Tuesday 28 June 2011

Speedway (1929)

Director: Harry Beaumont
Stars: William Haines, Anita Page, Ernest Torrence and Karl Dane

Speedway is an unfortunate movie. As a piece of entertainment, it fails on every level except the acting, the cast members trotting out their standard routines yet again without anything new to keep it fresh. Only one plays against type, the rest so in character that we often feel like we're watching stock footage. Yet it maintains a great deal of historic value, both to race fans and film fans. Race fans will appreciate that it's set at the Indianapolis racetrack, with the cooperation of the Indianapolis Speedway Association and the participation of some of the racers. Much of the end of the film is comprised of footage from the Indy 500 in 1929. Film fans will see this not only as the last silent movie William Haines made, but as something of a who's who of silent stars, almost all of whom were closing in on the end of their careers, though for very different reasons. Only one of these silent legends became known as a sound era actor.

Haines was capable enough, as can plainly be seen in his first sound film, Navy Blues, released later the same year. The public certainly thought so too, as he was the top male box-office draw of 1930. His career ended simply because he refused to leave his lover, Jimmie Shields, when Louis B Mayer, the most important man in Hollywood and Haines's boss at MGM, ordered him to do so. Haines and Shields remained together for over fifty years, Joan Crawford calling them 'the happiest married couple in Hollywood', but his final film was The Marines are Coming in 1934. Blacklisted from the screen, he became instead the most notable interior decorator to the stars. More traditionally, the career of Karl Dane, his foil in so many movies and the butt of his pranks both here and in Navy Blues, ended because of his thick Danish accent. Rasmus Karl Therkelsen Gottlieb became Karl Dane in Hollywood just as I'd have become Charlie English.
It's these two we see first, Haines apparently driving through the streets in a racecar to wow the crowds but in reality being towed by Dane to the Indianapolis racetrack. Haines isn't even the driver, he's just the mechanic, but, 'according to Bill Whipple's impression of Bill Whipple,' the intertitle suggests, 'nobody had anything on Bill Whipple but Bill Whipple.' If I'd had no context at all, I'd still have known that Bill Whipple would be played by William Haines, that's how close it is to his formula of frivolous arrogance. Dane is Dugan, another employee of Jim MacDonald, played by Ernest Torrence. MacDonald is a sympathetic character, perhaps the only one in the film, both as a father figure to the orphaned Whipple and as the underdog of the picture, given that he's raced in every Indy 500 since it began but is zero for seventeen thus far. This is his last attempt to win it because his heart won't hold out too much longer.

Torrence is the one actor playing against type. A veteran silent actor, he was best known for villainous roles, not least opposite Richard Barthelmess in Tol'able David and as Captain Hook in the 1924 version of Peter Pan. His career ended in the most emphatic way possible in 1933 when he died after surgery to remove gallstones, otherwise he'd have done fine in the sound era. He played Moriarty to Clive Brook's Holmes in 1932 and his last role, a year later, was as Claudette Colbert's father in I Cover the Waterfront. Quality didn't necessarily mean a successful transition though, as leading lady Anita Page discovered. The year she made this film she was known as 'the girl with the most beautiful face in Hollywood' and she received 10,000 fan letters per week, numbers behind only Greta Garbo's. Yet, as she told it, this merely led to sexual advances from Louis B Mayer and his right hand man, Irving Thalberg, so her contract was cancelled in 1932.

Neither Torrence nor Page get much to do here, though both get more than Dane. All of them are only really in the picture as props for Haines, who runs roughshod over all of them, as he tended to do. It's hard to describe to modern audiences what Haines did. Simply suggesting he was one of the first wisecracking leads doesn't cover it because it was the sheer degree to which he went that characterised him most. Perhaps the best comparison today would be to one of Jim Carrey's caricatures, but he was more realistic, while being just as intensely annoying. His idea of a chat up line is, 'What a break for you! You met me!' His romantic style falls into the modern definition of 'stalker', both mentally and physically. He sticks to the woman he chooses like chewing gum on their boot and, if she frees herself of him briefly, he has no compunction in lying down in the road ahead of her car, pretending death, so he can reattach himself when she rescues him.
What kept these antics from being unbearable is that his story arc always involved him falling seriously from grace, then finding redemption at the end of the picture. Speedway provides him with a less emphatic redemption than normal, but the script is notably more slight than similar films he made around this time. The stunts he pulls provide mild repercussions early, like when he climbs into another woman's car to chat her up, only to leave when he discovers she's the daughter of a policeman, but those repercussions build until he's shamelessly manipulated by the villain into betraying those he cares about, only to be promptly thrust into the shame corner when his talents are no longer required. That leaves us with a sentimental and unbelievable Indy 500 to finish off the film, with an even more sentimental and unbelievable ending. Then again, we're only shown two teams so a suspenseful race was never on the cards.

MacDonald's competition on the track comes in the form of another great Hollywood villain, John Miljan, who is on very safe territory here as the villainous Lou Renny, so villainous that we want to hiss at him as we would at Dick Dastardly. Miljan was the only major cast member to survive more than a few years in the sound era and was coincidentally the most experienced with sound, having narrated the trailer to The Jazz Singer in 1927, thus predating Al Jolson's groundbreaking words in that film. He would still be in demand in the late fifties after over two hundred movies, his last role being the chief in The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold in 1958. With Haines utterly dominant, the script almost forgets Miljan, even though the young lady that Whipple sets his sights on, Pat Bonner, is supposedly Renny's fiancée. By the time he actually does anything, that plot strand has disappeared utterly, making us wonder if we heard right to begin with.
It's stunning to watch all these silent legends sidelined so ruthlessly. It isn't just Page, Torrence, Dane and Miljan, but others too. Eugenie Besserer is MacDonald's wife, surprisingly briefly given that her screen career stretched as far back as playing Auntie Em in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1910. Like her screen husband here, death soon ended her career. Polly Moran is almost as underused, though she had been one of Mack Sennett's most consistent comediennes for a decade and a half. She got a surprising lease of life in the early sound era, teaming up with Marie Dressler, but then lapsed out of fashion and into bit parts as the thirties ran on. All we get is Haines, as in your face as he ever was, but less funny and more annoying. Even when Pat gets him up in the air for some aerobatic retribution, she loses a wing and he ends up saving the day with the only parachute. Without believable redemption, Haines can be unbearable.

And with even Haines fans potentially giving up on this clunker, the only reason for them to stay with the film is the race footage. It is fascinating to watch professional motor racing this old, as it bears very little resemblance to anything seen today, not least because the cars are tall and thin with big wheels far out from the body. They look dangerous, even before we see the crashes, so it's not surprising to find that one driver, Bill Spence, died during the race and the winner, Ray Keech, died sixteen days later in a 200 mile race at Altoona. Through synchronised sound, we're treated to plenty of engine noise to accompany the race footage, but modern technology like on car cameras has spoiled us and so we're hardly immersed in the race. The camera does venture onto the track, capably but never consistently. Unfortunately, with the story so disappointing and most of the stars so underused, it's a shame that we have to wait so long for the race.

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