Rule of Three: Petey Wheatstraw, The Devil’s Son-in-Law (1977)

Rudy Ray Moore will always be remembered for Dolemite, but his crowning achievement is without question Petey Wheatstraw, The Devil’s Son-in-Law.

Everything about Petey Wheatstraw represents an improvement over Dolemite, and often a substantial one. It’s smarter and funnier. The acting, writing, casting, blocking, pacing, and fight choreography are much better. Whereas Dolemite felt like a vanity project — which it was, even if it was a more inclusive one than most — Petey Wheatstraw feels like a movie.

Not just a movie, either; it’s a genuinely good movie. Moments approach greatness. Its laughs are almost uniformly genuine. I don’t have any specific insight into Rudy Ray Moore, but I’d be shocked to my core if I found out he had been upset at any point that people had laughed at Dolemite instead of laughing with it. I honestly get the sense he would have still considered that to be a kind of success.

Moore never took himself too seriously. If he caught somebody chuckling at the sight of his beer gut poking out from under his shirt during what was meant to be an exciting kung-fu sequence, I think he still would have been proud of himself. He brought joy to somebody. Maybe not the precise flavor of joy he had intended, but he made somebody’s day that much brighter.

Am I waxing romantic? Maybe, but it’s not without reason. Early in Petey Wheatstraw, our protagonist, as a child, does the same. He confides to his elderly mentor that he wants to grow up and become a comedian. It’s important to him and, he believes, to the world.

“I always wanted to be on stage, making people laugh,” he tells the old man. “So I can try and save the world from some of its misery.” Like Rudy Ray Moore himself, young Petey sees comedy as a noble calling. Let’s be completely fair to the boy: He’s right.

Every human being loves to laugh, and not every human being has the gift of making others laugh. Moore had it, and he knew he did. It was his obligation, therefore, to put it in front of as many people as possible. On stage, on record, on screen. However he could reach those who needed the laughs he could give them, it was his job to do it. The best part? The guy loved his job.

Petey Wheatstraw is an hour and a half of a man loving his job. It’s a horror comedy with a firm moral lesson that Moore as Petey stubbornly refuses to learn. He makes a deal with The Devil, reaps the benefits, and spends the rest of the film trying to outwit Old Scratch. It’s the barest sketch of a plot, but it’s more than enough to get us to a lot of funny places and a few pretty surprising ones.

The film opens with an adult Petey Wheatstraw addressing the audience directly. He is going to tell us his story, beginning with the night of his birth, in Miami, during a devastating storm.

Moore’s opening, rhyming monologue suggests that we’ll be in familiar Dolemite territory, but with the exception of a few hallmarks, we will not be. The birthing scene that follows makes that very clear.

Petey’s mother, wracked with pain, is in her bed, calling out for a doctor who hasn’t yet arrived. She’s comically huge; when the doctor shows up, he asks if she’s pregnant with an elephant.

The scene feels like an isolated comedy skit, and that’s exactly how it plays out. The woman gives birth to a watermelon. Petey bites the doctor as he tries to deliver him. Petey emerges as what looks like a 10-year-old boy and beats up the doctor for spanking him. He then attacks his father for “stabbing” him every night in his sleep.

There’s a setup, then a mix of punchlines, visual gags, and physical comedy. The scene doesn’t last any longer than it needs to and it ends the moment it runs out of jokes. It’s exactly something you might see in a sketch comedy show — though it would have had to be a pretty daring one for the time — and we’re told everything we need to know about Petey Wheatstraw: You’re meant first and foremost to laugh. Don’t take anything too seriously. The film’s logic is its own.

All good lessons, but there’s one more you might not notice as easily. See, as overtly comic as the scene is, and as much of a comedian as this film’s leading man is, Moore doesn’t appear in this sequence.

There’s no reason he couldn’t. He could have easily played his own father. He could even have played Petey. (The boy is already not an infant at birth; he could just as easily have been birthed as a full-grown, smack-talking smartass with incredible facial hair.) Instead, Moore lets other people have the spotlight. He opens his best movie by letting others get all of the laughs, on their own.

We saw a bit of this disarming selflessness in Dolemite, and we’ll see much more of it here. Moore was becoming more comfortable handing the reins over to others, giving them longer spotlights, letting them share their own noble callings with whoever needed to see them. The best part, though, is that it never feels like we’re getting less Moore. Petey Wheatstraw is still a Rudy Ray Moore film, and we’re never more than a few minutes away from the man himself working his magic.

As Petey grows, he finds himself having to fight to survive in a rough neighborhood. That’s one of Moore’s hallmarks; I can’t say how much of it he might have drawn from his own life, but the idea of a community being willfully shitty clearly fascinated him. He had to be busted out of jail in Dolemite to restore order. Later in Petey Wheatstraw, our hero has his car torn apart by junkies. In Disco Godfather he…well, you’ll see.

Here, an old man sees a spunky but unskilled Petey lose a fight. He takes the boy on as a protégé and teaches him another Moore hallmark: kung-fu.

And this, silly as it may seem, is actually important. Moore did plenty of kung-fu in Dolemite and The Human Tornado, but it was clear that he had no idea what he was doing. Last week I pointed out that the fight scenes weren’t shot well, either, but I can’t fault director D’Urville Martin too much for that. Was it worth shooting them well? (The fantastic Dolemite is My Name, with Wesley Snipes as Martin, answers this with one of the film’s best jokes.)

At some point, perhaps gradually since his first film, Moore must have actually learned kung-fu. That’s not to say he’s any kind of master by the time of Petey Wheatstraw, but he’s improved noticeably. He’s studied it, practiced it, or at least taken a crash course in it, because he looks more competent and comfortable with it throughout.

As such, the cinematography rises to meet him. We’re no longer watching a comedian floundering his way through an action scene; we’re watching an action scene. Moore and writer/director Cliff Roquemore let us know up front that Petey has received martial arts training, not because it’s necessary to know but because it was worth drawing attention to just how much better at it Moore would be during this film.

When we catch up to Petey in his adult years, we find that he has indeed achieved his dream of being a much-loved comedian. Unlike Dolemite, he’s an insult comedian. This sets him apart to some degree from that character, as biting, spontaneous personal barbs are a much different artform from recitations of long, profane poetry, but I do admit it’s pretty funny to find out that Petey’s dream of making people happier is fulfilled by having him professionally insult them. I don’t think that’s an intentional joke on the part of the film, but it’s amusing anyway.

Petey is so accomplished in his craft that the mere fact that he schedules a show sends the owners of a rival club — another Moore staple — into a panic. This time it’s because Leroy and Skillet — a real-life comic duo Moore turns over several spotlights to — have taken a $100,000 investment from Mr. White. The idea was that they would use the money to book incredible acts during the down season, when they wouldn’t have any competition. As the only game in town and with acts worth seeing, they’d pack the house every night and make themselves and Mr. White a lot of money.

Then Petey Wheatstraw books a gig the very day after Leroy and Skillet are set to open, and this is a problem. Mr. White alluded to severe consequences if his investment didn’t pay off, and violence was likely the very least of these.

So far, so sedate. And to the credit of Leroy and Skillet, they do call Petey and ask him politely to delay his gig. Petey refuses to do so, which is understandable, but which also inspires his adversaries to take more drastic measures.

The pair hires a few goons to rough up Ted, one of Petey’s friends. Things don’t go quite as expected, as Ted’s kid brother Larry is there for the confrontation and refuses to leave. With the situation now overcomplicated, one of the goons pulls a gun on Ted.

Little Larry saves his big brother by taking the bullet instead. The thugs flee. The neighbors call an ambulance. Larry dies on the lawn.

It’s a dramatic scene which doesn’t quite seem to fit…and, hey, it doesn’t. I’ll admit that. But I do think the tonal shift is deliberate and important. This isn’t the graceless tonal whiplash of a Medea film; this is a comedy that is about to give its freewheeling hero a reason to get serious.

The death of Larry isn’t played for laughs, and Ted — played by Ted Clemmons — is legitimately emotional here.

The scene ends and the drama doesn’t let up. We see Larry’s casket being carried out of his funeral service. The boy’s grieving friends and family descend the church steps. It’s a powerful sequence. Everything here is grounded, real, and effective.

The thugs return. Sure, killing Larry sent a message, but it didn’t solve the central problem: Petey Wheatstraw is still in the way.

They open fire on Petey, striking him several times and hitting a number of mourners as well.

They drop the casket. Bodies fall. Others curl up and hope for the best, unable to take cover from this major tragedy as they were still processing another.

It’s real. It’s rough. That tonal shift was serious; it wasn’t one misjudged scene. It was deliberate, and now things are getting worse.

Then everything freezes. The dead, the dying, and the disoriented stop wherever they are. Clothing still ripples in the breeze, but nobody is moving or can move.

And a man strolls into frame.

He notices the devastation around him, is aware of what happened, but isn’t upset. He steps calmly around the bodies until he reaches Petey, who he restores to life. He offers Petey an opportunity to rewind time. To prevent this. To save himself and the people he loves.

It’s important that Petey makes his literal deal with The Devil over something like this and not, say, fame or fortune. We need to like Petey. We need to stay on his side, even as he does something as clearly foolish as shaking hands with the Father of Lies. Had Petey dabbled with darkness for his own gain, it would be pretty easy to dismiss anything that happened afterward as being well deserved. Instead, his bad decision becomes one that’s pretty damned understandable.

In that moment, wouldn’t you give anything to turn back the clock?

We’re eased back into the comedy, which is wise. This is not the time for a pie in the face; we’ll need to build back up to that. The man hands Petey a business card, which Petey reads.

“Lou Cypher?” asks Petey. “A small mistake on the part of the printer,” replies the man, masterfully undercutting the joke in a way that makes it much funnier.

I do need to take a moment here to say just how much I love G. Tito Shaw in this role. He immediately became one of my all-time favorite portrayals of Satan on film. Shaw didn’t go on to do anything else; this is, at least, his only credit on IMDb, which seems positively criminal. He is a fantastic Satan, and he manages to be one without ever slipping into overdone territory.

Shaw’s Satan is both affable and cold, shifting from one to the other in the space between two lines of dialogue. He’s a frightening presence when he wants to be, but as you can tell from the screengrabs he can’t rely on physical intimidation. Which is fine. He’s Satan. Satan isn’t scary because he can beat you up; Satan is scary because he can seal you into an eternity of torment.

And so Satan in this film doesn’t rely much on threats. He doesn’t need to. As much as threats might scare us, Petey Wheatstraw understands that the promises should be what keep us on edge. The kindly man with the grey beard does get visibly angry at a few points, but it’s all just theatrics. He’s at his most menacing when he’s acting the way he looks: gentle and collected.

I don’t know how much of the character Shaw brought to the role. I’d like to give him as much credit as possible, but I do get the sense a lot of it must have come from the writing. There’s a scene later in the story that consists of nothing other than Satan in a red tracksuit, jogging down the street on a sunny day. He’s all smiles. He waves at passersby. He is the embodiment of all that is evil and damn does that make him happy.

In exchange for rewinding time and letting Petey change his destiny, Satan requires that Petey marry his daughter. Petey responds that he absolutely will not marry The Dark Lord’s daughter. “That’s madness, man,” he says. “You’ve got to be sick.”

Then he realizes that he might be able to weasel out of it later, so he agrees.

Satan shows him a photo of his daughter and Petey responds again that he absolutely will not marry her with a brilliantly flat, “Oh, Hell no.”

Then, a second time, he convinces himself that he might be able to weasel out of it later. It’s a funny exchange with great comic timing on Petey’s repeated backtracking.

And so with no intention of keeping up his end of the bargain, Petey lives again. We see the events of the funeral a second time, but now reversed. Evidently Satan couldn’t rewind time far enough to resurrect poor Larry, but at worst that’s a plot hole that’s easy to ignore.

