April 3, 2024

Litter Box Treasures: THE GUMBALL RALLY (1976)

In Litter Box Treasures, we focus on a variety of older films which aren’t necessarily classics, but are well-worth discovering.

Starring Michael Sarrazin, Tim McIntire, Normann Burton, Raul Julia, Gary Busey, Nicholas Pryor, Harvey Jason, Susan Flannery, John Durren, J. Pat O'Malley, Vaughn Taylor, Steven Keats, Wally Taylor, Joanne Nail, Tricia O'Neal, Lazaro Perez. Directed by Chuck Bail. (105 min).


The Gumball Rally evokes really fond memories, so please indulge me if I give this film more praise than the genre generally warrants.

Nearly every week as a kid, I'd hit the Cinema V, a local second-run theater near my house, to catch double-bills for less than a buck. Sometimes I biked there, other times Mom or Dad would drop me off with a friend. The place was old, dank and sold Milk Duds dating back to the Middle Ages. As hang-outs go, it was second only to 7-Eleven as the most wonderful place in the world. That's where I first caught The Gumball Rally (with a Vanishing Point chaser). I'd seen plenty of car chase movies before - which had their heyday in the 70s - but this one struck a chord with me and remains one of my childhood favorites.

On the other hand, maybe it does warrant more acknowledgment & praise than its relative obscurity suggests.

Superficially, The Gumball Rally is just another car chase movie made during a decade rife with them. It has most of the same ingredients...hot cars, outlaw antiheroes, idiot cops, sexy babes, a plot with the complexity of Go Dog Go and, naturally, plenty of high-speed motorporn. A few of these crash-fests went on to become cult classics - like the aforementioned Vanishing Point - but most were brain-dead junk food made on-the-cheap and destined to be forgotten within weeks of their release.

But while The Gumball Rally walks & talks like its contemporaries, beneath its turbo-charged exterior beats the heart of old-fashioned madcap comedies like The Great Race, Monte Carlo or Bust and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (with a dash of Looney Tunes). The humor is broad, silly...even a little corny. But the whole thing is constantly good-natured and what little violence there is is strictly of the slapstick variety. In fact, if not for the preponderance of boob jokes, this could (almost) pass muster as a family film.

What's wrong with this picture?
(That's right...the driver on the right doesn't have insurance)
Unusual for the genre - at least until Burt Reynolds went into the Smokey and the Bandit business - the film boasts an impressive ensemble cast consisting of respected character actors, led by Michael Sarrazin (channeling his inner Peter Fonda...and a bit of Bugs Bunny thrown in for good measure). The fun they have with their characters (no matter how broadly drawn) is infectious. A young Raul Julia steals the show as oversexed Italian race driver Franco - Pepe Le Pew personified - while Normann Burton makes a perfect Wile E. Coyote (beleaguered expression and all) as the hapless Lt. Roscoe.

Though The Gumball Rally is played strictly for laughs, it doesn't skimp on high-speed thrills, which are expertly choreographed and shot, with far better production values than the average chase film of the time. It's all punctuated by a music score that combines ragtime, jazz and what resembles music from a Quinn Martin cop show. Yet somehow it fits, going a long way in establishing the jovial tone of the entire movie.

Sure, I may be biased, but what can't be disputed is the movie's influence. Not only was The Gumball Rally was the first of a wave of similar films depicting an illegal coast-to-coast road race (all inferior rip-offs), it eventually inspired real-life racing events all over the world, the most famous being the annual Gumball 3000, still held in Europe each year. Additionally, the MiceChat Gumball Rally is a yearly event at Disneyland, where fans compete to see who can ride the most attractions in a single day.

Not bad for a silly chase comedy hardly anyone recalls. For me, the movie is a nostalgic trip down memory lane that I take about once a year. I may not laugh as boisterously as I did at 13, sitting in the back row of that decrepit old Cinema V, but The Gumball Rally still brings a smile to my face.

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