Sunday, November 14, 2010

Cult Film Faves Not On DVD: W.W. & the Dixie Dancekings (1975) review


Burt Reynolds (W.W. Bright), Connie Van Dyke (Dixie), Jerry Reed (Wayne), Art Carney (Deacon John Wesley Gore), Ned Beatty (Country Bull Jenkins), Don Williams (Leroy), Furry Lewis (Uncle Furry), Mel Tillis (Good Ole Boy), Polly Holliday (Mrs. Cozzens)

Directed by John G. Avildsen

The Short Version: Prior to ROCKY, John Avildsen directed this notable and curiously neglected precursor to the wildly popular SMOKEY & THE BANDIT (1977). Burt Reynolds chews gum and raises hell while a bible preachin' ex-lawman, who thinks W.W. is the devil, chases him down. It's too thoughtful to be Hixploitation, but follows roughly the same parameters.

W.W.: "Afternoon, chief. How 'bout a little go juice?"

Attendant: "Regular, or ethel?"

W.W.: "Ethel if she's workin'."

Slick con man, W.W. Bright is a good ole' boy who gets by robbing gas stations and talking his way out of compromising situations. He bears a grudge against the S.O.S. Oil Company (Southland Oil Systems) and meets up with a struggling bar band trying to make a name for themselves. He leads them to Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry in the hopes of getting that one big hit. Robbing a gas station or two along the way, a nutty ex-sheriff, fundamentalist preacherman is in hot pursuit.

Burt Reynolds smiles from ear to ear, chews lots of gum and cons his way from one misadventure to another in this wildly witty, rock and roll-icking good time from John G. Avildsen (ROCKY). Told as a sarcastic fairy tale, the film occasionally fluctuates as a 'Good Ole' Boy' makes good parable and a morality tale with puritanical and political subtext. Reynolds made a steady diet of Southern Fried Country action road movies and this is the first of his light-hearted adventure pictures that really burned rubber with the release of SMOKEY & THE BANDIT in 1977, a film that spawned a slew of like-minded films.

Actually, one can see a lot of 'The Bandit' in W.W. & THE DIXIE DANCEKINGS (1975). Jerry Reed is miles away from 'The Snowman', but W.W. is 'The Bandit' blueprint. Art Carney's bible thumping ex-lawman is a less satirical version of Gleason's Sheriff Buford T. Justice. The totally fruit loop ending is hilarious and also mimics the "relationship" 'The Bandit' shares with 'The Smokey'. Incidentally, Hal Needham, that wily director of SMOKEY and also that other huge Reynolds vehicle, THE CANNONBALL RUN (1981), was stunt co-ordinator on this show and has a small role as a police officer who gets outfoxed by W.W. at the beginning. There's also a hint of the later DUKES OF HAZZARD show--W.W.'s car has the same sounding dixie horn.

Avildsen's movie benefits from a smart script written by Thomas Rickman who also wrote KANSAS CITY BOMBER (1972), HOOPER (1978; which also stars Burt Reynolds) and the multi Oscar winner, COAL MINER'S DAUGHTER (1980) starring Sissy Spacek. The dialog in W.W. & THE DIXIE DANCEKINGS is frequently funny and possessing a self aware, wry charm that befits the sassy and saucy feel of the movie. The comic book style and playful nature was seemingly assured a big box office return, but that was not to be resulting in this wrongfully neglected picture not being available on video, or DVD in its native country.

Deacon Gore: "I turned in my badge, brother. They want me to do law work on Sundays. The book says 'break the sabbath and lose thy soul', Exodus 20 verse 10."

Elton Bird: "Devil don't take no days off...Deacon."

The movie takes great pride in simultaneously poking fun and capturing the spirit and verisimilitude of the old South. There's everything from fried chicken, beat up pick up trucks, backwoods country roads and the penetrating subservience to religion. Art Carney (Ed Norton on THE HONEYMOONERS TV show) plays the maniacal religious zealot, Deacon Gore to the hilt tracking 'The Devil' incarnate in the form of W.W. and will stop at nothing to arrest him in the name of the lord. So determined in his resolute pilgrimage of purification, the Deacon promises free oil changes, lube jobs and tires to any hick who manages to aid in the capture of these free-wheelin' country singers from Georgia.

Ned (DELIVERANCE) Beatty has a role as a seedy country singer whose image is vastly different from his backstage character. He comes to like W.W. and Co and helps them out with their hit. Director Avildsen would strike cinema gold the following year with ROCKY (1976), but his pseudo philosophical, rural road movie failed to make a dent in the fender of the North American box office. It seemingly ran over an embankment and was never heard from again. A shame it's not more well known and it deserves to be considering it appears to have been the template for some future big hits of similar material. It's a lot of fun, although I wouldn't say it's worth robbing a gas station over, you may still find yourself wishing to tag along with W.W. and the gang anyway.

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