Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

Posted: August 19, 2013 in Favorite Films
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42. Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

Director: Hal Needham

Starring: Burt Reynolds, Sally Field, Jackie Gleason, Jerry Reed, Mike Henry

The first time I ever saw Burt Reynolds, it was in the TV sitcom “Evening Shade,” which ran for four seasons on CBS in the early 90’s. But these days, it is impossible for me to look at Reynolds and see him as anything but The Bandit. But “Smokey and the Bandit” is not greater than the sum of its parts merely because of one person. Sure, Reynolds’ presence on the project lifted it up from what director Hal Needham originally intended as a B-movie with a $1 million budget, but Needham didn’t create a comedy that relies solely on the lead actor mugging for the camera for an hour and a half. For that, there’s always one of Mike Meyers’ more recent efforts.

In Atlanta, Georgia, The Bandit accepts a bet that has already sent many a willing participant to jail: Go down to Texarkana, Texas, pick up 400 cases of Coors beer, and return with them to Atlanta in 28 hours. You see, at this time, you couldn’t sell Coors anywhere east of Texas. Transporting it across state lines was considered “bootlegging.” Bandit recruits his pal Cledus (Jerry Reed), aka “Snowman,” to drive the semi truck with the beer as its cargo while he runs interference with a speedy, flashy car. I’m no automobile enthusiast, but if I were to ever become a collector of classic cars, the first one I’d seek out would be a black 1977 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. It truly is a beautiful machine.

Along the way, Bandit picks up a runaway bride named Carrie (Sally Field), who has angered the local police sheriff, Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason). Seems it was his dimwitted son Junior (Mike Henry, in his post-“Tarzan” career) to whom Carrie was to have been wed. The resulting chase through several counties and states is as exciting as it is hilarious. Will the Bandit make it back to Atlanta in time, or will Sheriff Justice get his man?

Though Burt Reynolds receives top billing, the stars of the movie are Sally Field, Jackie Gleason, the car, and the songs by actor/songwriter Jerry Reed. At this point in her career, Sally Field was looking for roles that would help change her public image from that of Gidget (one of two TV characters she was known for). The year before, she had won an Emmy for the TV movie “Sybil,” and would go on to win two Oscars in her career as well as a third nomination. Here, she is every bit the equal of Reynolds. Their chemistry is electric, so it should have come as no surprise that they should become an item off-screen as well. That she almost didn’t get the part because she was thought to be “not sexy enough” is unthinkable!

Jackie Gleason is, quite simply, incomparable. It turns out that there actually was a Buford T. Justice, a highway patrolman whom the director’s father knew. He, like the character in the movie, was fond of shortening the epithet “son of a bitch” to “sumbitch.” The rest was largely left up to Jackie Gleason to improvise. Much of the movie’s most quotable lines come from Sheriff Justice’s constant belittling of his son. It was Gleason who came up with the idea for his character to have a conversation with a man in a roadside diner without realizing it’s The Bandit. Jackie Gleason was a comic genius. What else can I say?

As 1977’s second-most popular movie (behind “Star Wars”), “Smokey and the Bandit” was also good for selling cars (Every guy had to have that Trans Am!) and music. Jerry Reed provided three catchy songs, “The Bandit,” “The Legend,” and the very popular “East Bound and Down.” The now-extinct CB communicators also saw a rise in popularity. It could even be said that the “Dukes of Hazzard” TV show might never have come about if not for “Smokey and the Bandit.”

The only thing I’ll never figure out is how they could get everything so right with this movie, but then do everything so terribly wrong with its two sequels. Why mess with a winning formula?

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