The “thunder” being referred to in this Howco International Pictures production isn’t coming from the skies overhead but rather the racetracks in and around South Carolina. Now put a fiery Rory Calhoun behind the wheel of car number 8 with Alan Hale Jr. doing his best as the mechanic in the pits and we’ve got a “B” film worth checking out.
Rory plays Mitch Cooper. A one time winner of the Darlington Raceway Southern 500. Lately he’s been in a dry stretch of racetrack when it comes to victories and as the film opens his bad luck continues when he crashes his car shortly before the finish line of the race that opens the film. He ends up with his foot in a cast and using a cane as he drives away in his station wagon hauling his beat up 1957 Chevy racing car on a flatbed.
Rory’s flat broke and ends up working in a garage run by a young couple, Race Gentry (billed as John Gentry) and Connie Hines. Gentry is well aware of just who Rory is and is hungry to get on the track and see if he has what it takes to be a racing star. Rory is going to take him on as a protégé while he recuperates and they’ll split the purses. It’s while hitting the backroads of Carolina that leads to an amusing scene when the duo are pulled over by revenooers looking for moonshine. The agent in charge of the sting operation knows full well who Rory is leading us to learn that this is just how Rory got good at racing to begin with. Outrunning the law. Life imitating art for the one time San Quentin inmate?
Sure enough the kid appears to have what it takes and the pair along with wife Connie hit the racing circuit. Connie goes along but she sees the speedbumps that are lying in wait. Mainly the women who are going to be chasing her hubby and Rory who makes it clear to her his bedroom door is always open. The film from director Paul Helmick wisely uses a montage of races and circuit posters to advance the plot. Flashing past the screen you’ll see they make stops at racetracks including Lincoln Speedway PA, Hickory Motor Speedway NC and Maple Grove Raceway near Reading PA. This was one of only two directing efforts for Helmick. He was far more successful as an assistant director scoring credits on everything from Marty to Hello Dolly which in turn leads us to believe he knew Calhoun previously working as the assistant on Calhoun efforts, River of No Return and How to Marry a Millionaire.
It’s while they’re on the circuit that big hearted Alan Hale Jr. enters the story. Always smiling, he himself is a former racer who lost an arm in a crash and is now the chief mechanic for a wealthy racing team run by Ed McGrath. Don’t recall Ed’s name? Well I’m not surprised because according to the IMDB it’s his lone acting credit. He’s got a bit of an ego and is willing to buy his championships if needed. Nothing but the best that money can buy and he’s got his eye on Rory’s protégé much as Rory has his eye on Miss Connie.
Cliched as one might expect, Gentry’s ego is getting bigger and he’s got a roving eye for the ladies. Full marks to the script for allowing wife Connie Hines to be a forceful presence who is willing to fight for her man/marriage as opposed to becoming one of the ladies sitting on the sidelines letting the boys be boys, turning a blind eye to the fun and games they get up to when the drinks flow.
The circuit is going to culminate in Rory’s return to the Southern 500 at Darlington where the time trials are under way. It should come as no surprise that tempers are going to flare amongst our leading players. End result? Gentry quits Rory and takes the wheel of McGrath’s car. Rory minus the foot cast is back where he belongs in car number 8 and Alan “The Skipper” Hale moves over to help his “little buddy” Rory keep his car on the track for the next 500 miles.
Has Rory given up all his racing secrets to the much younger Gentry? Tune in this Sunday on the Wide World of Sports to find out.
Drive in fare on a tight budget this may be, that doesn’t stop it from being both entertaining and I suppose nostalgic to some. I’m no racing car enthusiast but in the context of a movie I can get caught up rooting for the leading man. Some footage was obviously taken on sight with Rory behind the wheel as he pulls the car into the pit with Hale waiting with a crew to patch it up for the final few miles.
The nostalgia should be noticeable to race car enthusiasts and historians. During the opening credits you’ll see the names of real life drivers Joe Weatherly, Buck Baker and Shep Langdon. Even this hockey mad Canadian easily recognized the name Richard Petty when the P.A. announcer mentioned he was driving car #43 in the big race at Darlington.
To be honest this had the feel of a Herschell Gordon Lewis Production at times minus the gore and plus a leading man of some stature. If you know Lewis’ film output then you’ll hopefully know what I mean by that. Especially in the scene with the revenooer man. Howco International had through the late 1950’s centered their product around the drive-in circuit with titles including The Brain From Planet Arous, Carnival Rock and Teenage Thunder. I would suggest that landing Rory Calhoun as a leading man was a step up from John Agar or Gerald Mohr.
Rory Calhoun who rarely doesn’t have a cigarette hanging from his lips is perfectly cast as the aging racer at this point in his career. By this time he was an established leading man of “B’s”, mainly in westerns who at times flirted with the “A” list productions put out by the major studios. With a Song In My Heart being a prime example. Rory would cross paths once again with The Skipper when he appeared on an episode of Gilligan’s Island, The Hunter, in 1967. Calhoun has always been a welcome presence on my television no matter the genre. He appeared in most of them from sword and sandals and gangsters to horrors and of course the beloved western.
I’ve no idea if Thunder In Carolina might be turning up in the guide for TCM anytime soon but it is out on DVD thanks to VCI if you’re interested. I’ll also add it might be a good opener for a double bill with Roger Corman’s superior “B” racing flick, The Young Racers made in 1963.
One more thing. When it comes to that popular question men of a certain age ask each other when bonding over a beer, “Ginger or Mary Anne?” Rory seen below makes his choice while guesting on Gilligan’s Island.