Thursday, December 8, 2011

TERRY THE TOAD: "American Graffiti" (1973) and the early work of CMS

It's time to get to what this blog is all about: enjoying and discussing the work of Charles Martin Smith. Let's start at the beginning, shall we? Following the IMDb listing for Charles (or Charlie, as he is credited in his early roles), I've been slowly working my way through his filmography. With the exception of an episode of "Room 222" (broadcast in November 1972) that I couldn't find, I've seen everything from that  initial 2 year period leading up to his breakthrough performance in "American Graffiti" (1973).

The first acting appearance listed is one scene in a 3rd season episode of "The Brady Bunch". First broadcast on ABC on October 8th, 1971, "The Wheeler-Dealer" is the one where Greg (Barry Williams) is stuck with a piece-of-junk car that he's trying to get rid of. Charlie plays Ronnie, the "friend" he tries to sucker into buying it. It's fun to watch CMS getting his start here. He brought an adorable awkwardness to the part, playing the first of several shy & nerdy roles to come. The episode was also directed by 50's sci-fi king Jack Arnold! How cool is that?

Charlie's big-screen debut was in "The Culpepper Cattle Co." from 1972. Normally I'm not a big fan of westerns, but I thought this one was pretty good. It has a bit of a "Little House on the Prarie" vibe to it, focusing on the more mundane and less glamorous aspects of life in the wild west of yesteryear. After the credits finish, Charlie appears right at the beginning as he shouts out the film's opening line, "Kiss my ass, Ben Mockridge!" He plays Tim Slater, who in the opening sequence engages in a horsecart race with his friend Ben (Gary Grimes). At first it looks like Tim is going to be the winner, but he is ultimately defeated.

Tim and Ben then share an ever-so-slightly homoerotic moment as Ben shows off the new gun he just acquired. While Ben displays his pistol proudly, Tim smiles and admires it. "It looks like a nice one," he gushes. Probably not the first time these two characters have shown their "pistols" to each other, I would imagine. Unfortunately, there is no more Tim Slater for the rest of the movie.

"Fuzz" (1972) features Charlie's next movie role. Once again, it's a bit part in only 2 scenes (he only has one line). He plays Baby, who wanders the Boston back alleys with his friend Jimmy (Gary Morgan) dousing passed-out street bums with lighter fluid and catching them on fire! Damn!

When Detective Steve Carella (Burt Reynolds) finally catches them near the end of the film, it's revealed they were only trying to do their part in cleaning up the neighborhood by getting rid of the drunken bums that had been such a nuisance. Gosh, what rotten little shits.

There are even more bad kids to be found in the next CMS movie I watched: the 1973 TV adaptation of the popular teen drug confessional novel, "Go Ask Alice" (first broadcast January 24th on ABC). Charlie plays Jim, one of the many students who put the "high" in high school. He appears in one scene where he asks Alice (Jamie Smith-Jackson) if she has any drugs for sale, but she's trying to get clean so she's not holding. Aww, what a bummer.

Released a few months before "American Graffiti", Sam Peckinpah's "Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid" (1973) contains one scene near the beginning with Charlie. He plays Bowdre, a young cowpoke staying in a shack with Billy the Kid (Kris Kristopherson) and a bearded 3rd friend. It's noon and they're still sleeping, but they slowly drag themselves out of bed. While the other 2 make fun of Bowdre for adjusting his morning wood a little too vigorously ("I was just scratching," he sheepishly replies), Pat Garrett (James Coburn) and his posse gather outside, weapons ready to fire.

When Bowdre steps outside to tend the horses, he gets several bullets in the stomach! Damn! Doomed from the start! The poor guy drags himself back inside. His scene in the cabin is really quite good, slowly dying in his companion's arms as he cries out in pain, "Sweet Mary's ass!" As they make their escape, the other two running off in opposite directions, poor Bowdre goes down in a hail of bullets.

CMS has died frequently enough in his films to have inspired a thread on his IMDb page devoted to listing his death scenes. It's pretty cool that for his first of many he would perform, he gets to go out with a bloody bang "Wild Bunch"-style under the direction of the great Mr. Peckinpah. It's also worth noting that almost 40 years later, CMS would cast co-star Kristopherson in a key supporting role in his recent hit film, "Dolphin Tale 3-D" (2011).

