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TCM Underground - March 2018
Remind Me

Macon County Line

Though drive-ins were popular all over the United States, they flourished like nowhere else in the American South. Since the 1950s, audiences rolled in at night for double and triple features packed with as many thrills and spills as possible, so it was just a matter of time before filmmakers decided to zoom in specifically on the South as a major part of the film itself. The big studio breakthrough of John Boorman's Deliverance (1972) singled out Georgia as a particularly effective setting, with its lush greenery and beautiful vistas also carrying a sinister quality for outsiders who might not know what they've stumbled into. Soon Georgia was all over screens with fast cars, cranky cops and psychopathic hillbillies running amuck, with one particular success, Gy Waldron's Moonrunners (1975), even spawning the hit TV series, The Dukes of Hazzard. Studios took notice of the trend, too, with Hal Needham and company cashing in big time with Smokey and the Bandit (1977) and a slew of imitators.

However, the most profitable story out of this entire Georgia craze has to be a little underdog film called Macon County Line (1974). The title refers to the border of Macon County, a region that exists in three separate states (Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee) and is never specified in the actual film. However, the one in central Georgia named after esteemed North Carolina Congressman General Nathaniel Macon seems to fit the bill most closely given the look and tone of the film as well as the automatic associations with the town of Macon, Georgia, which (weirdly enough) is in a totally different county. Best known as Jethro Bodine from TV's The Beverly Hillbillies, actor Max Baer, Jr. found himself unemployed and decided to raise money himself to make a feature film. He teamed up with executive producer Roger Camras to put in $100,000 in cash for the $225,000 budget, with director Richard Compton brought in to helm the project and co-write the script. A discreet Roger Corman also managed to round up funds by hitting up his friends at his country club.

Baer also assumed the dark, memorable role of Sheriff Reed Morgan, who's prepping his son (played by regular actor and pop star heartthrob Leif Garrett) for hunting season thanks to a recent discharge from military school. Morgan turns out to be trouble for two brothers on their way to Air Force enlistment, Chris and Wayne Dixon (played by real-life brothers Jesse and Alan Vint), as well as a passenger they picked up along the way, Jenny (Cheryl Waters). A tragic case of mistaken identity ratchets up the stakes between the law and our heroes, which leads to a shocking ending that had audiences reeling out of the theater.

Compton wrangled up the cast himself from friends he knew who would be willing to work on a very low-budget film, a particularly big labor of love on Baer's part. Though shot during a particularly cold time in a five square-mile area around Sacramento, California, the film convincingly evokes the 1950s South by focusing on dusty, sparse roads and extensive nocturnal shooting. In keeping with the docudrama craze of the '70s, the filmmakers also cannily added a false claim at the beginning - "The story is true. Only the names and places have been changed." - when test audiences found some of the central plot points too coincidental to be plausible. Of course, even Fargo (1996) and its TV spin-off continued to pull off the exact same trick decades later.

In keeping with the drive-in tradition set by Roger Corman, the film also featured a large roster of women working behind the scenes. Particularly significant among them was film editor Tina Hirsch, who was on vacation in the area and was brought in to cut a couple of scenes when the original editor had to leave. "I wouldn't pay money to go see this movie, and I'm working on it!" she reacted at first to the initial footage, but the film turned out to be a major calling card for her and led to three Corman films: Big Bad Mama (1974), Death Race 2000 (1975) and Eat My Dust (1976). Another Corman apprentice, trailer cutter and future director Joe Dante, took notice of her skills and brought her along to cut two of his biggest studio films, Gremlins (1984) and Explorers (1985). Amusingly, Hirsch herself would go back to Corman to direct a particularly absurd Gremlins imitation, 1987's Munchies. Jesse Vint also jumped to B-movie leading man status after this film and jumped on the Corman train with Black Oak Conspiracy (1977), Deathsport (1978) and Forbidden World (1982), with the late Alan Vint also following suit with The Lady in Red (1979) and becoming the head of Robert Urich Productions for television.

Released in June of 1974 by American International Pictures, the film ended up grossing around $35 million, the highest grosses at the time in the 21-year history of AIP and, in relation to budget, the most profitable film of the year. The film also spawned a less successful sequel without Baer but directed by Compton, Return to Macon County (1975), which went in a more upbeat direction but had nowhere near the years-long staying power of this heartfelt success story.

By Nathaniel Thompson


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