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.

“The Cannonball Run, 1981”

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“Officer, I sincerely hope you’re not a Catholic.”

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The Cannonball Run, 1981 (Burt Reynolds), 20th Century Fox

Early ’80s cable television was a dumping ground of racing movies; most of them starring Burt Reynolds and directed by the legendary stuntman-turned-director Hal Needham. You had your Hooper, your Stroker Ace, your Six Pack, your Smokey cycle, and you had The Cannonball Run (which spawned two sequels), which plays more as an excuse to hang out with your friends and make a fun movie than an effort to produce a serious racing movie. We’re not even fifteen minutes in and Burt (with buddy Dom De Luise) are working on hot cars, flying single-engine planes, and riding speed-boats as they try to figure out what vehicle to race in the famous “Cannonball Trophy Dash” from Connecticut to California. Burt gets the idea to use an ambulance after sustaining injuries in the resulting speed-boat crash, but first they need a patient and a real doctor, so they abduct (what?) Farrah Fawcett and a junkie doctor (hilarious Jack “I just gave her a little prick” Elam), so they can drive at high speeds.

The film is a veritable Who’s Who of late 70s/early 80s celebrities, both minor (Terry Bradshaw, Rick Aviles, Jamie Farr) and major (Dean “Father Putz” Martin, Sammy “The Chocolate Monk” Davis Jr., Roger “The Fly Who Bugged Me” Moore), as well as a few up-and-coming stars (Adrienne Barbeau, Jackie Chan).  Farr, as an Arabian Sheik, drives a Silver Shadow Rolls.  Chan drives a state-of-the-art Subaru GL with all kinds of gadgetry.  Roger Moore spoofs his “James Bond” persona as Seymour Goldfarb, a nice Jewish boy who thinks he’s Roger Moore, and drives a gorgeous Aston Martin.  Dean and Sammy are dressed as priests, driving a red Ferrari.  Buxom Barbeau and Tara Buckman drive a Lamborghini (the ultimate winners, but it doesn’t matter) and get out of speeding tickets by showing off their cleavage, until they come upon a similarly stacked State Trooper (Valerie Perrine).

We, of course, have a bad guy, but he’s not really a bad guy.  George Furth (a dependable character actor mainly known for ’70s television) is Arthur J. Foyt (a clever play on racer A.J. Foyt), a crusader (or what you’d call social justice warrior), looking to shut down this silly “Cannonball” competition.  The whole idea seems insanely dangerous, but the lure is a big money cash prize, so who can blame some of your more reckless racing enthusiasts for giving it a shot.  The only real problem in the narrative is that the movie takes too long to get going.  It’s like one of those old Plymouths you had to warm up in the garage for twenty minutes, except in this case it’s more like 35 minutes before we start up the engines.  This is understandable given the many characters and their vignettes, and that the screenplay (screenplay?) plays as a series of episodes rather than a cohesive narrative, but that’s okay.  This is such a fun movie – and never boring – that I don’t care.  It’s obvious everybody’s having a great time.  Burt Reynolds barely represses the urge to laugh in every scene with Dom De Luise.  Dean Martin is obviously drunk throughout the movie, and Sammy’s not that far behind.

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I’m not a fan of NASCAR, or any kind of professional racing (though I have good friends who are).  I don’t get it the same way I don’t get hockey.  I’m a baseball guy.  I tend to agree with David Cronenberg in that the ultimate “man-machine interface” is the man or woman who gets into his or her car in the morning and drives to work without thinking about it.  Plus, these competitions seem to be a serious waste of gasoline (also I suspect a good portion of the audience is there to see horrific crashes), but that’s none of my business.  I do, however, enjoy this movie quite a bit, mainly because it doesn’t take itself seriously.  There’s a brief shot I always remember when I think about The Cannonball Run.  Dean and Sammy pull over the ambulance to let the air out of the tires under the guise of offering a “blessing”.  They slide the door open and see a drugged Farrah smiling back at them.  She was truly beautiful.  Critics, at the time, steeped in Scorsese and Coppola-isms, were not appreciative.  A film snob myself, I don’t necessarily believe all movies should be serious masterpieces of style and form.  In fact, I think we should have an even (and wide) distribution of movies that stimulate our minds, and movies that go for the big belly-laugh.  Nothing wrong with that.

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.