Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on July 13, 2014
Peter Yates (1929 – 2011) is primarily known as the director of Bullitt (1968), which set the bar for car-chases. Anyone who has seen The French Connection (1971) or To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) will not be surprised to know that William Friedkin, TCM‘s Guest Programmer for July, credits Bullitt for being “one of the best cop films” ever made. It certainly helped Bullitt to have Steve McQueen, a lead actor who was also a passionate race-car driver. This meant Yates could film close-ups inside the car as McQueen got the speedometer up to 110 mph. Having no cuts added to the realism. Shooting on the busy streets of San Francisco added to the authenticity. Friedkin, and scores of others, clearly took notes and tapped into that same energy for the many car-chases that would careen down the busy roads ever thereafter. Being famous for a movie that itself was famous for its car-chase scenes helped identify Yates to some as “a Hollywood director,” a term Yates would refute with a touch of prickliness because Hollywood had, in his view, “such a bad name for being phony.” Also, his background was in British Theater, and he preferred stage actors because they were more involved in their craft as opposed to those less talented souls who might gravitate to the spotlight purely in pursuit of fame. How this relates to the dud that was Krull (1983) or the pure entertainment of The Hot Rock (1972) – which Yates himself defies anyone “to find a message in it,” well, I’m not sure.
It was with Yates in mind that I decided to take a chance on Ebay and buy a 16mm print of Mother, Jugs & Speed (1976). My winning bid? $41.01 (plus six bucks shipping). Not bad, I thought, even if the print was a bit pink. I’d never seen the film before, but was intrigued by the casting choices: Bill Cosby (as Mother), Raquel Welch (Jugs), Harvey Keitel (Speed), and even Larry Hagman (Murdoch)! Seeing as it was a PG film with Bill Cosby, a man who never shied away from scolding popular comedians from Richard Pryor (at the height of his career) to John Stewart (recently), I figured this would be a fun and light affair that I could open up to families in my backyard.
I sent out invitations and immediately heard back from one woman who slightly reprimanded me for encouraging children, adding that she saw the film as a young child and can’t remember anything about it except for seeing Major Anthony Nelson from the TV show I Dream of Jeannie trying to rape a corpse. Her memory was a bit off, as the corpse in question was actually an unconscious female college student, but either way one can understand how that might scar a young mind. Ah, PG in the seventies! Despite her trauma she seemed excited to see it again. Another enthusiast chirped in to remind me that the script had been written by Tom Mankiewicz, son of director Joseph L. “All About Eve” Mankiewicz, and a man whose three previous projects were all Bond films. A third person referred to it as a “real mess,” and advised us to keep the coolers full of beer.
Why did I feel that “Jugs” should have two g’s? Was it because in the film it explicitly referred to Welch’s character’s breasts and my grade-school minded etymology would want a pair of rounded letters? One viewer had the answer: I was probably thinking of the TV version that ABC aired as a one-time special pilot in 1978. Ironically, that Mother, Juggs & Speed (which had none of the original cast) would not allow the name to refer to the lead females physical assets, instead insisting that Juggs was merely a reference to her last name: Juggston. At least it wasn’t Juggstown. The movie, of course, has no such restraints and simply has fun whenever it can, such as it does when it discretely reveals Mother’s last name. I think it quite fitting that the comedian who hates bad words be cast as Mother Tucker.
The experience of watching the film had its disappointments; the film was not just “a bit pink” but very much pink. Worse yet, it was filmed in Panavision, and the 16mm print we saw was not anamorphic, or letterboxed, or even pan-and-scanned – thus putting some of the talking heads completely offscreen at times. And, as it’s many detractors quite rightly observe: the pastiche of moods were far from deftly juggled, which sometimes robbed the intended satirical barbs aimed at cut-throat capitalism of their desired punch. That being said, the small crowd that showed up dug the politically incorrect strangeness of it all. A drinking-at-the-wheel ambulance driver who scares the crap out of nuns? A cheap laugh – why not? Introducing us to a fresh young recruit only to have him blown away by a drug-addled Toni Basil (yes, the same who several years later would gets lots of airplay for her cover of “Mickey” – a monster hit in 1982)? That’s a cheap shock, made even more shocking when the junkie aims the shotgun at her own head and pulls the trigger. This is a comedy? Actually, yes. Cosby is fine form – even when getting his ear massaged by vibrators. It’s understood that the filmmakers were aiming for a domestic M*A*S*H, but that was a movie that successfully switched gears between tragedy and laughter. Here, the gears go from first to fourth in a lurching vehicle that needed smoother transmissions. Still, the audience was forgiving and enjoyed the overall vibe, repeating its many zingers afterwards. “The only chicks I get to meet are hemorrhaging or have bullet holes in them.” Bill Cosby talking to Raquel Welch: “If I was a twenty years younger…” She: “I would be three.”
Originally, the filmmakers wanted Gene Hackman, but Hackman deferred and suggested Cosby – a good choice. Made for $3 million, it recouped $17 mil at the box office. Despite its flaws, fast-forwarding almost four decades later, it’s still entertaining an audience. And let’s not forget the car-chases! In this case, police cars chasing ambulances, which the crowd ate up. “In America,” David Thomson writes, “Yates has done nothing more profound than send hubcaps careering round corners.” In the case of Mother, Jugs, & Speed he might have a point. But that’s a harsh assessment that completely overlooks what I think is his best film. Breaking Away (1979) did for bicycles what Bullitt did for cars, and it had a message, it had heart, and would change quite a few lives for the better, including mine. I bought my first road bike after seeing that film, and I’ve had a love-affair with spinning spokes careering round corners ever since.
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