VINTAGE CABLE BOX: “Soggy Bottom U.S.A.”

“These backwater hicks are an ignorant lot, but I’ll say one thing for ’em.  They … sure have a way with lemonade!”

Soggy Bottom U.S.A., 1980 (Ben Johnson), Gaylord Productions

Alligator! Oh wait, I think it’s a crocodile. Nevermind. Crocodiles … oh damn, it is an alligator. Somebody get Robert Forster on the phone! The deck of Soggy Bottom U.S.A. is stacked with a lot of names in the credits I recognize: Ben Johnson, Don Johnson, Anne Wedgeworth, the great crazy-eyed Jack Elam, Severn Darden (thanks to my wife’s Monkees Vs. Macheen articles), P.J. Soles, Dub Taylor, Brion James, and many more! I was thinking about this the other day. They don’t make decent “redneck” movies anymore. Nowadays, you get Deliverance variations where we get a bunch of Northerners, or “carpet-baggers” coming down to the swamps to partake of that fresh air, and being menaced by the locals.

Soggy Bottom is an unusual town, dominated by the marsh, and you have to navigate with a boat instead of a car to get to most places.  I always wonder why people would choose to live there.  Maybe the property taxes are really low.  Who knows?  The town is populated with eccentric characters.  Ben Johnson’s Sheriff is being harassed by a loud and angry Federal agent (Anthony Zerbe) investigating unpaid taxes and wise-ass moonshiner Cottonmouth Gorch (Taylor, a fixture in westerns and comedies for decades) during the Prohibition era.  Dingbat young inventor Don Johnson wants to marry childhood sweetheart Soles, a fledgling singer.  The Sheriff  tries to hold his relatively peaceful little Louisiana swamp town together during the popular 10th Annual Coon-Dog Race while trying to keep his girlfriend (Lois Nettleton, possibly best remembered for her turn in the classic Twilight Zone episode, “The Midnight Sun”) happy.  She wants Ben to make her an honest woman, but he thinks he’s too old to be her husband.  Their relationship is rather sweet.

Seems everybody comes out for the Soggy Bottom Coon-Dog Race.  The grand prize is enough cash for Don to get investors for his unusual swamp fanboat design.  Wedgeworth (I remember her from Three’s Company) plays country music star Dusty Wheeler, and she brings her prize-winning dog, Lord Byron, to the race.  Dusty makes eyes at the Sheriff, inspiring the ire of Lois.  It’s unusual to see Don Johnson (just before he became a big star on Miami Vice) playing such a small, subordinate role in a cast of genuinely interesting characters.  I don’t get the impression these characters exist merely in service to the story, but that there happened to be cameras rolling and gravitating effortlessly to the most intriguing narratives.  Dusty’s shifty manager, Smilin’ Jack, cons P.J. into selling her song for $20 without any stipulation for royalties.  This is like a good Robert Altman movie.

It takes a while before we get back to our central story – the race.  Most of the running time is taken up with ambiance, character development, and humorous episodes, but I’m not distracted as much as I was with the truly dreadful Screwballs.  I like these characters.  Soggy Bottom U.S.A. was a movie that received endless play on cable, particularly The Movie Channel.  I think it might’ve been part of a Ben Johnson retrospective.  I’m reminded of movies like Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? (a movie I enjoyed) that take great pains to capture the mood, feeling, and affection for nostalgia of Soggy Bottom U.S.A. – consider the name of the band George Clooney and his friends make up when they cut their hit record: The Soggy Bottom Boys.  In the end, Lord Byron wins the race while Ben’s old dog, Sissy, breaks her leg.  The town bands together to help Ben’s dog, and Lois stays with Ben.  In a double-wedding, Ben marries Lois, and Don marries P.J.  I’d love to see a cleaned-up and letterboxed version of this movie.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

Vintage Cable Box: Rhinestone, 1984

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“All right, we’ll go to your place and you can show me your organ. But I’m warning you, it’d best be having music coming out of it.”