It’s easy to ignore because…

…take a deep breath…

It’s easy to ignore because for the rest of the film, Petey has a magical pimp cane.

If the idea of Rudy Ray Moore wielding a magical pimp cane doesn’t fill you with glee, I don’t think you and I can be of the same species.

From here, Petey Wheatstraw gets even stranger and becomes even more fun. It lives up to every ounce of the promise inherent in the concept, and Moore absolutely relishes it.

Petey obviously has some specific business he needs to tend to, and so does Ted. Together they confront the thugs who killed Larry, and later a disguised Petey attends opening night for Leroy and Skillet. Sure enough, the duo has a packed house, with Mr. and Mrs. White at the foot of the stage with their guests.

The house band plays a groovy, brass-heavy number to set the tone for the night of entertainment to follow. Leroy and Skillet appear on stage, soak in the applause, and launch into their comedy routine.

Petey — I am already enjoying this sentence and I’ve only started writing it — waves his magical pimp cane and controls their minds.

He makes the duo deliver his own kind of insult comedy at the expense of the Whites.

Leroy and Skillet — and the Whites, of course — are mortified and have no idea what’s happening.

They abandon their act and call out a singer instead. Petey again waves his magical pimp cane to make her lose her voice…as well as her wig and her dress.

Something unexplainable is happening and the crowd becomes as distressed as Leroy and Skillet, which means it’s time for Petey’s grand finale: destroying the rival club.

He stands, waves his magical pimp cane, and brings the venue to a state of utter destruction. Thunder claps somewhere in the distance. Petey savors his revenge, and the film dwells just long enough on him standing there, alone in a destroyed theater, watching sparks rain down around him, that we see exactly how seduced he is by the power.

I don’t mean to oversell the gravity of the scene — there’s not much — but it’s impressive just how effective the sequence manages to be.

And then, of course, there’s comedy. Now that Petey knows what the magical pimp cane is capable of — erm…anything — there is so much more he can do with it. Leroy and Skillet are out of the picture. The thugs are dead. The cosmic balance has been zeroed out…which means Petey can now start the cosmos toward a net positive.

The montage that follows is fun, gorgeous, and infectious. It’s funny and heartwarming at once. Petey strolls through his dear, dirty neighborhood, and waves his magical pimp cane at anyone he can help. Why? Well, because they need help, and he can help them.

He stops a feuding couple before they slip into domestic violence. He gets somebody’s disabled vehicle running again. He saves a child who is nearly hit by a car. He sees a heavy woman stuck in a chair and, with a wave of his magical pimp cane, frees her by giving her the body we’re sure she’s always wanted. The song playing is a composition just for the film by Nat Dove called “Ghetto Street U.S.A.” It’s a fantastic and infectious tune, with a name reflecting the filthy streets upon which Petey strolls and a groove reflecting the better place he’s making it with every step.

And Petey just loves it.

The happiness on Petey’s face truly belongs to Moore. There is a genuine love for where his life has taken him. It works for the character, but works even better for the man playing him.

Both of them are just so damned lucky, aren’t they? They were somewhere, with some unfulfilled desires and dreams, and then, overnight, they were granted a power they never had before. The power to make things better. For themselves, sure, but also for others. And maybe it can’t last forever. Maybe the end is a hell of a lot closer than either of them thinks it could be.

But for now, in this moment, unable to conceive of something they can’t actually have, it must feel pretty great.

There are dedicated comedy moments involving the magical pimp cane, I should add; it’s not all good deeds. In one scene, the cane starts vibrating for no discernible reason. Petey lets it lead him like a dowsing rod to a small trash can in the club’s restroom, and then it stops. Inside is a bomb planted by the rival club owners.

There’s some physical comedy as Petey & co. are in so much panic they can’t get the bomb out the door. They end up throwing it into the bed of a watermelon truck so that chunks of the fruit can rain down for blocks around.

Petey uses the magical pimp cane frequently enough that Satan begins to wonder if the guy loves his magical pimp cane more than he loves the terrifying demon daughter of Hell.

He confronts Petey on Earth to remind him of their deal, and to politely suggest that he not attempt to renege on it.

Satan lets him keep the magical pimp cane a little bit longer, which makes Petey even more confident he’ll be able to wriggle out of the agreement. As long as he’s got his magical pimp cane, after all, he’s able to fight back. He assures his friends — who question Petey’s wisdom in agreeing to marry Satan’s daughter — that he will solve the problem and keep them safe. None of them really seem to believe he can conquer the whole of Hell but, well, it’s not like they have any choice but to help him try.

This is where another difference between Petey and Dolemite is made clear. Dolemite is a natural hardass. He’s undefeatable. Someone may outthink him, but he’ll turn up in the end to rip their guts out with his bare fists. He is, as the sequel had it, a human tornado. A genuine, according-to-Hoyle force of nature.

Petey is the opposite. He absolutely fights well, but he never truly gets the upper hand until he has supernatural assistance. He can’t rely on brute force to solve his problems. Someone may beat the shit out of him, but he’ll turn up in the end to outwit them. Petey is more of an artful dodger.

So what does he do to outsmart Satan? He agrees to a time and place to meet The Devil and let himself be dragged to Hell.

…and then he kidnaps and drugs a hobo to take his place.

It’s a comedy, I know, but Petey Wheatstraw isn’t quite as good at painting its hero as flawed as it should be. Perhaps it’s just because Moore is that fucking likable.

In one scene he brushes a child’s hair and he does it too hard (or perhaps the kid’s hair got stuck in the comb) and the child starts crying. It’s not an act; it’s a kid expressing pain. And we still can’t dislike Moore, even as we watch him make a little boy cry.

Moore is a fun, loveable, charming son of a bitch, and while nobody will watch the scene and be glad he accidentally made a child weep, it’s also true that nobody will watch that scene and judge him for what happened.

And so when he kidnaps and drugs a hobo who can take his place in Hell…it’s something that in most movies would be a clear signal that our hero is either desperate or despicable. Or probably both. Here, it just causes us to detach; we know Moore is doing this because Moore thinks it’s funny. He’s still playing Petey, but we’re reminded that a comedian is making this movie and he’s taking us down what he hopes will be an amusing detour.

Once we know how things wrap up — the hobo wakes up in a car full of demons and gets away — it is indeed pretty funny! But Petey sure does creep into the territory of doing evil shit. He has one of his friends create a perfect replica of Petey’s face — where would we be without friends? — and they use it to disguise the sedated hobo.

In full fairness to our hero, he doesn’t expect his ruse to permanently fool The Devil; he just needs the hobo to take his place long enough for Petey and his friends to flee the city and start new lives somewhere else. It’s likely he expected the Devil to release the hobo once the trick was revealed.

Regardless, we’re thinking about it too much. Petey Wheatstraw gets away with us not believing its title character to be an asshole because its reality is fragile enough that we can pierce it at any point.

The Devil — being The Devil and all — is not amused. His demons storm Petey’s club and they ultimately kidnap Nell, played by Ebony Wright, Petey’s friend, assistant, confidant, and paramour.

Wright is great, and she’s another example of an actor to whom Moore is more than happy to cede the spotlight. A running joke in the film is that she apparently runs a phone sex service; Petey is staying temporarily at her house and she answers the phone with a smokey, seductive voice, dropping it the instant she realizes the calls are for him.

It’s funny, and Wright is a good enough actor that Nell comes across as well rounded and human. When she’s in the Devil’s grip, it’s believable that Petey would give himself up…or at least agree to a climactic rooftop showdown.

The Devil — as measured and calm as he’s always been in this film — keeps his end of the bargain once again. He does indeed let Nell go when Petey shows up. He’s a fair Prince of Darkness, which is probably what enables Petey to overpower him.

Still in possession of the magical pimp cane, Petey is able to fight back against the demons. Eventually, he even downs Satan himself.

He picks the old man up and drops him off the building, where he bursts into flames upon impact.

That’s it. Petey triumphs, because of course he does. He’s our hero, and good always defeats evil.

Except for the times that it doesn’t. This is one of those times. Petey climbs into the back of an idling car, thinking it’s his friends ready to start their new lives. Instead it’s Satan and his daughter, and that’s where we leave Petey Wheatstraw, in a freeze frame before he’s dragged directly to Hell.

It’s not a bad ending. It’s surprising enough that a comedy ended in failure for our hero, especially a failure that’s essentially played straight. I do wonder if — even only hypothetically — Moore and Roquemore had discussed a sequel. Leaving Petey here, suspended in this moment, would certainly leave the door open.

From the opening monologue of this film we know Petey is indeed in Hell looking back on what got him there, but that doesn’t mean a second film can’t see him trying to outwit The Devil yet again.

Having said that, I don’t think it’s our loss that Petey Wheatstraw doesn’t continue into another two or three or ten films. It gets to stand on its own as a one-off oddity that feels even more valuable because it only happened once.

For this brief stretch of 90 minutes or so, Moore reached the peak of his cinematic output. Maybe a sequel would have been better. Maybe it would have been exactly as good. Most likely it would have represented a step down. Probably a funny one, probably a creative one, but still a step down.

On its own, Petey Wheatstraw gets to stand as a solid achievement. Moore will always be known for Dolemite, and I’m not arguing that his legacy shouldn’t focus on that film and character. I will, however, argue that Petey Wheatstraw is long overdue for a serious critical reappraisal. Both Dolemite films had heart, but Petey Wheatstraw has soul. There’s very little to laugh at here, and plenty to laugh with.

It won’t change any lives, but it will make the people who see it happier, at least for 90 minutes. Moore waves his magical pimp cane and helps us all.

The spell may be temporary, but it’s a Hell of a lot of fun while it lasts.

Rule of Three: Dolemite (1975)

Welcome back to Rule of Three, an annual series in which I take a look at three related comedy films during the month of April. FOR FOOLS. And speaking of fools, I hope you are excited to listen to me, the whitest naturally occurring substance, discuss the work of an integral figure in black culture.

I know we all enjoy a good laugh (for instance, the two or three times I’ve said anything funny), but I do want to be serious about something up front: I am not the person to talk about Rudy Ray Moore. I will talk about him, but I am no kind of authority on what he represents, on his impact, on the lives he’s changed or the careers he’s inspired.

So why am I writing about him at all? Because I’m going to discuss him as an entertainer, a comedian, an actor…basically the way I’d discuss any other figure in popular culture.

Making that clear up front is important, because the last thing I want to do is mislead anyone into thinking I believe I have any right to tell Moore’s target audience what they should think of him. The films I’m going to discuss this year — three films starring three Moore characters — were not made for me. I know that. The audiences for which they were made are certain to have different takeaways. I hope I am fortunate enough to hear those takeaways from folks in the comments. My biggest hope every year is that writeups such as these will inspire people to think about these films, discuss these films, or seek out and watch these films for the first time.

I am not and will never pretend to be an authority on anything I cover, particularly in this trilogy. (ALF, of course, being the exception; I am the world’s leading authority on ALF and it’s fucking garbage.)

None of this is to suggest, however, that I don’t have my own personal connection to Moore and his work. It is only meant to suggest that my connection will likely be different from anything he intended, and I’m fully aware of that.

Dolemite is not a very good film. In fact, by nearly every measure, Dolemite is an awful film. The acting, the writing, the direction, the cinematography, the fight choreography, the audio mixing, the editing…every mechanical element of this film hovers somewhere south of competence.

And yet it’s fantastic. I don’t mean that in a so-bad-it’s-good sort of way. Rather, I mean that Dolemite is good in ways almost completely separate from what we usually admire in films. Dolemite succeeds on its charm and earnestness…exactly as Moore himself did.

