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The Sugarland Express
Alternate Title: Carte Blanche
Director: Steven Spielberg (Dir)
Release Date:   1974
Premiere Information:   New York opening: 30 Mar 1974; Los Angeles opening: 5 Apr 1974
Production Date:   15 Dec 1972--late Mar 1973 in Texas
Duration (in mins):   108-110
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Cast:   Goldie Hawn (Lou Jean [Poplin])  
    Ben Johnson (Captain Tanner)  
    Michael Sacks ([Maxwell] Slide)  
    William Atherton (Clovis [Poplin])  
    Gregory Walcott (Mashburn)  
    Steven Kanaly ([Howard] Jessup)  
    Louise Latham (Mrs. Looby)  
    Harrison Zanuck (Baby Langston)  
    A. L. Camp (Mr. Nocker)  
    Jessie Lee Fulton (Mrs. Nocker)  
    Dean Smith (Russ Berry)  
    Ted Grossman (Dietz)  
    Bill Thurman (Hunter)  
    Kenneth Hudgins (Standby #1 [Reserve officer])  
    Buster Danials (Drunk)  
    Jim Harrell (Mark Fenno)  
    Frank Steggall (Logan Waters)  
    Roger Ernest (Hot Jock #1)  
    Guich Koock (Hot Jock #2)  
    Merrill J. Connally (Mr. Looby)  
    Gene Rader (Gas jockey)  
    Gordon Hurst (Hubie Nocker)  
    George Hagy (Mr. Sparrow)  
    Big John Hamilton (Big John)  
    Kenneth Crone (Deputy)  
    Judge Peter Michael Curry (Judge)  
    Charles Conaway (Attorney)  
    Robert Golden (Dybala's kid)  
    Rudy Robbins (Mechanic)  
    Charlie Dobbs (Local cop)  
    Gene Lively (Reporter)  
    John L. Quinlan III (Bailiff)  
    Bill Scott (Station man)  
    Ralph E. Horwedel (Dispatcher)  
    Edwin "Frog" Isbell (Jelly Roll)  
    Richard Bright (Marvin Bybala)  
    Maury Maverick (Shoplifter)  
    Patrick Reagan (Reserve officer)  
    Dean Jones (Policeman at football game)  
    Robert Lee Loper (Car ghoul)  
    Al Evans (Guard)  
    Lucky Mosley (Wrecker)  
    Darrell Murphy (Wrecker)  
    Charly (Wreckee)  
    Bill Pattie (Ambulance driver)  
    B. M. Burch (Deputy)  
    James Gough (Deputy)  
    Sam Kindrick (Reporter)  
    David Bowen (Proprietor)  
    Marianna Clore Blase (Waitress)  
    Lorraine Meeks (Woman from Hondo)  
    Harold Offer (Hardware man)  
    Karen Olenick (Karen)  
    Maria De Lange (Matron)  
    Darrell Newman (FFA boy)  
    Carol W. Nell (D.P.S. officer)  
    Myles R. Kuykendall (D.P.S. officer)  
    Charles Gunn (D.P.S. officer)  
    Robert C. Willey (D.P.S. officer)  
    James Robert Allen (D.P.S. officer)  
    Michael J. Croshaw (Reporter)  
    Harvey Christiansen (Old reporter)  
    Don Peck (Helicopter pilot)  
    Rafael Lopez (Val Verde deputy)  
    Adolfo E. Urrutia    

