Thursday, January 9, 2014

HOT RODS TO HELL 1967

Well, if you’re going to hell, I guess a hot rod is as good a means of transportation as any.

1967 was a banner year at the movies for me. I was just ten-years-old, but in that single year I saw Casino Royale; Valley of the Dolls; Bonnie& Clyde; Wait Until Dark; Far From the Madding Crowd; To Sir, With Love; Up the Down Staircase; Barefoot in the Park; Thoroughly Modern Millie; Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?; and The Happening. Barely a kiddie movie in the bunch! Each was a film I was dying to see, and each, save for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, has become a lifelong favorite (Good intentions notwithstanding, that movie really hasn’t aged well for me. 108 minutes of watching human paragon, practically-perfect-in-every-way, Sidney Poitier having his feet put to the fire for the privilege of marrying, as one critic put it, “vapid virgin” Katharine Houghton, begs a tolerance of a sort different from that which was intended). 
On the Road
Carolyn Cassady, Neal Cassady, and Jack Kerouac...or an unreasonable facsimile thereof
These days, I’d consider it a small miracle if I see even TWO memorable films in the same year, much less the bumper crop of greats 1967 yielded; but thanks to the lax admission policies of movie theaters in those pre-ratings code days I was able, in spite of my tender years, to see practically any film I had a mind to…and usually did. But no matter how mature I imagined myself to be at the time, I was still only a kid, so upon occasion, my budding aesthetics didn't always steer me toward the quality stuff. For example: in spite of my weakness for movies with mature themes that were way over my head, The Graduate, Two for the Road, and Reflections in a Golden Eye – films I now consider to be among the best that 1967 had to offer – held absolutely no interest for me during their initial theatrical runs. Instead, my imagination and attentions were seized by two Drive-In caliber B-movies that were being given the big push on TV back then: Born Losers and Hot Rods to Hell
Get Your Kicks on Route 66
Why, you ask? Well, for starters, the commercials for Born Losers (Tom Laughlin’s biker flick that marked the debut of his Billy Jack character) prominently featured a girl on a motorcycle in a bikini and go-go boots (Elizabeth James) who looked a lot like Liza Minnelli (oddly enough, a crush of mine even at that early age). While Hot Rods to Hell had, in addition to that simply irresistible title, commercials showcasing a screaming teenager (Laurie Mock) who bore a strong resemblance to another one of my preteen, gay-in-training crushes, Cher. Unfortunately, both films came and went from the local moviehouse so quickly that I never got to see them until many years later. 
Psycho-Chick
While my interest in Born Losers dissipated as Billy Jack grew into a pretentious vigilante franchise during the 70s (I finally got around to seeing Born Losers on TCM a year or so ago, and while it’s a lot of lurid fun - especially full-figured gal, Jane Russell, in a small role – once is definitely enough), Hot Rods to Hell, which I was lucky enough to see at a revival theater in Los Angeles sometime in the 80s, was well worth the wait. An example of Grade-A, Drive-In kitsch at its finest, Hot Rods to Hell-arious is a camp hybrid of 1950s drag race exploitation films and those reactionary, youth-gone-wild, juvenile delinquency social problem flicks - all with a suburban midlife-crisis “reclaim your manhood” domestic melodrama thrown in for good measure. It’s a gas!
Dana Andrews as Tom Phillips
Jeanne Crain as Peg Phillips
Laurie Mock as Tina Phillips
Mimsy Farmer as Gloria
After suffering a spinal injury in a nasty Christmas season auto accident, Boston traveling salesman, Tom Phillips (Andrews), emerges a broken and shaken man (“It all came back to me. The horns blowing, the lights, the brakes… ‘Jingle Bells’…”). On the mend from his external injuries, Tom nevertheless carries within him an ugly, shameful disease. A pitiable malady bordering on the abhorrent if discovered, even in minuscule traces, within the stoic, bread-winning, man-of-the-house, post-50s suburban macho American male.
That disease is insecurity. Yes, folks, Tom’s self-image and the entire foundation of his 60s-mandated, nuclear family teeter on the verge of collapse under the strain of Daddy actually having an emotional reaction to almost losing his life in an auto accident. How dare he! Men just don't DO that! Passages of Hot Rods to Hell's screenplay read like a Ward Cleaver lecture on the perils of middle-class/middle-aged men having their masculinity usurped due to the enfeebling act of having feelings. To make his humiliation complete, not only is wife Peg the one who decides to make the move California, but en route (*gasp*) she does all the driving!

