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Friday, 28 July 2017

C.C. & Company (1970)


Director: Seymour Robbie
Writer: Roger Smith
Stars: Joe Namath and Ann-Margret


Index: Dry Heat Obscurities.

I’m exploring genre movies that were shot in Arizona because I live here, but I wasn’t born here like my better half. I’m English, so my cultural background is very different to hers and I find that especially fascinating when watching movies that exist for cultural reasons. This one exists mostly to grant Joe Namath a leading role in a motion picture. To me, Joe Namath is someone who used to play American football and, given that I can only name half a dozen players, mostly those who became blaxploitation legends, that must make him important. To my wife, though, he’s ‘Broadway’ Joe, the player who changed the sport by opening it up to a female audience. He did that because he was hot, he was charismatic and he was confident enough in his masculinity to put on pantyhose for a TV commercial. This was my first experience of ‘Broadway’ Joe and he’s clearly an easy-going character, the sort of man who always does his own thing, regardless what anyone else might think, and makes it cool in the process.

Reading up on his achievements, he was hardly the greatest player who ever put on pads, his statistics notably weaker than those of Jim Brown, who I read up on for Riot, an earlier Dry Heat Obscurity. In fact, Namath lost more games than he won, but some of the winning games were really important ones, like Superbowl III. He was the quarterback for the underdog New York Jets, who took on ‘the greatest football team in history’, the Baltimore Colts, in January 1969. This was right before the two leagues merged for the 1970 season and critics were relatively agreed that the AFL teams would struggle to cope with their NFL competition. The Jets were the face of the AFL in Superbowl III and everyone expected them to get creamed but, only three days before the game, Namath ‘guaranteed’ a heckler that they would win. They did, 16 to 7, and Namath was the MVP. Following up by saying that the toughest defence he’d ever faced was that of the AFL’s worst team, the Buffalo Bills, he gave the AFL instant legitimacy.

So, Namath was a pivotal sportsman, but we don’t have to watch Kazaam to grok that pivotal sportsmen don’t necessarily translate into pivotal movie stars. For every Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson that Hollywood hires, there’s, well, a Joe Namath. Namath’s career in film is an exercise in wishful thinking, because the two shots he had were clearly the wrong ones. He’d debuted a year earlier in Norwood, a Glen Campbell comedy in which he received a Golden Globe nomination as Most Promising Newcomer, so things looked good for him, but then he made this and The Last Rebel in 1971. The latter was a western that cast the Pennsylvania-born Namath as a Confederate soldier running from the Union after the American Civil War, set to a psychedelic seventies score from Deep Purple alumni Tony Ashton and Jon Lord for no viable reason I can think of. This one takes his easy-going nature and puts it into the body of a member of the Heads Motorcycle Club called C. C. Ryder. Needless to say, William Smith plays his nemesis more realistically.

His best scene is probably his first one, as the picture begins just like a TV commercial. He strolls around a grocery store wearing a white shirt, a cheeky grin and a nonchalant air. To the weird accompaniment of elevator music, he makes and eats a ham sandwich from items for sale, then, after drinking a carton of milk from a fridge, he has the balls to ask a store employee where the cupcakes are. Finally, he leaves, paying ten cents for a stick of Fruit Stripe gum. It’s only at this point, as he puts on his colours and kickstarts his bike, that it actually seems like he’s in a movie instead of an advert. However, he never changes his attitude at any point during the picture; he remains cheeky and nonchalant throughout, whether he’s romancing the ladies, racing a dirt bike or brawling with the club’s leader. He’s actually quite fun to watch, because he’s the odd man out in every scene and he just doesn’t care. He’s really not what the film needed at all, Smith bringing the dramatic chops, but he is, oddly, the best reason to watch the film today.
Initially, things seem promising. The opening credits unfold to demonstrations of character, with a wild variety of bikers working their way through a desert mountain landscape with overt glee. They whoop and holler and they do tricks with their sidecars; one lady even blows bubbles and reads a magazine on the back of a bike. It’s when they find a broken down limousine in the middle of nowhere that their fun takes a more sinister turn. Three bikers stop; Namath underacts, while Sid Haig and Bruce Glover, a joyous double bill of character actors, overact. While C. C. Ryder gets his head under the hood to help out a lady in distress, the other two sit back and watch Roadrunner on TV, before getting bored and grabbing the girl to provide some unwilling entertainment. In case we had doubts about Namath being the good guy, he saves her by taking his fellow bikers down, even throwing Haig into a cactus, and yes, he remains cheeky and nonchalant even while making rape jokes of his own. That’s the definition of 1970 cool, it seems.

