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Case Number 21227: Small Claims Court

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Eat My Dust / Grand Theft Auto

Eat My Dust
1976 // 88 Minutes // Rated PG
Grand Theft Auto
1977 // 84 Minutes // Rated PG
Released by Shout! Factory
Reviewed by Judge Paul Pritchard (Retired) // April 28th, 2011

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All Rise...

Judge Paul Pritchard quit jacking cars when he found a more fun kind of jacking.

The Charge

"Twenty-five thousand dollars; now that's a lot of Bibles, baby!"

The Case

Ron Howard: Action hero. Doesn't quite sound right, does it? Thanks to the good people at Shout! Factory, movie lovers can now get their hands on a double bill of Howard fronted carnage. Marking the point where Howard's career began its move towards directing, The Ron Howard Action Pack features two Roger Corman-funded crackers: Eat My Dust and Grand Theft Auto.

In truth, the story behind Eat My Dust is probably better than the actual films themselves. As is recounted in the DVD liner notes, producer Roger Corman got TV favorite Ron Howard (Happy Days) to star in this low-budget feature in exchange for giving Howard the chance to direct his first movie (Grand Theft Auto). The result of this deal was agreeable for both parties: Eat My Dust became one of Corman's biggest moneymakers of the Seventies, while Howard's career went on to bigger and better things (Apollo 13).

As is common for films from Corman's stable, the plot is simplicity itself. In an attempt to impress local beauty Darlene (Christopher Norris, Trapper John, MD), Hoover Niebold (Howard) steals a racing car and—with Darlene in the passenger seat—speeds off with the entire counties police force in pursuit. With no real plan, only two things complicate things for Hoover: first is the fact that the local sheriff is his dad (Warren J. Kemmerling, Close Encounters of the Third Kind); the second is that, much to Hoover's chagrin, Darlene is only interested in the thrill of a high-powered motor vehicle, and cares little for Hoover or his affection towards her.

To be fair, Eat My Dust makes no pretences of being anything other than a goofy thrill ride. Writer/Director Charles B. Griffith's screenplay never takes itself seriously, and—bar its two leads—the characters are little more than cartoons. In that respect, the dialogue and acting are perfectly in keeping with the production as neither is likely to impress, yet a steely determination to entertain and a clear enthusiasm from the onscreen talent (with Howard perhaps being the exception, his mind clearly being on bigger things) ensures the 88-minute runtime flies by. What little plot there is only really serves to setup the next car crash, as clearly Corman knew exactly what it was audiences wanted to see: rebellious kids driving at breakneck speeds and sticking it to the man. Logic has no place in Eat My Dust, and is completely thrown out of the window in a sequence where the film literally rewinds to allow our heroes to escape the clutches of the law. There's very little resembling a narrative arc; the film just keeps on churning out mildly entertaining diversions for Hoover and Darlene, until the final act where it simply rolls out an extended car chase, before petering out in a surprisingly somber manner.

Howard kept the car chase as the central theme of his directorial debut, which he also co-wrote with his father, Rance, with the 1977 release Grand Theft Auto. With its tale of two young lovers being pursued across America, with a cast of zany characters in pursuit, and with a plot that is sandwiched in between car crashes, Grand Theft Auto shares many similarities with Eat My Dust; though Howard also cribs mercilessly from It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

When Paula Powers (Nancy Morgan, Lucky Luke) announces to her father, wealthy wannabe politician Bigby Powers (Barry Cahill, Sweet Bird of Youth), that she is engaged to the lower-class Sam (Howard), he hits the roof. Determined to marry, Sam and Paula steal Bigby's prized Rolls Royce and head off towards Vegas. Bigby quickly announces a reward for anyone who can track down his daughter, leading to a host of bounty hunters—not to mention an overzealous radio DJ—pursuing the young lovers cross-country.

As is the case with Eat My Dust, it seems unfair criticizing Grand Theft Auto for its threadbare plot and characterization. Howard must have been aware of the film's shortcomings, but—perhaps in an attempt to keep things simple for his debut feature—keeps the film ticking along with the kind of lowbrow thrills that would at least ensure a return of Corman's investment. Indeed, were it not for the occasional profanity, it would be easy to see the film being a trusty schedule filler for TV stations looking to plug gaps on Saturday afternoons to this day. The film is the very definition of undemanding entertainment, and is reasonably enjoyable despite its shortcomings. A lot of the enjoyment one gets from Grand Theft Auto is derived from the enthusiasm of the cast—another facet the film shares with Eat My Dust. Leading the charge is Don Steele as the fast talking radio DJ, Curly Q. Brown. It's odd that—once again—Howard's performance is the least impressive, though clearly by this point in his career a role behind the camera was becoming far more appealing to him.

Howard's directorial career has seen him take on a chameleon-like approach, where he adapts his style to the genre he is working in. As such there is little of a signature style evident. Just as he mastered the sports drama with Cinderella Man, and the family comedy-drama with Parenthood, Grand Theft Auto saw Howard turn in a Seventies road movie that stands up favorably against its peers.

Shout! Factory has put together a solid package for The Ron Howard Action Pack. Eat My Dust contains two interviews, one with Ron Howard, the other with Roger Corman. Also included is "How To Crash On A Dime," a short making-of which has numerous cast and crew interviews. Another interview, this time with John Solie who frequently provided posters for Corman's features, is also included along with the theatrical trailer for the film. Grand Theft Auto offers up a far more impressive selection of supplemental material. Two audio commentaries lead the way, with Howard and Corman combining on the first (and best) track, while Rance Howard, Allan Arkush (second unit director), Ben Haller (key grip), and Joe Dante (editor, and best known for giving the world Gremlins) reunite to reminisce on a fun track. Rance and Clint Howard provide a lighthearted interview in "A Family Affair," while Roger Corman provides both an introduction to the film, and a solo interview. Corman, as always seems the case, is extremely complimentary towards his co-workers, and clearly enjoys recalling the making of the film in the interview he shares with Ron Howard. Rounding out the disc are a number of TV spots and a theatrical trailer.

Both films are presented in new 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfers. The age and budget of the films is clear from the grain and slightly muted colors. The image isn't too sharp on either feature, but taking into account the film's age, etc, it's more than passable, and there's certainly nothing to distract the viewer. The 2.0 soundtracks are flat, offering little to no range. Still, dialogue is clear enough, and there's just enough of a kick to ensure the roar of car engines will please petrol heads.

The Verdict

Not guilty.

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Scales of Justice, Eat My Dust

Judgment: 70

Perp Profile, Eat My Dust

Studio: Shout! Factory
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• None
Running Time: 88 Minutes
Release Year: 1976
MPAA Rating: Rated PG

Distinguishing Marks, Eat My Dust

• Featurette
• Interviews
• Trailer

Scales of Justice, Grand Theft Auto

Judgment: 74

Perp Profile, Grand Theft Auto

Studio: Shout! Factory
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• None
Running Time: 84 Minutes
Release Year: 1977
MPAA Rating: Rated PG

Distinguishing Marks, Grand Theft Auto

• Commentaries
• Interviews
• TV Spots
• Trailer

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