fresh.

Much of that charm derives from its screenplay, the fourth of a half-dozen that Robbins co-wrote with Hal Barwood, whom he’d met at UCLA. I hadn’t thought about Barwood and Robbins in years; they stopped turning out scripts together in 1985, and Barwood went on to design and direct video games for George Lucas, another UCLA pal. (Robbins still writes for the movies, though he hasn’t directed much, more’s the pity.) Their movies didn’t zing at the box office – Dragonslayer, released in 1981, made a little money – and the material they worked on was too pop to gain them much critical notice, though Pauline Kael remained fairly consistently in their corner. But four of their six collaborations were solid entertainments. The other two were the 1977 MacArthur and their last, Warning Sign. Warning Sign, which Barwood directed, is a bummer – a melodrama about a disastrous industrial accident at a biotech company that has been developing germ warfare under the radar. It’s hard to say what the writers intended with MacArthur because the director, Joseph Sargent, was a hack, Gregory Peck was ridiculously miscast as General Douglas MacArthur, and almost no one in the supporting cast managed to convey much. And since it was the only mainstream Hollywood picture Barwood and Robbins ever worked on, who knows how much of what they actually wrote wound up on the screen? The other four movies, however, all glisten with talent – for telling an offbeat story , for mixing humor and drama, for writing engaging characters. But the movies are quite different, except for the significant populist element they all share.

William Atherton and Goldie Hawn in Steven Spielberg’s theatrical debut feature The Sugarland Express (1974).

They lucked out with the first screenplay they sold, The Sugarland Express (1974): it was Steven Spielberg’s big-screen debut (after he’d dazzled everyone with his TV movie Duel), the one that got him Jaws. Sugarland is so staggeringly well directed – and shot, God knows, by that magician Vilmos Zsigmond – that Barwood and Robbins didn’t get the credit they deserved for their terrific script. Plus the movie wasn’t a hit. Based on a true story, it’s also a road picture, but nothing like the later Corvette Summer, though both stories include crime. Goldie Hawn and William Atherton play a young Texas couple, Lou Jean and Clovis Poplin, both sent to prison for relatively petty crimes. Clovis is four months away from freedom, which he’s sitting out in pre-release. Lou Jean is already out, but her attempts to be reunited with their baby son have fallen through. While she was inside, Baby Langston was put in the care of a respectable middle-class couple who have adopted him, and she can’t get near him. So she shows up for family day at Clovis’s pre-release facility and springs him; in an extended comedy of errors, they steal a car, kidnap a state trooper named Maxwell Slide (played by Michael Sacks), and lead a caravan of cop cars – keeping them at a distance by holding Slide hostage – all the way to a place called Sugarland, where they believe they can swoop down on the adoptive parents, scoop up their child, and boogie over the Mexican border. Along the way they become, briefly, local culture heroes: as they drive through the towns along their route, working-class people hand them gifts through the car window and voice their support. “He’s your baby,” affirms one young mother. “Don’t let them take him away from you.”

This is the first time you see how good the writers are at tonal shifts and overlapping tones. The movie is often funny, even farcical, which brings out Spielberg’s gift for staging and shooting farce. Yet we know that the Poplins’ quest is doomed, and the very qualities that make them so winning – their naiveté, their optimism, their goofiness – are paving the way to that doom. This is one of those rare Hollywood movies that portrays working-class people without a trace of condescension; Barwood and Robbins show us how impossible the Poplins’ dreams are (and the beliefs of the folks who cheer for them to get Baby Langston back) without ever falling into the trap of making fun of them. And Spielberg and his bravura trio of leading actors share the credit for this virtue. Hawn, who has the showpiece role, got the reviews, and along with Shampoo (the next year) it lifted her status as a serious performer. But Sacks, who had starred in the movie version of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five two years earlier, gives a beautifully balanced performance as the callow, earnest Slide, who befriends the Poplins. (His career faded out afterwards, and in the mid-eighties he left acting to work in the technology industry.) And the lauded stage actor William Atherton, who had been in the original casts of two of the signal American plays of the era, John Guare’s The House of Blue Leaves and David Rabe’s The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, does remarkable work in the complicated part of Clovis, who is so much in thrall to his wife that he keeps silencing the alarm in his head as they get in deeper and deeper. When the movie turns to tragedy, it’s his tragedy.

James Earl Jones in The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976).

Most of Barwood and Robbins’s movies mark someone’s directorial debut – Spielberg’s, Robbins’s, Barwood’s and, in the case of The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976), John Badham’s. (His second movie, Saturday Night Fever, came out a year later.) This is a freewheeling movie, set during the Depression, about a crew of African American baseball players, led by Bingo (Billy Dee Williams), who form a barnstorming ball club, winning white as well as black fans as they wend their way through the Midwestern countryside. Bingo Long is a bit of a mess; every time the filmmakers switch to a scene involving the villains, an unscrupulous undertaker (Ted Ross) and his cronies, who run the black baseball league that Bingo and his fellow players break away from to form their own organization, it becomes melodramatic and the comedy gets both broad and tawdry. But the script has a lot going on in it:  it’s the first movie or play I can think of that addresses the mixed feelings of black performers – since they have to act as much like vaudevillians as athletes to draw crowds – about the way in which they have to comport themselves for the pleasure of their audiences (and, the movie implies, specifically their white audiences). The movie is very entertaining. It grooves on the charisma and energy of its leading performers: Williams, Richard Pryor, Stan Shaw (as the talented rookie) and especially the peerless James Earl Jones.

Villains are Robbins and Barwood’s weak spot. There aren’t many in Sugarland; they’re mostly confined to the margins of the movie, and Spielberg rescues a pair of trigger-happy good old boys with cop radios in their pick-up, who try to gun down the Poplins when they’re spending the night on a used car lot, by playing up their ineptitude and playing them for comedy. But the car thieves in Corvette Summer are violent, borderline sadists, and they don’t have personalities. (The screenwriters also make a bad error by putting the kindly teacher who mentored Kenneth in cahoots with them.) John Hallam’s Tyrian, the high-born thug in the service of the king (Peter Eyre) in Dragonslayer, isn’t much of an improvement, though the movie is so magical that you scarcely notice. The script is a beauty, and Robbins’s direction is so skillful that it seems criminal that he has scarcely had an opportunity to direct since.  (Since Dragonslayer: three movies, one TV movie, one TV episode and one video short.) It’s about a sorcerer’s apprentice (Peter MacNicol) who, with the untimely demise of his master, Ulrich (Ralph Richardson, whose performance is sheer joy), sets about destroying a dragon that has enslaved a neighboring kingdom called Urland. A convocation of Urlanders, in express violation of the policy their king has adopted to pacify the dragon – virgins sacrificed to sate its hunger – has trekked to Ulrich’s door to implore his help. More people, especially middle-schoolers, should know this movie; it deserves to be a children’s classic – which, of course, means that it’s richly enjoyable for everyone. And if the How to Train Your Dragon series has the most colorful and most hilarious and most varied set of dragons ever put forth in a movie, Dragonslayer has the dragon that surely inspires the most awe; its appearance makes you gasp. Robbins and Barwood are in the realm of The Lord of the Rings here: they understand that true magic is underscored with mystery.

Revisiting these four movies (Bingo Long is the only one I didn’t see in the theatre; I caught up with it a few years back) made the past week something of a post-Labor Day holiday. I suggest that they might lighten your spirits as we mark half a year living under the pandemic.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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