For an extremely brief period, Moore — through sheer force of will — managed to become a movie star. He wasn’t much of an actor, a looker, or a fighter, but his films would treat him as all three. That’s okay; films are fiction. What matters is how much or how little we, in the audience, accept that fiction. Moore was such a charming son of a bitch that it was, and remains, surprisingly easy.

Dolemite has a plot only in the sense that one scene follows another rather than plays over top of it. There’s precious little logic and even less narrative. With better writing, it’s the sort of thing we could call a character sketch. As it stands, I don’t think we know anything more about Dolemite by the end of the film than we do in his very first scene: He’s a black man with a sense of humor who commands respect, even from the warden of the jail that holds him.

In flashback, we learn that Dolemite was arrested by corrupt cops who planted drugs in his vehicle, framing him as the source of the drugs that have increasingly become a problem in their jurisdiction. While he’s incarcerated, though, the drug crisis has only worsened. His friend and confidant Queen Bee bargains with the warden to get him released so that he can stop the true drug kingpin and restore peace to the neighborhood.

That sounds suspiciously like a story, so it says something that Dolemite never allows it to feel like one.

Let’s jump backward in a time a little bit, to when Rudy Ray Moore was a younger man (and amateur standup comedian) working at Dolphin’s of Hollywood. That record shop — founded in 1948 by black entrepreneur John Dolphin — forged its own path forward. Rather than stocking only the most popular records, Dolphin’s deliberately stirred up interest in black musicians, with an emphasis on radio-unfriendly jazz and up-and-coming R&B groups.

Dolphin’s stirred up this interest with its own radio station and label; if the groups it supported weren’t getting airplay elsewhere, Dolphin’s would change that. Live broadcast performances, interviews, and record debuts were common ways that Dolphin’s created demand (and found an audience) for innumerable artists who might not otherwise have been discovered.

It was also open 24 hours, which attracted a different clientele than a standard 9-to-5 businesses would. This is probably how Rudy Ray Moore found Dolemite.

I say “probably” because that’s how Moore told it, but Moore himself was as much a character as Dolemite, Petey Wheatstraw, or The Disco Godfather were. After all, he was a schlub. He had big dreams of breaking into the entertainment industry, but he was already in his 40s and couldn’t get it through his thick skull that black entertainers had relatively little success in finding wide audiences.

Truly talented individuals might — might — be able to break through, but Moore was not one of those individuals. He had heart and he had drive and he had commitment. But that wasn’t enough. It would get him nowhere. It couldn’t have gotten him anywhere, and he would have been wise to abandon his dreams of stardom.

Then again, he was working for Dolphin, a man who single-handedly carved out his own place in the music industry. The existing landscape didn’t allow for certain things to flourish, so he created his own landscape where they could. This can’t have been lost on Moore, as he ended up doing exactly the same thing.

Moore was floundering as a standup comedian. He got work, but never found an audience. His career should have ended there, but instead he self-funded and distributed his own comedy albums, more shocking than clever, sold on their provocative titles, cover art, and routines. He recorded them without knowledge of what he was doing, with cheap equipment in his own house while a group of friends served as the enthusiastic audience he hadn’t yet been able to find.

Then he met a homeless man named Rico, who stumbled into Dolphin’s once — or many times, or maybe Moore met him near Dolphin’s — and caught Moore’s attention with long, rhyming stories of a badass called Dolemite. Or maybe he was begging for change and people were asking him to do the routine as Moore passed by. Or maybe he stood in the middle of Dolphin’s and a rapt audience assembled around him, clapping and hollering for more.

Whatever actually happened, Moore adopted the persona as his own. We could call this creative theft. Perhaps we even should. But within those stories Moore found inspiration. He took a name and some details and around them he built a character.

That character was everything Moore was not. Gorgeous. Dashing. Witty. Dangerous. Irresistible to women. Talented beyond belief. Beloved wherever he went. And so Moore used the character in his routines. And on his albums. And Dolemite found the audience that Moore himself always wanted. Moore had carved out his own landscape, and he made sure to ride that momentum all the way onto the big screen.

That’s how a pudgy, mumbling no-name with a perpetual squint and no dramatic bone in his body became a sexy, kung-fu fighting, righteous action hero. All because he never accepted that he was ever the former, and believed against all logic that he was destined to become the latter.

Dolemite is the culmination of everything Moore wanted for himself, and its success — the fact that other human beings paid money to watch him and his friends mess around in a sloppy passion project — was tremendously vindicating to him. Moore struggled to get by, but success sure came easily to Dolemite.

Okay, so, what in the world is this movie? Well, it depends on which scene you’re watching. It’s a prison film, a revenge picture, a romance, a comedy, an action film, a performance film, a tale of morality…

…in short, it’s everything Moore figured he could put into a movie, and since nobody making it expected it to go anywhere, nobody encouraged restraint.

And that lack of restraint is glorious. It leads to conflicting moments of characterization, incompatible tones, and brilliant madness. Dolemite is the ultimate badass who neither looks nor acts like one.

I suppose the best way to describe the character is as a tough guy with a strong moral compass. He’ll take great amusement in murdering unarmed men, but only if they’re bad unarmed men. He’s a force for good, even if he is an especially bloodthirsty one.

Dolemite’s quest is threefold: getting revenge for being framed, reclaiming his night club, and stopping the flow of drugs. All three of these roads lead to one man: Willie Green, played by director D’Urville Martin.

As you can probably tell, Green as a character feels reverse engineered; he exists to be and is defined entirely by being a direct nemesis for Dolemite. Anything Dolemite has, he takes. Anything Dolemite wants, he prevents. Anything bad that happens to Dolemite — no matter who actually does it to him — can be traced directly back to Willie Green, pulling the strings.

It seems as though Dolemite would have his hands full, taking down a man whose every waking moment is spent brainstorming new ways to fuck Dolemite over, but really our hero is in no rush. He catches up with old friends. He hangs out with a downtrodden junkie (seemingly for the sake of helping him get his life together, but Dolemite doesn’t seem to mind much when the guy is gunned down in front of him). He stops dead in his tracks when fans recognize him and performs full comedy routines for their amusement.

Neither Dolemite nor Dolemite has any sense of urgency. Nobody ever feels the need to kick things into a higher gear, and whenever things are kicked into a higher gear they’re kicked right back down again, sometimes in the space between frames. There isn’t rising and falling action, in other words; there’s starting and stopping action.

So why did anyone like this movie? Baby, you already know the answer.

Rudy Ray Moore.

The guy is so winsome and full of personality that it’s difficult to take your eyes off of him. It’s easy enough to see why he wouldn’t have had a clear path to stardom, but it’s even easier to see why people would want to be in his orbit.

Moore attracted people, and not just as hangers-on. He elevated them, trying to give them a chance to live their dreams as well. He recruited Lady Reed, another struggling comedian with whom he shared a bond, to feature on his albums and in his films. He gave D’Urville Martin a chance to direct, after the man spent years trying to break into the industry with almost exclusively small roles and background work. He took community theater leader Jerry Jones and made him a regular collaborator, as well as forged a creative partnership with Cliff Roquemore. He provided early roles to actors such as Hy Pyke, Ernie Hudson, and Keith David.

For many of these people, their work with Moore would be the high point of their careers. It would represent the closest they ever came to living their own personal dreams, and Moore did this for them because he wanted to.

Moore wanted to be a celebrity, but he didn’t want to be the celebrity. He wanted an empire full of satisfied collaborators, and if that took him sinking what little money he had into a condemned hotel just so they’d have a place to shoot their movie, so be it.

The ramshackle feel of the movie never lets up. It was and is clearly the work of a team with more ambition than talent, but that ambition is infectious. At many points you can easily envision the film Moore had in his head. The distance between what he wanted and what made it to the screen leads to more than a few chuckles at Dolemite‘s expense, but it’s admirable that Moore went for it at all.

I’m thinking of a few scenes in particular. In one, Dolemite gets into a kung-fu battle with the police. (As must we all.) He’s ultimately arrested, but not before showing off his martial arts prowess…which doesn’t seem to exist at all to anybody watching the film in the real world.

Then there’s the scene in which Dolemite and Queen Bee look on with pride while their personal army of sexy karate babes trains. In the film that existed in his mind, this surely led to an incredible action showdown. Dolemite even interrupts their training to inspire them with a rousing speech in which he lets them know just how important their confrontation with Willie Green will be. In the film we got, they do next to nothing.

And of course there’s the wonderful scene toward the end of the film in which Dolemite finally corners Willie Green and reaches into his chest to rip his guts out.

In Moore’s mind this was surely a giddy, gory highlight. In reality Willie Green makes a face and falls over, dog food on his tummy.

Throughout, though, it’s very easy to get swept along for the ride. Your belief is never suspended — oh, heavens no — but it’s easily ignored. And it’s easily ignored because if idiotic moments like these are the price to pay for a Rudy Ray Moore movie, it’s well worth the expense.

Moore is without question what makes Dolemite worth watching and what gives it whatever amount of staying power it still has. He’s a fascinating man, deluded without being delusional, magnetic without being attractive, admirable without being particularly good at anything.

Well, I shouldn’t say that he’s not particularly good at anything. While his acting may be terrible, his delivery is second to none.

Certainly honed over the course of years on stage and comedy records, Moore knows how to give every line bite. They’re not always great lines, or even memorable lines, but he digs into them with a relish that can’t be denied.

Nobody could deliver a line like, “You no-business born-insecure junkyard motherfucker,” better than Moore.

Ditto “You rat-soup-eating honky motherfucker!”

“Dolemite is my name and fucking up motherfuckers is my game,” is a line I dare you to try to deliver with any degree of sincerity. Yet Moore sells it. He convinces us that Dolemite believes in himself enough to pull it off because Moore believes in himself enough to pull it off. Moore delivers it the way only he could, turning something almost daringly unclever into a legitimate applause line.

That’s part of what made Dolemite succeed. No human being could have watched this film in theaters and believed they were watching a good movie by any traditional measure, and that was part of the fun. Moore didn’t deserve to be up on that screen, but there he was, literally living a dream. If that’s not inspirational, what is?

Moore was cutting his own path. Every theater that showed Dolemite to an audience was evidence that the little guy could win. No, the film wasn’t great, but Moore was so obviously thrilled to be making it. That was the real success of Dolemite.

I won’t attempt to speak for anybody who would have watched the film back then. I was not the target audience and was quite a long way from being born. But when you think about disenfranchised classes, when you think about struggling artists, hell, when you think about people who just want to be liked…how could they have seen Moore’s film as anything other than a triumph?

The man attempted, for a long time, to find success by the traditional route. He plied his trade as much as he could. He worked hard and tirelessly to find an audience. And he got nowhere.

So then he went a different way. He broke the rules. He found his own road to the top. And everybody who went to see Dolemite in theaters saw a man who forged his own path onto that screen.

He didn’t have to play by anybody else’s rules, which is good, because those rules are what kept D’Urville Martin having to beg and be thankful for the smallest roles. Those rules are what kept great jazz musicians off the airwaves until John Dolphin created a space just for them. Those rules are what kept people who looked, acted, and presented themselves like Rudy Ray Moore as far from the mainstream as possible.

And yet, here he was. Dolemite. Fucking up motherfuckers. Nobody would give Moore the life he wanted, so he wrote and produced it himself.

How many members of that audience went home and wrote their own jokes? How many were inspired to create characters? How many went on to become comedians and musicians and actors and writers? Maybe more importantly, how many of them left after the movie feeling just that much more convinced that they could accomplish what they had been told they couldn’t?

I’m asking these things rhetorically, but Moore — and Dolemite — provably did have influence on the larger entertainment sphere. Moore has gone on to be considered the godfather of rap, with artists in that realm pointing back to Dolemite for their inspiration.

Those aren’t hollow claims. In the film, Dolemite performs two complete routines: “Shine and the Great Titanic” and “The Signifying Monkey.” Both of them are long, rhyming tales, and while only one of them gets musical accompaniment, they are both delivered with a critical, driving rhythm. They’re knowingly bawdy and crass, relying on shocking the audience with language that brings one crowd closer as it consciously pushes another away.

