Monday, May 05, 2008

Film Review: THE CHICKEN CHRONICLES (1977)







"Why the Hell isn't THIS on DVD yet?" -- Number 23





THE CHICKEN CHRONICLES (1977 Avco Embassy) Starring Steve Guttenberg, Branscombe Richmond, Ed Lauter, Phil Silvers, Lisa Reeves, Meridith Baer, Gino Baffa, Kutee, Will Seltzer. Directed by Frank Simon.

Steve Guttenberg and Branscombe Richmond work at Phil Silvers' fast food joint and smoke a lot of joints in the weeks before their 1969 high school graduation. Guttenberg has a big problem to solve. No, not getting into college and avoiding Vietnam. Bigger than that. Although Guttenberg is a popular track star with a cheerleader girlfriend, a seemingly unlimited supply of pot, and the advantage of being in southern California at the start of the freelove era, he’s still a virgin.

Hmm. I suppose a slight leap of faith is required here.

Paul Diamond, son of the legendary Billy Wilder collaborator I. A. L., adapted his own novel for his first screenplay, a good example showing the transition teen films were taking circa 1977, from nostalgic AMERICAN GRAFFITI territory into more sex-oriented material (ANIMAL HOUSE was a year away). Because Guttenberg and Branscombe would go on to bigger and better things, their characters are realistically immature and even hot-headed, and there are script elements anticipating the direction coming of age films would take in the years ahead, THE CHICKEN CHRONICLES has a small but devoted following.

Unfortunately Simon’s film isn’t as compelling as GRAFFITI and isn’t nearly as titillating as SENIORS or H.O.T.S., stagnating somewhere in between. Later films such as PORKY’S and LOSIN’ IT would provide more laughs and plenty of nudity with the subject matter of losin’ it.

If I had to describe it within the context of another film, it might be most accurate to call it a PG HOLLYWOOD KNIGHTS—Guttenberg’s smartass expression rivals Robert Wuhl’s and there are several pranks on the bluenoses in charge. But even that funfest spent considerable time on more serious subplots (i.e. one character is actually on his way to the war). There’s one serious scene with Kutee being notified of her brother's death in Vietnam, and occasional references to Guttenberg’s alienation from his parents (they communicate almost exclusively via intercom), but very little true angst.

Publicity still with Silvers, Guttenberg and Kutee
There's lousy motivation for some of the pranks here as well. For example, why would you steal the time clock (and risk expulsion and loss of college) for “unlimited hall passes” less than one month before you graduate? Unlimited passes for a year, maybe. But 4 weeks, considering the downside?

As was often the case with the late 1970’s raunchfests, superb veteran character actors help things out a great deal. Lauter plays his umpteenth authority figure, the Vice Principal, and best of all, there’s a rare latter-day appearance by the great Phil Silvers as the shady, lascivious old owner of Chicken on the Run. Essentially, he’s Bilko yet again (even using the old “Good Boy!” line a time or two) only this time, he’s Dirty Old Bilko (i.e. telling Kutee she needs some nookie!).

Sadly, Silvers suffered a stroke in 1972, and the effect on his speech and timing is sometimes noticeable. But whether he’s trying to fraudulently “return” burned chicken to competitor KFC, disguising himself as an Arizona cowboy or longing for the return of actress Dolores Hart, he still provides the best laughs to be had here and reminds us that he was one of a kind.

THE CHICKEN CHRONICLES does have a few grossout gags concerning the handling and preparation of food at “Chicken on the Run” (based loosely on the chain Chicken Delight, where Diamond worked as a teen) and one can see an influence on many of the teen films that would follow. The young actors are appealing. Likely, inexperience was the main culprit for the film’s shortcomings: this was Diamond’s first screenplay, and Simon’s first and last dramatic feature. Ultimately, THE CHICKEN CHRONICLES is neither funny enough nor serious enough to be anything but a late 1970’s curio.


So….why isn’t this on DVD?

Made little impression at the box office when released in 1977. In addition to the problems listed above, the film was before its time, about a decade too early for the late 1960’s nostalgia boom.

While Guttenberg would become a big star in the 1980’s with POLICE ACADEMY, COCOON and THREE MEN AND A BABY, he hasn’t been a box office draw since that decade so interest in his early roles isn’t what it was when this received its VHS release (1987, fresh on the heels of the latter).

Why it should be on DVD:

Well, it is Guttenberg’s first lead, and he’s an engaging presence in the role. Branscombe Richmond (RENEGADE) was also at the beginning of his career, and he’s a riot as Guttenberg’s pothead, skirt-chasing pal. Matthew McConaughey's Wooderson had nothing on this guy.

Kutee is, well, a cutie. Really. A more compelling question would be, why the hell didn’t she make more films? Also, why the hell didn’t Guttenberg chase after her instead of the cheerleader?

Seeing the great Phil Silvers in action, even at less than 100%, is worth it.

To name one example of this film's possible influence: AMERICAN PIE borrowed the main premise, and the pre-graduation timeline...then added the needed laughs and sex to create a film that would stand up to repeated viewings. It's fun to compare CHICKEN CHRONICLES to the films that would follow, if only to wonder what might have been.

1 comment:

geotrick said...

http://www.hulu.com/watch/85351/chicken-chronicles-the-chicken-chronicles