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The Gumball Rally

by Glenn Erickson Jun 03, 2017

DVD SAVANT

Cars! Cars! Cars! What climate accord, when we’re celebrating the internal combustion engine! One of the best of the breezy ’70s action comedies, this cross-country road race picture gave us early looks at Gary Busey and Raul Julia in the midst of an always-amusing ensemble of car crazies, out to go from Manhattan to the Pacific in less than two days, at speeds up 175 mph! No 55 speed limit, no catalytic converters!


The Gumball Rally
Blu-ray
Warner Archive Collection
1976 / Color / 2:40 widescreen / 107 min. / Street Date June 13, 2017 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: Michael Sarrazin, Raul Julia, Norman Burton, Gary Busey, John Durren, Susan Flannery, Harvey Jason, Steven Keats,
Tim McIntire, Joanne Nail, J. Pat O’Malley, Tricia O’Neil, Nicholas Pryor, Vaughn Taylor, Wally Taylor, Colleen Camp, Lazaro Perez, Med Flory, Lauren Simon, .
Cinematography: Richard C. Glouner
Film Editors: Stuart H. Pappé Gordon Scott, Maury Wintrobe
Original Music: Dominic Frontiere
Written by Chuck Bail, Leon Capetanos
Produced and Directed by
Chuck Bail

 

1975’s mega-hit Jaws got America back into the movie-going habit, and a big winner the next summer was Warners’ The Gumball Rally. The first production of the First Artists that didn’t star one of the company’s principals, it was spurred on by the new craze for all-Americana auto smash-up pix (a vein to be thoroughly mined by the good ‘ol boy Burt Reynolds), Gumball was a comedy buzzword for folk that liked It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World because of the automobile mayhem. In fact, the trailer for Gumball even name-checks the Stanley Kramer comedy.

The inspiration for this and the various Cannonball Run movies is said to have been a real illegal race called the Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash. What happens in this Gumball derivative sticks fairly close to the stats claimed for the actual coast-to-coast runs: total duration just over thirty hours; averaging 82 mph, top speed 175. Although these speed demon fantasies have probably inspired a lot of immature drivers to wipe themselves out, there have always been fools willing to go nuts imitating what they see in the pictures. I suppose the movie to beat in this category is still H.B. Halicki’s original Gone in Sixty Seconds. I confess to having daydreamed about that picture more than once. As always, when we see cars in movies recklessly violating all the speed laws, we ask who authorized the chaos, or if the shots were stolen.

 

A group of obsessed car fanatics preps every year to run a new ‘Gumball Rally,’ a race from New York City to The Queen Mary in Long Beach California, with the only rule being that there are no rules. Rally leader, bored executive and previous winner Michael Bannon (Michael Sarrazin) sends out the call, and the loyally insane gather their vehicles for a tune-up at a downtown Manhattan garage. Michael’s ride is a Shelby Cobra, and his rally partner is college professor Sam Greaves (Nicholas Pryor). The main competition is a red hot Ferrari driven by the competitive Hollywood stunt man Smitty (Tim McIntire) and the outrageously amorous Italian Franco (Raoul Julia). Femme gearheads Alice and Jane (Susan Flannery & Joanne Nail) take the race seriously in a Porsche, as do professional daredevil Gibson and his pal Ace (Gary Busey & John Durren) in a yellow Camaro. The other contestants include Kandinsky and Avila (Steven Keats & Wally Taylor), who drive a fake police prowl car with insignia for the dozen states they’ll be racing through. Andy and Barney (Vaughn Taylor & J. Pat O’Malley) are a pair of rich duffers out for a lark, in a vintage Mercedes. Impromptu gumball participant Jose (Lazaro Perez) gets in the race by agreeing to shuttle a millionaire’s Rolls Royce to the Coast; he takes along his girlfriend Angie (Tricia O’Neil), who wants to be a Hollywood star. Lastly there’s ‘Lapchik the Mad Hungarian’ (Harvey Jason), who indeed seems mad as he races his Kawasaki motorcycle at top speed. Of course, the rally has the Law to contend with. Tipped off to the start of the race, L.A. detective Lieutenant Roscoe (Norman Burton) has sworn to nail the racers and put them all in jail. Michael and his cohorts have other ideas; one would think it’s EASY to race coast-to-coast averaging over a hundred miles an hour.

