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.

Rule of Three: Harper Valley PTA (1978)

For three weeks each year, beginning April 1, I take a look at three related comedy films. These could be films from the same series, films with the same actor, films with a common theme…any connection, really. This year I decided to look at three films based on novelty songs.

I’ll come clean with you up front: I expected to see three terrible movies. To come even more clean, that’s exactly what happened. What I didn’t expect is that Harper Valley PTA would be the one that came closest to doing something like this exactly right.

Let me state clearly that Harper Valley PTA is not a great film. At least, the version we got is not a great film. I strongly suspect it went through several iterations, and the ghost of a really strong one peeks through just often enough that it becomes instructive.

“Harper Valley PTA” was the claim to fame for one-hit-wonder Jeannie C. Riley. If you haven’t heard it before, it might be worth listening before reading on.

The idea of taking a three-minute song and adapting it into a 90-minute film is fascinating to me. I know decisions like this are made for financial reasons rather than creative ones — Harper Valley PTA was essentially tie-in merchandise — but it’s still interesting to explore the process of adaptation. Or, possibly, translation.

Riley didn’t write “Harper Valley PTA” and was not the first to perform it, but it’s her version, released in 1968, that made the song famous, and it’s the one that inspired the film. It’s a song that feels like both a perfect and terrible choice for cinematic adaptation.

On the positive side of the ledger, there’s the fact that it contains a litany of named characters with distinguishing traits, meaning all a filmmaker really needs to do is write a story around them. On the negative side, there’s the fact that that story was already told in the song.

“Harper Valley PTA” is about Ms. Johnson, a widow with a teenage daughter. The titular organization disapproves of Ms. Johnson’s behavior / personality / fashion, and sends her daughter home with a letter to that effect. Ms. Johnson turns up at the next meeting of the Harper Valley PTA to air their dirty laundry in return.

And…that’s it, right?

In a sense, yes, and if that’s all a listener pulls from the song, that’s fine. But there are a few other layers at play.

For starters, Ms. Johnson correctly identifies the letter as a personal attack masquerading as concern for her daughter. The Harper Valley PTA isn’t truly worried that Ms. Johnson’s behavior will negatively impact her child’s future; they just don’t like that a young, attractive, single mother is living the life she wants to live and dressing the way she wants to dress.

Admittedly, this was a fairly quaint perspective even by 1968; the culture clash between the generation that came of age in the mid-50s and the one that came of age in the mid-60s was obviously still unfolding, but “Harper Valley PTA” was far from the first piece of popular media to make note of the conflict.

And it doesn’t do much more than make note of the conflict. Ms. Johnson likes her miniskirts, and the members of the Harper Valley PTA don’t. Ms. Johnson likes casual dating, and the members of the Harper Valley PTA don’t. Ms. Johnson refuses to behave the way they think a widow should, but the Harper Valley PTA insists that she conform.

That’s about as insightful as the song gets. Hearing Ms. Johnson unload on the individual members of the Harper Valley PTA, dragging their secret shames out of the shadows for all to see and then telling them all to get stuffed, is cathartic and all, but it’s also superficial. She draws attention to their alcoholism and flirtatiousness and illegitimate children, calls them hypocrites, and leaves. The singer — revealing herself to be Ms. Johnson’s daughter — celebrates “the day my mama socked it to the Harper Valley PTA,” and we’re left to imagine a group of hypocrites left speechless, clutching their pearls.

It’s easy to picture this serving as the climax of a film, and therefore the easy way to turn “Harper Valley PTA” into one would be to build toward this with long stretches of Ms. Johnson learning of their hypocrisies, turning the same blind eye to them that (presumably) the rest of the townspeople do, until that letter comes, she stops playing nice, and she launches into her big speech.

That could have worked fine, but the film’s first unexpectedly wise decision is that it doesn’t close with this big moment; it opens with it. The bulk of the movie, cleverly, is the fallout from Ms. Johnson’s theatrics, and not the gradually building catalyst for them.

This is smart for a number of reasons, not least the fact that it front-loads the familiarity. Anyone who had heard the song in the 10 years between its release and the release of this film knew the lyrics, so ending the movie there wouldn’t be all that interesting. Beginning the story there, though, and suggesting that there’s an entire movie’s worth of development to follow, is, frankly, a better idea than Harper Valley PTA knows what to do with.

Ultimately, the movie we ended up with is one in almost constant conflict with itself. It’s both an insightful drama with minor comic elements, and a broad, idiotic farce.