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Rhinestone, 1984 (Dolly Parton), 20th Century Fox

Sylvester Stallone is a smart guy.  Betraying his brutish looks, muscular physique, and propensity for violence, Stallone understands his incredible history, and his ability to re-invent his image.  He’s played rogue cops, underdog boxers, and disillusioned soldiers.  He’s gone down the road of pristine drama (Cop Land), and screwball comedy (Oscar), but pairing him head-to-head with Dolly Parton proved to be such a misfire from inception that it isn’t hard to see why he stayed away from this kind of culture-clash comedy for the better part of his career.  Given the opportunity to rewrite Phil Alden Robinson’s (Field of Dreams) screenplay, and then turning down Beverly Hills Cop to appear in this movie, Stallone shows he’s not afraid to take ill-advised chances in film.

Like every decent screwball comedy, this one begins with a bet.  Dolly’s Jake Farris is contracted to perform nightly at an admittedly popular tourist trap country bar smack dab in the middle of New York City run by Ron Leibman.  She makes a deal with Leibman to turn the first person he spots into a country music star.  If she succeeds, she can get out of the slave contract with Liebman (who can’t help but be sleazy about the whole thing).  They go out to the street and Liebman picks a dizzy cab driver named Nick for this Pygmalion-like transformation.  Of course, given the multi-cultural climate of New York City, Nick would be the very last person Dolly would agree to tutor in the ways of country music, but Leibman wants to make this as difficult as possible for her.

For a moment there, Nick thinks she’s coming on to him.  He takes her back to his home, where his Mama (playing it to the hilt, constantly circling the table to babble in a foreign language and deposit more food) makes spaghettis and gravy.  See, Dolly’s all skin and bone as we know.  So it’s unusual that in addition to a clash of cultures, we also have a clash of stereotypes.  Stallone is a good-natured meathead and Dolly’s a sassy redneck chick (and hot, to boot!).  Dolly decides to take Nick down to her ancestral home in Tennessee.  It’s funny that I was living in Tennessee at the time this movie premiered on cable television.  There didn’t seem to be much hootin’ and hollerin’ going on when I was living down there.  She teaches him to walk and to talk like a redneck (or “rhinestone”) cowboy-type; chewing tobacco, and developing a John Wayne swagger.

Dolly makes for a charmingly baroque figure in her dusters, cowboy hats, and leather boots, but Stallone, I think, tries too hard to be funny here when playing it straight would have benefited the humorous idea.  The rolling of his eyes and mugging for the camera, along with Travolta-hair style make him more menacing than endearing to me.  You can tell Dolly is really trying to teach him, not only about country music, but the unspoken language of dependency with which actors must relate.  In fact, Dolly is the saving grace of this movie.  Nevermind her looks – this broad is insanely talented; as an actor, as a singer, as an entertainer!  The only time the story doesn’t feel genuine is when the screenplay forces them to be closer.  The way I see it, the movie’s not a love story.  It’s a dare.  A dare to turn a cab driver into a star.  A dare to cast Sylvester Stallone and Dolly Parton in a movie together.

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It’s here that we get into what makes a bad movie (although I disagree with that notion).  Watching or reviewing and evaluating a movie is, was, and always has been a subjective experience.  For example, you might consider Rhinestone to be a seminal work of art, a masterpiece; it did it’s job, for you.  You come across an imposing cluster of terrible reviews.  You talk to people who say the movie is “terrible”, or worse.  Rotten Tomatoes gives the movie a 15% “tomatometer” rating.  In those days, before the advent of blanket advertising to guarantee good opening weekend numbers, box office was the only indication of a movie’s failure.  This doesn’t mean you’re wrong for loving the movie.  It only means fewer people agree with your opinion, and it doesn’t mean you have bad taste in film.  If, in your view, the movie does it’s job (the outlandish prospect of pairing Parton with Stallone, and the silly screwball narrative), then it succeeds.  Rhinestone succeeds.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.