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Grand Theft Auto (1977)

Forget Crash - either one Grand Theft Auto (1977) is the real movie about the human need for collision in a world of detours and wrong turns. Its title more readily associated these days with the ber-violent and multi-sequeled Rockstar video game, Grand Theft Auto is remembered by older film fans as Ron Howard's directorial debut. Howard had by the mid-70s made the transition from precocious child actor (The Music Man [1962], The Andy Griffith Show) to highly salaried star of the hit ABC sitcom Happy Days. Although producer Roger Corman couldn't afford Howard's asking price for New World's car crash comedy Eat My Dust (1976), he sweetened the pot by giving Howard a percentage of that film's profits and by agreeing to finance his first go in the director's chair. Although Howard and his actor/writer father Rance pitched a number of viable exploitation ideas, all involved settled on the relatively safe car race/crash subgenre, popularized by the likes of Gone in 60 Seconds (1974), Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974), the Corman-produced Death Race 2000 (1975), Cannonball! (1976) and The Gumball Rally (1976). Corman staffer Frances Doel (who had cowritten Big Bad Mama [1974] a few years earlier) worked with Howard per et fils to ensure that Grand Theft Auto hewed closely to the Corman paradigm, while Corman himself advised Howard to plan his shots, keep movement in the frame, chase the sun and wear comfortable shoes.

The working model for Grand Theft Auto was Stanley Kramer's It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). Lacking that mega-production's star wattage, Ron Howard compensates with energy, resourcefulness and speed. Wisely, he rarely pauses long enough for breath let alone exposition, meaning that character development is skin-deep. Besides directing, Howard took the central role of Sam Freeman, an affable environmental resources major who elopes to Las Vegas with the only daughter (Nancy Morgan) of a Beverly Hills millionaire cum political hopeful (Barry Cahill). Dubbed "the runaway lovers," the pair's flight in a "borrowed" Rolls Royce becomes a cause celbr, attracting a steady stream of hirelings, mercenaries and media vultures after a promised $25,000 reward. While the stunts won't make anyone forget Mad Max (1979) any time soon they are expertly photographed by Howard and second unit director Allan Arkush and snappily edited by Joe Dante. Throughout the humor is broad but never mean spirited, unlike a lot of the car chase copycat movies that followed.

An old school humanist in the style of Frank Capra and Preston Sturges, Howard lacks the absurdist bent of Paul Bartel (Death Race 2000) or the balls-out anarchy of John Landis (who effectively capped the car chase craze with The Blues Brothers in 1980) but he does pull off some novel stunts, staging a moving bus-to-car dialogue scene 17 years before Speed (1994) and plowing a speeding car through the middle of a balsawood house a couple years ahead of Mad Max (1979). Another nice touch is the customary destruction of a fruit stand, which Howard doesn't merely knock over but blows up with dynamite. In its own little way, Grand Theft Auto is as deserving of the mantle of seminal 70s cinema as Chinatown (1974) or Taxi Driver (1976). Its capital asset is the expansiveness of the American road, where the cost-effective amalgamation of light and air evoke a sense of wonder all too lacking in modern motion pictures which, for all their millions spent, feel as airless as a canned ham.

Executive Producer: Roger Corman
Producer: Jon Davison
Associate Producer: Rance Howard
Director: Ron Howard
Screenplay: Ron Howard, Rance Howard
Cinematography: Gary Graver
Film Editing: Joe Dante
Second Unit Director: Allan Arkush
Music: Peter Ivers
Cast: Ron Howard (Sam), Nancy Morgan (Paula), Marion Ross (Vivian Hedgeworth), Paul Linke (Collins Hedgeworth), Barry Cahill (Bigby Powers), Elizabeth Rogers (Priscilla Powers), Rance Howard (Slinker), Don Steele (Curly Q Brown), James Ritz (Officer Tad), Clint Howard (Ace), Peter Isacksen (Sparky), Hoke Howell (Preacher), Ken Lerner (Eagle One), Garry Marshall (Underworld Boss), Paul Bartel (Groom), Karen Kaysing (Bride), Leo Rossi (Gangster), James Costigan (Hiram), Cal Naylor (Car Salesman), Allan Arkush (Clown).
C-84 minutes.

by Richard Harland Smith

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Grand Theft Auto (1977)

Grand Theft Auto began as a script idea by Rance Howard titled 'Tis the Season.

