Wow! This entry's film, "Cotton Candy" (1978), is a real hidden treasure: pure CMS gold! Never released on home video in any format, and aired only a handful of times on television, this seriously neglected film lives on in faded digital transfers from old VHS copies taped off TV. Lucky for us, since otherwise we might not have knowledge today of the awesomeness that is this film. Despite it's rarity, a small cult following has managed to build up around it. Maybe one day someone will see fit to give it a proper official release... One can hope. This energetic, entertaining, and exciting endeavor definitely deserves a fervently fanatical following!
24 year old Charles was cast in the film as an 18 year old high school senior. Thanks to his boyish good looks, shorter stature and youthful exuberance he manages to more-or-less pull it off convincingly (certainly more convincingly than some of his over-age co-stars). Previous CMS co-star Ron Howard, in his 2nd directorial feature after "Grand Theft Auto" (1977), worked from a script co-written with brother Clint Howard (who also appears in the film). Originally aired on NBC on October 26th, 1978, the copy I got my hands on was taken from a videotape of a 1981 rerun (several of the fun-to-remember commercials the original videotaper left in were copyright dated '81). Here we see the first time Charles Martin Smith was finally cast as the main character in a film. Up 'til this point, every one of his roles had either been a supporting one, or was part of an ensemble (such as "American Graffiti" (1973) or "The Spikes Gang" (1974) ). But here, we get an incredibly adorable and sexy CMS in practically every scene of the film! It's totally his movie! Fuck yeah!
We are first introduced to CMS's character, George Smalley, struggling to fit in with the rest of the varsity football team at Lake Highlands High School. While the other guys are smacking each other's asses and chasing each other around the locker room in their tight little shorts having touchy-feely towel fights, George seems kind-of stuck on the sidelines. He does seem to give off a vibe of not-belonging... and appears a little uncomfortable with being left out of the main action. As he changes his clothes after a shower (which we don't get to see, sadly), two beefy players wrapped in towels on the bench next to him have a conversation about their more-exciting lives. "He wants me to go both ways," one of them confides to the other. Before we can hear any more of their potentially provocative discussion, an announcement comes over the locker room speakers: "George Smalley, report to the head coach's office immediately."
As George nervously walks through the locker room to the office, other players pointing and whispering as he passes them, we are presented with a flashback to junior year. George is trying to relax in his living room, looking at his vinyl collection while his mom flips through the school yearbook. She starts hassling him: where are his extracurricular activities (of which he has had none)? She then starts pushing him to be more active in his senior year, the year that really counts. Aw, mom. Why do you have to be such a nag? We then see him making the impulsive decision to join the football team, buying expensive cleats and ignoring his dad's objections. "But dad, think of what people are gonna say when I get a varsity letter," George responds. "What an outrageous way to finish high school!"
We then see a quick montage of Smalley busting his butt on the football field, doing endless jumping jacks and running up and down the bleachers (and looking really cute doing it... but doing it too fast to get a good screen cap, of course). Awww, this guy's been working so hard to be a part of the team. But as we see when the flashback ends and we come back to the present in the office, Coach Grimes feels it's too little too late. "If you were a junior..." the coach starts to say. "But I'm not," George interrupts. "I'm a senior!"
When the coach offers him a position helping in the equipment room instead of a place on the varsity team, George takes offense, refusing a lowly role handing out towels. So Grimes flat-out kicks him off and orders him to turn in his uniform and gear. No one on the team seems like they're going to miss him either. As he clears out his locker, other players point and comment. "Smalley's history," one of them laughs. Aww, poor George Smalley. He looks so crushed, so unappreciated...
At least George isn't facing his problems alone. His best friend Corky MacPherson (Clint Howard) is always willing to lend a sympathetic ear. George blows off the football game that night, but Corky insists they go to the dance so they can meet some chicks. "I wish I could get a girl," George says, though he admits it's only to get his mother off his case, because she thinks her son's "a homo or a wallflower". Well, moms usually figures these things out early, they have a sense for these things... Meanwhile, the dance is absurdly crowded, urging George to make the following observation: "Jeez, what a zoo. This place is really zooed out." Haha, brilliant! This here is one of the many charms of the movie: it's ridiculously dated (and endlessly quotable) teen lingo dialogue. I'd also like to point out how cute CMS's butt looks in his snug bluejeans, but the shoddy picture quality prevents us from getting a really good look. What a drag...
Performing on stage at the school dance is Rapid Fire, a laughably horrible and inexplicably popular rock band led by egotistical douchebag Torbin Bequette (Mark Wheeler). The band presents a mangled cover of "I Shot the Sheriff" to the adoring teen audience (well received especially by the girls, who are extra-worked up by Torbin's overblown antics), but George smartly sees through their lack of talent. Corky, hearing that one of their guitar players quit, urges him to ask Torbin if he can become his replacement. During an intermission ("Rapid Fire's just gotta reload a little!"), George approaches him and asks for a chance to try out for a place in the band. Of course Torbin responds with a shitty attitude, shooting him down and humiliating him to the amusement of his bandmates and giggling groupie girls. But George is gonna show him! He hatches a plan to get his own band together, one that will knock everyone's socks off with their rockin' skills. Maybe then they could beat Rapid Fire in the upcoming Battle of the Bands competition at the local mall! Corky seems even more excited about the idea than George does, as he literally squeals with delight at the thought of the future band's future awesomeness.
