Saturday, May 10, 2014

Stubs – The Crowd Roars

The Crowd Roars (1932) Starring: James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak, Eric Linden, Guy Kibbee, Frank McHugh. Directed by Howard Hawks. Screenplay by Kubec Glasmon, John Bright, Seton I. Miller, Niven Busch. Story by Howard Hawks. No Producer credited. Run Time: 70 minutes. U.S.  Black and White. Drama, Sports

With Memorial Day coming up and the scheduled running of the Indianapolis 500, Trophy Unlocked thought what better time to review movies about racing? There are two films we’re going to review, The Crowd Roars (1932), which stars James Cagney and Joan Blondell, and its remake, Indianapolis Speedway (1939), with Pat O’Brien and Ann Sheridan.

The film’s stars had been teamed together before coming to Hollywood from Broadway, the first time during the thirty-two performances of the 1929 play Maggie the Magnificent. Despite the short run, director William Keighley saw the show and liked the young actors, which he recruited for his next play, Penny Arcade.

That play only ran for twenty-four performances, but Al Jolson recommended Jack Warner attend and take notice of two of the play’s supporting actors, Cagney and Blondell. Warner liked what he saw and signed the pair to contracts. Jolson, who had purchased the film rights, then sold them to Warner Bros, at a nice profit. Thus began Cagney’s often time rocky relationship with Warner Bros.

Cagney did not start out as a star. Even though he was hired to recreate his part as Harry Delano in Sinners' Holiday (1930), the film release name for Penny Arcade, he was only making $400 a week and Grant Withers and Evalyn Knapp received top billing. Cagney next appeared in Doorway to Hell (1930), which starred Lew Ayres. Cagney would get top billing in his third film, Blonde Crazy (1931), which also co-starred Blondell.

In Smart Money (1931), Cagney would again get second billing, this time to Edward G. Robinson, who had already made his best-known film, Little Caesar (1931). Cagney actually moved down the billing block in the comedy The Millionaire (1931), with George Arliss, David Manners and Evelyn Knapp receiving billing over him.

Things would change with his next film, The Public Enemy (1931). Cagney was definitely on his way to becoming a big star for Warner Bros. Tom Powers was a role in a film genre, gangster, that would help define Cagney’s career. Even though he would play roles in many different types of films: comedies, war films, westerns and musicals to name a few, he is most closely associated with gangster films, of which The Public Enemy was one of the earliest hits.

But while that film was a big success, Cagney’s salary did not increase with his stardom. He would still receive fourth billing in Other Men’s Women (1931) behind Grant Withers, Mary Astor, and Regis Toomey, but the tide had changed. Starting in 1932, Cagney would not only finally get the recognition that he was a star, but he would finally be paid like one.

He made three films in 1932: Winner Take All, The Crowd Roars and Taxi, in all of which he would receive top billing, but it wasn’t until The Crowd Roars that he would finally get a star’s paycheck. As Cagney described it, when production began he was still making only $400 a week, but "that $400 soon stopped because I walked." It would take a substantial raise before he returned to complete the shooting.

The film opens with a tribute to the famous racing drivers who appear in the production, many of whom play themselves in the race scenes. William Arnold, who plays Bill in the film, was the winner of the 1930 Indianapolis 500 race.

Recent Indy race winner, Joe Greer (James Cagney) is on his way home, but he’s busy working on a race car with his relief driver/mechanic Spuds Connor (Frank McHugh) in one of the freight cars. Also on board the train is Lee Merrick (Ann Dvorak), Joe’s live-in girlfriend, but Joe doesn’t want her to get off with him. We already see that Joe has a bit of a drinking problem, which Lee points out, but he ignores. Lee tells Joe that she'd love it if he would quit racing since the risks are high, the money low and the crowd is only roaring for blood.

As soon as he gets off the train, Joe is greeted by his younger brother, Eddie (Eric Linden), who idolizes him and their dad (Guy Kibbee). Joe is home to participate in a local race, but he’s quite surprised to find that one of his competitors is going to be his younger brother, who has fallen in love with racing. Joe tries to talk his brother out of it, repeating some of what Lee had said to him, but the next day, after the race, he offers his brother the second spot on his race team.

Recent Indy winner Joe Greer (James Cagney) comes home for a local race.