The Gumball Rally succeeds because it’s simple to understand and agreeable in principle. It’s not even about car crashes, although a few crop up. The only really outrageously unlikely element is Lapchik’s motorcycle rider, who keeps bouncing back after spectacularly wiping out at least three times. One of his stunts involves jumping his bike through a billboard, a nod to Mickey Rooney and Buddy Hackett’s airplane in the old Kramer picture. They may not be doing 175, but some of these cars are obviously really moving. I have to tell you, making the L.A. to Lake Havasu City run has always been a temptation, as one can see for miles on those new, clean roads. Between Barstow and Needles are almost 200 miles of mostly level straightaways.

 

The movie was made in 1976; I remember the fury that went through the population back in 1974 when the National Maximum Speed Law was passed, reportedly in response to the oil embargo: 55 miles per hour, as the snail flies. At the time I’d been driving the interstate freeways for only a couple of years, and Americans still go an average of 10mph over the speed limit. But even 65 mph seemed to take forever on those long desert roads. The gumball maniacs toast the internal combustion engine and curse both the 55 limit and the despised catalytic converters. . . Horsepower-cutting smog control!

So these are the thoughts going through our heads as we watch our merry racers blast through cities, small towns and down the long concrete roadways. There are of course a lot of sight gags that include the demolition of a Corvette and a van. We wonder how well the ‘fake cop’ routine will work out for Kandinsky and Avila. Happily, it’s a true ensemble in which everyone gets a chance to shine. Director Chuck Bail got his directing nod on basis of his stunt work in Freebie and the Bean, and did a fine job with the stunt-riddled Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold. {I always wondered if Cleopatra was Indiana’s half-sister.) In interviews Bail stressed Gumball as a popcorn picture, a fantasy with no real violence. The worst gore is what happens to the paint job of a Rolls-Royce. Director Bail knows how to let his actors have fun without going overboard. Gary Busey’s howling wolf of a daredevil is a standout; I’m not sure if this show came before or after his visible turn in the First Artists’ film A Star is Born for Barbra Streisand. The likable Michael Sarrazin’s great pictures were mostly behind him at this point, yet he doesn’t behave as if he were on the downgrade. The success story is Raul Julia, who is billed way down in the cast list yet makes a delightful impression as an irrepressible horn-dog Italian skirt chaser. He seduces babes left and right with such élan that we want him to keep right on doing it, just for the sake of international male morale. Julia exits his car at one point and smells the presence of an attractive woman, as if he were part bloodhound . . . a bloodhound in heat. Julia also has the movie’s best dialogue line, spoken as he rips out the Ferrari’s rear view mirror:

“And now my friend, the first-a rule of Italian driving — what’s-a behind me is not important!”

 

The flummoxed cop subplot is agreeable because Norman Burton does such a good job grimacing in fury every time the gumball nuts make him look like a fool. Unimpressed critics compared him to a sad-sack Wile E. Coyote, never catching the Roadrunner. The highway patrol’s helicopters can’t even keep up with the fast cars, a notion that at least sounds good. The tomfoolery among the drivers of course sets up an unbroken string of wild stunts. It’s fun to watch the Rolls Royce, promised for delivery in perfect condition, avoid being touched in the midst of multiple car crashes — it’s like Tony Curtis not getting hit in the free-for-all pie fight in The Great Race. The Rolls eventually falls victim to something folks around Palm Springs know well — even I once watched helplessly as a sandstorm stripped the paint off my Volkswagen and severely pitted my windshield.