It feels as though an early draft of the film had a grounded satirical tone, a later draft relied almost exclusively on slapstick, and these drafts were merged inelegantly for shooting. Or, perhaps, one version of the film was shot and early feedback encouraged them to retool the film significantly. There are a few things that point to this being a possibility, but I’ll get to those later.

For now, let’s talk about the more serious elements of the film, as they work quite well and illustrate the potential for a great movie being made from a frivolous song.

The serious draft of the film would have focused on Dee, Ms. Johnson’s daughter. There’s enough reason to believe this to have been an early intention; the song itself was sung from the daughter’s perspective. We learn quickly in the film that her perspective is by far the more interesting one.

What we learn from the time we spend with Dee is that…well, it kind of sucks to have a mom like Stella Johnson.

Our first glimpse of her home life sees Dee returning from school to a locked door. Inside, her mother drinks and sings noisily with friends, having lost all track of time. Dee hammers on the door and rings the doorbell, unheard.

It’s upsetting to her, and when her mother finally remembers she exists and opens the door, Dee blows immediately past her and into her own bedroom. Stella picks up on her obvious disapproval and rather than apologize or comfort her, she sarcastically promises that she’ll start sipping tea with church ladies instead.

In other words, she turns her own daughter’s complaint against her, and it’s easy to imagine how this makes Dee feel. She’s been given a letter to take home about her mother’s shitty behavior, and then returns home to be surrounded by it and reminded that, yeah, it actually is kind of shitty.

The clash between her mother and the Harper Valley PTA may well be a fiery one, but neither side — no matter what they say — really cares about how Dee feels about this. Each side in the fight has their own feelings about how life in a small town is to be lived, and neither of them are focused on the impact any of this has on the young girl at the center of it.

I say it’s easy to imagine how Dee feels, and that’s mainly due to Susan Swift’s performance as the girl. She’s not an especially good child actor when it comes to delivering her lines — though, trust me, I’ve seen far worse — but she is an absolutely fantastic physical actor.

Everything from the way she walks to the way she sits to the expressions on her face sells Dee’s embarrassment and frustration on impressively deep levels. It’s difficult to watch her and not feel protective. This is a girl who is getting hurt, in the middle of a conflict that both sides are about to knowingly escalate.

The most brutal part comes soon afterward, when Stella goes to the next PTA meeting to deliver her speech. She takes a clearly uncomfortable Dee with her, and the girl’s body language is exquisite. Whether this was Swift’s insightful interpretation of the character or some extremely well-considered direction, I can’t know. I suspect it’s the former, though, as none of the other actors seem to have received direction this good.

Dee squirms and tries to detach emotionally as Stella stands up, interrupts the meeting, speaks over objections, and ultimately takes the stage, where she delivers her calculated takedown of (nearly) every member of the PTA. When Stella finishes she steps down off the stage and tells Dee they’re leaving.

Dee takes a long time to process this, either completely numbed by the experience or mortified that the attention her mother kicked up is now on her as well. Stella walks away. Dee sits. Is it more embarrassing to leave with all of these eyes on her, or to sit quietly until the end of the meeting and pretend, somehow, that she’s not related to that woman who just commanded her to follow?

In the song, Ms. Johnson’s daughter sounds triumphant, the entire thing a paean to her mother’s theatrical bravery. And maybe Dee, at some later point, will sing about this in similar celebration.

But how did it feel to be there, then, in that seat, knowing you’d be the one who had to be at school tomorrow with these people’s kids? How did it feel to watch this conflict explode when you’d wished it would just go away? How did it feel to know that yesterday about a dozen people were talking about what a piece of shit your mother was, and tomorrow everyone else will be talking about it as well?

In the song, it’s fair to assume Ms. Johnson’s daughter is enough like her that she shares her mother’s opinion on and reaction to the matter. In the film, we’re given explicit indications otherwise. And that’s where “Harper Valley PTA” could, and nearly does, find its mileage as a full-length motion picture.

I started to suspect that the film had gone through multiple conflicting versions during a short scene that quickly follows the speech. In it, Dee writes in her diary and we hear her thoughts; she was proud of and amused by her mother. And those things are fine, but they don’t accurately reflect what we saw of Dee’s own response in the moment, or what we’ll see soon after this.

The scene, with narration that could easily have been added well after the fact and which isn’t employed anywhere else in the film, seems like a corrective action, as though a test audience or the studio found it difficult to stay on Stella’s side if her actions were upsetting her daughter. This “it’s okay really it is” moment feels far more like a decision made in the editing booth than a natural development of the narrative.

In fact, it’s followed by a number of scenes in which Dee is clearly not okay, such as when she comes home from school to find that vandals have toilet-papered her house, or when she pretends to be sick to avoid mockery from her classmates, or when she avoids eye contact and conversation with her mother over dinner.

