Thursday May 13, 2021
Movie Review: The Sugarland Express (1974)
I caught this for the first time on HBO the other night and liked parts but didn’t believe the brunt of it. Turns out the thing I didn’t believe the most was true.
“The Sugarland Express” was, of course, Steven Spielberg’s feature-film debut and he already seems like a pro. Certain shots—through windows, or with the principles off center—look great. I do miss this period of American filmmaking when they would use obvious locals for bit parts. The adoptive mother, Mrs. Looby, was played by a professional actress, Louise Latham, but the part of her husband went to Merrill Connally, a county judge and the brother of Gov. John Connally. Apparently the baby that was the focus of everything, baby Langston (son of producer Richard Zanuck and Linda Harrison), took to Connally but not to Latham, which is why Mr. Looby winds up holding him more often. Spielberg also took to Connally and offered him a role in his next movie: playing the mayor of Amity Island in something called “Jaws.” Connally turned him down, saying the part “sounded pretty poor.” Of course, Murray Hamilton got it and did everything with it.
Anyway, I miss obvious locals in bit parts. Bring that back, filmmakers.
Based on a true incident, “Sugarland” is definitely of its time. I was 11 when it was released and I remember the cool, older kids going to see it and talking about all the car crashes. It has a “Stick it to the Man” vibe that was prevalent then—one of the many bastard children of “Bonnie and Clyde.” Despite that, the Man comes off not poorly, while the kids ain’t exactly alright. They’re not the brightest bulbs in the world. Almost everyone’s sweet-natured but we still get this disaster.
The movie opens with Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie Hawn) visiting her husband, Clovis (William Atheron, 14 years before he became the jerky TV journalist in “Die Hard”), in prison. Sorry, in pre-release. He has just four months of easy time left, but she’s there to break him out. Their baby has been taken away by the county and adopted by the Loobys, and she wants him back now. So she bullies Clovis into sneaking out during a family prison/pre-release gathering.
Goldie is adorable here—she wasn’t yet 30—but Lou Jean is a piece of work. First she bullies Clovis into breaking out. Then she panics when a state trooper, Slide (Michael Sacks, Billy Pilgrim of “Slaughterhouse Five”), pulls over the elderly couple with whom they’ve hitched a ride—for going 25 on the highway—and she hops into the front seat and drives away, putting the cops on their tail. Slide gives chase and Lou Jean crashes the car. But when he carries her seemingly unconscious body from the wreck, she takes his gun, and they take him and his patrol car hostage, then drive to Sugarland to get their baby. A day later, when they arrive at the Looby home after everything else, she bullies Clovis into going in by himself even though none of it feels right and Slider himself warns against it. Sure enough, snipers are inside, and Clovis is killed. If not for his wife, Clovis would still be in pre-release, with four months minus a day left of easy time. Instead, he’s dead.
But Goldie is adorable.
The Poplins take Slider hostage about 20 minutes in, and within five or 10 minutes have dozens of patrol cars following behind them, moving slowly and respectfully down the highway. It’s like a precursor to the O.J. Simpson freeway chase. My thought was, “There’s 80 minutes left. What’s the rest?” Just that, it turns out. This slo-mo car chase, with ultimately hundreds of cars behind them, and a benevolent Capt. Tanner (Ben Johnson) ensuring that no wrong moves are made and no lives hopefully lost. It’s the titular Sugarland express, and it’s the part I didn’t quite buy. At the least, they exaggerated the number of cop cars following them.
Nope. According to accounts at the time, and more recently, it was more than 100 patrol cars, a blue caravan crawling across southern Texas. It’s a lot of the other stuff that’s fictional:
- Clovis (real name: Bobby Dent) wasn’t in prison at the time, so Lou Jean (real name: Ila Fae) didn’t bust him out.
- It was Bobby’s idea to kidnap a highway patrolman (real name: J. Kenneth Krone), and it was simply to get a ride, not to get their baby.
- There were two children involved, not one, and they were Ila Mae’s from a previous marriage, not both of theirs, and they were living with Ila Mae’s parents in Wheelock, Texas, not with foster parents in Sugarland, and the goal was just to see them, not take them.
- They didn’t becomes celebrities whose car was mobbed en route.
- All three principles, Bobby, Ila Fae and Trooper Krone entered the home in Wheelock, where Bobby was killed by Sheriff Sonny Elliott of Robertson County and FBI agent Bob Wiatt.
I get some of the changes. You’ve got to give them a goal at the outset. But the county taking the woman’s baby is a movie trope going back to silent films: Surely there were better ideas? And why give all of the man’s bad decisions to the woman? I guess because Goldie was the star. That's what you get when you're the star. Welcome to the party, pals.
Crashes and character
Goldie is great—completely naturalistic, not a false note—and I like the slight odd vibe from Sacks as Slider. And of course Ben Johnson does his Ben Johnson thing.
According to Wiki, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert (pre-“Sneak Previews”) were both lukewarm on Spielberg’s debut, each giving it two and a half stars. Siskel wrote, “‘The Sugarland Express’ asks us to care for Clovis and Lou Jean because they are thick-skulled and because, presumably, every mother has an inherent right to raise her own baby. It doesn't work.” Yep. Ebert wrote, “If the movie finally doesn’t succeed, that’s because Spielberg has paid too much attention to all those police cars (and all the crashes they get into), and not enough to the personalities of his characters.” Yep again. But poor Roger. Ignoring the characters for the crashes is about to enter a new, dominant period—one that has yet to end.