The drive-in movie began in this country before the 1920s in several Western states, but it didn’t become a social phenomenon until the 1950s and ‘60s. Most drive-in movies were inexpensive date nights, family events, or simply teen hangouts where people watched inexpensive movie entertainment from their own cars.
Many drive-in movies were usually B-films with lesser-known actors, with simple themes, containing not-too-complex plots and very simplistic characterizations. These included: cheap beach movie musicals, crime films, horror or science-fiction monster films and later kung fu films with Bruce Lee. And due to this coronavirus and the state’s social distancing rules, drive-in theatres are making a comeback nationwide.
One of the more surprisingly effective drive-in movies of yesteryear is this week’s hidden gem, Daniel Petrie’s 1974 coming of age teen melodrama, “Buster and Billie.” This was a film I literally saw in a drive-in theatre in Hammond, Indiana. This high school teen film featured a cast of relative unknowns, Jan-Michael Vincent, Joan Goodfellow and Pamela Sue Martin. It is also the feature film debut of Robert Englund, who would later be known as Freddy Krueger in the “Nightmare on Elm Street” slasher films.
Based on an original story by Ron Barton and Ron Turbeville, the film concerns events in a small rural Georgia town in 1948. Buster Lane (Vincent) is the town’s popular high school senior who is engaged to his innocent sweetheart Margie Hooks (Martin). But the virginal Margie is saving herself for marriage is not willing to go all the way with Buster, which makes him intensely frustrated.
Billie Jo Trulock (Goodfellow) is a disadvantaged daughter of a semi-literate family from the wrong side of the tracks, in the region called “Black Creek.” She a shy young woman who has developed a reputation for knowing what boys want, in the “most” basic ways. When Buster finally experiences the joys of passion with Billie Jo, all hell breaks loose in the town.
Buster breaks up with Margie, the local guys are shocked and jealous that their buddy has taken their ‘fun time’ girl seriously and when Buster appears in church one Sunday with Billie, the rest of the community is astonished.
While this may seem like a cheap melodramatic subject matter for a soap opera, Canadian director Petrie, who directed lots of television shows and such feature films, like the award-winning “A Raisin in the Sun” with Sidney Poitier, makes his characters’ predicaments emotionally compelling and believable.
The film’s script is also loaded with small-town rural flavor and language. Almost every day the “good ole’ boy” Buster races the local school bus in his greyish blue pickup truck, leaving the bus in a cloud of dust. These scenes are usually complemented by lively riffs of fiddle music on the soundtrack. After an evening’s fun time gambling on their pool table skills at the local general store, Buster’s local buddies talk about making a late-night visit to Black Creek Billie’s for some “pootang.” And when Buster stops by to pick up Margie for an evening’s date, her mom offers him some of her homemade “sticky,” a sweet candy dessert, while waiting for Margie.
The romance that develops between the cocky hotshot Buster and the rather introverted Billie Jo quickly becomes a tender caring friendship. Soon they leave the others behind and enjoy time alone on picnics, hanging out at a drive-in movie, skinny dipping in the local pond and attending an early summer jamboree. Director Petrie handles the relationship with a sensitive understanding of their young passions and shows genuine sympathy for these characters, who others might call simple ignorant rednecks. Vincent shows the emotional signs of a young James Dean, while Goodfellow, appearing in only her second feature film, creates lots of genuine empathy and sensual appeal for her character.
The fates of Buster and Billie Jo take an ugly, tragic turn when late one rainy afternoon, after hours of drinking, six of Buster’s buddies, hunt down Billie and brutally gang-rape her, while Buster is occupied with chores on his father’s farm.
In Roger Ebert’s August 1974 original review of “Buster and Billie,” he noted “The movie’s no masterpiece, but it’s an affecting story, well told.” He gave the film a three-star rating. While this film had little commercial or artistic impact in its day, over four decades later, I concur with Ebert and my original impressions about the film. Director Petrie’s later contributions, like his early 1980’s films “Resurrection” with Ellen Burstyn and “Fort Apache, the Bronx” with Paul Newman, definitely show the director’s unique skill at making audiences care about his characters with great passion.