Summary: In 1969, three weeks after completing jail time for petty larceny, Lou Jean Poplin, a strong-willed but uneducated woman in her twenties, visits her husband Clovis at a Texas pre-release prison farm, where he is serving the last four months of his sentence for a crime they committed together. Confused by the bureaucracy of the child welfare system, Jean has been unable to regain custody of their baby, Langston. Because she and Clovis are considered “unfit” parents, Langston has been given up for adoption to the Loobys, a middle-aged, upper middle class couple from Sugarland, a town on the other side of Texas. Jean plans to kidnap Langston, then flee from the state, and wants Clovis to break out of prison to help her. Using a combination of seduction, crying and browbeating, Jean elicits Clovis’ cooperation, then leads him to the mensroom, where she removes extra layers of clothing for him to wear. Disguised as a day guest, Clovis exits the prison with Jean and gets a ride into town from an elderly couple. The old man drives his 1956 Buick so slowly that he creates a traffic hazard on the highway, and when young Highway Patrolman Maxwell Slide pulls them over for obstructing traffic, Jean presumes that he is aware of the prison breakout and hijacks the car. Driving wildly to escape Slide’s pursuit, Jean loses control and crashes into a secluded, woodsy area. When Slide tries to help Clovis and Jean, she steals his gun, and Clovis orders him to drive them to Sugarland in his police car. After Highway Patrol Chief Captain Tanner and several other lawmen eventually catch up with the Poplins, their vehicles form a caravan behind them. Although Tanner communicates by police radio, urging them to give up, he orders that no one interfere, so that they do not panic and harm Slide. When their car runs out of gas, Tanner uses his car to push them to the next service station. After the Poplins fill up and leave, reporters in a news van interview the attendant, who preens and exaggerates his experience. Radio news reports about the fleeing Poplins soon attract many spectators, who wave to the caravan. Also responding to the reports are lawmen from other jurisdictions, among them, two irresponsible Louisiana policemen who travel for several hours to join in the unique adventure. When Jean needs to use a restroom, Tanner delivers a portable toilet, in which he has staked out a patrolman. However, Clovis outwits them and gets the policeman to surrender and leave. Because Tanner has been reading Clovis’ police record and realizes that they are not dangerous criminals, just “kids,” he calls off the services of two Texas rangers, sharpshooters who offer to kill the Poplins without harming Slide. Sometime later, a publicity-seeking drive-up restaurant owner gives the Tanners a free fried chicken dinner, which they eat in the car as police cars and spectators wait. After their journey resumes, the Louisiana policeman arrive and, without alerting other lawmen, try to stop the Poplins by smashing into their car. Instead, they cause a multiple car crash of the pursuing vehicles, but the Poplins continue driving, shaken, although unharmed. Free of their pursuers, the Poplins hide in a used car lot, where they handcuff Slide in the back seat and prepare to spend the night in a motor home. Later, Tanner has Jean’s father talk to her on the police radio, but the embittered old man only rails at her. Only Slide hears the father’s spiteful comments, and when Jean returns to check on his comfort, Slide, who is growing fond of the Poplins and sympathetic to their cause of reclaiming their child, asks her to turn off the radio. In the morning, Clovis, feeling kinship with Slide, asks about joining the state patrol, but Slide reminds him that his criminal record makes him ineligible. Jean is choosing a different vehicle when two hapless vigilantes who were former reserve officers discover them and open fire, endangering their lives and damaging cars on the lot. Jean frantically calls Tanner by radio for help, thus alerting him to their location. When the police caravan and the helicopters arrive, the vigilantes are surprised when Tanner arrests them. Clovis, still holding the gun, tells Tanner that he will release Slide when he gets Langston. Tanner then gives his “word of honor” that they can proceed safely, satisfying Clovis and Jean, who naïvely trust him. After his promise, however, Tanner regretfully admits to his deputy that he cannot allow the Poplins to succeed and directs the snipers to the Looby house to prepare an ambush. As the caravan resumes, it has grown to over two hundred cars of police, newsmen and private vehicles. Along the road, spectators supporting a reunited Poplin family hold up written signs of encouragement. A news van attempts to pass the line of police cars to interview the young couple from their car, but Tanner shoots the van’s tires, causing it to careen off the road. Inside the Poplin's car, there is a playful atmosphere, as Jean, Clovis and Slide sing songs and share photos. When they stop at a store near the road, Jean, primping for the public, asks for hair spray and rollers. A woman gives them to her and urges her to let no one take away her baby. Meanwhile, in the town ahead, policemen attempt to clear the streets of glory seekers, the curious and those who sympathize with the Poplins. As the police frisk spectators and confiscate concealed weapons, boy scouts and a marching band add to the chaos of the crowd waiting for the Poplins. Although Tanner asks the Poplins to pull aside until the police can clear their route, Jean, who is excited by their celebrity status, refuses. In town, the presence of the crowd makes driving slow, and as they pass, people hand them money and gifts, and women kiss Slide and Clovis. Thrilled by the attention, Jean declares to Clovis that she intends for them to settle down like “real folks.” Meanwhile, hordes of spectators wait at the Looby’s house, then follow the Loobys and the baby when they are taken to the courthouse for safety. Tanner again asks the Poplins to give up, and Slide warns that Tanner may not be able to keep his promise. Undiscouraged, Clovis and Jean tell Tanner of their plans to live in Mexico with Jean’s cousin. When they arrive at the house, Slide is suspicious of the quiet, but Jean throws a tantrum, pushing Clovis out of the car and shrilly ordering him to get Langston. When a sniper shooting from inside the house wounds him, Clovis manages to get back into the car and drive away. The police caravan follows with their sirens blaring, and Jean, shocked by the turn of events, pitches the gifts out of window. As Clovis loses consciousness, their car comes to a stop in the river and Slide, still handcuffed, exits the car to await his colleagues. When Tanner arrives at the car, he finds Clovis dead and Jean traumatized. When Tanner later returns Slide’s gun to him, the mourning patrolman says that Clovis had the gun but he never would have used it. 

