His transition from in front of the camera to behind it is encapsulated in “The Ron Howard Action Pack,” which pairs two pictures he did for Roger Corman: 1976’s “Eat My Dust,” which he starred in so that he could leverage his way into starring, writing and directing 1977’s “Grand Theft Auto.”
One of Corman’s most profitable pictures, writer/director Charles B. Griffith’s “Eat My Dust” might be forgotten today, if not for Howard, then enjoying “Happy Days” success. He plays Hoover Niebold, a small-town, high-school gearhead with two things on his mind: fast cars and a fast girl named Darlene (apple-cheeked Christopher Norris, TV’s “Trapper John, M.D.”). He gets to combine both when she uses her feminine wiles to convince him to steal the hot rod of racer Big Bubba Jones (Dave Madden, TV’s “The Partridge Family”).
Thus begins virtually an extended car chase, accelerated with lots of fast-speed POV shots and many police vehicles ending up crashed, overturned or otherwise incapacitated. Heavy on the slapstick and completely harmless, it plays like a junior-varsity “Smokey and the Bandit,” which it actually preceded by a year.
The trailer tells you everything you need to know, particularly in the narrator’s summation: “Ron Howard pops the clutch and tells the world to ‘Eat My Dust!’”
Howard virtually remade the movie with his directorial debut the following year, “Grand Theft Auto,” as Sam Freeman, an environmental research major in mad love with Paula Powers (Nancy Morgan, “Americathon”), the daughter of a wealthy gubernatorial candidate (Barry Cahill, “Coffy”) who’s creepily promised her to rich, wimpy silver-spooner Collins Hedgeworth (Paul Linke, TV’s “CHiPs”).
Sam and Paula run off toward Vegas to elope, and Collins steals car after car to chase them, also calling the radio station to offer a $25,000 reward for their capture. The bounty attracts several takers, including two mechanics (one of whom is Ron’s brother, Clint); a tent-revival preacher (Hoke Howell); the radio DJ himself (Don Steele, “Death Race 2000”), who tracks them by whirly-bird and warns, “Every time you turn around and fart, it’s news”; and lots and lots of dynamite.
Co-written by Howard’s father, Rance, “Grand Theft Auto” takes off like its cute couple and never stops. With just as much action and comedy as “Dust,” but better in both departments, it’s like a feature-length demolition derby — first metaphorically, eventually literally. And I mean what I say when I call it more satisfying than any movie Howard has directed in roughly the last decade and a half (I’m looking at you specifically, “The Da Vinci Code”).
Shout! Factory’s two-disc set, part of its reason-for-living “Roger Corman’s Cult Classics” line, includes a bevy of special features, including a new interview with Howard, not to mention a full audio commentary. It surprises me an A-lister would take the time for such a thing, but doing so speaks volumes about how appreciative and indebted he feels to Corman for essentially changing his life. (Howard was among those who feted the producer in the 2009 ceremony for his honorary Academy Award.) A years-old conversation between the two appears; it’s in terrible shape, as if shot via camcorder in a dark room, but touching to see.
You also get a double dose of Corman being interviewed by Leonard Maltin (I could listen to these two all day); a few featurettes (including one spotlighting the poster artist); and trailers. —Rod Lott