Although these silly car-chase romps produced by Roger Corman should not be mistaken for quality cinema, they enjoy footnote status in movie history because they allowed Ron Howard to become a director. By the mid-’70s, Howard was a veteran TV star, having appeared in over 200 episodes of the ’60s favorite The Andy Griffith Show as a child actor, and having successfully transitioned to grown-up fame in Happy Days, which hit the airwaves in 1974. Additionally, he’d gotten a toehold in features, thanks to American Graffiti (1973). But what Howard really wanted to do, as the saying goes, is direct—so he agreed to star in Corman’s Eat My Dust! if the producer let Howard direct the follow-up. And though Grand Theft Auto is not a sequel (Howard plays different characters in each movie), both pictures traffic in vehicular mayhem.
Eat My Dust! was written and directed by frequent Corman collaborator Charles Griffith, who always brought gonzo humor to his work. The picture stars Howard as small-town kid Hoover Nievold, the car-crazy son of a world-weary country sheriff (Warren J. Kemmerling). Hoover’s desperate to make time with a sexy blonde named Darlene (Christopher Norris), and she’s a speed freak infatuated with a racecar owned by Bubba Jones (Dave Madden). Hoover steals the car and takes Darlene for a joyride so he can get laid. That’s pretty much the entire story. Bystanders lose property as Hoover blasts through the countryside, the sheriff makes chase, police cars crack up in spectacular ways, and Griffith throws a few weird sight gags into the mix, but nearly the only thing differentiating Eat My Dust! from other Corman car flicks is the lively bluegrass score by ace mandolin player David Grisman. Still, Howard is appealingly peppy, Kemmerling is entertainingly cranky, Norris is wholesomely pretty, and the movie is basically harmless.
As for the sequel, one must strain to find indications of Howard’s future directorial talent in Grand Theft Auto—the picture was made in the same quick-and-dirty fashion as Eat My Dust!—but great things often come from humble beginnings. Howard co-wrote Grand Theft Auto with his dad, character actor Rance Howard, and the sequel is more plot-driven but slightly less enjoyable than its predecessor, largely because it lacks the freewheeling abandon of Eat My Dust! In Grand Theft Auto, Howard plays Sam Freeman, a young California man of modest means who is eager to marry his wealthy sweetheart, Paula (Nancy Powers). Her folks object to the union, however, so Paula steals her parents’ Rolls-Royce, collects Sam, and makes for Vegas with authorities and her parents in hot pursuit. The story starts to mimic It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) when word gets out that a reward has been placed on the kids’ safe return—random people join the chase and make the situation even more chaotic than before. Eventually, Paula and Sam become folk heroes by defying the oppressive dictates of the Establishment. (This is one of those pictures in which commentary from radio DJs is used to illustrate public sentiment, making Grand Theft Auto a watered-down version of the 1971 cult classic Vanishing Point.) Naturally, the movie concludes with an overwrought demolition derby. Alas, whereas Eat My Dust! has a certain crude charm from beginning to end, Grand Theft Auto runs out of gas well before it crosses the finish line.
Eat My Dust!: FUNKY
Grand Theft Auto: FUNKY
Egad! Richie Carrington, the Partridge Family's manager and Brancusi from "Trapper John, M.D." (also, it's disheartening to see how Ron looks like Clint Howard in that poster).
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