THE CAR AND THE CINEMA by a film fan
rom the earliest days of the cinema the racing car has had obvious appeal for the producer. In his search for “thrill-making” material, speed was an easy choice, and the hero forced to make hairraising pursuits of the villain, sometimes on horseback, at times in an aeroplane, occasionally on a railway engine, and finally in a racing car. But silent films suffered from one discrepancy in the eyes of the enthusiast, namely inaccuracy, and the fault persisted up to a year or so before ‘talkies’ became the vogue. A fair example was the Reginald film Youth’, in which a road-race
takes place. On every corner cars got into terrific ‘broadsides’, sending up showers of earth, and losing a lot of time — but it gave the audience a thrill.
A BRITISH FILM
The only British attempt at a silent racing film was ‘Smashing Through’ featuring John Stuart as the hero. After preliminary shots of 3-litre Bentleys, the story got going in a real road race, in which many Brooklands and competition cars took part. I remember seeing Densham’s Brescia Bugatti and Tommy Hann’s ‘Softly Catch Monkey’. The race was staged in the Chilterns, 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 turning over, the audience 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 photography was done at a safe distance from the road.
Then came the talkies, and the car, like other actors of the films, got a new lease of life. I remember the thrill during my first talkie, ‘The Perfect Alibi,’ when the tick-over of a Ford truck was clearly audible. The first racing talkie I saw was ‘Burning Up’, featuring Richard Arlen and Mary Brian. The photography in this film I consider to be the best ever taken. The scenes took place on a dirt-track, and the hero’s car was a Miller. Considerable ingenuity was displayed in shooting the car at speed, for in
addition to scenes of cars skidding round the curves and ‘battling down the straight’, many shots were taken from the car itself. Some were taken from behind the driver, others from the tail. But best were those taken from a point near the middle of the chassis. 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 dirt was sent up. The exhaust of the car was reproduced without distortion, and I remember one realistic sound when the Miller was given a push-start. The driver let in the dutch, the wheels bit into the ground, and the engine burst into life with a roar.
THE WALL OF DEATH
‘Burning Up’ was noteworthy for first-class pictures of another speed-thrill, the saucer-track, or ‘wall of death’. First the film showed the motorcycle circling the vertical track. Then 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. Amid the shattering roar of speed, the thrill was completed by a view taken by mounting the camera on an extension in front of the rider, facing backwards.
MORE RACING FILMS
Racing as a theme continued to attract producers and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer were next with two excellent films. The first was ‘Speedway’, a comedy starring William Haines 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’, by Warner Bros. In spite of a rather weak story the film was lifted by splendid photography of cars on dirt tracks and a convincing performance by James Cagney. The race
scenes were taken at Atlantic City and Indianapolis. For the speedway race at night a tremendous battery of arc lights was used, and the camera mounted near the centre of the arena in the usual way. This night scene was notable for the crash ofa car and the flames, through which drivers had to pass on every lap. In fact, of course, American racing conditions would not enforce this procedure. However, a sense of realism pervaded, and one’s cinema stall became transmuted to a seat in the grandstand.
CAR v AEROPLANE
As I have said, the only English attempt at a motor-racing film was ‘Smashing Through’, but a production which contained interesting shots of a car at high speed was BIP’s ‘The Hying Fool’. The race between the 41/2-litre Bentley and the DH Moth was very well shot, and showed that British producers can do this sort of thing when they try. The
climax, when the Bentley leaps a cliff and dives to destruction, thrilling as it was, left me with a desolate feeling that a perfectly good Bentley was destroyed for the sake of a thrill for cinema audiences.
Another sportscar film was the ‘Love Race’, in which jack Hobbs drove a Tr 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 sportscar 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.