Howard Hawks directed this 1932 racing film. The director had had an obsession with racing since his early years and that knowledge lent the film an authentic air. That a number of real life “racing drivers” were involved in the production helped as well. The Dusenberg brothers helped in the staging of the racing crash scenes.
James Cagney is Joe Greer, top notch driver and the most recent winner of the Indianapolis 500. He’s come home, the first time in four years, for an exhibition race at the local dirt track. Along with him is his best friend Spud Connors(Frank McHugh) who’s met by his wife and son. “Pop” Greer(Guy Kibbee), Joe’s father, is there at the train station with Joe’s kid brother Eddie(Eric Linden), grown up now and with aspirations to be a racing driver. He’s built his own car, with Pop’s help, at the family garage, and is the local star at the dirt track. He’s entered in the exhibition race also.
Joe’s girl friend Lee Merrick(Ann Dvorak) is along, but Joe soft pedals their relationship in front of Eddie, much to Lee’s consternation because she loves him and hates playing second fiddle to his racing career. She rooms, it’s never said exactly where, with Anne Scott(Joan Blondell) who has a disdain for men in general and seems, early on anyway, to be a party girl. She hates that Lee sits in the apartment when Joe is away on a race waiting on him to come home.
When Joe’s impressed by Eddie’s driving in the exhibition race and offers him a “real” car, things change. He comes home to find Eddie there, come looking for him, having a drink with Lee and Anne, he goes ballistic. Polite enough until he gets Eddie out, he then hustles Anne out the door a bit later, then laces into Anne, telling her they’re through, that’s he’s taking Eddie with him on the racing circuit.
Crushed by that, Anne is in tears when Anne returns and the pair concoct a plan to show Joe what it’s like to lose someone he loves. Anne will use her wiles, and they are considerable, to win Eddie’s heart. it works too well. For both of them. Anne falls in love, they both do, and it’s the beginning of the end. Joe tries to break them apart, is rebuffed, and throws Eddie off his team. “You’re on your own!” He rages.
Eddie brings his old car for the next race, Joe’s buddy Spud catches him drinking before the start, and sees trouble coming. Sure enough, when Eddie out maneuvers at one spot, he’s enraged and tries to get back at him. Spud puts his car between them and tries to hold off Joe, blocking him all around the track. Joe keeps pushing, bumping Spud, until his friend crashes, the car set fire, Spud burning to death. This sequence was a bit unbelievable for me. We see no one rushing to put the fire out, the race continues, burning fuel across the track, the driver’s running through it every lap. One driver finally pulls off, saying the smell of burning flesh was too much.
Joe, finally realizing what he’s done, spins out.
In the months that follow, Joe’s career takes a nose dive, torn by the scene of his friend burning, while Eddie’s rise. No one knows where Joe is most of the time. He rarely finishes high in a race. Lee is worried, Eddie doesn’t care, happy with Anne.
As the next Indy 500 approaches, Lee borrows money from Anne for the fare to Indianapolis. She wants to find Joe and help him, knowing he’ll be there for the race. She gets a job at a restaurant. Joe, we see, is a broken man, both in spirit and resources, riding the rails to get there, picking up dropped fruit from a box car being unloaded. He visits the track, looking for a ride, any kind of job to be around racing. here’s where we see a lot of real life drivers of the time, each with a line or two, turning him down for a job. One says to another that he couldn’t offer him a job in the pits. Not a driver once as great as him.
All ends well when Eddie is injured by flying debris from another wreck. he has a two lap lead at the time and unless he can get a relief driver, he will be disqualified. Guess who the relief driver turns out to be? It’s a two man job in each car, a driver and a mechanic(not sure what a mechanic can do in the middle of a race though) and Eddie takes that position as we get the exciting finish where Joe has to chase down the lead driver and pass him at the end, with a tire shredding all the while.
One bit of trivia. THE CROWD ROARS was remade in 1939 as INDIANAPOLIS SPEEDWAY with Pat O’Brien in the Cagney role and Ann Sheridan in the Blondell role. Unfortunately, Frank McHugh got to burn again, playing the same character in the remake.
For more overlooked movies and related matters, as always on Tuesdays, drop in on Todd Mason over at SWEET FREEDOM.