MOTOR SPORT THE CAR AND THE CINEMA
By A FILM FAN.
FROM the very earliest days of the Cinema the automobile—especially the racing car—has had an obvious appeal for the producer. In his search for ” thrill-making ” material speed was an easy first choice, and the hero was forced to make hair-raising pursuits of the villain sometimes on horseback, at other times in an aeroplane, occasionally on an express railway engine, and finally in a racing car.
But these early silent films suffered from one discrepancy in the eyes of the real motor-racing enthusiast, namely, inaccuracy, and this fault persisted right up to a year or so before ” talkies ” became the vogue. A fair example was the Reginald Denny film, “sporting Youth “, in which a road race takes place. On every corner the cars got into terrific ” broadsides,” sending up showers of earth, and losing a lot of valuable time— but it gave the audience a thrill.
A British Film.
The only British attempt at a silent motor-racing film was “Smashing Through,” featuring John Stuart as the hero. After some preliminary shots of 3 litre Bentleys (the film was largely taken in the Bentley works at Hendon), the story eventually got going in a real road race, in which many well known Brooklands and competition cars took part. I remember seeing Densham’s Brescia Bugatti, a Marendaz Special, and Tommy Hann’s “Softly Catch Monkey.” The race was staged in the Chilterns, somewhere near Kop Hill, and a terrific accident was supposed to take place at the end. But here again inaccuracy spoilt the film, for after seeing Densham’s Bugatti in the act of turning over, the audience then witnessed the destruction by fire of “Softly Catch Monkey.” which was supposed to be the same car! There were no shots taken from a competing car, and most of the photography was done at a safe distance from the road.
The Talkies. Then
Then came the talkies, and the motor car, like other actors and accessories of the films, was given a new lease of life. I remember the thrill I got during my first talkie, “The Perfect Alibi,” when the slow tick-over of a Ford truck was clearly audible. The first racing talkie I saw was Burning Up,” a Paramount production. featuring Richard Arlen and Mary Brian. The photography in this rum I consider to be the best ever taken, not excluding “The Crowd Roars.” Th eracing scenes took place ou a dirt-track, and the hero’s car was a Miller front-drive. Considerable ingenuity was displayed in shootmg the car at speed, for in addition to the usual scenes of cars skidding round the curves and “battling down the straight,” there were many shots taken from the car itself. Some were taken from behind the driver’s head, i °°k-hig forward, others were taken
from the tail, picturing the cars following. But the best of all were those taken from a point somewhere near the middle of the chassis frame. The front wheel and part of the bonnet could be seen, and the effect of speed was extraordinarily convincing as a curve was entered, and a shower of dirt was sent up. The exhaust note of the car was reproduced without distortion, and I remember one very realistic sound when the Miller was given a push-start. The driver let in the clutch, the wheels bit into the ground, and the engine burst into life with a roar.
The Wall of Death.
“Burning Up” was noteworthy for some first class pictures of another speedthrill, the saucer-track, or “wall of death,” as it is popularly called in this country. First, the film showed the motor cycle circling the narrow-radius vertical track, in fact the usual spectator’s view of this show. Then came the thrill, for by mounting the camera on the motor cycle, the audience, sitting in their comfortable seats, were given the sensation of riding the machine. One lost all sense of being horizontal on a vertical track, and the view straight ahead was like a never-ending hill. The shattering roar of the open exhaust added to one’s sense of speed, and the thrill was finally completed by a view taken by mounting the camera on an extension in front of the rider, facing backwards.
More Racing Films.
Motor racing as a film theme continued to attract producers, and MetroGoldwyn-Mayer were next in the field with two excellent films. The first was “Speedway,” a comedy starring William Haines, with Ernest Torrance and Karl Dane, and this was followed by “Automobile Racing Short.” ‘In the latter film, which was taken at the Ascot Speedway, many well known American race-drivers took part, and the shots of the cars coming out of the turns were magnificent.
Then came “The Crowd Roars,” made by Warner Bros. In spite of a weak story the film was lifted out of the rut by some splendid photography of cars in action on dirt tracks and by a convincing performance by James Cagney. The racing scenes were taken at Atlantic City, Ventura, and Indianapolis. For the speedway race at night a tremendous battery of arc lights was used, and the camera was mounted near the centre of the arena in the usual way. This night scene was notable for the crash of a car and the subsequent flames, through which the other drivers had to pass on every lap. In actual fact, of course, American racing conditions would not enforce this procedure. However, a sense of realism pervaded the scene, and one’s cinema-stall became transmuted to a seat in the speedway grandstand.
