Three weeks ago, Lost in Translation took a brief examination of the history surrounding Prohibition, Al Capone and the organized crime that built into empires thanks to bootlegging, and the Bureau of Prohibition agents known as “The Untouchables” led by Eliot Ness. From 1921 until 1933, a war between gangs and Federal agents waged, with the only real way to shut down the gangsters being charges of tax evasion brought against them by the IRS. Always pays your taxes. The IRS doesn’t mess around.
Ness, with Oscar Fraley, wrote an autobiography called The Untouchables which was optioned by Desilu productions. The pilot episode of The Untouchables series, “The Scarface Mob”, starred Robert Stack as Eliot Ness, Neville Brand as Al Capone, and Bruce Gordon as Frank Nitti and was narrated by Walter Winchell. The two-part pilot covered Ness’ campaign to take down Capone, taking out breweries and distilleries and showing some of the problems The Untouchables had thanks to local police and political corruption.
With Capone dealt with in the pilot, the rest of the series focused on Ness taking on other mobsters. Frank Nitti (still played by Bruce Gordon), Waxey Gordon, Ma Barker, Dutch Schulz, Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll, “Bugs” Moran, “Lucky” Luciano, the Purple Gang, and many others had their stories fictionalized for the series. Ness wasn’t involved in the investigation and arrest in most of the mobsters. The New York City-based gangsters, like Schulz and Luciano, were targeted by Assistant District Attorney Thomes Dewey.
The episodes did show the difference between The Untouchables and the mobsters they faced. While the gangsters were living the high life, getting tailored suits, eating the best food, and driving the best cars in the most expensive locations, Ness and his men had to make do with regular suits and whatever food they could afford, and whatever vehicle the Bureau supplied while on a case. Even when it comes to weapons, the gangsters have semi-automatic pistols while The Untouchables only have .38 revolvers. Both sides, though, have access to the classic Tommy gun.
With Walter Winchell narrating, each episode took on the feel of a newsreel, preserving the feel of the era and allowing the show to have episodes from different parts of the 30s, pre- and post-Prohibition. The episodes unfold out as morality plays, with the moral being “Crime does not pay.” Given the era, though, crime may not have paid, but it did allow gangsters to rent happiness. Still, on The Untouchables, mobsters wound up either in prison or dead, no matter how much money they gained.
The series’ main problem is that it used up Capone in the pilot. Today, taking down Capone would be the focus of at least a season if not the series. With Capone serving time during the years the 1959 series covered, writers on the series had to use other mobsters. Fortunately, Prohibition had created a number of colourful gangsters. Ness, however, didn’t interact with many of them. Historical accuracy, at least in this frame, was loose. The goal of the series, though, was to tell good crime drama stories that kept viewers coming back week after week, something that happened over four seasons and 117 episodes.
Next week, Kevin Costner as Eliot Ness.
Prohibiton still affects American life, despite the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment by the Twenty-first effective December 1933. The War Against Alcohol meant that law-abiding people were not allowed to drink. For some, that was enough to not touch a drop of anything except de-alcoholized beer. For others, this was an opportunity. Organized crime made hundreds of thousands a day supplying illegal hooch. The penalties for violating the Volstead Act, the law that proscribed the crimes and penalties regarding alcohol, were a slap on the wrist at best; up to $1000 for a first offense of making or selling booze and up to $2000 for subsequent offenses, with the fine increasing to $10,000 in 1929. The Untouchables went after Al Capone for tax evasion instead Volstead Act violations for this reason; the Volstead Act just didn’t have the teeth needed to stop the gangster.
When Prohibition was repealed, many rum-runners and bootleggers were suddenly out of a job. For many, part of the thrill of bootlegging was outrunning the Revenuers. They modified their cars to get as much speed without sacrificing space for moonshine. Without the chase, they had to find something else to do. They did – they started racing each other. The ultimate result of the racing was the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, or NASCAR. The effects don’t stop there, though. Even with Prohibition gone, counties were still allowed to ban alcohol within their boundaries. Bringing booze through one could get a person fined or imprisoned, depending on the volume. Smokey and the Bandit was based on this idea, forty-four years after the end of Prohibition. Television, where trends are picked up and run into the ground, picked up the idea of former bootleggers doing car stunts two years later, in 1979 with The Dukes of Hazzard.
