Friday June 07, 2019
Movie Review: The Crowd Roars (1932)
Howard Hawks' “The Crowd Roars” is a perfect example of why I like watching old movies. Not because it's good—it’s not—but the history. Questions I didn’t even know I had got answered. That doesn't happen with new movies. If a new movie is bad, it's just bad.
“Crowd” stars James Cagney and Joan Blondell, and has cameos from top race-car drivers of the era (Harry Hartz, Fred Frame, Billy Arnold), while Fred Duesenberg is namechecked. But what won me over was this line:
OK, so they screwed up the subtitle. What she actually says is: “Fifty million racecar drivers can’t be wrong.”
Immediately, I was like: “Wait. That Elvis album was playing off something else?”
The album in question is, of course, “50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong” from 1959. It’s a title so goofy it stays with you. A few years ago, in my day job, we did an article on a Memphis attorney who sends out cards to his clients; but he avoids the Christmas rush, or ignores it, by sending them a few weeks later: Jan. 8 for Elvis’ birthday. They’re Elvis cards, and he sends about 5,000 of them. So of course we called the piece “5,000 Elvis Cards Can’t Be Wrong.”
Long way of saying I have a long history with the phrase. But I had no idea until today that that phrase had an antecedent.
So what was Blondell’s line playing off of? Turns out: “50 Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong,” a hit song by Sophie Tucker from 1927. Two years later, Cole Porter, no less, debuted a Broadway musical simply called “Fifty Million Frenchmen.” That’s how it started. Another reminder that we arrive in this culture in medias res.
As for the rest of the movie, Mrs. Lincoln?
“The Crowd Roars” starts with distant footage of a sportscar race. Then there’s a crash, the crowd gasps, and we get the title. So shouldn’t the title be “The Crowd Gasps”?
Cagney plays Joe Greer, who’s one of the best race-car drivers in America. That can only mean one thing in a Cagney movie: His fall is inevitable.
We quickly gauge how it’ll happen, too. He has two issues:
- He wont tell his family about the girl in his life, Lee (Ann Dvorak)
- He drinks too much
Then he returns home to Indiana (Cagney?) to the pop who loves him (Guy Kibbee), and Eddie, the kid brother who wants to emulate him (Eric Linden). At first Joe pushes Eddie away; he doesn’t want him hurt in a car wreck. But soon he’s mentoring him and taking him back to Los Angeles, where Lee is waiting. Then he pushes her away. He says:
Lee, the kid doesn’t know anything about us. Both of us have to soft-pedal while he’s around. You understand.
Uhhh ... no. What the hell are you talking about?
Later, Lee and her best friend, Anne Scott (Blondell), are in Lee’s room, dishing dirt, when Eddie stops by. They give him a drink. Anne flashes some leg. Everyone’s getting chummy. Then Joe shows up, scatters the crew and breaks up with Lee:
Joe: Lee, we’re calling it quits.Lee: What do you mean?
Joe: On account of the kid, you understand?
Uhhh ... no. What the hell are you talking about?
Seriously, was Lee a prostitute or something?
Anyway, to show Joe what it’s like to lose someone he loves, Lee has Anne go for Eddie. She wins him over pretty quick ... but she falls, too. This burns up Joe, he and Eddie fight, and for the next big race Eddie is driving for another team. In the midst it, his affable partner, Spud Connors (affable Frank McHugh), tries to come between them. Literally. With his car. Joe, who’s behind, and who was drinking before the race, starts ramming him. You see where this is going, right? Spud’s car bursts into flames, he screams in pain, dies.
Cut to: A series of newspaper headlines charting Eddie’s rise and Joe's fall. He finishes seventh in a county fair. He’s lost his nerve. They don’t call it trauma—not in 1932 and not at Warner Bros. They say “he’s turned yella.”
Anyway it’s that Cagney trajectory again. Long rise, quick fall, then stumbling around with five o’clock shadow. “He used to be a big shot.”
Please pardon the fact that my car is ahead of yours and maybe disrupting your ability to see
The final act includes something Cagney rarely gets—redemption. He’s hanging around the track in Indianapolis before the big race, where all the hotshot racers turn him down for jobs—they have too much respect for him, see—and then a guy running a coffee joint recognizes him and gives him a free meal. Guess who serves it? Lee! Who’s in Indiana there looking for him. They make up. Then the race. Eddie’s winning but he injures his arm so Joe takes over—with Eddie in the passenger’s seat. (Almost all of this is via distant shots, with announcers creating the drama.) They’re about to take the lead again when Joe flashes back to poor Spud; but Eddie is there to keep his foot on the pedal. They win.
The movie ends on an oddly light note—with the various racecar drivers, heading to the hospital in different ambulances, encouraging their drivers to beat the others.
This is another of those early ’30s Warner Bros. movies (see: “The Mayor of Hell”) that the studio saw fit to remake at the end of the decade. I guess they were running out of ideas? The ’39 version is called “Indianapolis Speedway” and stars Pat O’Brien (of course) and John Payne as the brothers; Ann Sheridan and Gale Page as the girls; and Frank McHugh resurrecting his role as Spud.
I had a vague thought that maybe “Crowd Roars” was one of the first movies about auto racing, but not even close. Wallace Reid made a slew of them in the early ’20s: “The Roaring Road,” “Double Speed,” “Too Much Speed,” and (my favorite title) “Excuse My Dust.” But “Crowd Roars” may be the first feature-length talkie about auto racing.