When they return to Los Angeles, where Joe and Lee live, Joe informs her that they can’t live together any longer, because he wants to present a good image for his brother. Further, Joe spends all of his time racing with Eddie or with him at the garage working on their cars. Lee tells her friend, Anne (Joan Blondell), about her troubles. Anne doesn’t understand why Lee just sits and waits for Joe.

Some of the racing action from The Crowd Roars.

After going out on the road for some races, Joe returns to town and finds Eddie in Lee’s apartment with Anne, drinking. He tells Eddie to get ready for dinner, physically throws Anne out of the apartment and then breaks it off with Lee.

In an attempt to teach Joe a lesson, Lee has Anne seduce Eddie. Not only does Eddie fall in love with her, but so does Anne with Eddie. When Joe finds out, he makes Eddie choose between racing with him or Anne. Eddie chooses Anne.

Anne (Joan Blondell) shows up in the garage and seduces Eddie.

Eddie manages to find a car to drive in the next race against Joe. Joe, who sneaks a drink before the race, doesn’t like trailing his brother. Spud, who is back as Joe’s racing team’s second driver, keeps his car between the brothers, trying to keep the peace. We’ve already been shown that Spud’s not racing with his good luck charm, a pair of baby shoes.
Joe pushes his friend, bumping his car, even touching axles in order to get Spud out of the way. But he ends up setting Spud’s car on fire and sends it out of control. Spud can’t get out and the car goes off the track and Spud burns to death. His wife (Charlotte Merriam) runs to try and be by his side, but can only get as far as the infield. The lingering stench of Spud's burning body is implied strongly as drivers pass through the smoke and the gasoline fire on the track. Joe can’t take it any longer and crashes his car, other drivers simply quit racing.
These are the days before yellow caution flags, so the race continues, but the obvious stench of burning flesh is too much for some of the drivers and too much for Joe. Not only does he drop out, but he loses his will to win.

Eddie, meanwhile, continues to race and win, accepting an invitation from Duesenberg himself to race on his team at the Indianapolis 500. Lee goes to visit Anne, who is now living with and married to Eddie. Lee shows her a clipping about Joe, the once Indy champion, finishing seventh in a country fair race. Suspecting that Joe will head to Indianapolis for the big race, Lee borrows bus fare from Anne. When she tries to talk to Eddie about Joe, he doesn’t want to hear anything about his brother.

And Joe does show up in Indianapolis, arriving like a hobo on a freight train, eating discarded fruit left on the platform. He asks around the raceway and is turned down by all the drivers, who claim not to have any openings for drivers or mechanics. One driver he asks, Bill Arnold (William Arnold), doesn’t take him on because it would be an insult to Joe to crawl under a car. Another driver, playing himself, Fred Frame, lies to Joe about not needing help, perhaps worried Joe no longer has the moxie to race.

Despondent and penniless, Joe wanders gasoline alley and comes to a diner run by Tom (Robert McWade), who immediately recognizes Joe. He offers Joe some food, but Joe initially refuses, but Tom is insistent that Joe sit and eat. Tom then sends over his new waitress to serve him, none other than Lee.

Later, she takes Joe back to her room (this is pre-code) and tries to restart their relationship. She’s happy to hear that Joe has given up drinking since Spud’s death. Joe tells her that images of Spud’s death haunt him anytime he’s behind the wheel of a race car. Lee comes clean about setting Eddie up with Anne as a way of getting even with Joe; to let him know what it’s like to lose someone. Joe apparently reads that as a sign of how much effect he had on Lee.

Lee (Ann Dvorak) confesses to Joe about setting Anne up with Eddie.

The next day is the big race, as we’re shown swarms of people arriving and parades on the brickyard. The race starts and right away Eddie and his mechanic are in a close race with Bill and his mechanic. When his left rear tire starts to shred, Eddie can’t afford to pit, until the tire tread breaks off and hits Eddie in the arm, forcing him to. Rather than be disqualified, Eddie brings in a substitute driver, who happens to be Joe. There is a patch of smoke that causes Joe to pull back, no doubt images of Spud in his head, but Eddie puts his foot down on Joe’s to keep them in the race. With Joe still at the wheel, the pair catch and pass Arnold. But no sooner do they win the race than the tire blows and the brothers wreck, taking Bill’s car with them. The announcer (John Conte) is tasked with trying to build suspense with comments about the Greer’s tires.