Boss Finley Can't Cut the Mustard
Or so wrote Miss Lucy in lipstick on the ladies room mirror at the Royal Palms Hotel in "Sweet Bird of Youth." The topic then was sexual impotence, and Tennessee Williams couldn't address it with any more frankness in 1963 than this 1966 TV-movied (Hot Rods to Hell was originally intended to be as a television release). There's a lot of talk about Tom's bad back, but its pretty clear there's also something going on with his front. Here Dana Andrews uses his semi-stiff, trembling hand as a metaphor for his underperforming man parts. Jeanne Crain's look sums it up.

Under advisement of his physician to take things easier (“What does the doctor think he is, a MENTAL case?” bellows Tom’s compassionate brother), Tom agrees to leave Boston and assume management duties at a thriving motel in the small desert community of Mayville, California. On board with the whole relocation thing are supportive wife, Peg (Crain), and freckle-faced,“all-boy” towhead son, Jamie (Jeffrey Byron). The sole holdout is daughter Tina: an early prototype of the sullen, eye-rolling Goth teen and walking Petrie dish of festering hormonal agitation. "All the kids drag, Dad!" she spews, with typical adolescent bile, in reference to short-distance car racing, not (as I'd hoped) a '60s trend in teen cross-dressing. 
Little Jamie's dominant character trait is taking frequent
 passive-aggressive swipes at his father's masculinity
Loaded into their pre-mandatory-seatbelts station wagon, the Family Phillips motors cross-country to Mayville; the unseen, presumably uneventful, first leg of their roadtrip taking an instant turn for the melodramatic once they hit California. Depicted as a vast landscape of open roads devoted to car culture and thrill-seeking teens, 1960s California takes on the feel of the Old West once the Phillips’ gas-powered covered wagon catches the attention of a trio of exceptionally clean-cut juvenile delinquents (they all come from "good" wealthy families).
The Mild Bunch
Gene Kirkwood as Ernie / Paul Bertoya as Duke
What follows is a comically escalating game of cat-and-mouse where what began as high-spirited, run 'em off the road kicks (“Everybody’s out for kicks. What else is there?”), gets rapidly out of hand. Soon the road-hogging hot-rodders make it their business to see that Tom Phillips and family never reach their destination (square Mr. Phillips plans to crack down on the "fun" once he takes over that motel), or get the chance to squeal to the police (or “Poh-lice” as Dana Andrews peculiarly intones).
Passions flare, dust flies, tires screech, rock music blares, and everybody either overacts shamelessly or unconvincingly. Meanwhile, many questions arise: Will Peg ever stop treating Tina like a child? Will good-girl Tina succumb to the skeevy lure of bad boys? Will little Jamie’s respect for his father ever be restored? Does Tom still have the ol’ poop, or has he lost it forever? The answers to these, and several other questions you don't really care about, are answered in Hot Rods to Hell.
The hospital Dana Andrews convalesces in  (top) previously served as a High School
in the "Ring-A-Ding Girl" episode of The Twilight Zone -1963

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS MOVIE
Hot Rods to Hell is based on a 1956 Saturday Evening Post short story (The Red Car / Fifty-Two Miles to Terror by Alex Gaby) and every frame feels like it. Adapted from a story written at the height of the mid-50s juvenile delinquency panic that spawned Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause, Hot Rods to Hell elicits laughs and inspires giggles because it feels so out of step with the times. It really should have been one of those 1950s American International cheapies shot in black & white with Mamie Van Doren.
George Ives (giving the only decent performance in the film) as motel proprietor, Lank Dailey 
There once was a time when feature films and TV sitcoms like Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver promoted suburban life and middle-class values as the American ideal. But come the 60s and the New Hollywood youthquake, counterculture rebellion was in (The Graduate, You’re a Big Boy Now), and uptight, staunchly judgmental, middle-class suburbanite “squares” like Hot Rods to Hell’s Tom and Peg Phillips, were out. In just a year's time, offbeat movies like Angel, Angel, Down We Go and Wild in the Streets would normalize the onscreen depiction of outlaw teens as the heroes, while members of the over-30 set were always cast as the villains.
Judging You
The dramatic stakes of Hot Rods to Hell are seriously undermined by the pleasure to be had
in watching this smug suburban family being taken down a notch. 

