It was sometime in 1980, I don’t remember the month. Probably summer, though, because it was hot. If you took a shower, you wanted another one before you got to your car. Anyway, it was hot, and I had just got into Memphis after a two day ride on Greyhound from Los Angeles. My sister and one of her boyfriends, both Navy bums, picked me up at the station and we headed North to Millington on Highway 51.
We passed a drive-in movie theater that was playing “Any Which Way You Can,” the sequel to Clint Eastwood’s movie with the monkey, “Every Which Way but Loose.” I pointed it out to my sister, saying I didn’t know there was a sequel. “Sure enough,” she answered. “It’s been showing here for weeks. Everybody’s going to see it.” Now I didn’t give a damn about it one way or another but nodded my head and said I wouldn’t mind seeing it either.”
For the next two or three months, or however the hell long I stayed in Tennessee, my sister told every person she introduced me to that I was just dying to see the new Clint Eastwood picture at the drive-in. And each person in turn promised to take me.
My sister assumed that I was a big fan of the first one, and I played along, even though I had never even seen the damn thing. And neither my sister nor any of her drunk-ass friends got around to taking me to see this one. Not that I cared one way or another. But now, 35 years later, on this hot as hell weekend, for some reason I got the urge to watch these two pictures that were Eastwood’s first critical flops as well as his biggest moneymakers. I’ve always been hot and cold on him, but over the last decade or so I’ve come to believe that he might be the only mainstream director in California who knows what the hell he is doing.
Even so, he didn’t direct either of the monkey pictures, so what made them so popular? The second highest grossing picture of 1977 was “Smokey and the Bandit, which” brought in $126 million. “Every Which Way But Loose” targeted the same audience and grossed $105 million, making it the fourth highest grosser of 1978. No matter how much is written about the seventies being a golden age of cinema, the bread and butter of that decade was sleazy and moronic action comedies.
The trends continued into the eighties, with the Eastwood/Ape sequel coming in at #5 in 1980, and “Smokey and the Bandit 2” falling to #8. The sequels earned approximately half of what the originals made, but remained in the top ten. “Raging Bull,” the most critically praised movie of the decade, did less than one third the business of “Any Which Way You Can.” Other titles from 1980’s top 20 grossers that appealed to the nation’s inner moron included “Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie,” “Airplane,” “Stir Crazy,” “Blues Brothers,” “Caddyshack,” and “Private Benjamin.”
But Eastwood is no moron. And these two pictures benefit from a calculated intelligence that may be closer to both Eastwood’s and producer Robert Daley’s intuition for what the people want from an Eastwood picture (he produced fifteen of them) than the negligible aesthetics of the hack directors who helmed them. And not just what people want from Eastwood, but what they want from movies in general.
Even if you don’t want to see an ape as Eastwood’s co-star, you want to see it. The very idea is too stupid to pass up. And few actors fail when paired with an animal. The obvious antecedent to this pairing is Tarzan and Cheetah. Eastwood’s often bare-chested Philo Beddoe doubles as a truck driver and a street fighter, thus covering two genres at once. As a fighter, he recalls Charles Bronson in “Hard Times.” As a trucker, he echoes every white line renegade from Burt Reynolds’ Bandit to Kris Kristofferson’s Rubber Duck. But behind both of these facades, we know who he really is. Tarzan. He even has a scene in the first movie in which he breaks out with a Tarzan victory yelp.
Ok. So what else did these movies have going for them? Well, they are essentially Southern road movies set in California and the Southwest, which allowed Southern-hating Yankees to get their redneck on. The musical segments, including numbers by Fats Domino and Charlie Rich, are set in North Hollywood’s Palomino club, which was one of the hottest country western venues in the country. So nobody is going to argue about the authenticity of the redneck ambiance.
Then there is the revolving shtick with the biker gang, the Black Widows, an inspired amalgamation of Eric Von Ripper’s Rat Pack from the “Beach Party” movies and Roger Corman’s outings with the Hell’s Angels. Add to this an implausible vulnerability in Eastwood’s relationship with the slutty singer played by Sondra Locke. It is Tarzan, not Jane, who gets the broken heart in this break-up. So we even rope in the hard-ass feminists to applaud what is essentially a celebration of sexist amorality. And I’m not even going to get into Clyde the orangutan’s gay leanings.
The critics of the time were not wrong in their ridicule of these pictures. What they missed, however, was an awareness of the things people enjoy watching at the movies. It is not even a issue of aesthetics versus entertainment. It is a matter of cross-breeding enough freaky yet familiar bits and routines to hustle the broadest cross-section of humanity into your circus tent.