It’s easy to see how Ron Howard made Grand Theft Auto. He was 23 years old in 1977 and already had a few years of Happy Days under his belt, not to mention enough TV credits to satisfy the entire career of most actors. He had connections, and those connections included his family of actors as well. Grand Theft Auto, frankly, is nothing phenomenally special, at least not in terms of script or directing. The hasty editing and funky bow chicka wow wow soundtrack do, at times, make the thing seem like it’s about to throw the hyuk hyuk Days of Happy out the window and become a low-budget adult film. But it’s Howard’s first film! He was 23! We can give him a break on quality here, for sure, and in fact I’m surprised most debut features from eventually-famous directors don’t look more like Grand Theft Auto.
Howard plays Sam Freeman, nice young lad from a modest family woefully in love with the beautiful Paula Powers. Paula’s played by Nancy Morgan, and she’s a great reminder that every desirable teenage girl in the ’70s had alliterative given and surnames. Paula’s also rich, and so her proposed engagement to Sam is not received well by her parents. They call him a fortune hunter and kick him out of the house before locking the door and blasting Kanye’s “Gold Digger”. Love, however, is not so easily swayed. Paula steals her father’s Rolls Royce and picks up Sam, and they hit the road to Vegas to get married and inspire an inexplicable epidemic of carjacking in their wake.
Grand Theft Auto is as modest as Sam Freeman — the budget was a mere $602,000, and it’s safe to assume that nearly all of that went to filming car crashes and compensating the few famous faces. The likes of Marion Ross and Garry Marshall appeared with Howard in Happy Days, though, so maybe their involvement was more out of a loyalty to Richie Cunningham than an actual interest in his movie. Clint and Rance Howard, Ron’s brother and father, also appear. As Sam and Paula race to Vegas, they’re tracked by Paula’s parents, a jilted fiancé, the mother of that jilted fiancé, a police officer, a demented priest, and some guys who just feel like taking off down the highway after these young lovers.
There are very few signs of the director Howard would one day become in the entirety of Grand Theft Auto, which is not strange considering his age but also slightly strange considering he’d be the one to create Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind. It’s clear, then, that Howard got to those heights not on the merit of his talent alone but mostly just by working his ass off. This bodes well, in all seriousness, for young filmmakers everywhere. Scrape together a decent amount of funding and call up some family members and pals in the industry, and you too can make Grand Theft Auto. It’s the working-your-ass-off part that usually gets the better of most would-be auters, but not Howard. With few exceptions, each film Howard makes is an improvement on the last — and this is especially evident and especially impressive in his early career.
Still, while his style and sensibilities and overall mastery behind the camera certainly improved and left the likes of Grand Theft Auto far behind, there’s an earnestness about all of his films that never fades. Rush, Howard’s most recent movie, returns to the pedal-to-the-metal theme and pacing of his first effort. While Grand Theft Auto can’t hold a candle to Rush with regards to directing or editing or acting or car crash scenes or anything else, it’s clear that the guy behind the camera believes in what he’s doing. He might not have a full control yet over how to do it, but it doesn’t shake that belief.
As Howard worked his way up and away from Grand Theft Auto, the film would of course come to retain all of that sophisticated relevance and pure, familial Happy Days class to become a symbol of such American refinement as dictated by the standards of today: