Spark Plugs in Tinseltown

This just might be the strangest E3 Spark Plugs blog entry we’ve posted thus far. With everyone here at the E3 headquarters itching to ditch work early for the opening of  Disney’s “Tron” tonight, we got to thinking about all the great motorcycle movies we’ve seen. Then, we got to wondering if any of those films paid tribute to the trusty spark plug. After all, if a motorcycle was a blockbuster movie, the spark plug might be the great script. Turns out, the spark plug doesn’t get much respect from scriptwriters, which we think is a cinematic shame. But we did find a few oddly amusing spark plug script cameos.

The earliest spark plug cameo we find in filmdom is in the 1930 Cecil B. DeMille flick “Madame Satan” which, incidentally, was released on DVD this month. The legendary Hollywood director/producer was best known for biblical epics like the 1923 and 1956 versions of The Ten Commandments” and 1952′s melodramatic Oscar winner “The Greatest Show on Earth.” But Madame Satan, a romantic musical comedy, was a bit of an experimental project, it seems. The film stars Kay Johnson as a wife who learns her husband is having an affair with a singer. So she dresses as “Madame Satan” and foots it to a lavish costume ball in a vamped-up attempt to lure her husband back into her arms.

So where do the spark plugs come in? That would be in the sci-fi-esque “Ballet Mechanique,” lead by the Spirit of Electricity and featuring a group of dancers dressed as spark plugs. The $1 million production was the most expensive at the MGM studios that year, but the unfortunately timed film fizzled at the box office in the midst of a backlash against musicals.

The spark plug’s next cameo comes in the 1957 British noir classic “Hell Drivers,” which opens with actor Stanley Baker, described as a “long-jawed, macho Morrissey type,” picking up a spark plug and kissing it. His character, Tom Yately, is an ex-con looking to leave his ne’er do well ways behind and begin anew. He lands a job hauling gravel for Hawlett Trucking, an aggressive company that places speed far higher on the priority list than employee safety. Tom’s competitive side kicks in when he decides to go head-to-head with Red, a veteran driver who logs 18 runs a day. As expected, Red’s cronies bow up against Tom and it all goes downhill when Tom’s friend and fellow driver Gino is killed in an accident, blowing the cover on corporate corruption. We hear the race scenes are awesome.

The most recent spark plug mention we turned up is in “Four Lions,” a comedy about terrorism. Yes, you read that correctly – a comedy about terrorism. With tongue firmly in cheek, Indie director Chris Morris set out to make what has been described as “the Three Stooges of Jihad.” Except there are four of them: working-class young Brits who meet in secret to plan suicide bombings but have trouble deciding what to bomb. Hilarity ensues, packed with laughter-inducing jabs that ought not to be funny, including a scene wherein the would-be jihadists’ car breaks down.

“It’s the parts. They’re Jewish,” says one knucklehead character.

Um. Which parts?

“The spark plugs. Jews invented spark plugs to control global traffic.”

Says one “Four Lions” reviewer, “As an audience member, you’re stuck. The subject would not seem to be funny in any way. Terrorism is clearly a serious matter. Yet, funny is funny and you laugh despite yourself. After all, with the Times Square car bomber, who locked his keys in the car, and after the underwear bomber, you begin to see that not everyone involved is a Ph.D.”

“Four Lions” is making the film festival circuit and was nominated for five British Independent Film Awards as well as the Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize.

Frankly, we’re not sure what to make of a few of these spark plug mentions. But as aspiring young actors say, “parts is parts,” or something like that. We’re just glad to see the trusty spark plug land a few bit parts on the big screen. It gives a whole new meaning to the term “performance spark plugs.” Seen any of these movies? Leave a comment and let us know what you think.