Production Company: Zanuck/Brown Company  
Production Text: A Zanuck/Brown production
Distribution Company: Universal Pictures (MCA, Inc.)
Director: Steven Spielberg (Dir)
  James Fargo (1st asst dir)
  Thomas Joyner (2d asst dir)
Producer: Richard D. Zanuck (Prod)
  David Brown (Prod)
Writer: Hal Barwood (Scr)
  Matthew Robbins (Scr)
  Steven Spielberg (Story)
  Hal Barwood (Story)
  Matthew Robbins (Story)
Photography: Vilmos Zsigmond (Dir of photog)
  Jack Richard (Cam op)
  Nick McLean (Asst cam op)
  John Connor (Asst cam op)
  Jim Blair (Gaffer)
  Bob Burton (Best boy)
  Aaron Pazanti (Best boy)
  Bob Moore (Key grip)
  Steve Rez (2d grip)
  George Triardos (Crane grip)
  Jim Coe (Unit stillman)
Art Direction: Joseph Alves Jr. (Art dir)
Film Editor: Edward M. Abroms (Film ed)
  Verna Fields (Film ed)
Set Decoration: Bill Dietz (Prop master)
  Mike Fenton (Carpenter)
Costumes: Bob Elsworth (Ward)
  Jim Gilmore (Ward)
Music: John Williams [composer] (Mus)
  "Toots" Thielemans (Harmonica solos by)
Sound: John Carter (Sd)
  Robert Hoyt (Sd)
  John McDonald (Mike man)
  Bill Griffith (Radio man)
Special Effects: Frank Brendel (Spec eff)
  Universal Title (Titles & op eff)
Make Up: Cinematique (Cosmetics by)
  Del Armstrong (Makeup)
  Susie Germaine (Hairstylist)
Production Misc: William S. Gilmore Jr. (Prod exec/Unit prod mgr)
  Alby Thomas (Transportation mgr)
  Mike Fenton (Casting dir)
  Ulla Bourne (Scr supv)
  Alex Perry (Generator op)
  John Lackey (Mechanic)
  Lucy Ballentine (Secy to prods)
  Nona Tyson (Secy to dir)
  Liz Owen (Casting secy)
  Roy Smith (Unit pub)
Stand In: Carey Loftin (Stunt coord)
  Patricia Elder (Double)
  Carey Loftin (Double)
  Dale Van Sickel (Stunts)
  Max Balchowsky (Stunts)
  Bob Harris (Stunts)
  Ted Duncan (Stunts)
MPAA Rating: PG
Country: United States
Language: English

Copyright Claimant Copyright Date Copyright Number
Universal Pictures 31/3/1974 dd/mm/yyyy LP3768

Physical Properties: Sd:
  col: Technicolor
  Widescreen/ratio: Panavision

 
Genre: Comedy-drama
Sub-Genre: Road
 
Subjects (Major): Automobile chases
  Highway Patrolmen
  Hijackers
  Media frenzy
  Mothers and sons
  Texas
 
Subjects (Minor): Ambushes
  Automobile accidents
  Child welfare
  Death and dying
  Deception
  Drive-in restaurants
  Drive-in theaters
  Ex-convicts
  Family relationships
  Fathers and daughters
  Fathers and sons
  Foster parents
  Friendship
  Hostages
  Infants
  Prison escapes
  Reporters
  Snipers
  Texas Rangers
  Used car dealerships
  Vigilantes

