We viewers have been cheated! A 1950s flick with the title of Hot Rod Girl brings to mind all sorts of possibilities. Fast cars! Loose women! Police chases! Crime! Mayhem! Et cetera! What it does not bring to mind is a traffic safety film, which is about all this shitty movie amounts to.
From 1956, Hot Rod Girl comes to us via American International Pictures, that paragon of b-cinema. It was directed by Leslie H. Martinson (who would later direct the Adam West Batman movie), from a screenplay by John McGreevey. Both Martinson and Greevey spent the vast majority of their careers working in television, and that helps to explain this film’s strong resemblance to an after school special.
Hot Rod Girl does not star Lori Nelson as hot rodder Lisa Vernon. Sure, she is in the movie playing a hot rodder named Lisa Vernon, but despite the promise of the title, and the first scene of the movie, Lisa is not the main character. We’ve been had. It’s a bait and switch. The real star of the movie is John Smith (yes, that is how he was billed) as Jeff Northrup.
Jeff is a local mechanic and hot rodder who has entered into a cooperative relationship with the local police. Along with Detective Ben Merrill (Chuck Connors), Jeff supervises races at a local drag strip. The idea is to keep all the local hot rodders from tearing up the streets and putting people’s lives in danger. The plan works, until Jeff’s brother, after being goaded into a race, dies on the street. Jeff blames himself for the accident, and withdraws from the hot rod scene. Without his positive influence, the youths of the town go back to racing on the streets.
Meanwhile, a new hot rodder has arrived in town. Bronc Talbott (Mark Andrews) is willing to take on all comers, and without Jeff around, his old crew is vulnerable. It isn’t enough for Bronc to humiliate one of Jeff’s crew, Flat Top (Frank Gorshin), in a race. He sets his sights on Lisa, as well, who happens to be Jeff’s main squeeze. All of this leads to denouement, with Jeff and Bronc on the road against each other.
The above description isn’t what we were promised by the title. It’s pretty boilerplate stuff, and when combined with Martinson’s direction and the wooden acting from the cast, makes it all tedious, as well. The hot rod girl of the title is squeaky clean. She could be raising Wally and the Beaver when she’s not out at the drag strip or having a coke and a burger with the gang at Yo-Yo’s.
A movie like this is supposed to be about breaking the law and then thumbing one’s nose at authority. It isn’t supposed to be about teenagers falling in line. The only people who wanted to see that movie were the parents of 1950s teenagers. If movies are supposed to be escapist fun, then a movie like this, with a strong safety message, is anything but. And it’s made all the worse by being a piece of garbage.
There are some bright spots for the shitty film fan, however. The scenes at the burger shack are unintentional comedy at its best. In addition, Bronc Talbott is a treasure. His slimy self-assuredness, while also being as inoffensive as possible (1950s, remember), lights up the film. Everyone in this movie stinks, including Chuck Connors, but Andrews’s character is just the kind of absurd that makes these old flicks worth watching. He has only the loosest of connections to a real person, and could be considered a caricature, had that been the aim of the filmmakers.
But, it wasn’t. They were looking to tell an earnest story, and maybe make a quick buck. It’s a shame for us that they decided to go with moral claptrap instead of giving us the movie we deserve. Alien: Resurrection is better than sitting through this lecture on automobile safety.