06 April 2007

Trashy Movie Celebration Blog-A-Thon: "Viva Knievel" (1977)

Not exactly a “grindhouse” epic, but a period nugget like no other and inspired trash of the highest pedigree guaranteed to induce audible winces and frequent eyeball-rubbing. Forget rose-tinted, warm-n-fuzzy boomer pablum like "Almost Famous", the real essence of the 70’s can be chrystalized in the seemingly endless pageant of the “Me” decade’s dubious celebrities. Game show mainstays like Brett Sumner and George Gobel. Husband and wife variety acts like Shields And Yarnell and Marilyn McCoo and Billy Newton Davis. And proto-"reality tv" publicity hounds like stuntmen The Human Fly and the immortal Evel Knievel.

I hereby offer 1977’s “Viva Knievel” as my contribution to the Trashy movie Celebration Blog-A-Thon.

A little backstory: in 1952, 14-year Robert Craig Knievel was picked up for stealing hubcaps in his hometown of Butte, Montana, and incarcerated with another petty crook named Knaufel. The local paper declared that "Awful Knawful and Evil Knievel" had been caught. Robert, visionary that he was, changed the spelling and a unique era in American pop culture was born.

Having "mastered" the art of conventional motorcycle racing (so he sez), Evel came up with the notion that long distance cycle jumping was not all that dissimilar to broad jumping: start the charge from a distance, and then build up speed to a great launch over a ramp. He began experimenting with jumping a dozen cars, then gradually increased the number to over 19. During his career, Evel would jump shark tanks (pre-Fonz), rattlesnakes, and, unsuccessfully, the fountains at Caesar's Palace in 1967 (a mishap that rendered him comatose for a month).

In 1977, no less an entertainment behemoth than Warner Brothers perhaps felt that Evel’s towering pompadour and star-spangled jumpsuit (straining against a prodigious gut) to be a logical extension of "Star Wars" science-fiction mania, and unleashed the astonishingly asinine “Viva Knievel” on a coked-out public (Evel’s life story had already been immortalized on celluloid before with the highly-fictionalized "Evel Knievel", directed by Marvin J. Chomsky in 1972, starring George Hamilton).

Directed by Gordon ("In Like Flint") Douglas, "Viva Knievel" opens with a Quinn-Martinesque hook as a prowler sneaks into a home for orphaned boys. A child awakens, and his face fills with the sort of glow that we wouldn't see again until years later when Henry Thomas stared in awe at an otherworldy bipedal Reese's Pieces junkie. The boys rise, and behold, ‘tis Evel himself, in a funky blue leisure suit and collar as wide as a stealth fighter, risking the wrath of the nuns so he can break in and hand out Evel Knievel Action Figures to the wayward youths, all the while slapping 'em "high fives". Evel obviously fancied this film a religious parable as well (heck, he already had the televangelist hairdo): in a standout moment, a boy rises from his bed, and shambles towards Evel on crutches. "You know when you walked away from that accident?" beams the ersatz Tiny Tim "I figured, if you could do it, so could I! You're the reason I'm walking Evel! You're the reason!" he exclaims, before tossing away the crutches!

For those of you with the intestinal fortitude, things get even better: Enter RED BUTTONS as a sleazy promoter, trying to fill up dangerous seats too close to the stadium jump ramp! Who roughs him up to tell him to clean up his act? Why, Evel's loyal grease monkey of course, described by Buttons as "a gorilla". And just who do you think played this hairless ape (remember, this is 1977)? William Smith? Don Stroud? Nope it's GENE KELLY, of course! Swiggin' booze from the bottle, dropping the 'g's from his sentences, and lamenting his estrangement from his son at the Military Academy, Kelly was most definitely NOT the model for Nicholas Cage in "Leaving Las Vegas".

The remaining costars are true 70’s polyester-embalmed staples: MARJOE GORTNER as Evel's former partner; CAMERON MITCHELL as a mob thug; LAUREN HUTTON as a "photojournalist"; and a pre-Zucker/Abrams LESLIE NIELSEN as the crime boss. His dastardly plot: kill Evel while he's performing in Mexico, steal his van, fill it with drugs, and drive it back to the USA undetected across the border.

In run-on sermons right out of "Dragnet", Evel continually preaches from the pulpit on everything from teen drug use to the evils of alcoholism. He delivers this beauty to the spectators early in the film:

"Ladies and gentlemen, it's a pleasure to be with you in Long Beach today. Y'know I see a lotta young people here in the stands today, and before I make the jump, there's something I want to say to you, that's been bothering me for a long time. I go to Indianapolis every year, to see the Indy 500. I go there with friends to drive and race. Every year when they go to qualify, they usually have to go as fast as they possibly can to get a front row position. They put nitro in their cars sometimes, instead of fuel that's intended to be in the cars, so they do go faster. And they do. For about 5 to ten laps. And then they blow all to hell! And you people, you kids, if you nitro in your bodies, in the form of narcotics, so that you can do better--or think you can do better, you will, for about 5 to ten years, and then you'll blow--ALL TO HELL! "

Needless to say, Evel saves the day by using his wits and his airborne "stratocycle". Gortner flies to Italy to do "Starcrash" with David Hasselhoff; Lauren Hutton goes on to "The Eyes Of Laura Mars"; Leslie Nielsen does a couple of Quinn Martin Productions until he gets the call from ZAZ; and Gene Kelly hoofs it with Olivia and ELO in "Xanadu".

"Viva Knievel" belongs in the pantheon of hoary vanity vehicles ranking (and I mean rank) somewhere below Muhammad Ali's "The Greatest" but above Hulk Hogan's "No Holds Barred" and possibly tied with Marty Robbins' shocking moonshine expose "Hell On Wheels".

Evel’s career barely survived this sorry spectacle. The next year, he retired at age 50 after 12 years as a self-proclaimed American folk hero (1967-1978). But his own son Robbie would go on to exceed his poppa's record: 22 vehicles in one launch. Pop’s since had a liver transplant (guess he "blew all to hell"), been busted for illegal arms possession, and was married in Las Vegas.

This past spring, Evel did what all washed-up celebrities eventually do (even his “paid programming” career was over a loooong time ago): he converted to Christianity and made a big public deal about it on Robert Schuller’s “Hour Of Power”.

Doesn't Schuller run an orphanage...?