June marked the 30th anniversary of an important, groundbreaking film that forever changed the course of cinema history. It chronicled the story of a young boy who travels light years away from his small dusty home in search of a kidnapped princess. His adventure is peppered with many strange characters, the most despicable of which wears all black and has an army of henchmen at his command. The boy was played, of course, by Mark Hamill. The film in question?
Oh wait, did I say kidnapped princess? I’m sorry. I meant car. He goes in search of a kidnapped car.
Yes, it’s been thirty years since Corvette Summer fish-tailed into theaters and left audiences wondering for the very first time if the price of a movie ticket was too high. Little did they know they were not only witnessing an abysmal comedic misfire but also the sudden, violent death of Mark Hamill’s career, which was still in its infancy. June 2, 1978, is truly a date which lives in motion picture infamy (that day also saw the birth of turtle-like semi-actor/Drew Barrymore boy toy Justin Long).
Corvette Summer could have been its generation’s Dude, Where’s My Car? It had all the makings of a wacky teenage comedy – a silly plot, goofy characters, an attractive young starlet, the kid who played Luke Skywalker, and a cameo by Dick Miller. It was helmed by a seemingly competent director, Matthew Robbins, who worked as a writer on The Sugarland Express and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Robbins would go on to direct such mini-classics as The Legend of Billie Jean and *batteries not included; unfortunately, ol’ Matty couldn’t get this particular stew cooking. Corv Sum (as the fans call it) is a messy, overwrought mixture of comedy, drama, and low rent 70s pop.
The plot is thus: Mark Hamill plays car-crazy Kenny Dantley, a Los Angeles high schooler who just spent a semester building the perfect ‘vette in shop class. Imagine his anger and frustration when the damn thing is stolen right out from under his nose. On a tip his ace wheels are in Las Vegas, Hamill hitchhikes to Sin City to locate the prized auto. Along the way he meets up with a slow-rolling Hispanic car club and an aspiring hooker played by the fiery Annie Potts. Eventually our hero locates his bitchin’ ride, which is in the oily hands of Laserblast star Kim Milford. A horrible secret is uncovered shortly thereafter, and Kenny Dantley is forced to make a tough decision regarding his immediate future.
Sadly, the biggest problem in Corvette Summer is Mark Hamill. The son of Vader misses the comic mark by about ten feet, playing Kenny Dantley a little too desperate and angry. The scene where he attacks doe-eyed Danny Bonaduce for losing the car was probably supposed to be played for laughs, but Hamill’s rage is more psychotic than funny. You almost feel bad for wee Bonaduce (until you realize what a jerk that kid grew up to be). The whole movie is full of weird moments like that. Frankly, it’s off-putting. Audiences seemed to agree. Wary of crazed leading men who slap around members of the Partridge family, moviegoers sealed Mark’s celluloid coffin and relegated it to the Star Wars galaxy. Not even a turn in the 1980 Samuel Fuller WWII epic The Big Red One could rescue the former “Texas Wheelers” heartthrob. Harrison Ford-type box office status slipped through Mark Hamill’s fingers like so much Tatooine sand.
Why the filmmakers didn’t make Corvette Summer more of an ensemble comedy is beyond this reviewer. The talented likes of Wendi Jo Sperber, Isaac Ruiz, and T.K. Carter are completely wasted here, relegated to the background like former “Little Rascals” on an episode of “Good Times.” I guess aforementioned director Matthew Robbins didn’t want to distract audiences from the grating non-chemistry between Hamill and Potts. Together they bicker, they yell, they kind of fall in love, and they chew more scenery than a duffel bag full of termites. It was here that Potts perfected the screechy, Fran Drescher-esque whine that would endear her to a nation of nerds half a decade later when she played Janine the secretary in Ghostbusters (she actually may have taken lessons from Drescher; the future “Nanny” star had a small roll in Corvette Summer; her scene, unfortunately, was deleted).
But the real star of this late night cable staple is the totally bad-ass corvette, which tears up barren Nevada highway during the final climatic chase sequence like so much ribbon candy. Like Hamill, the car had trouble finding work after Corvette Summer. There wasn’t much call in Hollywood for a purple Stingray with a right sided driver’s seat. A job at a San Clemente driving school helped pay the bills in the eighties while a recurring role as “Stunt Vehicle #3” on “Knight Rider” kept the ‘vette in the public eye. Rumors of a serious brake problem dogged the corvette for years. It wasn’t until the tragic death of close friend the Batmobile in 1992 that the one-time star really pulled itself together. Today, restored to its original glory with a set of near-perfect brakes, the Corvette tours the country, splitting his time between auto shows and grade school engagements where he speaks to children about the dangers of waiting too long between oil changes.
When viewed through the prism of time, Corvette Summer is a classic B movie that set the stage for such rubber burning classics as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, “Turbo Teen,” and that episode of “Fresh Prince” where Will gets a speeding ticket. When viewed at one in the morning, Corvette Summer will likely put you to sleep, unless you start watching around the time Annie Potts takes her top off. The lighting is kind of weird, so you don’t see much, but she is most assuredly nekkid. This will undoubtedly be your topic of choice the next time you find yourself in a conversation lull with a good buddy or co-worker (provided they also have basic cable and were alive during the Reagan Administration).