All of this is the direct fallout from her mother’s decidedly over-the-top display. Stella kicked the hornet’s nest, and it’s Dee that ends up getting stung. It’s a life crisis manufactured by the woman she relies on to protect her.

I think it was pretty likely that Dee would have ended the film in support of her mother, but audiences needed that promise well before it was earned by the narrative. As such we have an understandably mopey Dee followed by a bizarrely reassured and happy one and then our understandably mopey Dee again, in manic succession. Tear out that brief moment with the diary and we have a pretty effective character sketch of a child who doesn’t feel at home with her own mother.

Sadly, that’s not all we’d have to change to make Harper Valley PTA a better film on the whole. Because while Dee’s perspective gives her fraction of the movie a relatable emotional journey, Stella’s gives us a half-assed sitcom.

I’m not using “sitcom” here to be dismissive (that’s why I used “half-assed”), but because that’s genuinely what the movie often feels like. Sometimes that’s down to things like the film’s low budget, its generic sets, and its uninspired blocking, but it’s also down to specific creative decisions made at almost every turn.

For starters, there’s the cast. Stella is played by Barbara Eden, best known for playing the title role in I Dream of Jeannie. Her best friend Alice is played by Nanette Fabray, a character actor who appeared in many television comedies before this, including The Carol Burnett Show. Other cast members include Louis Nye (The Steve Allen Show), Paul Paulsen (The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour), and Bob Hastings (McHale’s Navy).

It was a cast with more notable TV chops than film experience, and a number of scenes even end with a comical freeze frame and music sting as though it’s a sitcom going to commercial.

In fact, if it weren’t for the more grounded Dee material, the film would be indistinguishable from one of those “movies” created by stitching together several sequential episodes of a sitcom. Each version of the film has to elbow the other out of the way to get any attention.

I might as well bring up here that Harper Valley PTA actually did briefly become a sitcom in 1981, but that’s far enough removed from the movie and shares only one actor (Eden), so as much as I’d love to see the zany aspects of the film as a deliberate dry run for the TV show, I think the structural similarities are coincidental.

Stella’s share of the story is not only a more overtly comical one; it’s an outright wacky one full of slapstick hijinx. It even unfolds in a decidedly episodic manner.

One by one, Stella sets about taking revenge on each member of the Harper Valley PTA, with no narrative overlap or connection between these sequences at all. Stella selects a victim, Stella makes and executes a plan, the victim makes a funny face. Then we put all of those toys away and move on to the next victim. These sequences all feel like miniature sitcom episodes that could be scrambled up and aired in whatever sequence the network likes.

My main issue with Stella’s string of revenge plots is that it robs the movie of any kind of longform pacing. The action needs to rise, rise, rise, climax, and fall, after which the cycle repeats. Again and again and again. It gets exhausting to watch very quickly, as the movie keeps feeling like it’s ending. Not in a narrative sense of course, but in a structural sense, and Harper Valley PTA begins to feel like a skipping record, building to the same thing over and over again without ever getting anywhere.

Compared to the direct simplicity of the song, in which Stella’s “revenge” is summarized in a single line (“This is just a little Peyton Place, and you’re all Harper Valley hypocrites,” which indeed made it into the film), this feels loose and padded. I of course understand that expanding the content of the song to something like 2,900% of its original runtime requires additional material, but Dee’s story — and an element of Stella’s I’ll get to later — could have easily filled the space for the better.

Instead, Stella plays increasingly cartoonish and impossible pranks. The film is a comedy, of course, and comedy is welcome to occupy any plane of reality it likes, but we can’t keep one foot in the real world and the other in Wacky Land, shifting back and forth from scene to scene.

A perfect illustration of the film’s conflicting sensibilities comes in one prank that involves Stella setting a bunch of elephants loose to stampede through someone’s house, demolishing it with him and his wife inside.

It’s played for laughs, and that’s okay; destruction can be funny. But compared to the earlier scene in which a rock through Stella’s window is played with realistic, sincere concern, this represents massive tonal whiplash.

A rock through the window indicates serious familial worry in the same film that elephants smashing someone’s entire house to pieces represents light comedy.

I’d wager that if you showed someone unfamiliar with the film both of those scenes in complete isolation, they’d conclude that they came from two different movies. What’s more, I’m not sure they’d believe otherwise, no matter how hard you tried to convince them.

The truly frustrating thing about the pranks, though, is that they start out quite well.