Then there's "American Graffiti" (1973). Charlie landed a major role in George Lucas's nostalgia-drenched snapshot of more innocent times, and he's been busy working hard and going strong ever since. Surprisingly, it's a film that I hadn't actually seen until just a few years ago (when my CMS obsession kicked in), although I grew up in the pop-cultural fallout after it's release, as interest was revived in late 50s/early 60s culture throughout the 70s (the "Happy Days" TV series and the "Grease" movie being the most obvious examples I can remember).

It's a film I still have some mixed feelings about. Technically, I think George Lucas created something very impressive on many levels. It captures the details of the era very vividly and convincingly. The late-night look of the film created with the assistance of famed cinematographer Haskell Wexler is fantastic. The wall-to-wall pop song soundtrack reworked into a beautiful sound montage by Walter Murch is incredible. All achieved on a budget under a million dollars too!

But a major component of the era (cars! cars! cars!) is something I have never been able to relate to. I'm not terribly fond of some of the main characters, in particular wishy-washy aspiring writer Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss) and his friend Steve Bollander (Ron Howard). I find Curt annoying and Steve is a bit of a douchebag. I understand the emotional turmoil Curt's sister/Steve's girlfriend Laurie Henderson (Cindy Williams) goes through, but after a while her overwrought histrionics just irritate me. Their drama forms two of the four story threads that intertwine and separate throughout the film. More likable are drag-racing badboy John Milner (Paul Le Mat) and pre-teen Carol Morrison ("Go Ask Alice" co-star Mackenzie Phillips), whose plotline is amusing and kind of sweet. However, in my opinion, the best moments in the movie belong to Debbie Dunham (Candy Clark) and Terry "The Toad" Fields (CMS).

The film starts one night in Modesto, CA in the summer of '62. As the credits roll and the period pop tunes kick in, the sun sets figuratively on an era and literally on a Mel's Drive-In restaurant. Charlie's character grabs the first shot (as he pulls up and gently crashes his motor scooter into a wall) and the first line ("Hey, what do you say, Curt? Last night in town. You guys gonna have a little bash before you leave?"). Before the other characters go their separate ways and have their separate adventures, Steve loans his flashy '58 Impala to Terry, who takes off to cruise the strip alone, looking for fun.

Unfortunately, Terry finds mostly humiliation as he rides around. Just when he might give in to despair, he spots cute blonde Debbie walking down the street. He calls out the window, striking up a conversation and getting her attention. What do you know? She's impressed by his car's "tuck-and-roll" upholstery. Horny and excited, Terry blurts out "I'll let you feel it... the upholstery I mean." Aww, you're so adorable, Terry.

Debbie's a little kooky but she's fun, as she and Terry head out into the night for their own string of mishaps and teenage thrills. Last time around, I was giving a full-on plot rundown of their adventures together, a sea of spoilers as far as the eye can see. This time around, I'm not gonna do that. I'd rather urge you to see and enjoy the film for yourself, especially if you haven't seen it already. Plot descriptions don't really give you the full sense of the many pleasures to be found in this carefully and lovingly constructed film.

I really love the pairing of Candy Clark and CMS. They have great chemistry together, and their performances are a total joy to watch. Here's a highlight, as Terry and Debbie retreat to Lover's Lane to get a little more familiar with each other. I can't help but chuckle at Terry's bear stories (woof!)...

Initially I wasn't so fond of this movie, preferring George Lucas's sci-fi films instead, but I have to admit the film has grown on me quite a bit, and I think there is much to savor and enjoy in it besides CMS's iconic performance as the quintessential adorable nerd. He had a few more years to go before I would say he was full-on sexy, and a decade before he would reach the supreme hotness of his part in "Never Cry Wolf". But I think he is hella cute in this. Can you believe Pauline Kael called Terry "repulsive" in her "American Graffiti" review at the time of the film's release? What a fucking bitch.

Speaking of George Lucas and his sci-fi films, I wanted to share this clip of CMS screen testing for the part of Luke Skywalker in "Star Wars" (1977). Imagine how different the film would have been if he got the part instead of Mark Hamill! 

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