PERFORMANCES
If you've never seen veteran actors Dana Andrews or Jeanne Crain in a film before, I beg you, don't start with this one. Hot Rods to Hell will leave you wondering how they ever had careers in the first place. This is their fourth film together (State Fair - 1945 / Duel in the Jungle -1954/ Madison Avenue -1962), and to say the photogenic duo went out with a whimper would be a gross understatement. Andrews, hampered by a makeup artist trained during the days of the silents, is so unrelentingly stiff and gruff, he's a figure of derision long before his character has a chance to be made sympathetic. Hammily scowling and grimacing in his Sansabelt slacks, this is far from Andrews' finest hour, but he's awfully entertaining.

The Saga of an Emasculated Male
In this artfully composed shot worthy of Kubrick, Tom nurses his bad back 
while being silently mocked by his wife's handbag
Tom threatening to scratch out the eyes of his tormentors?
Personal faves are B-Movie starlets, Mimsy Farmer and Laurie Mock, each playing yin and yang ends of the exploitation movie female spectrum (they would reunite with co-star Gene Kirkwood in 1967s Riot on Sunset Strip). As actresses, both are severely limited, but what they lack in talent they more than make up for in their grasp of knowing exactly what kind of overheated histrionics a movie like this requires. Farmer in particular gives her discontented small-town teen the kind of edgy Ann-Margret overkill that's the stuff of bad-movie legend.
Showing respect and giving props to her homegirl
But a special Oscar should have been awarded to Jeanne Crain, who not only looks lovely in her matronly Sydney Guilaroff coiffure, but overacts so strenuously she takes the entire film to a level of hilarity unimaginable without her devoted contribution. Let's take a moment to pay tribute:

It's A Grand Night For Screaming


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Aside from the creaky source material, what further contributes to Hot Rods to Hell feeling like a movie made at least ten years earlier is the fact that its 55-year-old screenwriter, Robert E. Kent  (co-writer of Dana Andrews' vastly superior 1950 film, Where the Sidewalk Ends) was probably drawing his knowledge of teenage behavior from screenplays he wrote for a slew of early 60s / late-50 rock & roll exploitation films. Movies with sound-alike titles (and look-alike plots): Twist Around the Clock (1961), Don't Knock the Twist (1962), Rock Around the Clock (1956) and Don't Knock The Rock (1956). All containing portrayals of teenage life firmly entrenched in the Eisenhower years. Similarly, Hot Rods to Hell's potential for even a moderately authentic depiction of teen behavior was no-doubt hampered by having a director in his 70s at the helm (John Brahm, surprisingly, the man behind the marvelous 1944 version of The Lodger).
Burlesque star, cult figure (John Waters' Desperate Living) and mobster sweetheart, Liz Renay appears all-too-briefly as a bar patron. 
The many decades of behind-the-camera moviemaking experience involved in Hot Rods to Hell lends the film a professional gloss frequently at odds with its small-budget incompetence. The film's poorly-executed day-for-night effects play havoc with the time-frame continuity of the film's third-act action setpiece. What time of day is it actually - is it dawn...is it dusk...is it midnight?
Random sexual assaults are pretty much regulation for 60s exploitation movies 

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
A prime ingredient for the enjoyment of any bad film is often the degree of earnestness displayed by those involved. Like Joan Crawford in the Grade-Z cheapie, Trog, I don’t believe anyone in Hot Rods to Hell had any illusions about the caliber of film they were making, yet that didn't prevent them from pulling out all the acting stops and carrying on as though they were appearing in The Grapes of Wrath. Professional ineptitude without some kind of artistic aspiration or pretension is simply boring, so what qualifies Hot Rods to Hell as one of those top-notch bad movies I can watch over and over again is the sense that everyone in it is clearly giving it all they've got...and THIS is the best they were able to come up with.
Mickey Rooney Jr (right) & His Combo contribute several (un)memorable rock tunes 
to the soundtrack,  here they perform that timeless classic,  "Do the Chicken Walk"
As stated, Hot Rods to Hell has long been a favorite of mine, but an extra layer of enjoyment has emerged now that I'm almost as old as Dana Andrews when he made the film. It cracks me up when I catch traces of my own reactions to today's youth in the humorless outbursts of our stuffed-shirt hero (don't get me started on teenagers and their smartphones). Happily, my fussing and fuming is mostly an internal harangue or confined to the relative safety of social media. These days, road rage is risky and traffic here in Los Angeles is already far too congested and cutthroat to even think about getting involved in automobile skirmishes.