To be fair, The Dukes of Hazzard owed far more to Moonrunners than to Smokey and the Bandit, at least as far as themes and setting goes, thanks to Gy Waldron, creator of both. Bandit, however, was popular enough to get people wanting to see more car chase scenes. The opening credits set up the series, with the Balladeer, Waylon Jennings, singing “Good Ol’ Boys“. The titular Dukes, cousins Bo and Luke, were on probation for bootlegging after their Uncle Jesse had promised to stop making moonshine*. To round out the cast, Daisy Duke helped Jesse on his farm and, to help make ends meet, worked as a waitress at the Boar’s Nest. Daisy was originally meant to be Ms Fanservice on the show, but the writers developed her beyond just that. Since the show depended on car chases for the main action, it would be negligent to not mention the General Lee, the Duke boys’ Dodge Charger. Of course, if that was all to the show, it’d be dull. Enter the antagonists, Boss J.D. Hogg and his right hand man, Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltraine. As villains went, they weren’t evil or destructive. Boss Hogg wasn’t power hungry as such; power was just a means to get money. Roscoe even had his limits on what he would do for Boss Hogg. Adding to the light drama, Boss Hogg and Uncle Jesse were both bootleggers themselves in their youth, rivals. The main difference between them was that J.D. was there for the money while Jesse was there for the thrills and challenges.
The series ran on CBS from 1979 until 1986. Most episodes focused on the Dukes thwarting a ploy by Boss Hogg to pull a swindle, to get the Dukes arrested, or to get the Dukes’ farm. The other episodes either had the boys or Daisy working on their own goals or had an outside threat arrive in Hazzard that the Dukes and Boss Hogg had to work together to defeat. Car chases occurred, with vehicles racing around and over obstacles. Over 300 Chargers were destroyed over the course of the series, making replacements hard to find by the last season.
The series spawned off the spin-off Enos, based on the character of Deputy Enos Strate, and an animated series. A reunion movie, aptly titled The Dukes of Hazzard: Reunion! and also known as Reunion in Hazzard, brought the surviving actors back in 1997 after the series gained renewed popularity through reruns on The Nashville Network. The reunion allowed viewers and fans to find out what happened to the characters; Bo had become a NASCAR driver, Luke became a fire-jumper, Daisy returned from Duke University with a Ph.D, Roscoe became the new Boss of Hazzard County after the death of J.D. Hogg**, and Cooter, the mechanic, arrived from Washington, where he represented Hazzard County***.
In 2005, Warner Bros. released The Dukes of Hazzard, a big screen remake of the TV series. The film was a bit of an origins story, changing some of the background of the characters. Bo and Luke, now played by Seann William Scott and Johnny Knoxville respectively, weren’t parolees, nor was Uncle Jesse, now played by Willie Nelson. Bo was looking forward to racing in the 70th Annual Hazzard County Road Rally****, trying to get his fifth consecutive win. Luke, meanwhile, was just trying to avoid getting shot by irate fathers. Jesse still distilled moonshine, the boys making the deliveries and Daisy, played by Jessica Simpson, helping when she wasn’t working at the Boar’s Nest. Bo has a few obstacles in his way to winning, one being the return of Billy Prickett, who also is a four-time winner.
The second obstacle was the damage to Bo’s car, an orange 1969 Dodge Charger, after having to outrun yet another shotgun-weilding irate father after Luke. Fortunately, Cooter, portrayed by David Koechner, was able to fix up the car, adding a hemi engine for extra power and giving the Charger a new paint job. The biggest obstacle in Bo’s way, though, was Boss JD Hogg, played by Burt Reynolds. JD and his right hand man, Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane, played by M.C. Gainey, have a scheme to take over all of Hazzard County, including the Duke farm. JD has Rosco plant a still in the Duke’s barn, mainly because the Sheriff can’t find the real one there, to give pretense to arresting the Dukes.
