Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Moonrunners


I grew up with The Dukes of Hazzard. It ran from 1979 until 1985. I don't think I was watching by the end either, but during it's peak, I watched it religiously.

Of course, going back to it as an adult was not nearly as successful. Overall, the show is kind modulated to a median 12-year-old viewer.

So I was very excited to learn of Moonrunners, a movie that was a direct predecessor to "The Dukes of Hazzard". Unfortunately, knowing didn't help as much as one might expect, because the home video history of Moonrunners is that there essentially is no home videos of it out there.

To go back to the beginning of the popular moonshining movie, we really should note Thunder Road with Robert Mitchum. I assume there were movies about moonshining prior to that, but I think it set the standard for what this minor subgenre would be, especially its protaganist being a bootlegger rather than a law enforcement agent.

The only major step forward future movies would make from Thunder Road is in the chases, which would be moved away from the staged look of these into something much more spectacular.

Burt Reynolds would be a key figure in the renaissance of this subgenre with White Lightning and its sequel Gator about a former moonshiner named Gator McKlusky.

It was before either of these that Gy Waldron recorded a series of conversations with Jerry Rushing about his youth as a bootlegger with his his brother Johnny and Uncle Worley. The conversations, and most likely Waldron's intentions, precede White Lightning, but it seems likely the success of that movie greased some wheels and opened some pocketbooks for another movie about moonshiners.

Between the time of White Lightning and Gator, he turned those recollections into a fictional movie, Moonrunners.

In the movie Jerry and Johnny Rushing became cousins Bobby Lee and Grady Hagg, Uncle Worley became Uncle Jesse. Kiel Martin played Bobby Lee as the lead. James Mitchum, son of Robert Mitchum, already a co-star with his father in Thunder Road, played Grady. Arthur Hunnicutt played the wise Uncle Jesse.

Waylon Jennings narrated and sang the key songs of the movie, most prominently Slow Rollin' Low.

In 1977, Reynolds returned with Smokey and the Bandit, which was one of those breakout successes. First of all, its ingenious plot is at its core a romantic comedy that takes place during an extended car chase. Having been executed with a charming cast and tight script, it was a demographic dream and an enormous hit far-reaching cultural moment.

Aside from the dream plot, the plot was set-up to appeal to a wider audience. Instead of carrying moonshine, they were packing a truckload of Coors beer, which was technically illegal, but nothing that many in a mainstream audience had any feelings about. The CB Slang and Southern Culture elements are light and feel as close as can be to universal as can be, making them for a short time something of a fad.

Also this one leaped forward from the previous of the '70s moonshine movies in its music. Moonrunners had a number of songs, mostly by Jennings, and Gator had The Ballad of Gator McKlusky by Jerry Reed, who also played the villain in the movie, but nothing matched the enthusiasm and pure driving force of Reed's "East Bound and Down" that propelled Smokey and the Bandit.



I'm not sure when Waldron began developing his conversations with Rushing into a TV series. It may have already begun before the success of Smokey and the Bandit, however it seems certain that Smokey and the Bandit made such a series more appealing to a network, and the elements from Moonrunners that stayed and which were altered seem almost certainly to have been influenced by that success.

First of all, Jennings returned from Moonrunners to narrate, however this time instead of nice, appealing country songs, there's a very specific, hard driving theme song in much the spirit of "East Bound and Down".



The setting, Hazzard County, was taken out of the sleazy, grimy Dirty South of Moonrunners and into something more akin to a somewhat corrupt version of Mayberry.

George Ellis's seemingly Sid Haig inspired peformance as county boss/bootlegger Jake Rainey was transformed into Sorrell Booke's broader, seemingly Jackie Gleason inspired performance as county boss/former bootlegger Jefferson Davis Hogg. Bruce Atkins's competent and world-weary Sheriff Rosco Coltrane following Rainey's in order to make up for his lack of a pension after 30 years of service became James Best's rather mean-sprited Rosco P. Coltrane, which would evolve into a bumbling, baffoonish caricature as the first season went on.

Martin's Bobby Lee and Mitchum's Grady becomes John Scheider and Tom Wopat's Bo and Luke Duke respectively. Their car, like Rushing's, was named Traveler, after Traveller, the horse of General Robert E. Lee. The TV version is the altogether less subtle General Lee with its Stars and Bars paint job and horn that plays Dixie.

Although the connections to the South are more overt on the series, they're specifically overplayed to the point of cartoonishness, rendering it innocuous instead of threatening.

Moonrunners is a more serious affair, although watching it I'm not sure if it entirely intends to be. There are scenes that are aimed at broad comedy and others that seem to want us to get a real feel for the characters and their inner plight.

At this point, I'm not sure that Moonrunners is better than "The Dukes of Hazzard", but I do think the more realistic venue and cast of characters is more compelling. It could have been the pilot to an eventual series that would be much more interesting to return to as an adult than "The Dukes of Hazzard" has ever turned out to be.


4 comments:

Greg said...

I keep wanting to rewatch Smokey and the Bandit (it's on Instant now) but feel it will destroy my beloved childhood memory of it. I, too, watched Dukes of Hazzard religiously for the first three seasons or so, God help me. Also, BJ and the Bear. How? Why? I don't know, growing up in Charleston, SC probably didn't hurt.

Also, seeing Daisy Duke the way she looks today takes a couple of steps towards utterly destroying my childhood. I can look on her no more!

Neil Sarver said...

I somehow missed "BJ & the Bear". Not for lack of interest, but we didn't have a TV. I'm guessing it ran a night I didn't visit elsewhere or something. I remember being interested and re-reading an article in "Dynamite" magazine about it.

I think I made it a little further than you with "Dukes of Hazzard", but then I think that may just reinforce the perfect age for the show, since you're a couple of years older than me. I know I didn't make it to the end. I even remember seeing commercials and thinking, "Wow, that's still on?"

I didn't really come from anywhere like that, but I do have some remaining affection for the style. It's tough to get the balance, though.

Frankly, I have half a mind to write something like it myself, but I'm afraid of how hard that balance is to find.

As far as Smokey and the Bandit goes, I watched it as an adult a couple of times, and I say go for it. As long as you know what it is, it's a well-done example of what it is, I think.

Mind you, don't endeavor further. The second one is downright depressing and the third one is notoriously all kinds of a mess. But the first one is fun.

Greg said...

I just remember that Reynolds and Gleason displayed great comic timing throughout. They're both extremely talented so for that alone it should be worth a rewatch.

Neil Sarver said...

That's very true. And Fields and Reed are both capable support.

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