The film ends with the brothers, neither of whom are really injured badly, reconciling in the back of the ambulance taking them to the hospital. When Eddie informs Joe that Arnold is in the ambulance ahead of them, Joe encourages the ambulance driver to be more reckless and beat them to the hospital.

We’re left with the message about how the power of love eventually triumphs and Joe's career and his relationships with Lee and Eddie are rehabilitated.
The film was shot at various race tracks, including the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (still made of bricks) and California's Ventura and Ascot Speedways. There is a sense of authenticity, but it’s hard to imagine today’s Indy racers wearing ties and wingtips while racing. But since many real-life racing champions took part in the races, and served as technical advisors, one has to imagine it’s true.
The movie tells its story in a clipped fashion and I’m left wondering if it’s the filmmaking or the surviving footage. AFI, which had cataloged American films released through the mid-80’s, shows the run time as being 84 to 85 minutes, but the version available on DVD is only 70 minutes. Not sure what footage is missing and if it would add to the story or not. But maybe there’s footage that fills in other gaps and puts some meat on the bony storyline we're left with today.
Based on Warner’s publicity at the time, fourteen cars were wrecked in nine major accidents and seven men were sent to the hospital. On the other hand, director Hawks maintained the Duesenberg car company had designed a tow bar for him that could be used to pull cars at speeds of up to 120 mph. Cars with rigged tires could then be released onto the track, and everyone would know exactly where the crash was about to occur. He claimed that there were actually no unwanted mishaps while making the movie. So who to believe?
There is no sparing of action though and the film seems to hurry through the story. Again, perhaps there is more footage now missing, but there seems to be no time for character development or transitions. As the viewer, you’re forced to add your own back stories and fill in the gaps for yourself. (Obviously after Joe and Lee reconciled, Joe went to visit Eddie at the racetrack and they reached some sort of compromise to let Joe be in his pit crew. Right?)
At this point in his career, James Cagney’s best films were mostly in front of him. He obviously had a presence on screen but was still working out his onscreen persona. While he certainly made a name for himself in Public Enemy, he would show his versatility in such films as Footlight Parade (1933), G Men (1935), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), The Roaring Twenties (1939), The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941), Strawberry Blonde (1941), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), White Heat (1949), Mister Roberts (1955), Man of a Thousand Faces (1957) and One, Two, Three (1961) to name but a few from his long career. After One. Two, Three, he retired from the screen, re-emerging for one last role as Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo in Miloš Forman’s Ragtime (1981). Cagney would die in 1986.

Joan Blondell was her own force of nature. She appeared in over 80 films while still maintaining a successful stage career. Best known as a wisecracking dame onscreen, Blondell began her film career with The Office Wife (1930), a romantic drama starring Dorothy Mackail and Lewis Stone, before making Sinners' Holiday with Cagney. The pair would make seven films together: Sinners' Holiday, Other Men’s Women (1931), The Public Enemy, Blonde Crazy, The Crowd Roars, Footlight Parade and He Was Her Man (1934). She was married three times, first to cinematographer George Barnes from 1933 to 1936, then to actor and co-star Dick Powell from 1936 to 1944; and finally to film producer Mike Todd from 1947 to 1950. Todd, whose overspending and gambling debts (he bet on high-stakes bridge) sent him into bankruptcy during their marriage. Blondell divorced him on grounds of mental cruelty. Seven years later, Todd would marry Elizabeth Taylor, who at 24 was nearly half his age.

Joan Blondell

In addition to the films she made with Cagney, Blondell’s filmography includes: Night Nurse (1931), Three on a Match (1932), Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), Stand-In (1937), Desk Set (1957), Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957), The Cincinnati Kid (1965), Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971) and Grease (1978). Her last film, The Woman Inside (1981) was released after her death in 1979.

Ann Dvorak began her career as a child actor in Ramona (1916), but by the late 1920s she was out of films and working as a dance instructor. She began to appear in chorus lines in musicals, but it was her friend Joan Crawford that saved her career. Crawford introduced her to Howard Hughes, well-known billionaire odd-ball, who was still trying to get a foothold in Hollywood. He groomed Dvorak as a dramatic actress and she found success in such pre-code films such as Scarface (1932) with Paul Muni and Three on a Match (1932) with Blondell and Bette Davis.