These sequences are the highlights of the film, even though (or perhaps because) neither of them have anything to do with what’s happening. Dolemite stops so Moore can do some road-tested routines, and I’m glad it does, because it’s what he’s great at. He commands this material, and like an engaging preacher it’s impossible not to be hooked by the performance, whether or not you care for what he’s actually saying.

His was an approach that artists such as Snoop Dogg and Busta Rhymes would later refine and build upon, and they’d repay the artistic debt by inviting Moore to guest on a few tracks. In fact, in Moore’s later years, much of his income was made from guest appearances in the works of grateful musicians, comedians, and directors.

But we’re jumping too far ahead. For now, here, in 1975, Moore was at the absolute top of his game. He had given himself a career when nobody else would, and he had proven that there was a larger hunger for outsider art like his than anyone actually in the industry would have guessed.

What would he do next?

Well, he’d do what he was already doing. What he’d always been doing. He’d keep finding ways to get himself in the spotlight, and the success of Dolemite, for the first time, meant that people might actually start opening doors for him.

While I don’t think it’s possible to oversell Moore as the film’s clear selling point, I do think it’s worth mentioning that he doesn’t hog all of the best material for himself. That other material might not be successful, but his intention to give others a chance to shine is clear.

For Lady Reed — whose career he attempted to launch but who ended up with roles only in Moore’s own films — he provided an emotional spotlight near the beginning of Dolemite. Unlike most other characters, Reed’s Queen Bee is asked to actually act as opposed to deliver a joke, deliver a threat, or fight someone.

Here, as she successfully negotiates Dolemite’s release from prison, she cries thinking of the damage the drugs have been doing the neighborhood while Dolemite has been gone. Granted, we cut from a shot showing her with a dry face to another shot in which she has long streaks of tears, Darkplace-style, but she tried and Moore gave her room to try.

Then there’s Jerry Jones, who plays FBI Agent Blakely. As much fun as it is to watch Moore push back against and eventually triumph over corrupt white cops (and as cathartic as it must have been for him to do it), Blakely gets to do it from the inside. Two forces of good — one on the streets and one in the office — get to corner corruption and take it out with their own two hands. Dolemite was always going to be the hero, but Moore didn’t let him be the only one.

Jones also wrote the screenplay — in close and obvious collaboration with Moore — and Moore brought him back to do the same for the sequel, The Human Tornado. He reprised Blakely in other Moore films as well.

My favorite performance comes from Wesley “West” Gale, another actor who had to make do with a career full of almost exclusively small parts (almost exclusively uncredited small parts) who got a true and much-deserved spotlight in Dolemite.

Moore cast him as the incendiary Reverend Gibbs, a womanizing, firearms-fencing preacher who hedges his bets by supporting both sides in what he expects will be a coming race war. To his parishioners, his support of the police is an act. To the police, his support of his parishioners is an act. I won’t pretend Gale is a fantastic actor, but he does an excellent job with the material.

Moore even hands him one the film’s biggest laughs as the police walk in on him mid-sermon and he shifts direction on a dime.

“We’ll create our own war, and we don’t need no redneck mother…oh yes Lord, mothers are the best friends we have!”

Then there’s a great scene later on when Dolemite shows up to the church to press Gibbs for information, and several corpses sit up in their caskets to point guns at him.

It’s a setup that makes exponentially less sense the more you think about it, but it’s a cool idea and an irresistible visual, so it’s in the film. One might expect the ass-kicking Dolemite to start flipping caskets and kung-fu kicking guns out of hands, but instead he admires Reverend Gibbs’ successful trick. There’s a mutual respect. Dolemite lets Gibbs win this round.

Don’t let me oversell Dolemite as a non-stop thrillride. This thrillride makes frequent stops. Things happen in every scene, but everything happens so damned slowly.

You forget you’re watching a movie at times and drift into daydreams. You could probably edit the film down into an incredible, giddy 60 minutes; instead it’s an often-tedious 90 minutes. But those highlights do exist, and they’re fantastic.

All of this elevates (or at least separates) Dolemite from being a vanity project. As much as Dolemite as a character would from this point on define Moore — both in terms of his career and in the way he conducted himself in interviews and for the press — he was still just a regular guy at heart, and on some level he’d always know that. He was equal parts resourceful and lucky, and he wanted that to pay off for others as well. He didn’t care about being the richest guy in the casino; if he had his way, everybody would be hitting jackpots.

And, sure, that’s an easy metaphor, but it’s also pretty accurate. Moore did hit the jackpot with Dolemite. I suspect he would have seen the film as a roaring success simply because it was finished and made it to theaters, but instead it hauled in more than $12 million on a budget of around $100,000. $100,000 was a lot of money to stake on a film that everybody advised him not to make, and $12 million was one hell of a payout.

Moore, now, had the ear of wider audiences. It wouldn’t be fair to say that the world was in his hands, but for the first time he was in a position to wonder what he could do next, as opposed to wonder what he had to do to get people to pay attention.

I vividly remember hearing about Dolemite for the first time. I had a friend in high school named Chris, and he recommended a lot of things to me that I ended up enjoying. (Most notably Mr. Show, which he assured me I’d love but which I didn’t watch until several years after it ended. That was my loss.)

I have no clue how he came across Dolemite. The internet was in its awkward early years, with easy access to weird films not yet being one of its selling points. He didn’t recommend Dolemite, but he told me about it, and a bunch of us listened to him describe it.

We thought it was the funniest thing imaginable. In my mind — possibly also in Chris’ description, but maybe not — Dolemite was a cheap Shaft knockoff. A mindless cash-in that aped something popular. Something that may have offered some degree of amusement but which certainly wouldn’t have any merit. (Perhaps weirdly, Futurama seemed to confuse the two as well; in “Jurassic Bark,” Professor Farnsworth paraphrases a line from the Shaft theme song and then says, “It’s dolomite, baby!”)

We couldn’t stop laughing at the character named after a mineral, and how impossible it would be to take him seriously. I remember checking for it several times in video rental stores and coming up empty. I remember giving up on finding it, knowing that it would never be able to live up to the bad movie that existed in my head.

I was right. As wild and unpredictable as Dolemite is — and, it must be said, as impressively unfocused — it was not the third-rate Shaft wannabe that I expected. It was instead one of the most confusing and beguiling B-movies I’ve seen, and also one of the most inspirational.

I didn’t get to see it until the excellent Vinegar Syndrome released it in 2016. They restored and rereleased a number of Moore’s films, actually, which immediately made Dolemite seem like it might be more important — and more worthy of rediscovery — than I had given it credit for being.

I’m glad I got to see it in this form, with a loving restoration that certainly makes the film look sharper and crisper than Moore ever got to see it while he was alive.

Vinegar Syndrome targets a different audience than Moore did, but the experience is still a joyous one. We’re watching it today as an artifact, a preserved, imperfect piece of cinema history. But we — film collectors so white our hearts pump Twinkie filling — are peering through a window into a house that was not built for us. We may be able to appreciate what we see, in our own way, but it isn’t ours. There’s a difference between gazing upon and living within.

We get to look back on it and admire what Moore managed to accomplish as we reflect on the echoes of Dolemite through the years. In 1975, though? Dolemite‘s audience wasn’t reflecting. It was looking forward.

Dolemite found Moore the audience he always knew he deserved. He appreciated them giving him a chance. In 1976, he’d repay their faith with The Human Tornado, a sequel to Dolemite that was better in every way. It lost none of Moore’s ramshackle charm, but it was smarter, funnier, better acted, and better produced. The director, Cliff Roquemore, worked so well with Moore that he stuck around, sometimes unofficially, to keep Moore’s films on track.

I thought about covering The Human Tornado instead, simply because it’s the superior production, but Dolemite is without question the more culturally significant film. What I will say is that you should seek out both movies, and I will add that you should seek them out for very different reasons.

Next week I’ll cover the movie he (and Roquemore) gave audiences in 1977. That’s Petey Wheatstraw, the Devil’s Son-in-Law, and it’s the great movie so many of his collaborators knew Moore had in him.

Announcing: Rule of Three 2020!

Hoo boy. Ready?

For this year’s Rule of Three — a series in which I review three related comedy films beginning April 1 — I am focusing on the works of Rudy Ray Moore.

I have a few reasons for doing this. Moore is a massively interesting figure, and a culturally important one as well. He’s a funny guy whose films I enjoy. His movies are ones I think are worth paying attention to. The recent biopic Dolemite is My Name got me interested in revisiting his work. I could continue, but let me instead give you something that emphatically is not a reason for doing this: I am not doing this because I have any business doing so.

It’s important to me that I make that clear up front, because for many people Rudy Ray Moore represents something that he cannot represent to me in the same way. He is a crucial data point in the history of black entertainment. Does that mean I can’t write about him? Of course not. Does that mean I have any right to speak about the importance of his work with authority? Of course not.

I’ve hesitated to cover with any thoroughness works about the black experience. Whether it’s The Boondocks or Get Out or, now, Rudy Ray Moore, these are things that I love…but I love them as a member of the audience, which is much different from understanding them from experience. I have the right to discuss (and the interest in discussing) them from the former perspective, but when something is so clearly charged (racially, politically, sexually, etc.) it feels like I would be doing the work a disservice to not view them through the appropriate lens.

I’ve linked to this before, and I’ll link to it again. It does a better job of explaining why I do not intend to rise to meet that challenge than I ever could.

I am going to cover Moore this year, but know that I do so with the full knowledge and with the direct confession that I am not the man to give these films their due. I will view them through the lens of a guy who loves watching and writing about movies. If you think these films deserve more than that, you are correct. They do. And I’d be behaving disrespectfully if I even pretended to be able to give them more.

I hope you enjoy the reviews — well, duh — but I also hope I get to hear from folks in the comments or elsewhere about what I’m missing, what I’m getting wrong, what I’ve been raised to overlook and to ignore. For anything you can learn from me, there are 10 things I could learn from you.

Here is the posting schedule. Dolemite, as I write this, is available to stream on Amazon Prime. You’ve got two weeks to check it out before my review goes live. Also, watch Dolemite is My Name on Netflix. I’m sure I’ll reference it but the main reason you should watch it is that it’s excellent.

April 1: Dolemite (1975)
April 8: Petey Wheatstraw, The Devil’s Son-in-Law (1977)
April 15: Disco Godfather (1979)

And with that decidedly serious introduction to movies about kung-fu-fighting prostitutes, magical pimp canes, and freshly roasted babies, I look forward to seeing how this particular experiment goes.

I’ll see you April 1.

Rule of Three: Purple People Eater (1988)

Though my Rule of Three theme this year has been films based on novelty songs, I haven’t actually talked about how these films use their own source material.

I don’t mean that I haven’t talked about how they adapted their source material — I won’t fuckin’ shut up about that — but rather how these films use the actual songs upon which they were based.

In Harper Valley PTA, for instance, the Jeannie C. Riley version of the song plays in its entirety during both the opening and closing credits, bookending the movie…which itself contains scenes and characters so true to the song that lyrics are lifted entirely.

It’s the “tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em; then tell ’em; then tell ’em what you told ’em” approach, and I actually kind of like it. The original song brings us into the world of the movie and then out of it again, with the closing credits giving us a chance to reflect on how the film expanded on the germs of characterization the song gave us.

That’s not all, though; throughout the movie, various instrumental arrangements of “Harper Valley PTA” play as diegetic background music. We hear different versions everywhere from Alice’s beauty parlor to the merry-go-round Stella rides with Willis. It’s a really nice and creative touch that winks at the audience without being unbearably cutesy.

In Convoy, the original song is both a recurring presence and completely absent.

