“Smokey and the Bandit” is arguably the signature action comedy of the 1970s and for decades kept Burt Reynolds in reruns as his career ebbed and flowed. The film was so influential with consumers that General Motors could tell by Pontiac Firebird Trans Am sales spikes when “Smokey and the Bandit” was on TV for a rerun (remember, those were the days before streaming video, DVD kiosks and 500 cable/dish channels). Hey, “Smokey and the Bandit” was even nominated for an Oscar – best film editing and it didn’t win. Still, “Smokey and the Bandit” is not Burt’s best Burt-being-Burt film (I’ll save that designation for “Hooper” – click here for my review), but he is and always will be the “Bandit.”
‘Smokey and the Bandit’
(1977; 96 minutes; rated PG; directed by Hal Needham and starring Burt Reynolds, Sally Field and Jackie Gleason)
BURT’S THE ‘BANDIT,’ BUT DON’T FORGET ‘THE GREAT ONE’
(NOTE: I expanded and reorganized this review with some additional opinion and trivia and the updating of links on July 22, 2017.)
You can’t say “Smokey and the Bandit” without saying “Burt Reynolds,” too. “Bandit” and “Burt” are cinematic synonyms. Yet, I remember most being blown away by the comedy in the film of Jackie Gleason, a literally huge entertainment personality who was in the twilight of his legendary career when he signed on for this one. The “Great One” did a great job and it remains totally unappreciated for it by critics beyond myself.
Gleason, who will always be remembered for TV’s “The Honeymooners,” would only cash checks and look foolish with the “Smokey and the Bandit” sequels, but in the original he showed the rest of the cast the right way to do both verbal and physical comedy. Even his nonchalant way of holding a cigarette, which is more suited to his Miami Beach heydays and not the tough rural sheriff he plays here, easily brings a grin all by itself.
With his top-shelf TV career and an exceptional dramatic turn in the film “The Hustler” and subsequent Oscar nomination for it, Gleason came through with flying colors as the habitually frustrated and congenitally profane “Sheriff Buford T. Justice” in “Smokey and the Bandit.” He even smoothly handles his character’s only slightly disguised racism. After meeting a black sheriff after just talking on the CB, he notes, “You sounded a lot taller on the radio.”
By the way, everyone in the film is known by their “handle” – that is the nickname that CB radio users assumed or were given as their identity on the air. So, in the spirit of the film, I’m calling several actors by their first names.
As to the plot, Burt as “Bo ‘Bandit’ Darville” (the “Bandit’s” real name is a great trivia question) and his sidekick, country singer Jerry Reed as “Cledus ‘Snowman’ Snow,” accept a bet to haul 400 cases of Coors beer from Texas to Georgia in 28 hours. Along the way they hook up with Sally Field, who plays “Carrie” the “Frog” (she doesn’t get a last name here) and get chased by Gleason and his son. Mike Henry plays “Junior,” Gleason’s dim-witted, dense but good-natured son, who is the main target of the sheriff’s verbal abuse.
The rest of the plot and the ending are pretty much predictable, so I won’t go into them here. If you haven’t watched the movie, I can only ask, “Why not?”
Here’s a look at some of the primary cast:
- Oscar nominee (sadly, not for this one) Reynolds is the “Bandit,” a fast-driving, fast-talking good ol’ Southern boy. He is at his fluid best here, moving smoothly from one scene to the next and never losing his cool or his charm. It is the trademark Reynolds role (or his “Bandit” persona, if you will) and it has his high-pitched laugh, aw-shucks attitude and he’s just the kind of guy that everyone would enjoy as the life of any party. Reynolds career would fade by the end of 1980s after stinkers such as “Stroker Ace” with to-be-girlfriend Loni Anderson (he turned down “Terms of Endearment” because of his contract to play “Stroker”), but see his career revived in film with roles in “Boogie Nights” – his nomination – and later in a critically well-received role in “Striptease” and on TV with the wonderful “Evening Shade.”
- Although a co-star, two-time Oscar winner (not for this one) Field is pretty much just window dressing in this film, but does have one quiet scene one-on-one with Reynolds that helps establish his human side. The future two-time Oscar winner’s ongoing chatter in the car is both sometimes amusing and sometimes disappointing, but hardly an award winner along the lines of “Norma Rae.” She won an Oscar for that one and also “Places in the Heart.” Field was nominated for “Lincoln” and is probably most-recognized for her work with Robin Williams in the iconic “ Doubtfire,” but that one isn’t her best work
- Simply put, Gleason dominates the acting here. He only has one direct scene with Reynolds – in a diner where he didn’t realize he was talking to the “Bandit” – and it wasn’t in the original script. Gleason suggested it during filming. The rest of the time they’re interacting via CB radio (although in the final scene they are separated by only 20 feet in their respective cars). Jackie died in 1987 in Fort Lauderdale at the age of 71 of colon and liver cancer.