From the European point of view the most interesting shots were those depicting the Indianapolis track. Some of the scenes were taken from newsreels of the annual 500 Miles Race, but the pit scenes were specially staged. The pictures of the crowds and grandstands gave one some idea of the atmosphere of the race, but I was not particularly impressed by the actual racing shots taken from a moving car. The cars seemed to be travelling rather slowly, and in those shots taken from the rear of the car looking backwards, some of the have been on the spot. I spoke to the camera-man after the accident, and. he told me that he was going to take the Bentley anyway on that lap. When the car appeared, he realised that something was amiss, by the cries of the crowd around him, but as the image in the view-finder is upside-down
he could not see exactly what was happening — so he just went on taking the film until the car disappeared from sight.
The Monaco Grand Prix.
One of the best news reels of a motor race was that of the Monaco Grand Prix about two years ago. This film was taken from all sorts of viewpoints, and I remember that each shot was a beautiful composition, quite apart from its motor-racing interest. Another point which struck me at the time was the absence of skidding on the parts of the drivers, a fact which may have given uninitiated members of the
audience an idea that the cars were not going as fast as they might have been, judging by “Sporting Youth” standards !
In the staging of autowrecks, as our Transatlantic cousins call them, the American producers have nothing to learn. One of the most realistic in my memory was that in “Manslaughter,” a Paramount film. Claudette Colbert, in a Packard 8 twoseater, was being chased by a motor-cyclist speed-cop. After doing about 70 m.p.h. down a long straight, the driver braked heavily and turned off a side-road to the right. The car was going much too quickly, skidded broadside in a cloud of dust, and came to a standstill right across the road. Simultaneously the motor cyclist appeared round the corner, also going too fast. The position of the camera was then changed to a point behind his head, looking forward, and one saw the bike heading straight for the car. Just as a broadside crash was inevitable the shot ended, and one saw aside view of the smash. The motor cycle hit the car in the centre with
terrific force, and the rider was catapulted over the car and landed in a heap on the road. How it was all done I should very much like to know. Then there was the accident in “The Divorcee,” and—well, there are so many of them, and you’ve probably seen them
yourselves. Although not in the category of accidents, some of the chases and escapes by car in gangster films have my admiration, although a good many of the thrilling rides down Broadway at about 70 m.p.h. axe, I believe, just the result of
speeding up the tempo of the film. These rides are always full of “phenomenal avoidances ” (as Brian Lewis would say) at cross-roads in the city, while the drivers corner at a horrible speed on some of the Lincoln, Cadillac or Chrysler saloons used by the police, the cars
heeling over to the sound of screaming tyres.
European Cars in H o 11;3/wood.
Although it is generally the fashion for Americafl film stars to drive luxurious Packards, Cadillacs, .1. or what have you, one sometimes sees a European car in a Hollywood production. For example, Clark Gable used a 36/220 h.p. MercedesBenz in “A Free Soul,” while another “Mere.” appeared in ” Dynamite ” with Charles Bickford, and the same car was used again in” Unfaithful,” by Ruth Chatterton. Then one occasionally sees an Isotta-Fraschini, or an Hispano Suiza, or an Austro Daimler, and I understand that these
cars are hired for the film from a company which specialises in European, unorthodox, and in fact anything but American cars. Some of the cars in their stock were once owned by” stars” of long ago, like Rudolf Valentino, while somewhere tucked away they have a pre-War Peugeot racing car.
Quite a good deal of money can be made out of hiring cars, or anything else, to film companies in Hollywood, and in this connection the decrepit London taxi which is often seen in films is a good example. Some bright individual took it out to California, and the old warrior has earned its keep many times over as the only London taxi available in Hollywood.
Stars and Gears. The talkies, while adding to our enjoyment by allow ing us to hear exhaust notes, have had the disadvantage, from the actors and actresses point of view, of proclaiming to all the world their inability to change gear quietly. Scene : the porch of a sunny Californian country house, with a ” swell ” Cadillac roadster
following machines seemed to be wandering from side to side excessively—as though their drivers were endeavouring to give an impression of speed. In my opinion these shots were not nearly so good as those in “Burning Up.” Another interesting feature of the film was that several well known American
racing drivers took part—not only in the racing scenes, but also in small talking roles. James Cagney, the down and out racing motorist, asks each of them in turn for a job just before the start of the Indianapolis race, and they each have to turn him down as gently as they can. This involved quite a delicate piece of acting, and all the drivers acquitted themselves extraordinarily well. Without a trace of nervousness they said their parts with the utmost conviction, and the thought occurred to me then that I would like to see how our own drivers would perform in similar circumstances. _Harry Hartz, Stubby Stubblefield, Lou Myers, Ralph Hepburn, Billy Arnold, and. Fred Frame (whom I thought was the best of the lot) all endured the ordeal by camera and” mike,” and the audience had an interesting glimpse of some of America’s leading drivers. The end of the Indianapolis race was marked on the film by a terrific pile-up, One car skidding in circles, and another machine ramming it so hard that it shot UP over the top of the banking. I have not yet definitely established whether ti./us was a genuine accident or merely a
model,” but I think I remember a press agency photograph of the actual incident.