Ann Dvorak

In July 1932 she eloped with Leslie Fenton, a British-born actor and film director. After being gone for a year, she returned for a period of litigation in which she discovered she was being underpaid. She completed her contract on permanent suspension and began to work freelance. Though she worked steadily, with the exception of G-Men opposite Cagney, most of her films were not memorable.

Frank McHugh had come to Hollywood in 1930, signed by Warner Bros. as a contract player. His first film appearance was in The Dawn Patrol (1930), which starred Richard Barthelmess and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. He would appear in six more films that year and over 150 films in a career that lasted until Easy Come, Easy Go (1967). The Crowd Roars was McHugh’s first time to meet and work with Cagney. After finding out they had a lot in common, the two became life-long friends and frequent co-stars. McHugh would appear in eleven Cagney films from The Crowd Roars through A Lion Is in the Streets (1953), more than any other actor. Their films together also include Footlight Parade, Boy Meets Girl (1938), The Roaring Twenties, The Fighting 69th (1940) and City for Conquest (1940); Both appeared in Warner’s star-studded A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935).

Frank McHugh.

McHugh would reprise his role as Spud Connors in the 1939 remake, Indianapolis Speedway, which also starred another frequent Cagney co-star and friend Pat O’Brien. Probably not the first time in film history, but still an anomaly.

Eric Linden, who played Eddie Greer, had a rather short career in Hollywood. He appeared in about 33 films. Handsome, he was usually cast as a second lead. His first film was RKO’s Are These Our Children? (1931) and his last, ten years later, was Criminals Within (1941). He had a very small part in Gone With the Wind (1939) as an amputee.

Eric Linden.

Guy Kibbee, who played Dad Greer, on the other hand, had a more remarkable career. As a part of Warner Bros.’ stock company, he specialized in daft and jovial characters. He is one of those actors you see in many films from the 30's and 40’s, including 42nd Street (1933), Footlight Parade, The Gold Diggers of 1933, Captain Blood (1935), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Our Town (1940), Girl Crazy (1943), Fort Apache (1948) and 3 Godfathers (1948). Kibbee has the unique distinction of having an egg dish named after him, something he prepared in the Warner Bros. film Mary Jane’s Pa (1935). Called Guy Kibbee Eggs (also known as eggs in a basket) the breakfast dish consists of a hole cut out of the center of a slice of bread, and an egg cracked into it, all of which is fried in a skillet.

Guy Kibbee and Guy Kibbee Eggs.

Director Howard Hawks is one of Hollywood's greats. We’ve discussed his career previously in the reviews for Ball of Fire (1941) and The Thing From Another World (1951).  By the time The Crowd Roars was made Hawks had already established himself as a top director in Hollywood. After making films for Fox from 1926 to 1929, including A Girl in Every Port (starring Victor McLaglen, Robert Armstrong and Louise Brooks), he made films for many studios in Hollywood. For Warner Bros. he not only directed The Crowd Roars, but he also co-directed La Foule Hurle, the French version made at the same time, starring Jean Gabin. Just prior to The Crowd Roars, Hawks had made Scarface (1932), one of the seminal gangster films, for Howard Hughes’ Caddo Company.

Hawks was one of the most influential filmmakers, cited as a major influence by such diverse directors as Robert Altman, John Carpenter, and Quentin Tarantino and admired by others like Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorsese, François Truffaut, Michael Mann and Jacques Rivette.

Having seen the 1939 remake, Indianapolis Speedway, I had higher hopes for the original. Warners was obviously trying to get product to market featuring two of its hottest up and comers, Cagney and Blondell and used a well-known director, Hawks, in an effort to make this a memorable picture. While the film represents a turning point of sorts for Cagney, he finally got star pay from the studio. The film itself, while fun to watch, leaves you wanting more. A good thing perhaps, but this film seems typical of the other films Cagney starred in in 1932, a little short on story. Warners obviously had something on their hands in Cagney, they just weren’t yet sure how to get the most out of him. Luckily for all of us, they would figure it out in the years ahead.

The Crowd Roars is definitely one any Cagney fan will want to have, though better films were still ahead. 

This film is available at the Warner Archive Collection:

1 comment:

  1. the next-to-last reel is missing. this reel (more than likely) has the scenes where Cagney's character reconciles with his younger brother. what's left of the movie is dramatically incoherent by 1930s standards. much as i love Hawks, that kind of elliptical storytelling is well outside anything he EVER did, much less something he would have attempted in 1932.