[19 May 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
He was the biggest child star of his era (along with Bill Mumy, arguably), co-starring in films with famous faces like Robert Preston, Shirley Jones (The Music Man), Glenn Ford and Stella Stevens (the big screen version of The Courtship of Eddie’s Father). He parlayed said success into a stint on one of television’s most beloved sitcom’s (The Andy Griffin Show) before making the always difficult transition from kid to a career in show business. Along the way, he racked up another hit TV show (Happy Days), added a few more celebrated co-stars to his resume (John Wayne, James Stewart), and entered the mid-‘70s with a solid, scandal free future intact.
But just like the old Tinseltown adage, what Ron Howard really wanted to do was direct. Long before he would walk away with an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind and helm such hits as Splash, Cocoon, Apollo 13, and The Da Vinci Code, the plucky teen was nothing more than a wannabe, circling around the various crews he worked under during breaks and off hours to try and absorb as much information and technical knowledge as he could. Of course, the options for any untried filmmaker in the cutthroat business of Hollywood were limited, even for someone as bright and popular as he. It took that savior of the soon to be important - Roger Corman - to give Howard his break.
Of course, the infamous indie producer was no dummy. The beaming red head was a hot commodity in the early part of the Me Decade, his starring roles in Days and the quintessential nostalgia statement, American Graffiti only increasing his already potent popularity. After learning that Howard wanted to work behind the lens, Corman did what he did best. He made Howard a deal. If the star would take on his car chase movie Eat My Dust as an actor, he would let him direct the pseudo-sequel Grand Theft Auto. Knowing an inroad when he was shown one, Howard said “yes.” The rest is a lesson in perseverance and understanding one’s limits/capabilities that few in the frequently talentless tenants of Tinseltown can match.
While neither film is going to win any awards, both Dust and Auto (now available from Shout! Factory in a fantastic Double Feature DVD) are pure drive-in Saturday night fun. The first film sees Howard, with Corman screenwriter Charles B. Griffith behind the lens, as Hoover Nielbold. A hot headed adolescent, he hopes to impress the reigning high school hottie with a spin in a local racing legend’s souped up muscle car. When his sheriff daddy finds out, it’s an all out chase to capture the duo, reclaim the vehicle, and put Hoover back in his proper lawful place. In Auto, Howard is Sam Freeman, a boy from the wrong side of the tracks who wants to marry his spritely sweetheart from a wealthy family. When the parents say “NO!”, our hero hops in another tricked out terror and screeches toward Las Vegas, law enforcement (and hired goons) in pursuit.
As indicative of when they were made as well as who made them, Eat My Dust and Grand Theft Auto make a couple of crackerjack companion pieces. One is old school B-movie magic, the other is a fledgling filmmaker’s introduction into “the bigs.” While neither is going to set the Criterion Collection on fire, there is plenty here to enjoy. These are movies made with clear narrative drive and straight forward shorthand characterization. Each tries for a minor amount of quirky subtext, but for the most part, it’s all set-up, stunt work, and smash ‘em up, crash ‘e, up payoff. For his part, Griffith acquits himself quite well. Not known for his work as a director, he still manages to make us care for, and eventually root for, Hoover and his honey. With Auto, Howard shows some novice moves, but also indicates that he has a legitimate shot at a career at the camera.
For the most part, Dust is slightly less derivative. Sure, it has the Southern bumpkin sheen of a bunch of stupid good ol’ boys (Howard is even shown with a rebel flag emblazoned on his Civil War style hat for the ad campaign) and the relatively well done action scenes sell everything, but the stock car storyline and outlaw element seem fresher than Auto‘s desire to retool the star-crossed lovers cliché. Both have enough RPMs and MPH to keep the intended demo from diving immediately into the back seat - at least for a while - and each delivers on the promise of car chrome chaos. Perhaps more important is the realization of Howard’s presence, both on and off screen. He is the star, even if it’s the engines and not the personalities, being forwarded by the films. And it’s all done with physical effects, real cars flying off real cliffs and careening off real sets to make everything feel dangerous and authentic.
Of the two, Auto is more polished and fun. Howard is pandering, and he does so quite well. Dust is more of a novelty, however. It shows a fledgling film icon trying to discover his next move, figuring out where he fits in the grand scheme of a system he worked so well in as a jolly gingered tot. While it would have been easy to shuffle through the next few seasons of Happy Days and collect residual checks for the rest of his life, Howard wanted more. While Auto barely hinted at the depth of his abilities (after all, this is a man who would go on to helm such divergent fare as Willow and Frost/Nixon), it did illustrate that entertaining the idea of being a director was not a fool’s paradise.
Besides, the inherent value of these films goes beyond the basics of a Howard resume. This is escapism at its silly, ‘70s best. Even with the attempts by the discs to sell these selections as something more (you get lots of interviews and cast/crew reflections) this was the decade’s direct to home video equivalent. Yes, the bottom line drove almost all of Corman’s decisions, but he had an uncanny knack for being able to marry such a management style with clear aesthetic insight. Today, Howard may be a slightly self-aggrandizing “artist” whose forgotten the fun of fluff filmmaking. But he had to get his start somewhere, and this delightful Double Feature fits the bill nicely. There’s perhaps no better example of a child star coming of age, cinematically, in the history of the movie medium.