During certain establishing shots and scene transitions, “Convoy” kicks in like an omniscient narrator, only we don’t hear the original lyrics. I’m almost certain it is C.W. McCall who performs the rewritten verses, which lends the rewrite an air of legitimacy, but I can’t be sure. (McCall is obviously credited for the song in the film, but whether or not that extends to the new verses, I don’t know.)

The film-specific verses aren’t great, but until I listened to the song again in comparison I wasn’t sure they were film-specific. They feel very true to the sound, mood, and quality of the original song, and each reader is welcome to take that observation in whatever spirit they please.

We never hear the original “Convoy” at all, and we don’t get any kind of chorus. Perhaps they cut it because the “rockin’ through the night” part would have reminded people that they forgot to include a scene in which any such thing happens. Instead, this version of the song describes which characters are where at any point in time, which seems unnecessary considering the film also uses subtitles to establish that information, but what do I know.

So Harper Valley PTA included the original song and some instrumental variants and Convoy rewrote the lyrics to better fit the action on screen. Two interestingly different approaches.

Now we have Purple People Eater, which treats its original song like suppressed scripture. It is an incantation so powerful that it at first summons and later banishes a horrifying demon.

I somehow doubt that was the movie’s actual intention but, well, here we are, kids.

Purple People Eater was written and directed by Linda Shayne, who I think it’s safe to say wouldn’t recognize narrative if it fell from space and moved into her garage.

Shayne has been in a number of films as an actress, but as a director she might be most famous for the notorious Flyin’ Ryan, perhaps the only magic-shoes movie that has no interest in letting its character use the magic shoes. She’s also done two other films (Little Ghost and The Undercover Kid), so I think it’s likely we’ll get a Linda Shayne retrospective for some future Rule of Three.

Purple People Eater represents Shayne at the absolute peek of her abilities. It’s more coherent, more creative, and more charming than any of her other works. Also, it is not coherent, creative, or charming at all.

Still, though, it’s worth remembering as you experience Purple People Eater that it was somehow all down hill from here.

The movie stars a young Neil Patrick Harris, in the role for which he will certainly be remembered. He plays Billy, a boy we’re constantly told has no friends despite the fact that…you know…we meet some of them. He also brings home lots of animals — which seems like the kind of thing you’d only establish if it were going to come into play at any point, but I’m no Linda Shayne — and has talent in art and music.

Our story begins with Billy’s mother, father, and older sister all leaving immediately and forever, because they have nothing to do with the movie we’re watching. I guess it’s nice that we’re not keeping a bunch of characters around for no reason, but why introduce them in the first place? The film would play out exactly the same if these three characters had been dead for years by the time the story began.

Billy and his little sister Molly are left in the care of Grandpa Ned Beatty, in the role for which he will certainly be remembered. Beatty, in a decision that makes us pity grandpa by proxy, takes the film seriously. It’s probably an overstatement to say he gives the performance his all, but he certainly does try to find and occupy a space in grandpa’s mind that makes any kind of sense. Purple People Eater genuinely did not deserve the effort.

When I refer to a space in the character’s mind that makes any kind of sense, I’m referring to the fact that we’re supposed to simultaneously accept that grandpa believes the undisguised space alien living with him is just some kid from Billy’s school and that grandpa is not intellectually disabled.

And Beatty…actually kind of strikes that balance. Not always, and not especially well, but that’s more the fault of the film than his performance. Beatty manages to be just doddering enough that you buy his confusion and lovable enough that you excuse the (many) moments during which you can’t buy it. He also plays grandpa as a goofy enough figure — I mean this in a good way — that he might not care that the kid is actually an alien; grandpa is having fun and that’s what matters.

The reason grandpa is having fun is that he’s connecting with Billy. We’re explicitly told that grandpa doesn’t live far from Billy’s family — it seems to be a quick couple of minutes by car — so I’m not sure why they never connected before. Neither of them seem reluctant to start a relationship; it’s more like they just waited for a film crew to show up before they bothered.

Overcome by his proximity to youth, grandpa decides to live life to the fullest by…painting his walls.

Billy helps him do this — you might think the movie temporarily forgot Molly exists, but there’s a major scene later centered around the fact that nobody supervises her at any point — and grandpa invites the boy to check out his old records.

Billy becomes the only child in 1988 to rapturously read the names Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and Chubby Checker off a bunch of records. Seriously, this movie seems like it should take place decades earlier, when a child might actually know these musicians, or have heard their songs anywhere outside of commercials for The Sizzler.

He puts on “Good Golly, Miss Molly” and dances around. Kid fucking loves “Good Golly, Miss Molly.”

You would be forgiven for wondering what any of this has to do with the fucking Purple People Eater. Seriously, we’re about a quarter of the way through this movie about a puppet monster from space before the puppet monster from space shows up.

It finally happens when Billy plays Sheb Wooley’s “Purple People Eater” on the record player. Grandpa probably would have seem him come to Earth, too, if he hadn’t passed out from the unventilated paint fumes hours ago.

Within the universe of this film, Wooley was less some guy who sang a monumentally shitty novelty song and more a divine prophet issuing clear and detailed warnings of things to come.

At least, that’s how Shayne seems to treat the song. It is a holy text from which she shall not deviate. Everything Wooley sang 30 years ago must come to pass this night.

Verily, the Purple People Eater comes out of the sky, as Wooley foretold. He lands in a tree, because that’s what the lyrics say he did. He hops down to the ground and plays “a crazy ditty with a swingin’ tune” through the horn on his head, just as we were promised in the song. He comes to Earth to “get a job in a rock and roll band,” again, as Wooley so immaculately predicted.

And, yeah, Billy does start a band later but you’d think maybe the Purple People Eater would have visited The Rolling Stones or something instead, since they’ve already got their operation up and running, but whatever.

Shayne has every right to adhere to or deviate from the lyrics as she sees fit, but if “Purple People Eater” the song exists within the universe of the film, it has to be a prophecy, right? It can’t just be coincidence. This thing isn’t sort of like what we hear in the song; it’s line for line doing and saying the things the song said he would.

And, of course, there’s the description of the beast. He has one eye and one horn. He has wings to fly. He’s purple. Musical notes float out of his horn when he plays music so you know he isn’t hiding a kazoo in his asshole.

But there’s one detail that’s notably excluded. Have you spotted it? I’ll give you a hint: it takes up two thirds of the film’s own title.

The Purple People Eater — for that’s what this is, what the song is about, what the film is called, and what the creature is constantly referred to as being — doesn’t fuckin’ eat people.

So, okay. It’s a kids’ movie. I don’t expect the Purple People Eater to spend the film picking bits of Neil Patrick Harris from between his teeth. But Purple People Eater never even addresses this.

There are a thousand ways you could resolve this discrepancy and still remain family friendly. You could have the Purple People Eater try to eat a person and get told that that’s not appropriate on Earth. You could have him say that he usually eats people but he’s currently on a diet. You could reveal that the word “people” refers to something different on his planet. Fruit, say.

But you have to explain it. You can’t call a movie The Flying Bus if the bus doesn’t fly. You can’t call a movie Digging a Hole if no actual or metaphorical hole is dug. And you can’t call a movie Purple People Eater if the purple thing isn’t eating people.

The movie even seems to give itself a reason to acknowledge this, one way or the other, as Billy and his grandpa are both covered in purple paint when the thing arrives. And later in the movie the Purple People Eater quotes the “eatin’ purple people and it sure is fine” bit from the song. So whether you think the Purple People Eater is a purple thing that eats people or a thing that eats purple people, you’re going to come away disappointed.

Anyway, the kid has an alien friend now, and grandpa is immediately convinced it’s a child in a costume. Which is fair enough at first.

But then the child moves in with Billy. And never goes home. And never takes the costume off. And plays music without an instrument. And sleeps hanging upside down. And can’t seem to say much aside from “Billeeeeee” and Sheb Wooley lyrics.

Everybody just seems to go along with it. They meet the Purple People Eater — neither he nor Billy come up with a better Earth name for it than “Purple” — assume it’s a kid in a costume, and never question any part of it.

Well, actually, the nosey neighbors the Orfuses do question it, but only so they can be ignored. The rest of the town is perfectly fine assuming this is just some kid whose parents never ask about him or want him back. Also he walks like a full diaper is an integral part of the costume they think he’s wearing, so they should at least offer to change the kid.

Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter what Shayne has to do to get the Purple People Eater into Billy’s life. What matters is that he’s there and together they can have all kinds of exciting, silly adventures.

Or the alien can play gin rummy with old ladies. Whatever. I give up.

Yes, the plot is that a very old woman named Rita, played by Shelley Winters in the role for which she will certainly be remembered, is going to lose her home to the evil landlord Mr. Noodle.

In fact, Mr. Noodle is so evil and such a landlord that a lot of old people are going to lose their homes. I think you will agree this is a job only Doogie Howser and a store-brand Cookie Monster can handle.

To the relative credit of Purple People Eater, Mr. Noodle is indeed a bad hombre. Harper Valley PTA and Convoy both had villains who lagged far behind the heroes in acts of villainy, but here Mr. Noodle is clearly the dick of the piece, putting profit ahead of the happiness and safety of the elders who rent apartments from him. He even shows up to Rita’s birthday party just to let her know she’s old and poor and will shortly be homeless.

Rita, anxious / scared / depressed, collapses upon hearing the same news she’s heard several times before in this film, and the paramedics show up.

Grandpa asks one of them if she’ll be okay, and the paramedic’s tone is clearly negative. “The most important thing right now is that she want to live,” says the paramedic, which is one hell of an out for him. If a patient dies he can just say, “He didn’t want to live, I guess. I thought maybe he did but now we see he didn’t.”

The unwashed alien crawling with space diseases visits Rita in the hospital with a card that says I LOVE YOU. Rita says she loves him, too.

Purple People Eater is the only space-puppet movie in which the extraterrestrial travels millions of light years to fall in love with Shelley Winters.

For a movie about a boy and his blob, there’s precious little alien content. Billy bonds with his grandfather, which does not require an alien. Billy starts a band with his friends, which does not require an alien. Billy helps some old people die where they are instead of somewhere else, which does not require an alien.

The only real “alien” thing the Purple People Eater does is go fucking berserk in Chuck E. Cheese.

It would be impossible to figure out what’s going on here if the film didn’t outright tell us. It’s just the Purple People Eater making noise while a whole bunch of shit flies around. Thankfully, Shayne has the kids explain that the Purple People Eater ate some chili peppers and now is hiccuping.

So add “leveling a restaurant full of children because he ate something hot” to the list of things he does without anyone doubting that he’s a kid in a costume.

And that’s…pretty much it for alien hijinx. He does use his alien powers to rescue Molly, which is good because everyone else forgot she was in this movie.

Honestly, for reasons that have nothing to do with the Hiccuping Pepper Eater, this ends up being far and away the best scene.

Molly is played by a tiny little Thora Birch, in the role for which she will certainly be remembered. I have a very low tolerance for child actors, not because they’re terrible (though they are uniformly terrible) but because I never think they’re as cute as the directors want me to think they are.

If a kid stumbles over his line reading, I don’t care. He’s a kid. He’s dumb. Move along. But if the camera lingers on him or a scene drags on too long because I’m supposed to be charmed by some little idiot who probably doesn’t even realize he’s in a movie, I get sick of him fast.

A child being a less-than-stellar actor is an understandable real-world limitation in film. But a child meant to charm the hell out of an audience is a director’s conscious decision.

All of which is to say tiny little Thora Birch is genuinely charming and adorable, probably because Shayne just lets her be an actual kid.

The rescue scene is the perfect example. In it, Longfellow the dachshund wanders out onto Billy’s second-floor balcony. Molly calls after him, but he doesn’t come. She crawls into view wearing a dinosaur hat and Jesus Christ if only every child in movies were actually this cute.