The title Grand Theft Auto was originally considered for Eat My Dust (1976).

Ron Howard originally pitched to producer Roger Corman a wide variety of potential ideas for his directorial debut, including a thriller set in the world of snuff films.

Corman's advice for the first-time director was "If you do a good job on this picture, you'll never have to work for me again."

Ron Howard prepared for shooting Grand Theft Auto by making his own Los Angeles to Las Vegas road trip.

Grand Theft Auto had one of New World's higher budgets, $602,000.

Part of the financing came from Balcor, a Chicago-based real estate syndicate who had also put money into the Corman-produced Jackson County Jail (1976).

Shooting began on March 2, 1977, one day after director Ron Howard's 23rd birthday.

Location shooting commenced for 23 days in and around Victorville, California. Other movies filmed in Victorville include Lost Horizon (1937), It Came from Outer Space (1953), The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004).

Although his first day of filming progressed slowly, Howard had gotten 37 shots by the end of the day.

With Allan Arkush shooting his second unit, Howard was able to break a New World record for set-ups captured during a single day...92.

On the shoot, the catered food was so bad that Ron Howard's wife Cheryl and her grandmother volunteered to cook for the entire cast and crew.

A tabloid news story circulated during filming that Ron Howard's less than two-year marriage was on the rocks.

Howard lost 15 lbs. during shooting.

10-Q was an actual radio station, who permitted the use of their call letters in Grand Theft Auto in the spirit of free publicity.

The frustrated groom thrown with his bride from their "flying cottage" was writer-director-actor Paul Bartel, who had helmed Death Race 2000 (1975), Cannonball! (1976) and the cult hit Eating Raoul (1982).

The senior citizens whose bus is cashiered into the chase were comprised mostly of friends of Ron Howard's Aunt Dot.The Rolls Royce seen in the film was actually three: one vintage Rolls Royce, one mounted on a Chevy chassis for off-roading and a junker on a truck chassis which could be wrecked during the demolition derby scene.Seen briefly as a gangland kingpin, Garry Marshall was the creator of Happy Days and the brother of comedienne Penny Marshall, who starred on the Happy Days spin-off Laverne and Shirley.

The clown-suited ice cream vendor was played by second unit director Allan Arkush.

At a screening of Grand Theft Auto for the cast and crew, Ron Howard was punk'd when the feature was preceded by his "Gary, Indiana" scene from The Music Man (1962).

Roger Corman scheduled the first sneak preview of Grand Theft Auto for an audience who turned out to be comprised mostly of retirees.

According to Weekly Variety, the box office take for Grand Theft Auto was $2.5 million.

CBS Television later bought rights to the film for $1.1 million.

Grand Theft Auto was the first film that the cable TV network HBO showed three times in one day.

Compiled by Richard Harland Smith

Sources:
Ron Howard/Roger Corman audio commentary, Grand Theft Auto: Special Edition DVD
How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime by Roger Corman with Jim Jerome
Ron Howard: From Mayberry to the Moon...and Beyond by Beverly Gray
Roger Corman: An Unauthorized Life by Beverly Gray
Clint Howard Interview by Ed Mitchell, Psychotronic Video No. 23
Clint Howard Interview by Calum Waddell, Shock Cinema No. 28

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Grand Theft Auto (1977)

Ron Howard was born Ronald William Howard on March 1, 1954, in Duncan, Oklahoma.

Howard's father Rance and mother Jean Speegle were both actors who met when paired in a scene workshop taught by Dennis Weaver at the University of Oklahoma.

Ron joined his parents onstage at only eighteen months of age in a production of The Seven Year Itch.

Rance and Ron Howard made their feature film debuts together, in Ron Ormond's Frontier Woman (1956).

Ron Howard achieved stardom at an early age as one of the stars of the hit TV series The Andy Griffith Show.

The atmosphere of friendship and collaboration that existed on the set of The Andy Griffith Show inspired Ron Howard to achieve the same feeling on his film sets.

Leading actress Nancy Morgan is the niece of Congressional Medal of Honor winner John "Red" Morgan.