- At the same time one-time pro football player and “Tarzan” star Henry, who played “Maj. Margaret ‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan’s” husband “Lt. Col. Donald Penobscot” in the long-running “M*A*S*H” TV series, delivers a series of funny one-liners that any actor playing the straight man could envy. Henry should have received a nomination for keeping that straight face playing next to Gleason. He was also in John Wayne’s controversial Vietnam epic “The Green Berets” as well as the sci-fi classic “Soylent Green.”
- Another good job is done by three-time Primetime Emmy nominee (for writing, but not this one) Pat McCormick and Paul Williams, who is better known for his musical career, as “” ‘Big’ Enos Burdette” and “” ‘Little’ Enos Burdette,” the father-son team that makes the bet with Reynolds. The two are just right with the blow-hard McCormick and sarcastically critical Williams in just the right amount of screen time for their roles. The duo would sink quickly with “Smokey and the Bandit II” and would just be big-screen torment in “Smokey and the Bandit Part 3.” Still, they played off each other and Burt well in this one.
The chase scenes are low-key by action standards that would follow (much less the CGI spectacles today) and the trucker action on the highway is surprisingly effective.
The rest of supporting cast just pretty much sets up Reynolds and Gleason and gets out of the way to let the “Bandit” be the “Bandit.”
By the way … as to the “bootlegging” of Coors beer “east of the Mississippi” concept in the film. A variety of sources report that it wasn’t that it was “illegal” to sell Coors in the East, rather, it was that the company did not have a national distribution system (the beer needed to be shipped cold and was just not sold in the East and therefore not technically licensed in some states). However, you’ll find many people who recall when Coors was illegal in the East.
“Smokey and the Bandit” was the second most-popular film in the U.S. in 1977 with $126.7 million in ticket sales, according to Wiki. It hauled in a cumulative box office of more than $300 million across the globe, after being made on a budget of $4 million, also according to Wiki. What a return. What a movie! It stood no chance of being No. 1 as that was earned with $307.2 million by the inaugural “Star Wars” film “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope.” Absolutely no way to beat that one, Burt. Here are the other films from 1977 that I’ve reviewed:
- “Black Sunday” (great anti-terror flick) – click here for my review
- “Bobby Deerfield” (wickedly bad Pacino effort) – click here for my review
- “A Bridge Too Far” (classic big-cast WWII flick) – click here for my review
- “The Choirboys” (horrid piece of crap) – click here for my review
- “Cross of Iron” (Peckinpah’s only WWII film) – click here for my review
- “The Eagle Has Landed” (solid WWII film) – click here to read my review
- “Fun with Dick and Jane” (hilarious comedy-drama) – click here for my review
- “The Love Boat” (my favorite TV series’ debut year) – click here for my review
- “Rollercoaster” (neat murder mystery) – click here for my review
- “Semi-Tough” (semi-OK Burt football flick) – click here for my review
- “The Spy Who Loved Me” (OK thriller with 007) – click here for my review
- “Telefon” (OK Bronson action-espionage) – click here for my review
Assorted cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):
- Henry had a career of 36 credits from his first (a soap) in 1963 through the last in 1987 (as “Russian #1” in “Outrageous Fortune”) and IMDb.com notes he retired because of the onset of Parkinson’s disease. He played pro football for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1958-1961.
- Legendary film director Alfred Hitchcock enjoyed “Smokey and the Bandit” as a “guilty pleasure,” according to his daughter in an interview. Hitchcock passed away in 1980, three years after the release of “Smokey and the Bandit.”
- McCormick’s three Emmy nominations for writing came from shows including “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” and “The Danny Kaye Show.”
- Gleason hated to rehearse and that many of his lines in “Smokey and the Bandit” are improvised … and I’d say it’s just one example of “The Great One’s” genius.
- Directly from IMDb.com: “Three The Dukes of Hazzard (1979) stars had cameos, in this movie. They were Sonny Shroyer, aka Enos Strait, John Schneider aka ‘Bo Duke’ & mechanic, Cooter Davenport, acted by Ben Jones. Nearly two decades later,John Schneider played the sheriff in one of the four television adaptation version Bandit. Burt Reynolds played Jefferson Davis Hogg in The Dukes of Hazzard (2005).”
- Another pro football player, former New York Jet Joe Klecko, has a small part here. He was also in “The Cannonball Run” (click here for my review) with Burt.
- Alfie Wise, a longtime friend of Burt, has a small role here as a highway patrol trooper who stops Gleason and his son. Wise was in a number of Burt’s films including “The Longest Yard,” “Hooper,” “Stroker Ace” and “City Heat.”
- Of the primary cast members, only Williams did TV audiences a favor by appearing on an episode of my favorite TV series “The Love Boat.”
- Click here for IMDb.com’s extensive trivia page about the movie …
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