A French Film.
„ Finally, there is the French film Fantomas.” The racing scenes of this film. were taken at Montlhery Track, near Paris, and here again a celebrity in the racing . world took part, namely, Louis Chiron The pictures of the cars at speed were taken in a curious manner. The hero of the film, a well-known French actor. was seated in a racing Bugatti, Which was towed by means of a stout bar by the lorry containing the camera arid its operators. There was no need to have the engine of the Bugatti running,
as there was plenty of noise available from the other cars. Accordingly the French actor merely had to grip the wheel, and assume such facial expressions as he deemed suitable to the tense excitement of handling a racing car at great speed. At a given signal the procession moved off, the lorry trundling along at about 20 m.p.h. with the Bugatti in tow, and a pack of Bugattis and other cars following close behind in a low gear, and jockeying slightly to give an atmosphere of speed. Chiron was one of the pack, and I am quite sure it was the first time he has been beaten by a car with its engine not
running ! Unfortunately, this film has not been seen in England.
Car v. Aeroplane.
As I have said, the only English attempt at a motor-racing film was “Smashing Through,” but a production which contained some interesting shots of a car at high. speed on the road was B.I.P.’s “The Flying Fool.” The race between the 4/1 litre Bentley and the Moth aeroplane was very well shot, and showed
that British producers can do this sort of thing when they try. The climax, when the Bentley leaps over the edge of a cliff and dives to destruction, thrilling as it was, left me with rather a desolate feeling that such a perfectly good Bentley should be destroyed for the sake of a few seconds thrill for cinema audiences.
Another sports car film was the “Love Race,” in which Jack Hobbs drove a T.T. Replica Frazer Nash. Two of these cars were loaned by the Frazer Nash people for the film, and it gave one a definite sense of satisfaction to see a British sports car instead of the inevitable Chryslers, Lincolns, Cadillacs, Packards and Buicks of American productions. Finally, in a film called ” Money Talks,” which will appear shortly in the West End, the boxer, Kid Berg, drives a Riley ” Gamecock.”
The lack of a first class motor racing film in England is all the more deplorable when one considers the perfection displayed by the news-reel operators of British IVIovietone, Path& Gaumont and Paramount. As far as taking shots from their lorry is concerned these cameramen have nothing to learn, whether at Brooklands or Shelsley, but I have yet to see a film taken from a racing car at high speed. Naturally, this is outside their scope, but an attempt was made at shooting cars from the track in the 1931 Double Twelve. As far as I remember the film was taken in practice, and consisted of shots of M.G. Midgets which were not travelling at anywhere near their maximum speed. What I should like to see would be an automatic camera attached to say, Cobb’s Delage or Sir Henry Birkin’s Bentley,
on the ‘tail’ behind the driver’s head, and pointing forwards. As far as Brooklands scenes are concerned, the finest I have ever seen were those taken during this year’s “500,” when the camera-lorry was parked on the aerodrome, and one followed the cars round a considerable portion of the Byfleet Banking. The effect was most realistic. Of the horrifying film of the Bentley accident, one can only marvel at the coincidence that the news-lorry should
[Continued on page 62. at the door. The star trips daintily down the stairs, flounces into the driving seat, and slams the door. She presses the starter button. So far the scene has been perfect. Then ” cr-r-r-a-a-s-h,” the gear is engaged, the star waves her hand and with a jerk the car gets away. Then just as it is disappearing from sight comes another
cr-r-a-a-s-h, The star has shifted her gear !
This sort of thing can be excused in America, where no one ever thinks about engaging gears quietly, but the English stars are just as bad. Naming no names (men included), I have been amazed at the incompetence displayed. In conclusion, I feel sure that I am
expressing the hope of thousands of motor racing enthusiasts when I call upon British film producers to turn their attention to motor racing as a theme for a thrilling film. The success of American films of this kind in this country is a guarantee of the popularity of such a subject, and with Brooklands at their disposal a film worthy to rank with the best should result.