Bo and Luke escape, and start digging around. They discover samples that were kept in Boss Hogg’s safe and, after recovering the General Lee and making a fool out of the Hazzard County Sheriff’s Department, the cousins head to Atlanta to find out what the samples are. Being Dukes, they get on the wrong side of the law early by not maintaining the speed limit. In a twist, they were two miles per hour below the speed limit of 10mph when the campus police pulled them over. The boys, though, reacted as they normally do and leave the police golf cart in the dust.
While hiding from campus police, the boys go to the university’s geology lab, where they’re told their samples indicate the presence of coal underneath Hazzard. Boss Hogg has several farms already under his control throug his dirty dealings. All he needs is to convene a hearing at the county courthouse, scheduled during the road rally. JD even sponsored Prickett, guarenteeing that everyone in Hazzard would be at the race and not the hearing. The Duke boys figure out a plan, one that has Bo arriving at the race, even with most of Hazzard’s finest and even some of Georgia’s state police trailing.
At this point, I need to point out that my “review copy” was the unrated version, not the theatrical version. Elements that would need to be cut from a PG-13 film were re-added. Fanservice, topless nudity, swearing, PG-13 has limits. However, even the target rating is a small issue. The original TV series was a light family action/comedy. Sure, things could get dire for the Dukes, but things would work out. PG-13, while it does allow a younger audience in, means that there will be portions of the movie not suitable for a general family audience. The humour was much more low brow, with more groin shots and drug humour than in the TV series run.
The approach of the movie was much like the original Dukes. JD had a scheme that needed thwarting by the Dukes. The Balladeer, voiced by Junior Brown, narrated. The movie even included freeze frames at cliffhangers, as the TV series would do before commercials. Risky, movie audiences have expectations about flow and not seeing ads during a film, but the freezes harkened back to the TV show and, just as importantly, they weren’t overdone.
The cast, though, is a different quibble. The Bo and Luke of the movie weren’t really the Bo and Luke of the TV series. The leads were probably better named Coy and Vance, except very few fans of the series would want to see a movie with the replacement Dukes. Even Daisy wasn’t quite Daisy. The role was Jessica Simpson’s first in movies, and like Rihanna in Battleship, the singer didn’t bring that much to a small role other than be a draw for the younger crowd. That said, Burt Reynolds as Boss Hogg brought a new interpretation, a smarmier JD who was more willing to cross the line to get what he wanted. Willie Nelson was as cantakerous as Denver Pyle was with Uncle Jesse, but, again, added his own interpretation.
Despite the younger cast, the movie still felt like an episode of the TV series. The elements were there; JD Hogg’s scheming, Rosco aiding with help of his basset hound Flash, Enos having a crush on Daisy. Where there were issues with the acting and script, the stunt driving more than made up. Cars flew. One stunt involved flinging the General Lee up on to an overpass into traffic. What few 1968, 1969, and 1970 Dodge Chargers that remained after the TV series were used up in the movie, but their sacrifices ensured that at least the vehicular portion of The Dukes of Hazzard lived up to expectations.
The movie did well enough in theatres, doubling their budget domestically before considering the international box office. Critics weren’t impressed, but Dukes wasn’t meant to be more than just fluff. The movie had a few challenges; older fans would be more likely to enjoy country music while the younger audience in because of Jessica Simpson were more apt to listen to pop. Feelings about certain symbols of the American South and the American Civil War are more divided; the movie did have a scene covering the various reactions to the flag on the General Lee’s roof.
Overall, as mentioned above, the movie did feel like it belonged on the TV series. The problems come in with the rating and the sexual humour, so the adaptations feels slightly off. There was respect towards the original, but the movie could have used a little more time perculating.
Next week, The Beverly Hillbillies.
* Moonshine is the popular name for alcohol brewed or distilled illegally. There was no quality control beyond the moonshiner’s testing.
related programming dropped.
** Sorrell Booke, who had portrayed J.D. Hogg, had passed away in 1994.
*** Ben Jones, who had played Cooter, served in the House of Representatives for Georgia’s 4th district from 1989 until 1993.
**** Assuming the movie was meant to take place the year of release, that would put the first race in 1935, about a year and a half after Prohibition ended. If you give the rum-runners a year to race each other due to a lack of bootlegging to be done and get organized, that puts the first race in the right time frame.