I have no idea why she’s wearing it. It’s never explained or even mentioned. And that’s perfect. Was she terrorizing Longfellow? Was she just wearing a dinosaur head because she’s a kid and has nothing better to do? I almost wonder if tiny little Thora Birch just wanted to wear a dinosaur head and Shayne let her.

Don’t let that sound dismissive, because “Shayne just let her” is a massive compliment, as we’ll see.

Everyone gathers around and panics because Molly is about to fall to her death, so the Purple People Eater flies up next to her and…that solves everything somehow. Fuck that.

The good part is that Ned Beatty and Thora Birch have a little exchange afterward. And I’m referring to them by their real names for a reason.

THORA: The dog wanted to go on the balcony.
NED: That’s a bad doggie, Longfellow.
THORA: Longfellow?
NED: Bad doggie.
THORA: I like him.

And holy hell does my cold heart melt.

See, that wasn’t in the script. I don’t say this with any knowledge, but I do say it with complete confidence.

I say it because it’s too real. We hear Thora Birch slur her way through lines like any other child actor elsewhere in the film. Here, she’s just talking to a kindly old man, a kindly old man who happens to be really good with children himself.

Ned Beatty is being a silly grandpa figure to a little girl who, for that moment at least, really does see him as one.

All of that is to Shayne’s genuine credit, and I wish we got more of this here and in her other films. Because kids are cute, but only if they’re given the chance to be actual kids. The moment you give them a script and direction, they’re no longer being themselves. That should be obvious. They’re suddenly acting…something they don’t actually know how to do.

But get Ned Beatty to riff with a child, and let that child be a child, and you get a perfect little adorable moment like that one. Purple People Eater is one of the worst films I’ve watched for this (or any) series, but it also brought me what might be my favorite moment.

It’s also deeply amusing to me that tiny little Thora Birch has such a lovable, perfect moment with Ned Beatty and not with the giant alien puppet designed specifically to appeal to children, but hey, what can you do.

Of course that’s not what the movie’s about so let’s get back to that.

Billy starts a band with all the friends we were told he doesn’t have, including Dustin Diamond, in the role for which he might actually be remembered. They’re immediately great at playing songs thirty years older than they are, and they become locally famous.

At one point in the movie someone hires them to play at his daughter’s wedding, and he ends up loving their act so much he offers them a contract because he’s a record company executive. Quite why he didn’t hire a band he represents and which he would already know would put on a good show rather than take a chance on a bunch of grade-schoolers, I don’t know. Why the contract never comes up again I know even less.

They band is called The Purple People Eaters, and their front man is the Purple People Eater, who they refer to as the Purple People Eater, but when Billy suggests they play “Purple People Eater” the Purple People Eater wigs out and tells him no; it’s not time yet.

A band named The Purple People Eaters that doesn’t play “Purple People Eater” is just marginally less stupid than a movie called Purple People Eater in which no people are eaten, but I don’t think Shayne realizes either of these things.

What does the Purple People Eater mean about it not being time to play “Purple People Eater”? I have no idea. Billy does suggest they open the set with it, so maybe his concern is that it’s too early in the show, and it would be better as an encore or something? It’s not clear. But the only time the band does play “Purple People Eater” is at the very end of the movie, when the Purple People Eater briefly becomes the Tasmanian Devil and then zips back to his own planet, which he never got around to telling anyone about and which the kids never expressed any interest in.

So maybe the idea is that playing “Purple People Eater” causes him, somehow, to leave, and that’s why he didn’t want the band playing it earlier in the film? I have no idea. Nobody has any idea.

Mr. Noodle announces to all the old people that they have to be out of their homes by Labor Day so he can turn the apartments into a puppy decapitation facility.

The Purple People Eater decides to host a Live Aid-style event called Save Our Seniors, intended to raise enough funds and awareness to keep them where they are. He schedules it for…Labor Day.

So, that would be too late, right? Fortunately for them, the movie forgets its own timeframe, and the old people are still in their homes the day of the concert. They must have some serious fucking faith in the Purple People Eater not to even box up their belongings after being evicted, but whatever.

We learn that the Purple People Eater only sleeps hanging upside down in the shed so that Mr. Noodle can kidnap him. In their struggle they bump into a jukebox, which plays “Rockin’ Robin,” a surprisingly upbeat little ditty for a scene in which a real-estate mogul beats the hot shit out of a space alien.

He takes the Purple People Eater to Hide-Out Wallies, a good choice as it’s apparently the only bar in the world that closes at night.

Then Mr. Noodle takes a massive step beyond almost every other movie villain in terms of competence by not leaving his hostage.

I mean, the sight of this guy strapping the Purple People Eater to a pool table is every bit as disturbing as you’d expect it to be, but still, massive kudos to Mr. Noodle for not going home with the assumption that everything will turn out fine.

Of course, Labor Day morning comes and the Purple People Eater gets away by untying himself and leaving, a plan it evidently took him around 12 hours to come up with.

He then punctures Mr. Noodle’s tires with his horn, which looks about as sharp as my fingertip, but it doesn’t stop Mr. Noodle; he just drives the car anyway and the flat tire has no impact whatsoever on his ability to chase the Purple People Eater around.

The Purple People Eater steals someone’s ’55 Thunderbird and turns on “Rockin’ Robin,” which I think is because Shayne ran out of licensing money but which is extra funny to me because it seems like the Purple People Eater heard “Rockin’ Robin” while he was getting curb-stomped by Mr. Noodle and thought, “Man, this song is actually really good,” making a note to check it out later.

The fact that the Purple People Eater can drive a car doesn’t bother me. Actually, it does, but I want to stop writing about the movie, so let’s take that as read. But it does remind me that we never saw his spaceship. Did he even have one? How did he get to Earth without one? And if he did have one, where the hell is it? Is it just orbiting the planet with its hazard lights on?

And actually, the box art for the movie has Ned Beatty and Shelley Winters driving a car through outer space, which I’m suddenly deeply angry doesn’t happen in the film because we needed more scenes of them sitting on couches saying, “It sure sucks dick being old.”

While all this is happening, the kids and grandpa run around town, desperately searching for the Purple People Eater, because there’s no way they can play covers of early rock music without some midget in a Grimace costume twerking.

For no conceivable reason whatsoever, the Purple People Eater drives his stolen car into an automatic car wash.

This is seriously Mr. Noodle’s lucky day; all he has to do is drive to the exit and wait for…

Oh. Mr. Noodle is a fucking moron and drives through the car wash behind him, fully aware that they will both be moving at fixed speeds and that the Purple People Eater will have a head start when they’re back on the road.

Not that that matters, because the car wash malfunctions somehow. Mr. Noodle, you complete tit.

The police arrive not to arrest Mr. Noodle for kidnapping or to arrest the Purple People Eater for stealing a car or to arrest them both for destroying an automatic car wash, but to give the fucking space monster a police escort to Barely Alive Aid.

Come to think of it, even if they’re cool with him stealing the car, aren’t they concerned that he’s driving? They think he’s a 10-year-old in a costume. Who are these cops?

Purple People Eater builds to a climactic scene in which the entire town joins the Purple People Eater and The Purple People Eaters in a rousing singalong of “Purple People Eater.”

Oddly, for a climactic scene, nobody seemed to put any effort into making it. The editing is absolutely terrible, with characters “singing” without moving their mouths, and keeping their mouths closed while lyrics somehow come out of them. There are hard edits at various points in the song that clearly jam different takes together without regard for where in the song we actually were when we made the splice.

And, perhaps most strangely, nobody seems to fucking know how the song goes. Whenever we cut to someone in the audience singing, it’s like they’re reading a sloppily written line off of a cue card.

Even Little Richard seems like he never heard this song before, completely unaware of the cadence or melody.

Oh, did I not mention Little Richard is the mayor of this town? Neither did the movie, but that’s okay, because this surprise cameo is a genuine highlight.

Quite what Little Richard has to do with “Purple People Eater” I have no idea, but he’s here, and he’s not Little Richard playing Mayor Goodheart or something; he’s just Little Richard who is also the mayor.

Little Richard is a treasure and I will hear no words against him. He’s one of those rare entertainers that has endured as a figure of coolness throughout his entire career, and the dude is nearing 90 as I write this. He’s got a perfect mix of talent, quirk, and winking ridiculousness that makes him a perfect fit for a scene like this. Parents like him because they’re in on the joke, and kids like him because he’s a massive, silly presence.

He’s fucking great is what I’m saying, and as soon as he hears Mr. Noodle wants to throw all the old people out of their apartments, Mayor Little Richard takes a vote of all the concert attendees and declares it illegal for old people to be relocated ever, anywhere, for any reason, until the Earth is consumed by the sun.

It’s…not how local government works, but it’s just ridiculous enough that it’s the only scripted moment in the entire film that I enjoyed.

Actually, that’s damning with faint praise, so let me rephrase that: I enjoyed it so much that I genuinely wish every movie would end with Little Richard showing up and declaring that the film’s conflict is over.

The fact that Mayor Little Richard shuts Mr. Noodle’s shit down the moment he hears about it does sort of mean Save Our Seniors was thoroughly unnecessary and Billy or grandpa or Shelley Winters or Longfellow could have placed exactly one call to city hall and been done with this weeks ago, but there’s no time to think about that because the Purple People Eater is leaving forever.

Billy learned to believe in himself, I guess, and grandpa learned to…paint his house? And…

I don’t know. Nothing happened. The fucking puppet hiccuping was the most exciting thing in the movie.

But at the same time, it was kind of great.

There are a lot of bad films out there. You know that. I know that. Years ago we’d just have to walk along any given aisle in a Blockbuster Video, and today we only need to scroll through any given category in Netflix or Hulu to find hundreds of them.

They’re awful. They’re cash-ins. They’re complete wastes of time.

Until you find one that’s magical in its awfulness. One that makes you laugh harder than any comedy you’ve ever seen. One so monumentally incompetent you don’t tell your friends, “It sucked; don’t bother,” but rather plead with them to watch it because they wouldn’t believe how gloriously awful it is unless they saw it with their own eyes.

That’s what Purple People Eater turned out to be.

Harper Valley PTA was misjudged. Convoy was forgettable. Purple People Eater is a golden turd.

Almost nothing in this movie works, but everything fails in perfect harmony, creating a filmwide sort of anti-logic that manages to hold together in the strangest ways.

Characters appear and disappear. Plot threads are raised and abandoned. Non-issues are treated as calamities and serious concerns are brushed aside. The movie stops dead for several minutes so Chubby Checker, in what seems to be a fantasy sequence completely disconnected from anyone fantasizing, can lip sync to “Twist it Up.”

And it’s all just god-damned perfect.

I was interested this year in finding out whether or not a novelty song could be successfully adapted into a full-length feature film. Harper Valley PTA right out of the gate proved it could, at least hypothetically. But Purple People Eater proved it’s often much more fun to ride a moronic concept directly into the ground.

We are impressed when we see complex machines running smoothly, but damned if we aren’t far more fascinated by the one that explodes in brilliant flames.

This is a movie that is thoroughly enjoyable to watch fall to pieces.

I love you, too, Purple People Eater.

Rule of Three: Convoy (1978)

While I’m not entirely convinced “Harper Valley PTA” needed to be turned into a film, it at least contained elements we are used to seeing on the big screen. Characters, conflict, social commentary…whatever the quality of the final product, I can understand at least how someone might listen to that song and think, “I could film that.”

“Convoy,” though? I can’t understand how anybody could wring a plot from that thing.

Let’s be absolutely honest with each other up front and admit to ourselves that “Convoy” is a deeply terrible song. Here, I’ll prove it. “Harper Valley PTA” is listenable, if not especially inventive.

