>> Tuesday, July 14, 2009
USA/C-110m./Dir: Gy Waldren/Wr: Gy Waldren/Cast: Kiel Martin (Bobby Lee Hagg), James Mitchum (Grady Hagg), Arthur Hunnicutt (Uncle Jesse Hagg), Chris Forbes (Beth Ann Eubanks), George Ellis (Jake Rainey), Pete Munro (Zeebo), Waylon Jennings (The Balladeer)
The countrified cocktail of comedy and car chases that was The Dukes of Hazzard had a huge impact on popular culture. Not only did the series span seven seasons on CBS, the show spawned a spin-off series, a Saturday-morning cartoon, two TV reunion movies, and a feature film remake. However, four years before the Duke boys first burned up the dirt roads of Hazzard County, creator Gy Waldren experimented with the premise, writing and directing the drive-in flick Moonrunners.
The film focuses on another pair of troublemaking cousins, Bobby Lee Hagg (Kiel Martin) and Grady Hagg (James Mitchum). After Bobby Lee is released from one of his many stays in the county jail, he heads home, picking up a pretty girl (Chris Forbes) along the way. Bobby Lee plans to resume running moonshine with his skirt-chasing cousin for their Uncle Jesse (Arthur Hunnicutt), but when he arrives, he finds that trouble’s brewing. Jake Rainey (George Ellis), the local boss and owner of a bar/brothel, has been consolidating all of the moonshine operations in the county for a cartoonishly attired New York syndicate. Uncle Jesse, being a perfectionist when it comes to the quality of his whiskey, refuses to sell his white lightning to Rainey, considering it a sin to mix his delicately aged brew with the swill that Rainey peddles. Of course, car chases, run-ins with bought-off lawmen, and explosions are the unavoidable result.
Moonrunners contains many of the elements that would eventually lead to the success of The Dukes of Hazzard--rabble-rousing cousins, fast cars, a pretty girl in tight pants, Uncle Jesse, a Boss Hogg-type character, Sheriff Rosco Coltrane, and even narration by balladeer Waylon Jennings. However, the pieces don’t quite fit together in the original film. First of all, the Hagg boys are less likeable leads than the Dukes. Bobby Lee is written and played as a near-sociopath who gets into dangerous situations, employs violence, and destroys property for the fun of it. And James Mitchum, hired likely for his connection to the king of all drive-in moonshine movies Thunder Road (1958), sleepwalks through the role of Grady.
The story’s conflict also poses a problem in that there isn’t much of one. The Hagg boys both believe that Uncle Jesse is being pig-headed in his stand against Jake Rainey; so it is hard for the audience to get invested in the cousins’ cause when the characters aren’t. Jake Rainey also doesn’t make a solid villain in that he likes the Haggs and often tries his best to keep his old friend Jesse from getting hurt. Out of all of the film’s features, Waylon Jennings fares best, and it is easy to see why his narration became an integral part of the subsequent series.
Truth be told, Moonrunners isn’t much of a “booze movie.” It only makes the list due to the fact that alcohol is an essential component of the plot. Unfortunately, moonshine is talked about and driven around much more than it is actually consumed (a common fault of most moonshine movies). The Hagg boys even go so far as to boast that they never drink the stuff themselves. In general, moonshine movies tend to be pretty lackluster, but Moonrunners is a below average example of the genre. I would not recommend watching this flick on its own merits. However, it can be fascinating when looked at in comparison to the series that it would eventually influence.
Drinks Consumed--Beer, moonshine, and bourbon
Intoxicating Effects--Bar tossed
Potent Quotables--PREACHER: That’s sinful, Jesse. I’ve been tellin’ you that for years. Usin’ your god-given talents for makin’ demon whiskey.
JESSE: Makin’ fine liquor is the only talent God gave me, Preacher. It would be sinful not to use it. Besides, in all them ten commandments, God didn’t say one single word against drinkin’. Although he had a right smart to say about nearly everything else.
PREACHER: Wine is a mocker. Strong drink is ragin’, and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise. --Proverbs 20, verse 1.
JESSE: Give strong drink unto him that’s ready to perish and wine unto those that have heavy hearts. Let him drink and forget his poverty and remember his misery no more. -- Proverbs 31, verse 6 and 7.
BOBBY LEE: (Laughs) Preacher, you ought to know better than to argue Bible with Jesse.
Video Availability--Moonrunners has never been released on video, but Yammering Magpie Cinema has a collectors copy available on DVD. The DVD is full frame and the video quality is VHS-level at best. However, you may have no other opportunity to check out this rarity. The DVD isn’t yet listed on Yammering Magpie’s Website, but it can be purchased by contacting them at this link.
Similarly Sauced Cinema--James Mitchum first ran moonshine in the drive-in classic Thunder Road (1958).