As in the original song, Stella calls out PTA member Bobby Taylor for repeatedly hitting on her after she’s made it clear it isn’t welcome. The fact that she calls him out in front of Mrs. Taylor at the meeting is understandable; it’s a matter she tried to address with him directly, he didn’t listen, and she’s pushing back harder. It’s difficult to feel sympathy for Bobby Taylor because he was already given his chance to back off, and he decided not to.

In the film, she runs into him at Kelly’s Bar, after calling him out at the PTA meeting. And, of course, he hits on her again.

He’s actively demonstrating to her that he’s learned nothing and does not intend to take no for an answer, so it’s nearly impossible to hold it against Stella when she humiliates him. It is, after all, just a louder way of her saying “no.”

Bobby Taylor plies her with alcohol while ordering ginger ale for himself. His motives are clear. She offers to get a hotel room with him for the night, and he excitedly accepts. No sooner are they in the room together than he strips naked, ready to fuck a drunk woman while his wife wonders where he is.

He’s a pretty shitty guy, and we’re safely on Stella’s side when she kicks him out of the room and locks the door.

That’s totally fair, and the film has every right to reach for the fun sight gag of Bobby Taylor wrapping a firehose around himself to hide his nakedness. It’s a fair escalation of the comedy, with Bobby Taylor’s predicament compounding itself in ways Stella couldn’t have planned.

A cop nabs Bobby Taylor for strutting around in the nude (“Where’s the fire?” being a genuinely funny line), and the movie seems like it might find an interesting groove.

From there, though, Stella deliberately targets the PTA members and manufactures embarrassments for them. That’s a very different thing from rebuffing unwelcome advances. She actively interferes with their lives while they are not interfering with her or anyone else.

In some cases, it’s just irrelevant, as when she makes Flora Simpson-Reilly’s hair fall out at a formal engagement. Other times it’s clear entrapment, as when she sends a judo expert to Kirby Baker, the real estate agent, to flirt with him, beat the tar out of him, and then pretend he tried to rape her.

Then there are just utterly awful things it’s hard to imagine Stella doing. Yes, even more awful than demolishing somebody’s home in the middle of the night.

The Widow Jones gets off pretty easily in the original song, with Ms. Johnson suggesting only that she should “keep her window shades pulled completely down.” We could read into that a number of things, but that’s all we’re actually told.

In the film, the Widow Jones is a teacher. Stella borrows a video camera and secretly videotapes her having sex with someone. Then she splices the footage, somehow, into a sexual education filmstrip that the Widow Jones shows her class. Which Dee is in, but, frankly, secretly videotaping a teacher getting fucked and showing it to her underage students is a bizarre enough setup for comedy before the fact that she’s showing this to her daughter even enters into things.

It’s a profoundly misjudged gag, and it’s hard to imagine what anyone is meant to find amusing here. Unless secretly videotaping your neighbors having sex and then circulating the footage was somehow more acceptable in 1978, and it’s just those damned liberal snowflakes who ruined it for everyone.

There are a few sparks of inspiration throughout Stella’s antics, mainly involving her hairdresser friend, Alice. The fact that Stella would go to her for the town’s juicy gossip — thereby learning of the hypocrisies of the Harper Valley PTA — makes sense, and it at least theoretically grounds Stella in a recognizable social dynamic.

I also like Willis, the decent guy on the Harper Valley PTA who takes Stella’s side after she stands up to the group. He tells her that he was out of town when the PTA wrote her that letter and he never would have signed such a thing.

They, of course, start a budding romance, and it’s nice, but it also leads to what is certainly an unnecessary plot strand in an already bloated movie in which Stella runs for president of the Harper Valley PTA, which itself involves Bobby Taylor hiring goons to kidnap the town’s notary public and builds to a car chase in which everyone is dressed like a nun.

All of this is not even to mention the embezzling subplot in which Dee’s friend Mavis is framed for stealing the PTA proceeds and chased out of a malt shop by police officers.

The more I talk about Harper Valley PTA, the more amazed I am that it did such a good job with Dee.

…at least, it did at first. Dee being so much unlike her mother — regimented as opposed to free-spirited, studious as opposed to gossipy, restrained as opposed to unbridled — should have fueled both the film’s comedy and conflict. After all, making Dee more like the Harper Valley PTA than she is like Stella could have taken the story in a thousand different directions.

Instead (and it actually kind of hurts to write this) Dee becomes more like her mother, and that’s presented as a good thing. She gets her braces removed. Her mother treats her to a makeover. She gets a new wardrobe. Stella even tears up because her daughter isn’t frumpy anymore.

And while some lip service is paid to the fact that she’s still the same old Dee underneath the makeup, it’s only lip service and it’s insane to me that this isn’t challenged in any way.

