Saturday, May 24, 2014

Stubs – Indianapolis Speedway


Indianapolis Speedway (1939) Starring: Ann Sheridan, Pat O’Brien, John Payne, Gale Page. Directed by Lloyd Bacon. Screenplay by Sig Herzig, Wally Klein. Story by Howard Hawks. Produced by Hal B. Wallis, Jack L. Warner. Run Time: 82 minutes. Black and White. U.S. Action, Drama, Sports.

1939 is called by many film historians and fans the Golden Year for Hollywood films. After all, in one year the studios released: Gone With The Wind (adjusted for current dollars, the biggest film ever released), The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Wuthering Heights, Dark Victory, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Of Mice and Men, Ninotchka, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Gunga Din, Dodge City, The Women, Another Thin Man, Destry Rides Again and Indianapolis Speedway. Okay, before you do your best rendition of the Sesame Street standard “One of These Things (Is Not Like the Others)” I know Indianapolis Speedway doesn’t belong in the list of great Hollywood films of 1939.

However, a list of fifteen or so classics doesn’t come close to the entire output of the major studios at the time. "A" pictures were few and far between as the Majors pushed a movie out their front gates and into the theaters at the rate of about one per week. Considering there were seven Majors (MGM, Warner Bros., Paramount, Universal, Columbia, Fox and RKO) at the time that is over 300 films a year. Most of that output by necessity were B pictures. Typically, a B movie had a fairly low budget, a short shooting schedule and didn’t get a lot of publicity when released.

With the coming of sound, many of the independent exhibitors changed their presentation model. They dropped live acts and a broad variety of shorts before a single featured film. A new programming scheme developed that would become standard practice: a newsreel, a short and/or a serial, and a cartoon, followed by a double feature. Since the majors’ clearance rules favored affiliated theaters getting first access to top quality films, showing two features allowed theaters to promote quantity rather than quality. The practice of pairing films with different subject matter “balanced” the program, ensuring that a customer could count on seeing something of interest regardless of what was on the bill. All the major studios established B units to provide films for this expanding second-feature market, as well as newsreel, shorts and cartoon units. In addition to the Majors there were also other studios like Republic, Grand National and Monogram which also produced films of B or less quality. 

Block booking also became a standard business practice. In order for a theater to get access to a studio's A pictures, the theaters had to rent the company's entire output for a season. B films were rented at a flat fee (rather than the box office percentage basis of A films). These flat rates virtually guaranteed the profitability of every B movie. Movies were rent sight unseen, or what is called blind bidding. This practice freed the majors from worrying about their Bs' quality. At the time the five largest studios: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Paramount Pictures, Fox, Warner Bros., and RKO Radio Pictures were part of large corporations with sizable theater chains, all which helped the studios’ bottom lines.(Warner Bros., the studio responsible for Indianapolis Speedway, would famously shut down its B unit in October 1941, to concentrate on making A pictures exclusively.)

Shot in about a month with two still rising stars on the Warners lot: Ann Sheridan, once known as the Oomph Girl and Pat O'Brien. Sheridan had already appeared in several notable films by 1939, including Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) with James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart and the aforementioned Dodge City with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. She would make notable appearances in The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942) and King’s Row (1942) for which she received top billing over co-stars Robert Cummings, Ronald Reagan and Betty Field. In 1949, she starred opposite Cary Grant in I Was a Male War Bride. Her career would slow down in the 1950’s and she died in 1967 after starring in a western-themed TV series Pistols ‘n’ Petticoats which aired for one season.

Ann Sheridan in a publicity photo from 1939.
Pat O’Brien had up until then made a career out of being James Cagney’s friend in such films as Here Comes the Navy (1934), Devil Dogs of the Air (1935), The Irish in  Us (1935), Ceiling Zero (1936), Boy Meets Girl (1938) and Angels with Dirty Faces. Cagney and O’Brien had met in 1926 and would remain lifelong friends. O’Brien began acting in films in Honor Among Lovers (1931) and his career would continue until the 1950’s, though he would appear in a few films in the 1960’s and 70’s. His last film appearance was also Cagney’s, Ragtime (1981). O’Brien might best be known for his starring role in the bio-pic Knute Rockne, All American (1940), which also starred Reagan as George “win one for the Gipper” Gipp.

Pat O'Brien (l) made nine films in total with James Cagney (r).
Here they are in Angels with Dirty Faces (1938).
Indianapolis Speedway tells the story of two brothers who are race car drivers. Joe Greer (O’Brien) is a three time Indy winner and works hard to make a better life for his kid brother, Eddie (John Payne). Joe assumes Eddie has been going to college until he comes home to visit his father (Granville Bates) and finds Eddie has been working in their father’s garage building a race car. Eddie wants to follow in his brother’s footsteps, or tire tracks, if you will. But Joe knows the dangers of racing and wants Eddie to finish college and get a “soft” job.