Once married to the late John Ritter, Morgan was the daughter-in-law of cowboy star Tex Ritter.

Marion Ross played Ron Howard's mother on the long-running ABC sitcom Happy Days (1974-1984).

Early film roles for Ross included uncredited bits in The Glenn Miller Story (1953) with James Stewart, Sabrina (1954) with Audrey Hepburn and Lust for Life (1956) with Kirk Douglas.

Paul Linke is best remembered as the comic relief highway patrolman Arthur "Grossie" Grossman on the NBC series CHiPs (1977-1983).

Paul Linke's father Dick had been Andy Griffith's partner and business manager.

Ron Howard's younger brother Clint made his acting debut on The Andy Griffith Show at the age of two and appeared on the series in 1961 as a semi-regular. Clint and Dennis Weaver were the stars of Gentle Ben for two seasons on CBS.

DJ Don Steele can also be seen in the Roger Corman-produced Death Race 2000 (1975) and Joe Dante's Gremlins (1984).

Appearing in a bit as a minister is former child star Bobs Watson. Born Robert Ball Watson in 1930, the actor was known for his ability to cry on cue, earning him the nickname "The Crybaby of Hollywood." Ordained as a Methodist minister in 1963 and based in Burbank, Watson had married Ron and Cheryl Howard two years earlier.

Howard's editor Joe Dante and second unit director Allan Arkush had co-directed Hollywood Boulevard (1976) for Roger Corman the previous year. Dante would go on to direct Piranha (1978) and The Howling (1981) and most recently directed the Halloween episode of CSI: New York. Arkush directed the cult film Rock 'n' Roll High School (1979) and has recently helmed episodes of the hit series Heroes.

The film's composer, Peter Ivers, was an avant-garde Boston musician and video filmmaker who also wrote "In Heaven (Everything Is Fine)" for David Lynch's Eraserhead (1977). Ivers' 1983 murder remains unsolved.

Compiled by Richard Harland Smith

Sources:
Ron Howard: From Mayberry to the Moon... and Beyond by Beverly Gray
Ron Howard biography by Paul Bamford, Contemorary North American Film Directors: A Wallflower Critical Guide
Roger Corman: Metaphysics on a Shoestring by Alain Silver and James Ursini
1997 Ron Howard Interview, Academy of Achievement
2007 Rance Howard Interview by Mike Egnor, Galactica TV.
Bobs Watson obituary by Douglas Haberman, Los Angeles Daily News

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Grand Theft Auto (1977)

"...a non-stop orgy of comic destructiveness. Ron Howard has directed with a broad but amiable and well-disciplined touch in this screwball comedy about his elopement with heiress Nancy Morgan from LA to Las Vegas... Howard never tries to hog the screen and lets his costars have plenty of funny moments. Morgan is pretty and charming as his spunky partner, and it's a nice touch that Howard lets her drive the getaway car..."
- Variety

"This teen comedy is another excuse to smash up a lot of cars."
- Michael Weldon, The Psychotronic Video Guide

"... incredibly assured directorial debut... Released the same year as Smokey and the Bandit, and paying tribute to It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), Howard's contribution to the car crash mini-genre is 'tireless' and fetchingly ardent. It's also beholden to Victor Rivers' stunt co-ordination and Joe Dante's judicious editing."
- Paul Bamford, Contemporary North American Film Directors: A Wallflower Critical Guide

"Looking like something that Peckinpah might have made as a boy, this can best be described as an automotive snuff movie... it leaves not a vehicle untotalled. There are some feeble attempts to make statements about young love, political ambition, money and the media, but wrecking cars is what it's all about. As stunts go, they don't go very far, but watching a Roller get wiped out in a demolition derby has its appeal."
- Derek Adams, Time Out

"The plot is perfunctory and the car-crash scenes disappointingly tame."
- Channel 4 Film

"... a poor man's Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World with people chasing each other all over the countryside, stealing cars, and leaving a pile of crashed, crushed, broken, and mangled automobiles in their wake. Co-writer and director Ron Howard, executive producer Roger Corman, and editor Joe Dante were the people responsible, and I suppose we can excuse them for the crudeness of their product. Corman we expect to make cheapies like this, it was Howard's first film, and it was one of Dante's early efforts. Nevertheless, one might have hoped for a little more polish than something resembling a made-for-TV movie."
- John J. Puccio, DVD Town

