Movie review: The Van (1977)

 * * *

Year of Release: 1977

Length: 92 min.

Rating: R

Genre: Teensploitation, custom vans/vansploitation

Starring: Stuart Getz

You know Stuart Getz from his Brady Bunch appearance as Charley, the affable red-haired loser Marcia breaks a date with (“something suddenly came up”) when the captain of the football team asks her out for the same night.  In the end, Charley gets the date with Marcia because, after she is nailed in the face by a football in the most graphically violent Brady Bunch footage of all time, the football captain gets one look at Marcia’s swollen nose and cancels their date on the spot, using the “something suddenly came up” excuse right back at Marcia.

Unlike the jock, Charley explains that he is into all of Marcia, not just her nose, and not at all ashamed to be seen with her in public. With her lesson learned and WASPy nose suddenly back to normal, Marcia lets Charley take her to the dance instead of the jock after all.

Brady Bunch episode #90 ends on a high note for Charley–he gets the sympathy date with Marcia and somehow even ends up breaking the jock’s nose in the show’s dramatic conclusion. But you know how the real life episode ends:  For the rest of high school, Charley begs Marcia for dates and she always rejects him, while eventually getting played for a semester by the very same jock who dumped her when she was temporarily ugly.

Well, “The Van” picks up after Stuart Getz’ character graduates high school. He’s no longer Charley. In this one he’s Bobby, but he’s still the same red-haired loser who can’t get lucky with women. He’s hoping that blowing his college savings on a custom van will change all that.

Getz has next to no leading-man presence, for which he compensates by smiling way too much throughout his close-ups. You could almost hear the Swifty Lazar pep talk his agent gave him on the first day of filming: “Kid, your smile is the best thing you got; no one can take that away from you. Just flash those Chiclets and make ’em forget you’re not Johnnie Whittaker. Let the van be the star of this show, baby. This picture’s going straight to drive-in!”

The acting is extremely minimalist in this low-budget comedy, and so is the script. Most of the money went into paying the actresses to do nude scenes–as required by the teensploitation genre. Another requirement is the frank portrayal of post-high school virginity, a role Stuart Getz excels in.

A lot of the actors and actresses look familiar from 70s TV bit parts, but with one notable exception they seem to quickly disappear from show business altogether after The Van. That exception is Danny DeVito, who plays a sleazy, confrontational bookie/car-wash boss in what amounts to the filmic debut of Louie DePalma a full year before the airing of Taxi.

DeVito notwithstanding, Swifty Lazar was right on. The van is the real star of this picture. The van is a Dodge Tradesman christened the “Straight Arrow.” The van has a waterbed and a mirror on the ceiling. The van eludes cops. The van has a toaster for the morning after.

Charley admiring the Straight Arrow

  ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

There should be a special school of film criticism for movies based on novelty songs. Take a listen to Sammy Johns’ 1975 breakout AM-radio single, “The Van,” and you get a pretty good idea of how the movie named after it plays out. Other than using a Dodge instead of a Chevy, the director-producer team of Sam Grossman and Paul Lewis do a praiseworthy job of staying true to Johns’ original vision.

The Van’s dialogue, acting, and cinematography are porno quality and there is a lot of on-site shooting in Agoura Hills and Malibu, including a real van show in a beach parking lot, all of which enhance the film’s value as a late 70s period piece.

The Straight Arrow arrives at the van show.

Charley and his girl enjoy 35¢ beers at the van show.


********SPOILER ALERT********

I’m gonna go straight to highlights here, including spoilers:

Bobby gets his custom van, the “Straight Arrow,” drives it home and shows off the waterbed to his mom. The bed seems to arouse her, which is the effect Charley was hoping it would have, just not on his mother. Dad says it’s obscene, and we’re not sure if he’s referring to the van, his wife, or both.

Bobby sets out to conquer women, but mostly finds himself and the van chauffeuring his friends’ sexcapades and being challenged to street races by alpha-male van drivers who prowl the highways looking for fresh meat.

Bobby’s string of sexual failure includes the film’s best pick-up line, “You want to go outside and share a joint in the van?” This leads to attempted van rape, whereupon the girl flees and Bobby laughs it off as just another strike-out.

Sammy Johns songs are featured throughout the soundtrack, but it is near the hour mark before the title single, “The Van,” reprises, signaling that Bobby’s custom Dodge is about to work its magic and his luck is about to change. The prude girl Bobby’s been courting throughout the movie finally loosens up after taking some swigs off a wine bottle and meeting the beautiful people at a parking lot van show.

By the time this denouement is reached, Bobby has had other women and plenty of adventure, all thanks to the Straight Arrow. The only thing left at this point is for the van to be sacrificed and Bobby to walk away, which does happen in the movie’s exciting drag race finale. Ideally, the Straight Arrow would have gone up in flames instead of just being rolled into a ditch, but I’m guessing the dealership wanted the van back by Monday.

♠ ♠ ♠ ♠

The Straight Arrow about to get rolled.

♠ ♠ ♠ ♠

Watch this film if you enjoy:

  • teensploitation, van-tasy
  • custom cars
  • 1970s location shooting in greater Los Angeles
  • movies named after novelty songs


The cruel and limited horizons defining the world of Bobby and his cohort make it seem like they’re stuck in the town from Children of the Corn, when in fact they’re in suburban L.A, on the other side of the mountain from the Hollywood sign, where the Kardashians now live. Viewing movies from this era helps you realize just how empty even privileged teenage life was back then. There was no internet, no smart phones, no cable TV, and about twelve people on the planet had VCRs.

Interestingly, the years 1976-82, the golden era of teensploitation, also mark the low point of high school SAT scores. What period pieces like The Van unintentionally show us is just how bleak the prospects were for pre-1982 geeks and nerds, as compared to now. Until Jobs and Wozniak made geeks chic, they were considered outcasts with no redeeming role in the adult world besides being nutty professor types. Teenage nerds of the teensploitation era had little choice but to take their punches and try to emulate their dead-end, slightly cooler peers by making bad life-decisions until the inner-geek was finally snuffed out, like Bobby.

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