BONUS MATERIAL
A great review of Born Losers can be found HERE
Mickey Rooney Jr. guests on the pop music variety show SHINDIG HERE

Copyright © Ken Anderson

10 comments:

  1. Another great post, Ken, and a perceptive look at how and why the Hollywood studio era collapsed due to hardening of the arteries and an inability to stay au courant with the emerging dominant culture. Dana Andrews, however, was an interesting choice for the wounded-masculinity dad character. He had a knack for playing damaged, out-of-sync males, in films like The Best Years of Our Lives, or in noirs like Where the Sidewalk Ends. His eyes always conveyed a neurotic panic of not being able to measure up to societal standards of the confident, secure, John-Wayne man. (The beginning of Hot Rods seems quite similar to another damaged-male Andrews movie, Zero Hour, in which he plays a traumatized, former WW2 pilot who can no longer hold his family together because of the aftereffects of his war experiences - a must-see film, by the way, if only for its unintentional camp.)

    I can sympathize with your feelings about today's youth. I have to admit, now being an 'older person' myself, shall we say, that I can sympathize with the old folks in 50s-60s movies. I recently saw Kitten With a Whip, and could actually identify with stodgy, dull, unappealing John Forsythe suffering the terrors of home invasion. No doubt, so many aging Hollywood studio moguls found themselves in the same position during the 60s, which was reflected in their movies.

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    1. Thanks, GOM!
      That's a marvelous point you make by calling attention to so many previous films wherein Dana Andrews is called upon to portray a man of shaken confidence. "Zero Hour" is one of my favorites of unintentional camp (only after "Airplane" brought it to my attention).
      As you make note of with "Kitten with a Whip", before old-guard Hollywood was forced to relinquish the keys to the kingdom to the younger generation, a slew of films were released that were little more than grumpy-old-man diatribes directed at seemingly untamable youth.

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  2. You are going to get me fired from my job! I was practically gagging to stifle the laughs I was getting out of those uproarious Jeanne Crain screenshots! God love her, but she always had the oddest nostrils to begin with (and that's before they're flared!) What a hoot.... I love this movie and your write-up was tremendously entertaining to read.

    As it's been more than 8 years since my last viewing, I went back to my old imdb.com review of it to see if there was anything else that stood out. A couple of lines from it I found either interesting or amusing:

    -- Crain looks smashing in her snug white skirt and sleeveless top. It's a shame that someone this put-together (she's in better shape than the daughter!) is slogging through such a tacky film. As lovely as she is, she overacts horribly many times in the film. The slightest event causes her to affect a torturous expression and/or moan or scream. Then she has the nerve to tell her daughter not to be too dramatic!

    -- Farmer is Bertoya's easy, but possessive, girlfriend. Hilariously, she rides on the top of the seats in their car, her hair plastered back from the wind, and when it pulls off the road, she suddenly has a huge, thick bouffant hairdo!

    -- Already a rather illogical film (kids that Andrews meets on the road just happen to hang out at a motel he bought 50 miles away? People drive these expansive, remote roads as if everything is close together like a neighborhood!) is made all the more ludicrous because of the lack of restraint during the action scenes. Members of the family cling to Andrews while he's driving as if they are about to drive off a mountain top. Anytime Crain is behind the wheel, it's a safe bet that she'll soon be hurtling herself all over the seat and dramatically grimacing and shaking her hair.

    Anyway, one other thing that always slayed me was HOW MUCH LEG ROOM the front seat has! It sometimes felt like there was no front on the car at all.

    Of course, disaster nut that I am, I couldn't wait to see this because Andrews was in not only Airport 1975, but also Zero Hour! and The Crowded Sky while Crain's last movie was Skyjacked.

    So much fun......

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    1. Hi Poseidon
      Although I'd hate to have been the cause of getting you fired, I'm glad those screenshots of Jeanne "Old Yeller" Crain were as funny to you as I found them to be. Seriously! The woman has to be voted the person you'd least want to have sitting shottgun...even for a ride around the block.
      All the points you bring up are so amusingly similar to what I took note of myself, specifically Farmer's instant-fix hairdo, and the propensity for the entire family to cram themselves into frame, clutching at Andrews whenever they sense danger.
      I saw a production still from this film on Ebay that proves you to be correct about the amount of leg room Crain and Andrews had in their fake car. The lack of even a mock-up dashboard only making it look more expansive.
      I've never seen The Crowded Sky, but I have fond memories of Andrews in "Airport 75" bidding goodbye to Beverly Garland (?) before making life hell for Karen Black.
      So glad you liked the post, Poseidon and thank YOU for the Born Losers link.