Note: An early working title of the film was Carte Blanche , the original tile of Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins' screenplay. The film commences with the Universal logo, after which a written statement appears, claiming that the film was based on real events that occurred in Texas in 1969. William S. Gilmore, Jr. was credited onscreen twice, for production executive and for unit production manager. The used car lot sequence features excerpts from a Warner Bros. “Roadrunner” cartoon. As noted in the LAT and LAHExam reviews, as the character “Clovis Poplin” watches the cartoon violence, the change in his expression reflecting uneasiness foreshadows his ultimate demise. A running joke throughout the film depicts the character “Lou Jean Poplin” collecting Texas Gold Stamps to help purchase a baby crib. After the film, the following written statement appears before the end credits: "Lou Jean served fifteen months of a five year prison term. Following her parole, she convinced the authorities that she was fit and able to take care of baby Langston. They are now living quietly in a small west Texas town. Captain Tanner and Officer Slide are still serving with the Texas Department of Public Safety.”
       According to a 14 Nov 1975 LAT news item, the characters of the Poplins were based on Robert Samuel Dent, aged 22, and his wife Ila Faye, 21. In the historical event, in May 1969, Dent fled police who tried to stop him for a traffic violation. He and Ila managed to disarm Highway Patrolman J. Kenneth Crone at pistol point and, taking him hostage, drove his police car for six hours through three hundred miles of East Texas. According to the article, the sequences in the film involving the prison escape, the night spent in a motor home on a used car lot, the attack by vigilantes, and the couple’s purpose of regaining their child from a foster home were all fictional. The article states that, according to newspapers and DPS records, Capt. Jerry Miller, who was the real alter ego of Capt. Tanner, used the patrol car radio to urge the Dents to surrender. Although Dent refused, he offered to return Crone unharmed if he was given a fifteen-minute head start that would allow him to visit his children at the Wheelock, TX home of his father-in-law. When Dent entered the house holding a shotgun pointed at Crone, officers were waiting. Crone, passing first through a doorway, ducked and rolled away, after which Robertson County Sheriff E. T. Elliott and FBI Agent Bob Wiatt shot Dent. The article specifically stated that, contrary to the film, neither lawmen fired from a great distance using a rifle with a telescopic site, and Dent died in a hospital, not while fleeing, as was shown in the film. Although the Sugarland of the film’s title is fictional, the town of Sugar Land, TX does exist and was the home of “The Sugar Land Express,” the nickname given to former high school athlete, Kenneth Hall (b. 1935), who set several records playing for the Sugar Land High School Gators.
       The Sugarland Express marked the feature film debut of Steven Spielberg (1946--), who was still in his mid-twenties and who had been directing television movies and series episodes for approximately five years. Spielberg presented his half-developed script to Richard D. Zanuck, previously the president of Twentieth Century-Fox who had recently formed an independent company with David Brown, another former Fox executive, and who was committed to develop twenty films for Universal, according to a Mar 1973 LAT article. That article stated that Spielberg and Michael Sacks, who portrayed “Maxwell Slide” in the film, spent a week riding night shift with Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) patrolmen to prepare.
       According to an 18 Apr 1973 HR article, casting scouts had looked in Dallas, Houston and San Antonio to get their performers, most of whom had never acted before. The article added that the cast of seventy-five actors were supported by 5,000 extras during the location shooting in Texas, one of the “largest ‘people-users’ in recent Hollywood years.” Among the locals cast were Merrill Connally, a former Texas governor; Maury Maverick, Jr. an attorney and son of a former congressman; and a San Antonio judge, Peter Michael Curry, along with several of his office staff. A 31 Jan 1973 HR reported that eighty-one year old A. L. Camp, who portrayed the elderly “Mr. Nocker,” was a businessman and deputy performing for the first time. Harrison Zanuck, who portrayed the baby “Langston,” was the son of Zanuck and his then wife, Linda Harrison.
       In a 10 Oct 1973 Var article, Spielberg mentioned some of the problems that occurred during shooting: Director of photography Vilmos Zsigmond was fined by the union for working as the operative cameraman for a brief period. When the film’s editor was diagnosed with cancer (Verna Fields would die from the disease in 1982) and the assistant editor was temporarily ill, a new assistant editor was hired for three to five days to fill in, but, as he was about eight months short of achieving fully-fledged editor status, he was reported to the union. Two work days were lost before a suitable replacement was hired, Spielberg stated.
       The AmCin article reported that The Sugarland Express was the first production to use the new Panaflex 35mm camera. According to a 4 Mar 1974 LAT news item, the production used twenty-three used police cars with radar speed detectors that were bought from DPS. A 6 Dec 1972 Var news item reported that the filmmakers planned to shoot the chase sequences east of Houston and continue across Texas to Del Rio and Eagle Pass. The HR production charts and a 30 Mar 1973 DV news item stated that shooting occurred around San Antonio. As noted in the AmCin article, a significant amount of shooting occurred around the town of Floresville, TX, which was located about thirty-five miles southeast of San Antonio and doubled as the fictional town of Sugarland. In a Mar 1973 LAT article, Spielberg stated they were shooting “in continuity” driving westward and that portions of the film were shot along US Highway 90-A. Modern sources add the towns of Converse and Pleasonton, TX as location sites. In a Jun 1974 Var news item, the benefits of hosting a film shoot to a community was tallied up and reported to be around $500,000, not including over $130,000 spent by the cast and crew for hotels and meals. The news item stated that the Texas film commission planned to work with future film productions to ascertain a more exact figure.
       According to a 29 Apr 1974 HR article, Spielberg stated that he was aiming for a Thanksgiving release, and so delivered the movie’s print to the studio by 10 Sep 73. After screenings in late 1973 that initiated excitement about the “major new director and film,” there was a four-month gap before the opening, because, according to Spielberg, the studio was concentrating on the Dec 1973 opening of The Sting (see entry below). In New York, the film opened first at the Museum of Modern Art’s New Director series on 30 Mar 1974, and then opened city-wide the following day. By 5 Apr 1974, the time at which the film was given blanket releases in 250 situations across country, Spielberg felt that the immediacy had worn off. In the article, Spielberg admitted that the film was “an extremely difficult picture to sell” and that the right approach was still being sought even after three weeks of release and twenty-eight proposed campaigns.
       According to the 14 Nov 1975 LAT news item, the Texas DPL received a flood of phone calls after an NBC television broadcast of the film on 28 Jun 1975. Complaining that the story of The Sugarland Express deviated from the actual events on which it is based, Col. Wilson Speir, the director of the DPS, stated that a law enforcement officer of his agency or any other in Texas would not “conduct himself in such an unprofessional manner” that was depicted in the film. Speir felt that NBC did “a serious disservice” to law enforcement, and the DPS in particular, by failing to note before and after the film that it was fiction. Although Sugarland Express won no major awards and performed modestly at the box office, it has become a minor cult classic and studied by film scholars as the first feature of one of the most successful directors in motion picture history. 