It’s a bit like a hypothetical episode of The Simpsons in which Lisa is depressed, so her parents babe her up and buy her more flattering clothing and that’s presented as a genuine solution to her problem. It’s strange for the film not to have anything like an “I love you just the way you are” moment between Stella and Dee. Instead we have a “See? I told you you’d get prettier one day” moment, and it isn’t one played for laughs.

There’s even a scene early in the film in which Stella confides to Dee that she herself was once plain and therefore worthless, but she grew into sex personified, and so will Dee. The message here, deliberate or not, isn’t that it’s okay to be different; it’s that you shouldn’t worry if you’re different, because you might turn out to be hot at some point.

When Doris Day asked her mother if she’d be pretty one day, the woman sang back, “Que será, será, whatever will be will be.” When Dee asks her mother the same question, Stella Johnson replies, “Oh, you are going to be spitting dick out of your mouth day and night, I assure you.”

Harper Valley PTA tries to do far too much. The story needed to be fleshed out beyond the lyrics of the song, of course, but it seems almost like nobody making the movie could agree on how to do that.

It’s frustrating that it hits on a genuinely interesting story in Dee, but doesn’t seem committed to it and ends it on a sour note. It’s frustrating that it introduces cool-headed, big-hearted Willis into Stella’s life, but he never becomes the sobering influence she needs after she starts demolishing homes and distributing spycam pornography. It’s frustrating that a story about generational culture clash never gets more interesting than that extraordinarily vague premise itself.

But here’s the thing: it says something — perhaps quite a lot — that Harper Valley PTA gets to be frustrating at all.

I didn’t expect any movie based on a novelty song to have much to recommend it, but I can easily make a list of things I liked about Harper Valley PTA, and it would be longer than similar lists I could make for most movies.

Anyone going to see Harper Valley PTA in 1978 was going because they liked the song, and certainly anyone working on the movie knew that would be the case. They didn’t need to give their audience anything more than basic competency.

The fact that anything beyond basic competency shined through is practically miraculous. Somebody could take the key components of Harper Valley PTA and make a genuinely good film without having to discard or substantially change many of them.

It needs some tonal consistency. It needs better pacing. It needs to better understand the story it’s telling and be more aware of where it needs to go.

That’s not a complete overhaul; that’s a few extra drafts before shooting, and it represents the difference between this too-late, throwaway tie-in product and a film that people might actually remember and care about.

…or, failing that, they could have trimmed all of the serious stuff and just gone completely bonkers. That would have also worked. I think it’s clear which approach I would prefer, but the movie could succeed either way. It could be a droll social satire, or a thoroughly silly madcap farce.

But it can’t be both. Airport and Airplane! are both completely functional movies, but you can’t cut back and forth between them and expect it to work as a singular viewing experience.

There is a decent film buried here, but it occupies about 30 minutes of the runtime. I’d never, ever recommend it to another human being, but if you were forced to watch it you’d likely find bits to enjoy.

I know I didn’t have much to say about Barbara Eden, but she’s a fine Ms. Johnson. In looks alone I’m sure she fit the mental image fans of the song already had in mind, and her moments with Dee, Willis, and Alice all feel genuine. It’s when she morphs into Woody Woodpecker for the sitcom sequences that she flounders, and I can’t blame her. Maybe she couldn’t wrap her mind around the transition any more than I can.

But Barbara Eden did what she was paid to do. She looked a certain way, she brought a known degree of acting ability, and she was likeable enough to keep audiences on her side. It would be great to say that her performance here was revelatory, but it isn’t. Eden hits her marks and does the material the exact justice it deserves, neither elevating nor sinking it at any point.

The real crime is the complete waste of Susan Swift as Dee. This was her second film, and her performance was far and away the most impressive. She only did a handful of films after this — many of them TV movies — and then retired from acting.

Somewhere, in another universe, Susan Swift played the main character in a great coming-of-age film. Maybe it made her a star; maybe it didn’t.

But the kids out there who needed to see it learned a lot about who they were. They learned it was okay to be a little different. They learned there’s value in moderation. They learned that while it may be fun to gallivant around without a care in the world, somebody still has to keep that world from falling apart.

If you do end up having to watch Harper Valley PTA at some point — maybe in a fallout shelter that only contains six VHS tapes — watch her face. Watch her body language. Watch her performance.

There’s a character there that Susan Swift brought to life in spite of the script, in spite of the film, in spite of anything going on around her.

Watch her. Because that’s exactly where the real movie is buried.

Stella gets up in front of the town and tells them exactly what’s on her mind. That’s the movie we got to see.

Dee sits in silence, processing, mentally searching for her place in the world. That’s the movie I wish we could watch instead.