Corky runs an ad in the school paper looking for potential bandmates. He also writes up an announcement he has made over the school PA: "Get down, get down: rock on, brothers! Experienced musicians, turn yourself on. Join Smalley's hot new rock band. Call real soon or be a baboon!" George isn't too keen on the choice of words used, but Corky contends that it sounds great. "The baboon is key!" he insists. Later, when George brings home a $300 electric guitar from the pawn shop, his parents are pretty vocal about their disapproval. Mom gripes that he had a perfectly good guitar already (an acoustic one), and dad rubs his face in the expensive cleats he doesn't use anymore. Neither one of them thinks George will be able to form and maintain a rock band. Thanks for the encouragement... The phone rings, mom answers it. "Somebody named 'Julio' with something about a 'jam session',"she tells George, sounding more than a little confused. He turns to her defiantly: "I'm telling you, mom! This band's gonna come together!"
Jam session, indeed! George arranges to have interested musicians show up at his place: along with Julio (fellow "American Graffiti" cast member Manuel Padilla Jr), brothers Barry (Kevin Lee Miller) and Bart (Dino Scofield) arrive with instruments and amps in hand. There's also a red VW Beetle that pulls up in front of George's house. "Is this where the new band's getting together?" asks the cute brunette girl who leans out the car window. "A chick for a drummer?" Corky wonders aloud, and the others share his initial skepticism. "Hey, she's a fox," Julio observes. "But can she cut it, man?"
The "fox", whose name is Brenda (Leslie King), just calmly sits herself behind her drum set and starts into a slick little percussive solo. Hey, she sounds great! The others hop on their instruments and start playing a funky little improvised tune, sounding like they've been jamming together much longer than the 15 minutes they've known each other. Wow, Charles looks so hot standing there, instrument in hand. Don't you think? Corky, who's been chosen by George to be the band's manager, smiles and nods his head approvingly as the jam-out continues. Unfortunately, the crabby old lady next door passive-aggressively turns her backyard sprinklers on, dousing the band and bringing the sweet music to a stop.
Dripping wet, George goes inside and tries pleading with his mom to talk to their senile senior neighbor next door, but once again there is no sympathy or understanding. Jeez, his parents are so discouraging and unsupportive that it's no wonder George feels like a bit of a loser who's less-than-a-success at anything. Now the band has nowhere to practice and George is beyond frustrated. "Rinky dink!" he loudly grumbles, and storms out the door to the backyard.
The others are sitting on the grass, their moods apparently not dampened by the abrupt ending of their practice. George seems ready to call it quits as he walks over to the others, but I'm distracted by the snug shirt and jeans he's wearing, which seem to cling to his sexy body even more since they're still wet from being sprayed with sprinkler water. Oh gosh, there I go again...
Instead of calling off the meeting, Corky suggests they spend some time getting to know each other better instead. After some initial nervousness, they open up to each other: Brenda's got a scholarship to go to MIT, but needs a break from studying all the time and worrying about grades. Julio used to be in a gang but he quit when they started getting too "radical" for him. George admits to being kicked off the football team. Corky thinks that they should take their cue from the new wave trend catching on and should call the band "Hot Rash" but no one else likes that particular idea (they later settle on Cotton Candy with no explanation why the name was chosen). Such a sweet and sunny afternoon of smiles and sharing over chilled cans of cola...
"I really think we've got a shot," George tells them as their meeting wraps up. "The Battle of the Bands... see, if we could ace that thing, can you imagine how outrageous that would be? I don't know... It would just be so great if this was the one thing that finally works out..." Awwww, how could you not root for this frustrated fella?
Corky comes through for the band and finds them a better practice space in his boss's garage at night after close. Woo hoo! So now it's time for their first real band practice. After a little fumbling with the arrangement, we are then treated to the first original song in the film. It is here that Charles Martin Smith was able to take his musical genius one step further than he did in the previous entry's film ("The Buddy Holly Story") and not only sing the lead in the songs but also actually write the music himself too. Well... not technically all by himself, but in collaboration with Joe Renzetti (who also worked compositionally on the aforementioned Buddy Holly bio-pic's soundtrack). How much is Charles and how much is Joe? Who knows? But I must admit, whoever is responsible, I am a sucker for the sweet sonic confections they whip up. Cotton Candy, indeed...
