I thought I was being smart, I guess, when I picked SPEEDWAY for this week’s Overlooked Movie feature of Todd Mason’s SWEET FREEDOM blog. A 1929 silent film set against the backdrop of the Indianapolis 500, I figured it perfect, even if I were a couple of days late. But, I found a post did on it a couple of days back. Ah well.
The silent starred William Haines as Bill Whipple and Anita Page as Pat Bonner, both huge stars at the time. The pair appeared together frequently and SPEEDWAY was the last silent either of them did.
Bill Whipple is a vainglorious young man who constantly puts on a show of bravado. Though he has a natural gift as a mechanic, he imagines himself as more, the world’s greatest driver and lover. A constant flirt and braggart, watching the film, he comes off early on, at least to me, as a blowhard. He gets his comeuppance though when Pat takes him up in a plane(she’s the pilot). Even there, terrified as he is, they use that old ruse of him instantly being calm whenever she looks back at him. Pat is not fooled though.
Jim “Mac” MacDonald is his mentor, a man who’d taken him in and taught him everything he knows. He’s been trying to win the 500 since it started. The upcoming race is the 17th. He’s learned that his bad heart won’t stand another five hundred mile race. I think the intention was to let Bill drive the race.
But things get in the way.
Bill has met Pat Bonner and began a flirting relationship with the young woman. He keeps doing things to try to impress her. Rival driver Renny has plans to steal Bill away from Mac. In last year’s race, he’d wrecked Mac to keep him from winning.. The two things work together to cause an argument between Mac and Bill, the upshot of which has Bill quit Mac to drive the race for Renny. He works on the engine and qualifies in the poll position.
Bill is all set to drive. Dugan, another of Mac’s mechanics is to drive Mac’s race car. Mac is secretly proud of Bill’s qualifying effort and claims he doesn’t want to drive against Bill(only Mrs. MacDonald knows about the weak heart). Suddenly, just before the start, Renny shows his true intentions, coming out dressed in driving gear, and has Bill dragged off the course.
As the race goes on, Dugan falls farther behind, a spin-out causing some sort of damage in his chest. Pat dresses Bill down for his prideful attitude and Renny’s using him. Mrs MacDonald tells a distraught Bill the real reason Mac isn’t driving the race. At the same time, Pat tells Mac he’s got to let Bill drive the rest of the race. He can catch Renny.
When Bill starts, he’s five laps down and must drive a fierce race to catch up. Near the end of the race, he does and takes a one lap lead, only to seem to quit with just a few laps left, coming into the pits. A wood splinter has gotten under his goggles and damaged his eye(of course the eye isn’t hurt). Mac must finish the race and takes over, now trailing Renny, and we get an exciting finish, Mac finally getting that long coveted win and all the accolades that go with it. He then collapses over the wheel and ends up in the hospital.
One thing I got curious about in the movie. The day of the race, there were parades touting Decoration Day. Myself, I’d never heard that term before in any context, not just in relation to the Indy 500. So I did a bit of research. Decoration Day is a longstanding Southern tradition of communities gathering to clean up and decorate cemeteries. Some believe it the inspiration for Northerners creating Memorial Day, the big difference being Memorial Day is on a fixed date and Decoration Day is varied by rural communities. I live in a fairly rural area and I have never heard of it though.
SPEEDWAY is a curious little film and is as much of a comedy as an action piece. Bill’s flirting antics and overacting kept me grinning quite a bit early in the film.