Back in the mid-1970s when the U.S. government established the national speed limit at 55 MPH there was predictable outrage among "The Sky is Falling!" crowd who warned that traffic would slow to a crawl and that the rule was an infringement on individual rights. The fact is that since the day the 55 MPH speed limit was established, virtually everyone has ignored it and law enforcement officials seemed to unofficially tack on another 10 MPH before they got serious about ticketing anyone, the exception being small towns that did nitpick about speed limits and saw their coffers filled regularly. The fear among some Americans that they might have to actually slow the pace of their lives in some manner resulted in the birth of the road race movie. Call it "Revenge of the Lead-Foot Crowd". If would-be speeders couldn't fulfill their fantasies on the highways and byways of America, then, by golly, they would do it on the silver screen. Lost in the debate, however, was the original reason for the 55 MPH, which had less to do with safety and everything to do with conserving gasoline following the gas crisis of 1973 when drivers had to wait for hours to get their cars partially filled. President Richard M. Nixon proposed setting the new speed limit at 50 MPH for passenger cars but compromised at 55 MPH. The plan was a flop, saving far less gasoline than Nixon had envisioned- but the law was kept intact for reasons of safety. Hollywood, however, was not interested in nuances and delved straight into exploiting the situation. Suddenly, seemingly every other movie produced had elaborate car chases. A peculiar sub-genre formed that was dedicated to movies that would not even have existed without car chases. The 1976 release "Cannonball" was a sobering take on the premise with participants suffering gruesome deaths in a coast-to-coast high speed auto race. The very same year saw the release of "The Gumball Rally", a lighthearted spin on the exact same premise that caused critic Roger Ebert to note the similarities between the two films thusly: "Both movies have all the standard ingredients, however:
Two laconic leading men, two all-girl teams, one ethnic driver, one dumb law
enforcement officer, several exploding gas tanks, no end of incompetent highway
patrolmen, a helicopter and a car that breaks in half. The movies are so
similar in content, in fact, that the differences between them are instructive:
"The Gumball Rally" is an easily forgettable entertainment, but at
least it has a certain amount of class. "Cannonball" was straight
exploitation." Ebert also noted that two other similarly-themed films were also released that year: Ron Howard's "Eat My Dust" and Roger Corman's "Death Race 2000".
The Warner Archive has released "The Gumball Rally" on Blu-ray. The film is an amiable but completely predictable action comedy that acknowledges in its trailer that it was inspired by the granddaddy (and still the best) of all road race movies, "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World". (Even the poster art seems an homage to Jack Davis's iconic ad campaign for "Mad World".) The movie opens in New York City where we see bored rich executive Michael Bannon (Michael Sarrazin) issue the code word "Gum Ball" to an eclectic group of eccentrics who immediately converge on a meeting he is holding to announce it's time to launch "The Gum Ball Rally" (spelled differently than the actual title of the film, "The Gumball Rally"). Turns out that this is annual race from New York to the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California. There are no rules for the race except that the winner will be awarded a fully-loaded gumball machine and have the bragging rights. Before long, teams driving an exotic fleet of autos ranging from Corvettes to Jaguars and a Rolls Royce are screeching through Manhattan and New Jersey in a madcap race to the finish line. The film was directed by Chuck Ball, a long-time stuntman and stunt coordinator as well as actor and sometimes director. Thus, it isn't surprising that the bulk of the movie is spent concentrating on spectacular chase scenes and comical crashes, with the characters left largely undeveloped. The most impressive scenes are early in the film in which Ball somehow managed to shoot cars speeding through Times Square during the daytime, amid theaters boasting marquees ranging from "Jaws" to the latest porno flicks. He also got the Lincoln Tunnel closed down for a key scene, as well as the New Jersey Turnpike (try doing that today!). It's all set to a jaunty, sitcom-like 1970s score by Dominic Frontiere.
"The Gumball Rally" was aimed squarely at the drive-in market where it undoubtedly did well. The film's production budget went almost entirely on the expensive chase and crash scenes, some of which feature some creative and amusing aspects amid the cliches. Consequently, there wasn't any money left for star power. Michael Sarrazin, a good and underrated actor who never made it as big as he deserved to, is the most familiar face and young Raul Julia has a flashy role as a perpetually horny racer whose sex drive interferes with his commitment to get to the finish line first. Gary Busey, a couple of years away from his star-making turn in "The Buddy Holly Story", is on board as a goofball and Normann Burton has a good role as the Javert-like policeman who relentlessly pursues the racers every year only to wind up humiliated. Old timers J. Pat O'Malley and Vaughn Taylor are aging sophisticates who are among the contestants. The film is innocent, undemanding fun, even if it's completely predictable. The road race genre continued for a number of years, thanks in large part to Burt Reynolds' massive "Smokey and the Bandit" and "The Cannonball Run", the latter being an exact remake of "The Gumball Rally" which was a remake of "Cannonball". The Warner Archive release has a top-notch transfer and includes the original trailer, which doesn't mention a single cast member by name.
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