Publicity still showing Granville Bates (c) with his movie
 sons Joe (Pat O'Brien) and Eddie (John Payne).
Joe tries to discourage Eddie at an exhibition race, but can’t. Even when Joe thinks Eddie has gone back to school, Eddie follows him out to Los Angeles, where Joe lives. Beating Joe’s train into town, Eddie drives to, Lee Mason’s (Gale Page), Joe’s girlfriend, apartment which is in the same building as Joe’s. While he’s there, he meets Lee’s roommate, Frankie Merrick (Ann Sheridan). Eddie convinces Joe to let him race as long as he promises to continue studying at night and return to college after a summer on the race car circuit.

Joe disapproves of the relationship between Eddie and Frankie Merrick
(Ann Sheridan). Lee Mason (Gale Page), Joe's girlfriend looks on far left. 
While hanging around L.A., Eddie becomes infatuated with Frankie, but Joe will have none of that. Frankie in Joe’s eyes is a gold digger. Even though Frankie has no designs on Eddie, she seeks him out to make Joe mad. But it turns out that she falls in love with Eddie and he with her.

When Joe finds out about the romance on the eve of a big race, he first confronts Frankie, but when Eddie insists he loves Frankie, the two brothers get into a public fist fight. Joe fires Eddie on the spot and breaks up with Lee for not stopping the relationship. Eddie has already met Duncan Martin (William Davidson), a rival racing car manufacturer and sponsor who has already offered to take Eddie on.

One of the action sequences with Pat O'Brien behind the wheel in Indianapolis Speedway
The two brothers go head to head in the big race. Joe enlists his best friend and relief driver, Spuds Connors (Frank McHugh), to help teach Eddie a lesson. Spuds tries to keep his car between the two brothers, but when Joe tries to pass Spuds, he accidentally catches Spuds’ car on fire, resulting in a fiery crash which burns Spuds alive.

Guilt-stricken, Joe gives Spud's widow, Martha (Grace Stafford) all the money he has and distraught, he quits racing. Meanwhile, Eddie marries Frankie and continues racing, winning race after race leading up to his driving in the Indianapolis 500 for Duncan Martin. Meanwhile, Lee is still interested in Joe and goes looking for him deciding Joe will likely be at the brickyard for the 500 race.

Joe is indeed going to the race, but having hit rock bottom, he is forced to hitchhike to the racetrack. Unable to find work, Joe sits in the stands to watch his brother compete. Meanwhile, Martin has offered Eddie a cushy job if he wins the race. Thing are seemingly going Eddie’s way, he’s leading the race, when his car has tire trouble. But Eddie refuses to pit. A tire tread breaks off and hits Eddie in the elbow, forcing him into the pits. A doctor examines him and won’t let Eddie get back in the race.

Lee convinces Joe to race in his brother’s place. Back then, the racer had a second person, a mechanic, in the car. Eddie lets Joe race his car and Eddie sits in as the mechanic. Together the brothers win the race, but the car has more tire trouble and crashes, injuring Joe. In the ambulance on the way to the hospital, Joe proposes to Lee and tells her the Greer brothers will have desk jobs from now on.

Indianapolis Speedway is squarely in the B picture category and a remake to boot, of The Crowd Roars (1932), itself a quickie film made to capitalize on two new stars. In the original James Cagney played the lead character Joe Greer and Joan Blondell played Anne Scott; a different name, but the same character as Frankie Merrick in Indianapolis Speedway. Ann Dvorak was Lee Merrick, changed to Lee Mason in the remake; Eric Linden appeared as Eddie Greer; Guy Kibbee as Pop Greer; and character actor Frank McHugh played Spuds Connors (hmm, that sounds familiar, doesn’t it?). The original film was directed by Howard Hawks, one of the all-time Hollywood greats and his is the better known as well as the slightly better of the two films.

Jimmy Cagney and Joan Blondell star in The Crowd Roars (1932). But their characters weren't this chummy,
While Indianapolis Speedway does not deserve mention in the same breath as say The Wizard of Oz or Gone With the Wind, it is probably more typical of the movies of its day. A lot of action is squeezed into less than an hour and a half. The special effects feature rear projections and sped up playback. The writing, directing and acting are all pretty much utilitarian. No one was going to win any prizes for their work in this movie. This was made for keeping the pipeline full.

Entertaining, but nothing spectacular Indianapolis Speedway is not a film to seek out, but it is well worth watching if it comes on a cable channel near you, read that as TCM. This is indicative of the movies people went to see, in the days before television and probably a second choice when the line for Gone With the Wind or some other A picture was too long.

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