Greased Lightning is a classical Hollywood biography taken out of the studio and filmed on location in Georgia, with immeasurable gains of freshness and wit (not that Hollywood biography films aren’t fresh and witty, look at Stars and Stripes Forever, it’s the sort of film that inspired Ken Russell’s view of the genre). Schultz even pays direct homage to his originals by dusting the actors’ hair with powder to indicate the lapse of time, it’s a bit of mummery in a great style.
I don’t know who else is aware how brilliant this film is, besides Hal Needham, who typically borrowed from it for Stroker Ace in tribute (in the same way, he remade Chuck Bail’s The Gumball Rally as The Cannonball Run), after filming Smokey and the Bandit and releasing it two months before Greased Lightning, which shares with The Gumball Rally Leon Capetanos in the writing credits.
All of the actors give their best performances or nearly, and Schultz has a great technique for recording them, he puts the camera at a little distance with a longer lens, and places it just so, to get the right angle on a scene played independently by the ensemble in a perfect composition. Background, playing area, and camera operate separately and combine in the shot.
The USCCB reviewer took off points for “inappropriate humor”, which raises the speculation that our Catholic bishops don’t know what’s appropriate and have no sense of humor, but maybe they don’t go to the movies much despite the excellent example of Pope John Paul II, or else they know that film critics are the very devil by and large, and let the Lord rebuke them.
Let’s help ourselves a little to the feast offered by this remark. At his first race, Wendell Scott (Richard Pryor) is beset by obstacles of a sort, put in his path by the track habitués. Hutch (Beau Bridges) draws from a hat a card with no number but a solid black circle, signifying that he is to drive Scott off the track. He shows the card to Scott and asks Alexander Calder’s question, “is this what you look like?” They become fast friends in an adroit scene at a steakhouse that doesn’t serve coloreds, where Hutch fends off the angry diners with the sharp point of a Confederate flagpole, and Scott promises to bring back the dishes.
“You redneck mothers” is how a little song begins when Scott has finally won a race and been told that, according to the rule book, he hasn’t, “your judgment day is coming,” it’s a quiet little song perfectly expressing his indignation, but there aren’t any more verses, the track management clears up the error, though by then the press and public have gone home.
There are plenty of jokes, dealt out in the strong rhythm of this redoubtable genre, never wavering or indiscreet. Vincent Gardenia as a Southern sheriff (an atypical role played to perfection) comes to get his picture taken with Scott, the town hero, now that Scott’s no longer running moonshine like after the war and coloreds have the vote and there’s an election coming up.
Scott’s main rival is Beau Welles (Earl Hindman), a big man who doesn’t like comedians on his staff, and an ungracious loser. Scott has a three-man crew, Peewee (Cleavon Little), his business manager, Woodrow (Richie Havens), and Hutch. They just love a good joke, except Woodrow, a saturnine mechanic.
Julian Bond lends his presence to a brief scene, after which he dances with Pam Grier in the background of the continuation. Grier, Pryor, Bridges, Little, Gardenia, Hindman, and Noble Willingham as a racetrack honcho have fine turns and spiffy renditions, you can’t beat Greased Lightning for making it look easy, and Schultz in the later scenes has track footage of Scott in his No. 34 going around the oval, it’s a first-rate film all the way.
And yet, just to show you what people pay good money for in the way of film criticism, Halliwell’s Film Guide (1984) actually calls it nothing more than “fashionable action hokum based on a real character”.
The great model is Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, the direct precedent of which is The Grapes of Wrath. A man with a certain position (George Segal) has the skids put under him when it’s learned he has a black son (Denzel Washington). Wife (Susan Saint James) and boss (Jack Warden), who is her father, cast him out. He comes to see how the other half lives, sweeping out a barn as a day laborer, sharing a rat-trap in Watts with his newly-discovered son.
This is played as a comic slide into degradation and ultimately freedom as father and son drive off together in a beat-up convertible (the top flies off as they lower it en route).
The stark value of laborers gathered for a daily hiring, joined ad hoc by a man in a business suit, and then the sheer squalor of the digs rented by the frugal but resourceful son, are handled with direct immediacy and as foils to Segal’s superb reactions of stony-faced disbelief, exhaustion, bewilderment and practicality. So is the boss’s peroration, as dismissive as a contemporary review of Copland’s Piano Concerto with its jazz theme.
Sturges’ line of comedy and tragedy is classical, or rather Miltonic, and on this ground Shapiro and Schultz take the apposite view of tragicomic farce bundling the perceptions of Los Angeles given by location photography. This makes for a striking, clear-sighted film of absolute accuracy within a certain narrow viewpoint, which is precisely the one it depicts in the most superstitiously inviolate of terms.