“Convoy,” in significant contrast, is embarrassing. For all of its vague celebration of the American long-haul trucker, I doubt any actual truckers would listen to this willingly, any more than sailors in the Navy would sit around listening to “On the Good Ship Lollipop.”

It’s a strangely wimpy song for what — as near as I can tell — spins a tale of interstate badassery, with its chorus sounding more like a Mike Curb Congregation soundcheck than the modern cowboy spirit it’s trying to tap into. It genuinely doesn’t realize how much it sucks.

Like so many other terrible songs, though, “Convoy” was a hit, and someone, somewhere, remembered they liked money and would enjoy making some of it.

…but what the hell do you do with “Convoy”? It has characters in the sense that some CB handles are used in the song. It has conflict in the sense that the singer mentions the police a few times and it’s safe to assume he would prefer not to be arrested. But…that’s about it.

What happens in “Convoy”?

Well, there’s a convoy. That’s even the chorus. There’s a convoy. That’s all you need to know. A convoy exists. Honk honk.

We could scrape the loosest possible narrative together from the cities mentioned in the song (representing a cross-country trip) and the inflating size of the convoy each time we reach the chorus (from little to great big to mighty).

But is that a story? No. A convoy getting bigger as it rolls along some highways is not a story, whether or not it’s rockin’ through the night.

Could it be a story? Of course. And Convoy, unlike Harper Valley PTA, can do what it damned well pleases. It doesn’t have to include or tip its hat to specific people and character traits and motivations that fans expect. As long as some fucking trucks drive around, Convoy can be anything it pleases.

Sadly, it’s this.

Convoy is, at least, a competent film, and it has notable talent behind it. It’s directed by Sam Peckinpah. Its leads are Kris Kristofferson and Ali MacGraw. Ernest Borgnine is the villain. Character actors including Burt Young and Seymour Cassel play major roles. With the original “Convoy” being almost completely hollow, ready to be filled with whatever a creative team might come up with, all anyone needed was some inspiration.

“Convoy” was so uninspired it sucked the inspiration out of its own film adaptation.

The implied crux of the film is fine; some truckers are just trying to make an honest living, but the law won’t stop harassing them. The truckers push back and are soon enough joined by more and more in protest of…eh, we’ll come back to that.

The point is, that’s okay. The downtrodden start fighting back and discover they have more power than they’d realized. It’s a solid backbone for a narrative, however it ends and wherever it leads.

But there’s a reason I had to say it’s an implied crux: these guys aren’t just trying to make an honest living. In fact, they’re assholes.

A hard-working group of American boys gaining a following is one kind of story. A bunch of criminals gaining a following is obviously another. Convoy shows us the latter but relentlessly insists we see it as the former.

We’re introduced to our hero Rubber Duck — a name I’m sure Peckinpah was thrilled to inherit — as he demonstrates aggressive driving that endangers the life of an attractive young lady in a sports car.

As you might expect, it’s not presented that way, but it’s almost impossible to view it otherwise. In fact, Convoy opens like a stealth remake of Duel in which we’re meant to sympathize with the psychotic, unshakeable truck driver.

She passes him, which can’t be an uncommon occurrence for long-haul truckers, but he refuses to let her stay ahead of him. Rubber Duck speeds up to pass her, and the two of them engage in bizarre flirtation that sees her snapping photos of him without paying attention to the road.

This is dangerous! You people aren’t charming. You could kill somebody!

Sure enough, there’s a cop up ahead, and Rubber Duck’s shenanigans run the cop off the road, endangering a third life.

He pulls Rubber Duck over, and there could be a nice observation here that would tie into the desired theme of the film. Both the trucker and the lovely young lady were driving dangerously, but the cop only cares about ticketing the trucker. That would certainly give the working man something to push back against, right?

Instead, the scene is just an excuse for some light comedy, as Rubber Duck weasels his way out of a ticket by telling the cop that the young lady had no pants on, and if you look carefully you can even see her labia flapping in the breeze.

Suddenly too horny to write a ticket, the cop leaves Rubber Duck to chase the lady and use his authority to coerce her into an undesired sexual encounter. It’s all in good fun!

So Rubber Duck has a close call and is nearly ticketed for his reckless driving. What better way to get us on his side than to engage in more of it immediately afterward with his two similarly reckless trucker friends?

One of them is Spider Mike, who is black and whose wife in Texas is about to give birth. The film treats these things as character traits — his only ones at that — so I figured I’d mention them. The other is a trucker who calls himself Love Machine, but his colleagues keep calling him Pig Pen instead.

This is…okay, actually. I like the idea that one of the truckers doesn’t like his nickname but can’t get a replacement to catch on. It isn’t hilarious or anything, but that fact alone gives Pig Pen more characterization than pretty much anyone else in the film. I also like the fact that the inside of Pig Pen’s cab is clean and impressively upholstered, while the actual cargo area of his truck is full of stinking, squealing livestock. The film doesn’t do anything beyond nodding at this, but I do like it.

Anyway, Rubber Duck’s got a little convoy with Spider Mike and Pig Pen, but contrary to the lyrics, something gets in their way!

It’s Ernest Borgnine as Dirty Lyle, a cop so awful he gives Rubber Duck a ticket for speeding right after Rubber Duck ignored a warning from another cop to slow down.

And the thing is…I dunno, guys…we have traffic laws for a reason. And even if you think enormous trucks should be allowed to barrel down highways at whatever speeds and in whatever numbers they like, it’s difficult to get angry at the cop for writing them tickets for something they were just told to stop doing.

Convoy wants to portray the cops as wrongly using their authority to persecute innocents, but it’s hard to see people as innocent when they keep breaking the law.

We’ll get to some far more dramatic examples of these bozos endangering innocent people, but for now it’s enough to say that the film handles its heroes in such a messy way that it’s essentially forced to present its villains in the most excessively evil ways to ensure we won’t sympathize with the wrong people.

At one point, late in the film, the police brutalize Spider Mike and lock him up, stopping just short of turning to the camera and saying, “We’re doing this because he’s black.”

Actually, I was trying to exaggerate for comic effect there, but we do get one cop who introduces himself by saying, “My name is Bob Bookman, sir, and I hate truckers.” If he turned his head just a few degrees he’d have been speaking directly to the audience.

Anyway, after a long morning of endangering other motorists and ignoring direct warnings from the police, the truckers three demonstrate how hard they work by stopping for a long lunch and also sex.

Rubber Duck bumps into she of the exposed pudenda and learns her name is Melissa. He offers her a ride in his truck and flirts repeatedly with her both before and immediately after having sex with a waitress, toying with two sets of emotions at once, like the hero he so clearly is.

Also, we learn Melissa only got away from the cop Rubber Duck sicced on her by promising she’d meet him at a hotel for sex.

Correctly, Peckinpah figures he should start giving the bad guys some negative qualities and fast, so he has Dirty Lyle come into the truck stop and hassle the truckers, because he hates truckers, and as far as Convoy is concerned that’s a social offense of a slightly higher degree than pissing on the American flag.

I mean, Dirty Lyle only comes into the truck stop at all because the truckers were hassling him over the radio, but let’s not dwell on that. We’ll dwell instead on Dirty Lyle reserving the lion’s share of his ire for Spider Mike.

It’s a lot of Hollywood hillbilly posturing with Borgnine calling him “boy,” and it culminates in Dirty Lyle threatening to arrest Spider Mike for vagrancy because he doesn’t have any money in his wallet. That’s…not vagrancy, but I can imagine a crooked cop spinning it that way, and the point is that Dirty Lyle is a gross racist, so fine.

Now we don’t like Lyle, and that’s good. Having Dirty Lyle push at them unprovoked, especially with overtly racist motives, puts him in recognizable villain territory.

Oddly, this is exactly where the morality of the truckers becomes irrevocably hazy.

They beat the shit out of Lyle and knock him out cold. Probably not wise, but noble from a narrative standpoint.

However, some other cops show up to find out what’s going on, and the truckers beat the shit out of them, too.

These cops had nothing to do with the racially motivated altercation. They’re just, you know, cops. But I guess once you beat up one cop you are obligated to preserve your honor by beating up every other cop on the planet as well.

I’m absolutely positive there’s an intended emotional connection between beating up Dirty Lyle and beating up the others, but it’s one the movie fails to demonstrate.

The truckers, I’m sure, see the other police officers as associates of Dirty Lyle, which is true in a professional sense, but which we’re given no indication is true in a Klan-rally sense. So however much I’m on their side for beating up a racist, I’m tempted to distance myself from their behavior once they start beating up other folks just for being cops.

And I know that’s not equivalent to racism, but “I’m going to kick your ass because you’re part of this group I hate” is an attitude shared by both the truckers and Dirty Lyle.

Here’s the thing: You can do this, and you can do it well. It’s impossible for me to type all of this out and not immediately see that this should be the point of the scene. The morality should be muddy. We should question the black-and-white heroes-and-villains mentality. Right?

But, no. It’s played instead as an action scene with light comic touches. Peckinpah gives us a long sequence of signature violence and breakaway props. There’s very, very little blood, though, and it’s the kind of fight in which a punch to the jaw knocks somebody out immediately and for hours.

I do actually like a moment in which one trucker encourages another to join the brawl, but the other trucker won’t. He replies, obviously stalling, “I’ll get him when I’m ready.” Then later he does get involved long enough to break a pool cue over a cop who doesn’t seem to feel it and just pushes him out of the way.

It’s a decently placed gag that serves as a welcome distraction from the fact that a bunch of people are beating up cops for no good reason and absolutely demolishing a truck stop for even less of a good reason.

Y’know, guys, someone owns this place. And it’s probably someone who likes truckers, so…maybe chill out a bit?

The fracas doesn’t even stop when all of the cops are out cold. The truckers — now unopposed — head out to the parking lot to smash up the police cars.

Again, you’d think this scene would be an important indication that the truckers are unhinged and should not be sympathized with, but our level-headed hero Rubber Duck has no qualms about any of this, and simply suggests they calmly drive to the state line, crossing from Arizona into New Mexico so the cops they just assaulted won’t be allowed to arrest them.

Quite how this whole “state lines” excuse works, I have no idea. I’ve seen it in dozens of films and television shows so I’m not going to hold it against Convoy, but is it true that if I beat the everloving shit out of a group of police officers, trash a truckstop, and disable police vehicles, nobody will be able to arrest me if I drive a few miles into another state?

I’m curious of the real-world answer, but I guess it works in the world of Convoy, so legally the guys are in the clear.

Here, however, is what’s probably an incomplete list of all the crimes our heroes committed in Arizona before they crossed the state line, just so we are clear about who we’re rooting for:

Reckless driving, aggressive driving, speeding, assault on several officers of the law, destruction of police property, destruction of commercial property, resisting arrest, failure to stop, failure to pull over, deliberately hindering emergency vehicles, deliberately crushing a police car between two trucks, leading police on a high-speed chase. I could also add kidnapping, as Rubber Duck refuses to let Melissa out of the vehicle however much she insists. He does it charmingly though so obviously he’s a great guy.

Oh, and these idiots drive too fast around a curve and one of the trucks tips over, causing an accident involving another motorist. They leave the scene of the accident and abandon the vehicle with all of its cargo in the middle of the road.

If you’re driving, these guys are a danger to you. If you’re near them when they’re approached by the police, these guys are a danger to you. If you’re not involved with them in any way and just trying to about your business, these guys are a danger to you.

There’s even a scene almost entirely disconnected from the rest of the film when Pig Pen and some of the other truckers break away from the convoy briefly. They drive through a tiny town where a school bus extends its little stop sign so the kids can cross the street, but these assholes aren’t paying attention (nor is there anything to distract them) and nearly hit the kids.

Don’t worry, though; Pig Pen was quick-thinking enough to smash into an Italian ice van instead, destroying it, barely missing the kids. The Italian ice man throws his ruined goods at Pig Pen’s windshield and I’m pretty sure this is supposed to be comical — or at least a light-hearted inconvenience — because Pig Pen is smiling.