"This run of the mill car chase/theft/crash movie is noteworthy only because it's Ron Howard's feature film directorial debut. It's occasionally amusing, actually; it's somewhat entertaining to see the comic complications pile up. But the timing is a little off, and, really, there's not exactly anything of substance here."
- At-a-Glance Film Reviews

"If you made a drinking game out of Grand Theft Auto, you'd be dead of alcohol poisoning in under an hour... While the film has its own kind of loopy charm, the humor is sophomoric and tends toward the obvious... What results is a film that seems to be completely the result of Ron Howard's adolescent need to see cars get wrecked... (and) the movie just moves from one group of people chasing the young lovers to another group chasing the young newlyweds, etc. etc. So many cars get wrecked that we felt compelled to count. And that became a challenge during the climax, which takes place after all the main characters blunder their way into a demolition derby, where all great romantic movies have their climaxes."
- Chris Holland & Scott Hamilton, Stomp Tokyo

"Grand Theft Auto is a lot of fun. It's a fast pacedmovie with a lot of great action and car chase scenes that really keep the movie kicking along at a good speed. While none of the performances are really noteworthy, none of them are awful either and the two lead characters are likable enough that you'll find yourself rooting for them along the way."
- Ian Jane, DVD Maniacs

"Grand Theft Auto could easily be labeled as 'car crash porn', as it religiously seeks to spotlight as many varied vehicles smashing into buildings and other cars at every opportunity. At 84 minutes, at least half of the running time is spent showcasing cars speeding down the freeway, usually ending with a crash, and often an explosion. For what it is, it's not horrendously bad, although people looking to see something more than non-stop destruction will find Howard's creation devoid of meaningful substance."
- Vince Leo, Qwipster's Movie Reviews

"We wouldn't have films like The Fast and the Furious [2001] if it wasn't for Grand Theft Auto."
- Rachel Buccicone, CHUD.com

Compiled by Richard Harland Smith

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Grand Theft Auto (1977)

PAULA (Nancy Morgan): "Mother, please don't be hyperdramatic."

PAULA: "How dare you call Sam Freeman a fortune-hunter. He's an environmental research major!"

BIGBY (Barry Cahill): "Well, I guess I shot down her hot little motor."

SAM (Ron Howard): "Wanna pull over and fool around a little?"

CAR SALESMAN (Cal Naylor): "Hey, boy...that's aggravated grand theft!"

COLLINS (Paul Linke): "I hesitate to do this with Paula in the car, but I am a superior driver and I will batter you into submission if need be. I will bump you off this highway!"

CURLY BROWN (Don Steele): I've got a 10Q Exclusive here for all you squirrelly Curly Q fans so turn up your crystal sets."

COLLINS: "I am taking it to the streets, Mr. Brown."

PREACHER (Hoke Howell): "Twenty-five thousand...now that's a lot of Bibles, baby!"

HIRAM (James Costigan): "Piss off! Piss off!"

SLINKER (Rance Howard): "All right men, cast the velvet net."

PAULA: "I want everyone to know that I have not been kidnapped...and you couldn't call what Sam and I have done rape."

ACE (Clint Howard): "Sparks, think you can hotwire this mutha?"
SPARKY (Peter Isacksen): "No necessito, man...el keyo in el ignitionario!"
ACE: "Sparky, you crack me up when you talk Mexican."

BRIDE (Karen Kaysing): "Couldn't wait, could you Mr. Ever-Hard?"

VIVIAN HEDGEWORTH (Marion Ross): "Get your foot out of my crotch!"
OFFICER TAD (Jim Ritz): "I'm boarding this bus, lady!"

CURLY: "Every time you turn around and fart it's news."

BIGBY: "Kick this tin can in the ass...kick it!"

CURLY: "The whirlybird is a chickybird!"

SAM: "It's a circus, Paula. We've got a cockamamie circus on our hands."

CLOWN (Allan Arkush): "You lousy scumbags!"

SPARKY: "We knocked him right on his el assilito!"

SLINKER: "Put me down, I'm on assignment!"