The show doesn’t know what to do with the women, short of making their sex the main issue. Alice and Jane make an unwise racing offer to a pair of local studs in the Midwest (“If you can catch me, you can have me!”), and then find themselves having to come across when their Porsche conks out. Ms. O’Neil’s insubstantial bicentennial bikini top makes for a spectacular sight, but the best the show can come up with is having her molested by (gasp) bikers in some of the best iffy ‘jiggle’ action in a ’70s PG picture. O’Neil’s Angie does get a good dialogue line out of it, when Jose screams that the cyclists are going to rape her and kill him:

Angie: “Just GO — they’re going to kill ME and rape YOU!”

 

The final leg of the race takes place in ‘the greater Los Angeles area,’ otherwise known as the place where you can’t get anywhere in rush hour. Were I to become religious, I would first offer prayers for our commuters, who must slug out utter misery on those roads. The fake cops skirt down the margin lane but are stopped by a man whose wife is delivering a baby. Daredevil Gibson is suddenly inspired to do a Diamonds Are Forever- style stunt, driving his yellow Camaro up on one set of side wheels. The Ferrari and the Cobra finally dodge the freeway traffic by heading into the L.A. Riverbed, the concrete-lined water control channels where the giant ants live.

 

The Gumball Rally was one of those road epic favorites that I heard people returning to when it played as a perennial second feature. At 107 minutes it goes on a little long for this viewer, but I can’t see anything that wants to be thrown out. To finish, let me praise the producers’ choice of supporting players, which really adds to the fun. Besides the engaging Tricia O’Neil, just off the top of my head I admired Steven Keats’ even playing, and John Durren’s straight man act opposite the wild dog Gary Busey. Med Florey, a guy you’d recognize immediately, has a field day playing a gullible policeman, apparently doing a Henry Fonda vocal impression. Veterans J. Pat O’Malley and Vaughn Taylor are mostly there for age contrast, providing needed moments of calm. We’re told it was Taylor’s last role; he’d been going strong since the 1940s.


 

The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of The Gumball Rally looks far better than the broadcast TV prints I remember seeing, with the wide Panavision image revealing an impressive visual precision in a film that’s at least 60% moving shots. I’m sure (or, I hope) that speeds were cheated here and there but the visuals never show an action mismatch between shots. I realize that we see little continuity crossing the U.S., as mountainous and arid regions seem to pop up in New Jersey or Pennsylvania. But I liked that the Manhattan restaurant where the Gumballs gather is right across from the Roseland ballroom. And somebody was able to clear some serious Manhattan thoroughfares, as those cars are really howling in some shots.

Frankly, today’s billion-dollar nonsense like the Fast and Furious series have ruined movies about fast cars, as special effects have enabled vehicles to do anything a hyperactive tot can imagine with Hot Wheels toy cars. CGI movies that had to go ‘extreme’ to compete have killed off the stunt action movie as well. When a semi-truck tractor could smash through a concrete bridge rail, fall twenty feet into a concrete flood canal and keep going in Terminator 2, suspension of disbelief is no longer possible. Gumball stretches things for comedy effect, but what we see is more or less what happened in front of a camera. When the stunts get particularly hairy, we feel like clapping. They say that the whole cast did their own driving, which I believe is true much of the time.

The only extra is an original trailer that does what it needs to do, make the film look like fun. The feature has the usual accoutrements of a PG comedy from 1976 — no nudity but lots of ‘interest’ in female anatomy; a bare butt, and some tame four-letter words. The Warner Archive is choosing terrific titles to take the jump to Blu-ray — not enough classic films but plenty of popular titles that their bean counters can prove will sell. Last month’s The Accidental Tourist was heaven sent, and next up is a marvelous favorite that nobody understood when new, Joe versus the Volcano.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Gumball Rally Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles:
English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 1, 2017
(5436gum)

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for DVD Savant.