This young lady is Ann McCalley, a fashion journalist played by Ann-Margret, who looks good even though she was older than was usual for the sexy female lead in a biker movie, almost forty years young at the time. Notably, that’s less time than she would stay married to Roger Smith, the writer and one of the producers of this film and surely the reason why she was cast; they married in May 1967 and, unusually for Hollywood, remained so until his death last month, just over forty years later. Strangely, given that she doesn’t ride a bike in this biker movie, she rode them in real life. She also rode a Triumph in The Swinger in 1966 and appeared in some of their sixties commercials. Namath, on the other hand, I couldn’t tell. There are points where he seems uncomfortable in the saddle but others where it looks like it’s really him riding and doing so with the same natural air that he does everything else. Of course, they did provide him with some decent body doubles; there’s no way that was him in the motocross race.
And I should explain where this story goes, in case you’re getting confused. No, it’s not a motocross movie, it’s a regular biker film with regular bikers, the sort who drink and fight and pimp their women out to passing motorists whenever they need money. This is done as subtly as you might imagine. ‘You a student?’ one driver asks. ‘No, I’m a teenage prostitute,’ she replies. ‘Any ideas?’ The man in charge is Moon, played by a young William Smith, looking buff and acting as nasty as I’ve ever seen him. Ironically, given how things progress, it’s Moon who has the Heads stop at a motocross track they spy from the road and it’s Moon who cries, ‘Let’s show these mini-motors what a real bike can do!’ and interrupts a race by having the club ride round the course in reverse. Only C. C. takes it remotely seriously, though how much of that is for the skill of the sport and how much for Ann McCalley and the hunky Eddie Ellis, the all-American rider she’s with. ‘That's what gives motorcycling a bad name,’ Eddie tells her, pointing at the Heads.

Namath’s lack of any attempt to actually act does make us wonder about the progression here. It could well be that C. C. likes what he sees at the track and wants to try it out for himself or it could be just because it might impress Ann; maybe he wants to show up Eddie Ellis or maybe he simply has nothing better to do. Whatever the reason, he promptly buys himself a dirt bike (well, he steals one but leaves five bucks, the ‘balance to be paid when funds available’) and takes a run round the track, stopping only to flirt with Ann during her photoshoot. Charlie Hopkins, the local Kawasaki distributor, suggests that he enter the next Sunday’s race and it’s no surprise when he does, no surprise when he’s given the same number that he wore for the Jets (‘I hope it’s a lucky number for you,’ says the girl) and no surprise when he wins top prize, albeit on points over the day. He shows spirit too, coming third in the first race by literally carrying the remnants of his bike, sans its front wheel, over the finishing line.
And here’s where the irony of Moon having the Heads stop at the track comes in. He’s jealous of C. C.’s success and he’s downright resentful that he doesn’t chip in all his winnings to the club; C. C. plans to keep a hundred bucks of it for himself and that sets up a brawl in the dirt and the rest of the film. Of course, it’s not a great idea for Namath, given that William Smith was a bodybuilder, a weightlifter, a world champion arm wrestler and a 31-1 amateur boxer. A decade later, Smith would brawl with Clint Eastwood in the climactic bare knuckle fight in Any Which Way You Can; what odds would Namath have got? I’m sure you won’t have to stretch your imagination to see where C. C. goes next, what Moon does in return and how they eventually settle their differences. It’s not a surprise sort of movie, more the same old story we’ve seen in a thousand westerns, just ‘with wheels instead of hooves’, as Tony Mastroianni put it. If anything, it seems to be a challenge to Joe Namath: what must they throw at him before he loses his cool?