Compiled by Richard Harland Smith

back to top
Grand Theft Auto (1977)

Forget Crash - either one Grand Theft Auto (1977) is the real movie about the human need for collision in a world of detours and wrong turns. Its title more readily associated these days with the ber-violent and multi-sequeled Rockstar video game, Grand Theft Auto is remembered by older film fans as Ron Howard's directorial debut. Howard had by the mid-70s made the transition from precocious child actor (The Music Man [1962], The Andy Griffith Show) to highly salaried star of the hit ABC sitcom Happy Days. Although producer Roger Corman couldn't afford Howard's asking price for New World's car crash comedy Eat My Dust (1976), he sweetened the pot by giving Howard a percentage of that film's profits and by agreeing to finance his first go in the director's chair. Although Howard and his actor/writer father Rance pitched a number of viable exploitation ideas, all involved settled on the relatively safe car race/crash subgenre, popularized by the likes of Gone in 60 Seconds (1974), Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974), the Corman-produced Death Race 2000 (1975), Cannonball! (1976) and The Gumball Rally (1976). Corman staffer Frances Doel (who had cowritten Big Bad Mama [1974] a few years earlier) worked with Howard per et fils to ensure that Grand Theft Auto hewed closely to the Corman paradigm, while Corman himself advised Howard to plan his shots, keep movement in the frame, chase the sun and wear comfortable shoes.

The working model for Grand Theft Auto was Stanley Kramer's It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). Lacking that mega-production's star wattage, Ron Howard compensates with energy, resourcefulness and speed. Wisely, he rarely pauses long enough for breath let alone exposition, meaning that character development is skin-deep. Besides directing, Howard took the central role of Sam Freeman, an affable environmental resources major who elopes to Las Vegas with the only daughter (Nancy Morgan) of a Beverly Hills millionaire cum political hopeful (Barry Cahill). Dubbed "the runaway lovers," the pair's flight in a "borrowed" Rolls Royce becomes a cause celbr, attracting a steady stream of hirelings, mercenaries and media vultures after a promised $25,000 reward. While the stunts won't make anyone forget Mad Max (1979) any time soon they are expertly photographed by Howard and second unit director Allan Arkush and snappily edited by Joe Dante. Throughout the humor is broad but never mean spirited, unlike a lot of the car chase copycat movies that followed.

An old school humanist in the style of Frank Capra and Preston Sturges, Howard lacks the absurdist bent of Paul Bartel (Death Race 2000) or the balls-out anarchy of John Landis (who effectively capped the car chase craze with The Blues Brothers in 1980) but he does pull off some novel stunts, staging a moving bus-to-car dialogue scene 17 years before Speed (1994) and plowing a speeding car through the middle of a balsawood house a couple years ahead of Mad Max (1979). Another nice touch is the customary destruction of a fruit stand, which Howard doesn't merely knock over but blows up with dynamite. In its own little way, Grand Theft Auto is as deserving of the mantle of seminal 70s cinema as Chinatown (1974) or Taxi Driver (1976). Its capital asset is the expansiveness of the American road, where the cost-effective amalgamation of light and air evoke a sense of wonder all too lacking in modern motion pictures which, for all their millions spent, feel as airless as a canned ham.

Executive Producer: Roger Corman
Producer: Jon Davison
Associate Producer: Rance Howard
Director: Ron Howard
Screenplay: Ron Howard, Rance Howard
Cinematography: Gary Graver
Film Editing: Joe Dante
Second Unit Director: Allan Arkush
Music: Peter Ivers
Cast: Ron Howard (Sam), Nancy Morgan (Paula), Marion Ross (Vivian Hedgeworth), Paul Linke (Collins Hedgeworth), Barry Cahill (Bigby Powers), Elizabeth Rogers (Priscilla Powers), Rance Howard (Slinker), Don Steele (Curly Q Brown), James Ritz (Officer Tad), Clint Howard (Ace), Peter Isacksen (Sparky), Hoke Howell (Preacher), Ken Lerner (Eagle One), Garry Marshall (Underworld Boss), Paul Bartel (Groom), Karen Kaysing (Bride), Leo Rossi (Gangster), James Costigan (Hiram), Cal Naylor (Car Salesman), Allan Arkush (Clown).
C-84 minutes.

by Richard Harland Smith

back to top