Gotta love those silly truckers, mowing down school kids and causing accidents like the scamps they are!

And yes, I know, any shitty movie worth its shitty salt has some scene (or preferably many scenes) in which drivers chase each other through city streets, smashing up fruit carts and other cars, innocent people diving out of the way…but here, nobody’s chasing these people. Early in the film Dirty Lyle chases them around, and then a federal agent in a helicopter politely asks them to pull over and arrest themselves, but that’s pretty much it.

There are some attempts are roadblocks here and there, but for the vast majority of the film these assholes would lose nothing by stopping for a school bus. But I guess it’s more fun to almost kill some children instead.

So of course they are an inspiration to other truckers, and as soon as they cross over into New Mexico, a bunch more truckers who have been following their exploits on the radio decide to join their cause. Their cause being driving like assholes I guess.

In New Mexico Seymour Cassel plays a governor up for reelection, and he attempts to coast off the popularity of the great big convoy rocking through the night. Logic aside, I guess he might as well, as his constituents line the streets cheering the truckers.

Why? Well, there’s news coverage, but we have no idea what that coverage includes. Based on the throngs of adoring fans I think it’s unlikely the headlines focus on a bunch of truckers beating up policemen.

Even if they did, I think it’s unlikely that people from surrounding states know who Dirty Lyle is and that he’s a big racist who deserved to get his nose broken.

And without those things…what is there to cover? SOME TRUCKS ARE DRIVING IN A BIG LINE; FULL STORY AT 11.

Admittedly, Convoy is a movie and it needs some kind of narrative, so I understand that the swell of public support is happening out of necessity.

But with a shell as hollow as the song “Convoy,” in which characters drive from one place to another, periodically mention cops, and rock through the night, you could do anything. Why it needs to be a paean to the salt-of-the-earth blue-collar everyman is unclear. Why it had to be a terrible one is even less clear.

Have Rubber Duck and his good pals Pig Pen, Spider Mike, Pretty Boyd, Blue Louie, and Huge Lorry make a big a cross-country delivery, getting into comical scrapes at every stop, growing closer as friends, relishing the late-70s American West, and — this is non-negotiable — rocking through the night.

I am by no means suggesting this would have made for a great film, but it could easily have made for an enjoyable, enduring one. Instead of a disjointed, tonally confused, limp condemnation of institutionalized racism — which is the closest this film comes to having a point even though it’s the subject of approximately three scenes — we could have had something that, y’know, works as a movie.

Much ado is made of Rubber Duck starting some kind of movement, but he doesn’t seem to inspire any non-truckers to do anything but either a) stand on the side of the road and watch him drive past or b) shoot at him. Why would anyone care about him and his convoy? Maybe if Santa Claus were sitting on the top of one of the trucks I’d have some frame of reference for this, but when is the last time you — or anyone — jumped and cheered on the side of the road as a strange man you’ve never heard of drove past? Who clears their afternoon for that?

Admittedly, the film realizes there isn’t a clear reason for anyone to be invested in or even to follow Rubber Duck. A revolution existing is reason enough to revolt. We get a pretty good scene in which a reporter interviews a bunch of the truckers and gets varying answers about what they stand for.

That’s great. The convoy is a disorganized statement of general dissatisfaction, and everyone — participants included — are seeing in it what they want to see.

Rubber Duck is aware of this as well. When Melissa says people are following him, he replies, “No, they ain’t. I’m just in front.”

For this entire sequence, it seems like Convoy might find a point in its pointlessness. Can we believe that people would follow a nobody just for the sake of feeling included? Of course! Is it likely people would throw their support behind a cause they don’t understand? Obviously! Could a film hinge on that idea alone? Yes, and a number of great ones have!

But the concept fizzles. There’s never any doubt raised by Rubber Duck regarding the confused rebellion he’s sparked. There’s never any moment when another trucker realizes nobody knows what they fuck they’re doing. There’s never a point during which the convoy faces any kind of consequence that makes them wonder if they’ve helped anyone or just hurt a bunch of people.

Instead we see the convoy smashing through police barricades, speeding through weigh stations, knowingly endangering a news crew, ignoring federal orders, and resisting federal arrest. Oh, right, I should mention the feds are flying around in a helicopter, powerless to stop the great big convoy.

At one point Rubber Duck reveals that he’s hauling a load of volatile chemicals, and if they succeed in shooting him or making him crash or something, the truck will explode and kill a bunch of people.

Toward the end of the film, we learn this is not a bluff, so not only is Rubber Duck driving like an asshole; he’s driving like an asshole that knows his cargo could blow a town of innocents off the face of the Earth. And why? So he can make a point about…something? Eh, he’ll figure it out later.

Dirty Lyle keeps chasing him even though they’re out of his jurisdiction, but now the New Mexico cops are involved as well. There’s a running joke about how we keep cutting back to two cops stuck behind some kind of water truck that’s driving slowly and spraying them with water.

It’s exactly as hilarious as you’d probably guess, as long as you — like these cops, apparently — don’t know that vehicles have the ability to pass each other or that police cars have emergency lights, sirens, and the authority to make others pull over.

Every so often we drift into broad comedy as we do here, and it never quite fits the overall tone of the film, especially the scenes that try to shine a light on the black experience in rural America, such as when Spider Mike is arrested and savagely beaten in a jail cell.

Anyway, let’s see what those wacky cops are up to now!

Ah, will they never learn? Anyway, kids, don’t be racist.

Finally, at this point in their journey, darkness falls, and the great big convoy rocks through the night. It’s a really awesome sequence in which…


They don’t rock through the night at all. They pull over and take showers and go to sleep.

For fuck’s sake, the “rockin’ through the night” thing is the only part of the song anybody remembers!

I still expected to see it happen, as the governor, the police, and the press all promise the convoy nobody will hassle them. So, obviously, I expected that to be a trap — or maybe for some hot-shot cop to break rank and go after them anyway — and the convoy to take off and rock through the night at last.

But no. Everyone keeps their promises. There’s no honor among thieves, but a lot of honor between Dirty Lyle and a bunch of asshole truckers, I guess.

Spider Mike breaks from the pack, though, because it’s time for his wife to give birth, a fact that is revealed to him through trucker ESP. He goes to Texas, where no such truce between the truckers and the police who have promised not to arrest them for their many crimes exists, and he’s taken into custody and beaten up for being black.

Not for, you know, any of the illegal stuff he did.

This must all happen pretty quickly, because Rubber Duck meets with the governor and it isn’t far into their conversation before the news reaches him.

The scene with the governor is the film’s strongest, probably because it’s the most we see of Seymour Cassel. I’m absolutely positive the governor is meant to be an opportunistic, inauthentic schemer, and we get enough of that from Cassel to believe it, but the character has an easy charm that makes it clear why he’d have the public’s trust when he doesn’t deserve it.

What I like about the scene is that the governor wants to ride the surge of convoy support to reelection, which doesn’t exactly thrill Rubber Duck. There’s a great moment when the insincerity pierces through as he offers Rubber Duck support for his “cause or causes.” It’s a brilliant line reading by Cassel, who really is the film’s MVP.

But when the Spider Mike news breaks, the governor offers genuine help at the same time he reminds them that he can’t just pluck criminals out of jail. I get the sense that the governor would have done what he could (funny how the “across state lines” thing doesn’t come up here), but he’s being realistic in the sense that he can’t snap his fingers and make Spider Mike reappear.

Bad news for the governor, though, because he’s in Convoy, and bein’ realistic ain’t welcome ’round these parts.

Rubber Duck and the boys head to Texas, our third and final state, so it’s really not the “We’re gonna roll this truckin’ convoy across the USA” promised by the song, but that’s about to be the least of the film’s problems.

The mighty convoy that showered, napped, and held quiet conversations through the night is ready to demolish an entire Texas town to free their buddy.

The convoy smashes homes, businesses, and, of course, the police station itself. There are people in at least some of these buildings, right? Surely someone lives and/or works in this town?

The convoy doesn’t care. The convoy just smashes up irrelevant buildings because it looks good on film. What a bunch of American heroes.

If they did intend to drive through the police station to break Spider Mike out of jail or accidentally kill him (they don’t take any precaution to ensure the former outcome is more likely than the latter), I don’t know why they didn’t do that first instead of leveling every other building within a five-mile radius, but I’m also not a long-haul trucker and this probably some kind of adorable tradition.

They rescue Spider Mike from facing consequences for his actions, and they see that Dirty Lyle is there!

Don’t worry, though; Spider Mike says Dirty Lyle didn’t beat him up. Silly Rubber Duck, jumping to conclusions. It was a totally different racist cop who beat the tar out of your friend!

They lock Dirty Lyle in a cell, but he must get out pretty damned quickly because he’s not only in the climactic scene just around the corner; he’s there long before Rubber Duck shows up, and he’s got some heavy artillery that he’s excited to fire at a truck he knows is full of explosives.

I’m sure there’s a good reason Dirty Lyle and Rubber Duck have a calm, measured conversation in the demolished police station and a very literal firefight just a few scenes later, but I must confess I’m not privy to it.

Rubber Duck slides down underneath the dashboard and steers from below, which is a skill all truckers must demonstrate in order to earn their Class A license. He is determined to die they way he lived: not paying attention to the road.

Anyway the truck explodes and the cab falls off the side of the bridge into what seems to be about eight inches of water. Melissa looks on at the man she only met the day before, overcome with sorrow that his years of endangering other motorists have come to an end.

Nobody bothers to search for a body, though, not wanting to get their pant cuffs wet. So they all assume he died and is never coming back.


The joke is on them! Rubber Duck faked his death — yet another serious crime! — and got a rad eyepatch out of the deal.

Melissa reunites with him at his own funeral, which is also some kind of political event for the governor of New Mexico, which is the state the convoy temporarily occupied because it was the most direct route between Arizona and Texas.

Then the truckers who are at the funeral all drive away and Dirty Lyle laughs because he sees Rubber Duck is alive, even though he’s literally the guy who spent all of his time trying to kill him.

It’s…a strange movie, and the reason I’ve spent so much of this review in play-by-play mode is because there’s almost nothing to it beyond what happens on the screen.

Convoy is a better-made film than Harper Valley PTA for sure, but it fails to find any interesting detours the way that film did with its mother/daughter dynamic, and though the actors in this film are more capable, they’re also a hell of a lot less fun.

“Convoy” provided a blank slate. As far as audience expectations went, “we would like to see a lot of trucks please” probably covered them. Peckinpah could have made anything, but instead he made nothing.

There’s the germ of an interesting theme in the convoy coming to symbolize a revolution that both means nothing and never happens — and it’s very tempting to see that as meta commentary on the film itself — but Convoy does nothing with it.

An audience is welcome to pick up on it and read into it, should they choose to do so, but the film keeps its mouth shut, dumb in both definitions of the word.

It’s hard to believe a film that ends with a bunch of cops and soldiers firing directly into an exploding truck is so interminably boring, but Convoy finds a way to resist being worthwhile.

Harper Valley PTA tried things. Most of what it tried I disliked, but there was clear effort there. I’d obviously argue it didn’t succeed, but one can watch the film and easily understand what it wished to be.

I don’t think Convoy knew where it wanted to go. It probably had some ideas — the politician getting involved, the racism, the truck stop fight, some ladies taking their tops off — but didn’t know how to put them together…and so it didn’t. Something happens, then something happens, then something happens, then it stops.

Convoy wants to have heroes, but doesn’t know how to make sure we’ll see them as heroic. It wants to have villains, but almost never lets them cross the line into villainy. It wants to arrive somewhere, but isn’t willing to plan the trip.

It’s a less impressive film than “Convoy” was a song, and that, I guess, ends up being impressive in its own right.