Since the copy I have of this movie is missing it's end credits (and there is sadly no soundtrack album), I don't know what the official names of the "Cotton Candy" songs are. I'm going to assume this first one is called "Not Gonna Hold Me Down" (or is it "Not Gonna Hold Us Down"?). Here's some sample lyrics: "Well if you say I'm crazy and it might be so / But there's a feeling in me and it won't let go / Woah-oh / Not gonna hold me down / Well you can play to win and you can play it cool / But if you play it safe you only play the fool / Woah-oh / Not gonna hold me down." Corny and cliché? Maybe a little, but Charles also has a pleasantly warm singing voice, and he gets a lot of milage out of his enthusiastic and sincere delivery.
The song continues playing over a montage of merry moments the band share together over the next few days. Among the scenes we see is a group visit to the school carnival, where they come across a water-dunk tank with Coach Grimes sitting in the dunk seat. To the amusement and cheers of his fellow bandmates, George hits the bulls-eye target with the ball he's given and drops the coach (who had previously treated him so harshly) into the water tank. Right on, Smalley!
There's also a moment that underlines where George and his Cotton Candy posse's place is in the senior social stratum at school. As they walk down the hallway together, they are approached by another cluster of students: the members of Rapid Fire. The two groups approach each other... Will George stay strong and face them down? At the last minute, he and his bandmates step aside and let Torbin and his clique shove by them. Awww, I guess they aren't ready to stand up to "the bad guys" yet. Meanwhile, "Not Gonna Hold Me Down" is still playing over the scene and another of the lyrics strikes a chord with me: "And if you say you love me / Well now that's alright / Put your arms around me / And we'll rock all night." Hearing that, you can easily imagine what lyrics like that do to a guy like me (who adores a guy like him).
The montage ends and the film cuts back to a dark and stormy night at the practice space. With a loud clap of thunder, the power goes out, cutting their rehearsal session short. But instead of going home and calling it a night, Brenda suggests they play a round of poker (which we saw them do together before in that montage we just got through). Even though she beat their asses the last times they played, the other guys seem to like the idea. But this time, they want to raise the stakes and make it strip poker. Woah, wait a second... strip poker? With Charles Martin Smith! Hell, yeah! George doesn't seem interested in the proposed activity, but Brenda takes the challenge and pushes to play. Someone hangs a cluster of flashlights over a table, someone else busts out a deck of cards, and everyone pulls up a chair. Alright! Here we go, people!
You see, George has been crushing on Brenda since the moment she showed up at his house for that first practice session. He doesn't want to seem to her like he's no fun, but he doesn't want Brenda being oggled by the other boys either. The rest of the band is eager to get their clothes off, Julio being the first to lose his shirt, the other boys following suit with various articles of clothing. It's not long before George has to take off his t-shirt, something he hesitates to do. That is, until Brenda urges him on with a flirtatious laugh. That's all the encouragement George needs, and he takes his top off with a dramatic flourish. Yow!
But over the course of several hands, Brenda also begins losing some of her clothes too, which excites the other guys (who all leer at her increasingly exposed body) while making George very, very uncomfortable. Now she's taking off her pants. That leaves only her flimsy blouse barely covering her bra and panties. The other guys shift in their seats, in a shared state of erect awkwardness, while waves of jealousy wash over George.
When the power comes back on, George seizes on the opportunity to strongly suggest for the game to be dropped and the band practice to resume. Of course all the guys complain and Brenda doesn't want to look afraid, so the game continues. As the cards are dealt, George keeps ending up with solid hands. He discards one good pair only to draw another strong pair right after that. Darn... and as they all reveal their cards, it becomes obvious that Brenda's is the weakest at the table.
Knowing she lost fair and square, and not wanting to look like a chicken or a spoilsport to the rest of the band, Brenda goes ahead and begins to unbutton her blouse. As her top opens and the promise of her partially exposed breasts threatens to become a reality, the guys all stare in intense silence. Even George can't help but gaze upon her, but he also can't help but lose his cool either.
He suddenly jumps to his feet and grabs Brenda's sweater from the nearby pile of discarded clothes, tossing it onto her in a desperately insistent attempt to cover up her body, and he begins shouting. "This it totally ludicrous! We got a good group here, we got a good thing going, and I am not gonna let you guys louse not up! Forget the game! It's over!" Everyone else at the table protests at the perceived unfairness, and even Brenda defends the fact that she lost the last hand and had to face the consequences. But George doesn't care what any of them say. It's his group and he's putting his foot down. That's that: game over. Then something happens... something so amazing, so incredibly sexy in that rock-god sort of way. George, still shirtless, strolls over to his guitar, and then...
Ohmygod! Did you see that? Did you?? One of the sexiest sights I have ever witnessed: Charles Martin Smith, shirtless, strapping on his electric guitar, confidently wrapping his hands around his instrument, ready to play! I feel overwhelmed, overcome.... oh, Charles... "Put your arms around me, and we'll rock all night," as you so eloquently put it! Uh huh!
We're just about 1/3 of the way through "Cotton Candy", but I have to stop and take a breather. That was nearly too much for me to take, and I think I need to lie down for a while. So my review of this surprisingly sexy slice of '70s small-screen cinema will be continued in the next entry. I hope you've enjoyed what's come so far as much as I have. See you next entry with more rock-star CMS!