Well, he never loses his cool. Seventy minutes into this biker movie, clad in a yellow jacket and what look rather like green striped trousers, he goes shopping to pick up peanut butter, Crispy Critters and English muffins for Ann. Race, brawl, buy English muffins, rescue the damsel in distress; that’s how cool C. C. Ryder was. To be fair, Namath apparently couldn’t play anything except cool, so it was hardly a stretch for him and he seems to have been cool during the entire shoot. Most of the film was shot in Tucson and the surrounding areas and he took advantage of the location to enjoy himself. In particular, he visited Old Tucson Studios to meet John Wayne, who was shooting Rio Lobo there at the time but, in one interview as late as 2000, he also remembered Pinnacle Peak Patio, a Scottsdale steakhouse that was known for its large portions and for cutting off the ties of unwary patrons; it opened in 1957 but closed in 2015, leaving only a couple of other Pinnacle Peak restaurants in California and none in state.
The only location not in Arizona is ‘the fabulous Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas’, though I’m not sure where this shows up in the film. I’m guessing it’s where C. C. and Ann go for a night out, dancing the night away to the groovy sounds of Wayne Cochran and the C. C. Riders and ignoring the fact that Cochran looks scarily like Bill Murray playing a albino James Brown. The opening scenes in the mountains are surely shot on the Catalina Highway, which rises 6,000 feet from Tucson to Mount Lemmon. The motocross track is Golder’s Moto-Cross Course, as indeed its sign says in the movie; that’s in the Oro Valley on the edge of Catalina State Park and it’s presumably part of one of the mountain biking trails still maintained in Golder Ranch today. Many scenes were shot at the Skyline Country Club, which is further south, close to Sabino Canyon, the primary location for the movie. The end of the picture is on I-10 heading out of Tucson, a road I’ve travelled often but which has surely changed since 1970!

That leaves a flat track that’s used late in the movie for the showdown between C. C. and Moon, a sort of gunfight using choppers instead of pistols. I’m presuming that this must be at the University of Arizona Stadium, even though there aren’t any signs more useful than ‘Gate 18’ or ‘Modern Athletic Conference’. I’m guessing at the U of A, partly because it’s the only stadium I know of in Tucson, whose skyline is visible above the bleachers, and partly as Charlie Hopkins, the genial Kawasaki distributor, is played by a University of Arizona professor, Robert Keyworth, who taught film in the Drama department. I wonder if they shot at a particular time of year because, even if the fences they demolish were constructed for the film, they ride those bikes around more than the actual flat track. These scenes actually felt more realistic for the disregard these outlaw bikers have for the property around them than for the actual racing that happens.
As simply blah as this film is, there’s still more to highlight here than just Joe Namath and a set of Arizona locations. Most notably, Ann-Margret performs her first nude scene after a decade in film, which Namath characteristically shrugged off. ‘That wasn’t any work,’ he said. ‘Hell, I enjoyed it.’ This was reported in the Arizona Daily Star in 2008, which also stated that Smith threw a birthday party for his wife at Mama Louisa’s on S Craycroft Rd, back when it was still run by Mama Louisa herself, and included a picture of the two stars arriving in Tucson with nooses around their necks. This refers to a long-running pastime of the Tucson Vigilantes, a group drawn not from outlaw bikers but the Tucson Junior Chamber of Commerce. They would pull over a random couple on I-10 with out of state plates, deliver a mock hanging and then treat them to five days of rodeo at the Fiesta de los Vaqueros. Apparently they also took the opportunity to hijack celebrities too for publicity purposes, but the pastime died out after the 2003 event.

On a more cinematic note, there’s the ever-charismatic Sid Haig in a Mongol helmet, which really suits him. He obviously had fun here, stealing a few scenes with characteristic style; the brawl between C. C. and Moon ends with Crow, Haig’s character, putting in a boot for good measure. Moon’s girl is Pom Pom, played by the ever-engaging Jennifer Billingsley, whose wild debut six years earlier in Lady in a Cage was worthy of the most interesting of the biker girls, Teda Bracci as Pig. Never prolific, Bracci is magnetic in everything she does. She had just debuted in R.P.M. with Ann-Margret and her next film would be The Big Bird Cage with Sid Haig; we’ll see her again for this project in The Trial of Billy Jack. What’s most notable about this film though is that it shouldn’t be notable. It’s such a routine picture, easy to watch but easy to forget, that it’s bizarre to say that there’s so much about it that’s worthy of note. I wonder if the same is true for The Last Rebel; if it is, then a remastered 1970 Joe Namath DVD double bill is long overdue.

Links:
Namath Here to Get Out Word on Arthritis
Ann-Margret’s Surprise Birthday Party in Tucson

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