Bibliographic Sources:   Date   Page
American Cinematographer   May 1973   pp. 564-567, 598-599, 611-620.
Box Office   28 Jan 1974   p.4660.
Daily Variety   20 Mar 1973.   
Films and Filming   Jul 1974   pp. 29-31.
Films and Filming   Aug 1974   p. 41.
Hollywood Reporter   17 Oct 1972.   
Hollywood Reporter   19 Jan 1973   p. 44.
Hollywood Reporter   31 Jan 1973.   
Hollywood Reporter   6 Feb 1973.   
Hollywood Reporter   30 Mar 1973   pp. 23.
Hollywood Reporter   18 Apr 1973.   
Hollywood Reporter   6 Mar 1974.   
Hollywood Reporter   29 Apr 1974.   
Hollywood Reporter   15 Mar 1976   pp. 3, 24.
Los Angeles Herald Examiner   24 Mar 1974.   
Los Angeles Herald Examiner   4 April 1974.   
Los Angeles Times   4 Mar 1973   p. 24.
Los Angeles Times   5 Apr 1974   Section IV, p.1.
Los Angeles Times   14 Nov 1975.   
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest   27 Mar 1974   p. 86.
New Republic   8 Jun 1974   p. 34.
New York   1 Apr 1974   p. 80-81.
New York Daily News   5 Apr 1974.   
New York Times   30 Mar 1974   p. 20.
New York Times   7 Apr 1974   pp. 1, 3.
New York Times   28 Apr 1974   Section II, p. 1.
New Yorker   18 Mar 1974   p. 130.
Newsweek   8 Apr 1974   p. 82.
Rolling Stone   9 May 1974   p. 160.
Saturday Review   18 May 1974   p. 39.
Time   15 Apr 1974   p. 92.
Variety   10 Oct 1973.   
Variety   20 Mar 1974   p. 18.
Variety   5 Jun 1974.   
Village Voice   16 May 1974   p. 97-98.

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