'Hazzard' a Guess at History
Sunday, August 7, 2005
The following questions have the same answer, but you won't know it, so don't even try.
1) Which movie didn't make Kiel Martin a star? (Bonus question: Who was Kiel Martin?)
2) What was "Our Gang" hero and cinematic icon Spanky McFarland's 113th movie?
3) Name a bootlegging movie starring a Mitchum that wasn't called "Thunder Road." (Bonus question: Name a bootlegging movie whose theme song wasn't sung by Keely Smith.)
4) What was the first movie in which a big ol' orange Chrysler Corp. product (though a Plymouth, not a Dodge Charger) outraced every damn thang on the damn road, but especially the boss's po-lice cars, which it left in various postures of akimbo and a-tilt on the roadside?
5) Identify the ur-text -- not the subtext or the meta-text or the text-text -- but the ur-text of "The Dukes of Hazzard."
And the answer is the all-but-forgotten opus titled "Moonrunners," written and directed by Gy Waldron four years before he got a show called "The Dukes of Hazzard" on CBS and 30 years before "Dukes of Hazzard" the movie hit your local bijoux, starring Jessica Simpson's breasts, Burt Reynolds's Botox, two fellows whose names I can't remember and a $7 million gasoline bill.
In other words, it all started with Waldron's 1975 indie, which was based on the adventures of Good Old Boy Jerry Rushing, recounting the exploits of two bootleggin' cousins in some red-dirt Georgia county (wasn't called Hazzard) where the bossman and his pet sheriff wanted to close them down, but the boys -- who worked for a wise old Uncle Jesse and who had a cute little gal hanging around -- outdrove, outfought, outcharmed and outloved everything that came at them. Why, even the signature voice of the great country-western icon Waylon Jennings serves as narrator and musical bridge, as he did in the series, though -- more trivia -- some of the background songs are written and sung by no less a C&W stud than Jerry Reed, who later became Reynolds's partner Cledus in the "Smokey and the Bandit" pictures.
Who is Kiel Martin, some of you want to know, but a better question is what is Kiel Martin doing in this picture? Actually, the late Martin got his taste of national fame some years later as a tormented, tragic, ex-alky detective J.D. LaRue in the great "Hill Street Blues." You can extrapolate from that why his presence pretty much wrecks "Moonrunners": He's got an urban vibe, feral features, a too-quick patter (not deep enough, either) to carry this picture in any meaningful way. He's a handsome man, but handsome, I'm sorry to say, in a conventional and not very interesting way; there's nothing much special about him and nothing much especially southern about him. Waldron would have done a lot better with a more authentically southern ol' boy presence (Martin was born in Pittsburgh). Betcha in 1975 he offered it to a fellow named Reynolds, who turned it down, having gotten too big a few years earlier in a film called "Deliverance."
And what's the eldest son of the great Robert Mitchum doing in the movie? The answer is, not much. James Mitchum has his dad's sleepy, cool eyes, and by this time was not young and had thickened. Mainly he seems in the movie to connect it thematically to 1958's "Thunder Road," which his very cool papa starred in, along with the sultry-voiced, almost-zero-charisma Keely Smith, whose song has lasted ever since (it's a haunting tune for those nights the bottle lets you down). But in this movie, Mitchum pretty much just hangs out at the edge of the frame, letting Mr. Martin do the star turn.
As for Spanky, this guy was a genuine star in the '30s in the "Our Gang" comedies -- to see him, then or now, was to love him forever. But like so many young stars, puberty was not his friend. It took his mega-adorability and he turned into quite a mild and hardly camera-dominating person. He plays one of the sheriff's deputies here, an affable presence but not a commanding one.
"Moonrunners" has one advantage over the TV show and the big movie that's just opened: The great Arthur Hunnicutt plays the wise old bootlegging legend Uncle Jesse here, and he was, alas, to die very shortly. He was one of those great old western actors whose presence lent class and dignity to every project -- Slim Pickens was another, along with Ben Johnson and Richard Farnsworth (before they became, however briefly, stars). Whenever Hunnicutt comes on-screen, "Moonrunners" picks up an authority it otherwise lacks.