|Grand Theft Auto (1977)
Starring: Ron Howard, Nancy Morgan, Rance Howard, Marion Ross
Director: Ron Howard
Before he won an Academy-Award for “A Beautiful Mind,” before he was teaming up with actors like Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise and Mel Gibson to make some of the biggest box-office hits of the ‘90s, even before he made “Gung Ho” with Michael Keaton and George Wendt, Ron Howard was at best known as Richie Cunningham from “Happy Days” and, at worst, Opie from “The Andy Griffith Show.” So how did a former child star end up as one of the most critically acclaimed and most successful film directors of all time?
The fact is that Ron Howard owes nearly all of his success to a man by the name of Roger Corman. Even if you don’t know who that is, odds are you’ve seen his work. The man has had his hand in over 300 films as a writer, director and producer, and while the majority of his work could be called drive-in fodder at best (“It Conquered the World,” The original “Little Shop of Horrors,” “The Terror,” the list goes on and on), he also helped jump-start the careers of some of the biggest names in Hollywood, including Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson, Francis Ford Coppola and even Martin Scorsese.
“Grand Theft Auto,” Ron Howard’s directorial debut, was produced by Corman, who only gave the job to the young actor because Howard was so desperate to get a directing career off the ground that he offered to do it for free. Having already starred in one highly successful car chase movie for Roger Corman (“Eat My Dust”), Corman knew a similar movie starring Ron Howard would have the potential to be a hit. Throw in the added perk of not having to pay for a director (Corman’s reputation as a penny-pincher is infamous) and he’d be stupid to turn Howard down. Necessity is the mother of invention, but frugality is probably its aunt.
In addition to directing “Grand Theft Auto” (and writing it with his father Rance Howard), Ron also stars in the film as Sam Freeman, a poor young idealistic college student who has fallen madly in love with Paula Powers (Nancy Morgan), something that Nancy’s filthy rich parents aren’t happy about at all. Her father Bigby (Barry Cahill) is particularly angry, since he was arranging for Nancy to marry Collins Hedgeworth (Paul Linke), the son of another well-to-do family in the area, in hopes that the high-profile wedding will help his gubernatorial bid. He’s so incensed at the idea of his daughter marrying Sam that he takes her car keys and sends her to her room.
Not really thinking his cunning plan through, Paula escapes the house within minutes and not only takes off with Sam so they can elope in Vegas, but steals her father’s vintage Rolls Royce to do so. Soon her would-be fiancé finds out, also steals a car and heads out after them. In a state of panic over her son’s drastic action, his mother (Marian Ross, also his mother on “Happy Days”) quickly follows suit, stealing her own car and going after him. As word of Paula and Sam’s daring escapade spreads, a reward is issued for Paula’s return, and soon every kook, nutjob and wacko from California to Las Vegas is hunting the lovebirds down across the highways and byways of the Southwest.
“Grand Theft Auto” is a silly movie that succeeds almost solely on will power alone. Filled by some great performances from classic B-movie actors (including Ron’s brother Clint and father Rance) and a hysterical script that treats the movie like the live-action cartoon it is, it’s a blast to watch, and it easily outshines many modern-day car-chase movies like “The Fast and the Furious” series or the 1999 remake of “Gone in 60 Seconds.” Sure, it has its flaws; some of the acting isn’t exactly Oscar-quality, and there is an abundance of continuity errors riddled throughout (some scenes jump from midday to dusk and back again), but even its mistakes seem to help it, giving the film a charming, almost homemade feel to it. It’s also a lot of fun to see a “Happy Days”-era Ron Howard make lewd sexual remarks and curse at cops.
If you can’t enjoy “Grand Theft Auto” for its quirky feel and silly jokes, you’ll still probably enjoy it for its amazing car crashes and chases, which rival anything you’d see in a movie made today. Cars fly through the air with reckless abandon, explode from the most minor collisions and twirl about in the air for what seems like minutes before settling into a pile of dust and debris – from which the driver always somehow manages to escape without so much as a scratch. The finale of the film, which features a car driving through an entire home in super slo-mo, is a jaw-dropping scene and is still one of the strangest car stunts you will ever see.
One of Roger Corman’s best, and surprisingly not one of Ron Howard’s worst (it’s leaps and bounds better than “EdTV” and “The Missing”), “Grand Theft Auto” is a hilarious blast from the past that should entertain damn near anyone.
Tricked-Out Edition DVD Review:
Surprisingly loaded, this new re-release of the film by Disney has a featurette, an introduction to the film by Roger Corman, and an excellent commentary track by Corman and Ron Howard. Howard has to be commended for doing this commentary track, as many directors in his position never take a look back at earlier work that some might call embarrassing.
~James B. Eldred