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    2. Ah, yes, I forgot to thank you for the link/shout-out to my site at the bottom of the post! I appreciate you appreciation! ;-)

      "The Crowded Sky" should be fascinating to any fan of "Airport 1975" because in it Efrem Zimbalist Jr flies his small plane into Dana Andrews' jetliner!!! Get it?? And, yes, that was Garland as his wife, doing a great job with a tiny part, though my old roommate and I had a tete a tete because he asks her how the weather is and she replies, "Well, the moon's out, but there're some clouds around..." and my roomie yelped, "What the hell does that have to do with WEATHER?" I had to leap to Bev's defense that, for a pilot, cloud cover,visual clarity and light would have an impact!

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    3. Boy, seems like Dana Andrews and modes of transportation of any kind just weren't a good combination!

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  3. There was a young lass named Mimsy
    Whose career was guided by her sense of whimsy
    She went to Hollywood to act
    Movie roles she would attract
    But the parts offered were a tad flimsy

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    1. Cute! Thanks for the limerick tribute to Ms Mimsy, I'm sure she'd be honored..

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  4. Oh, Ken...

    I just watched this on DVD last night (I immediately place a library reserve on everything you review, if available) and while it's GREAT print, this is one of the most preposterous movies I've ever seen (and I just suffered through nearly 3-hours of "Thoroughly Modern Millie so I know what I'm talking about.).

    The very idea that Dana Andrews' back injury -- a BACK injury for Christ's sake -- should lead to the uprooting of the ENTIRE family from Boston to California by CAR is patently absurd. Couldn't he have gone to night school and become a CPA? Wouldn't running an entire motel by himself (the family can't even be bothered to get out of the CAR and help him break a door down when he's obviously in agony) be more physically taxing than being a traveling salesman?

    I could literally see the powder blush on half the cast -- Dana Andrews included. Did he really need to look as dewy as he wife?

    Jeanne Crain, never a great actress, seems completely lost as far as creating a credible character -- granted, she very little to work with. The fact that she seems so OLD when she's about the same age as the cast of "Friends" says a lot about how people perceived the generation gap back then.

    The only character I really enjoyed was Tina, maybe because she's a dead-ringer for Stafania Sandrelli (with a little Kim Novak thrown in). I would have like more of her and a lot less of Dana Andrews. And I LIKE Dana Andrews.

    Also, too -- the way they talk about what went down at the "Arena" -- what happened, somebody broke a bottle? A little underage drinking? Excessive petting in the parking lot? The punks just didn't seem threatening enough, and their button-down oxford shirts and Clark's desert boots didn't help.

    Didn't you get the sense that all the terror-in-the-car scenes were filmed on the same afternoon, one right after another, and then spliced into the film where necessary? I felt like I was watching the same scene again, and again, and again!

    So when are you going to review "Thoroughly Modern Millie"? ;)

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  5. Hi Peter
    That's very flattering that you're willing to take a chance on some of the films I write about. By now you know that can be quite a crap-shoot (pun intended).
    Yes, they struck a beautiful print of this movie, but it is every bit as silly as you say.

    I think I concur with all the points you brought up, many of them making me laugh just remembering them (especially the scene where the family stays in the car while Andrews battles the hot rod single-handedly). When my partner and I watched it, we kept a running commentary of the plot's lapses in logic.

    I think you might be onto something about the filming of the interior car scenes. Crain's reactions to even the smallest traffic disturbance are so broad and nerve-jangling, you really start to wonder why he just leave her at the side of the road.
    I liked how everybody flies around the car during the hot rod "chicken" scenes, but that lone football in the back seat window ledge never moves.
    Also, that's an interesting and comical point about Crain's age. Who would guess? She looks so much older.
    I'm unfamiliar with the actress you mentioned, but upon Goggling her I can see what you mean.
    I understand Laurie Moc has a larger role in "Riot on Sunset Strip". I haven't seen that, but perhaps if you're feeling brave you can crack that one and let me know how it is.
    In the meantime, I'll be warming up my DVD for "Thoroughly Modern Millie"...I can still hear Channing's "Raspberries!" ringing in my ear and I haven't seen that film in years. Thanks!

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