Nowadays we tend to think as Ron Howard, first and foremost, as a director…and maybe as the narrator on Arrested Development. When I was a kid he was Richie Cunningham, one of the lead characters on Happy Days. That was must see TV every Tuesday night in the 70’s. Every now and then he would pop up in a feature film as well. Most famously he starred in American Graffiti, less well-known is his appearance in today’s film. It’s a high-speed chase film courtesy of producer Roger Corman, 1976’s Eat My Dust.
Howard plays a teenager named Hoover who has only one thing on his mind…fast cars. Actually, he does have one other thing on his mind…the lovely Darlene (Christopher Norris). Darlene, on the other hand, is truly only concerned with riding in fast cars. When Hoover tries to ask her out while at the local auto races, she convinces him to swipe the championship race car of Big Bubba Jones (Dave Madden), which will be much faster than his truck. The pair take off from the race track in dramatic fashion with several of their friends crammed into the backseat (including Ron’s brother Clint Howard).
All this is much to the chagrin of Hoover’s dad, the sheriff (Warren G. Kremmerling). He and Big Bubba end up back at the police station dealing with all the local folks who have suffered property damage at the hands of these joyriding teens. Meanwhile, many of the deputies end up doing some serious damage to their squad cars in pursuit of Hoover.
Everything seems to be great, except for the fact that all the tag-a-longs in the backseat are making it tough for Hoover to get cozy with Darlene. So, at the right moment, he manages to ditch the others after convincing Darlene that the car will go much faster without their extra weight. The two then continue their pedal-to-the-medal ways, that is until they run out of gas. Hoover ends up having to use a horse-drawn cart to fill milk canisters with gas courtesy of a dim-witted station attendant played by Corbin Bernsen. Darlene then rewards Hoover by jumping in the shower with him before a big final chase with the entire police force.
It is interesting that this car chase flick actually came out the year before the quintessential 70’s car chase movie Smokey and the Bandit. Corman actually beat someone to the punch this time. It’s not as big in scale as Smokey is; the action pretty much stays in one rural California county, but there is still a solid amount of excitement here. There are some pretty dramatic car crashes that make this low-budget effort quite impressive. One shot toward the end of the film is a real standout, featuring a car leaping off a cliff and sailing almost directly toward the camera.
The car action only gets you so far, though. Luckily, Ron Howard is more than up to the task of carrying this film through. His clean-cut Richie Cunningham image mixed with the automobile obsession works so well. You also can’t help but feel for the guy knowing that this girl really has no interest in him, just the car he’s driving.
The weaker aspects of the film are all the time spent in the police station with nothing actually happening. Kremmerling spends much of the film rubbing his temple and generally looking frustrated over Hoover’s antics, but never really bothers to actually go out and do anything about it. Making him a stronger antagonist would’ve made the film a bit more well-rounded. Still, the film is very entertaining.
Eat My Dust is actually a rather important step in Ron Howard’s film career. Appearing in this film led to a deal with Corman for a follow-up, Grand Theft Auto, which Howard would star in and direct. That was his directing debut. Twenty-five years later he won the Academy Award for best director. Not too shabby.