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Monday, January 14, 2008

I, THE AUDIENCE: The Crowd Roars (1932) 

The cinematic ancestor of Talladega Nights ... ?

"The Crowd Roars" is a 1932 film with Jimmy Cagney and Joan Blondell and Ann Dvorak and Frank McHugh. (And it's directed by Howard Hawks, who's probably most famous for "The Big Sleep" (1946), but he also directed "Viva Villa!" (1934), "Bringing Up Baby" (1938), "His Girl Friday" (1940), "Ball of Fire" (1941), "The Outlaw" (1943), "To Have and Have Not" (1944), "Red River" (1948), "The Thing from Another World" (1951) and "Rio Bravo" (1959).)

It's a racing movie! They don't go to Talladega, but most of the last part of the movie takes place in Indianapolis! And they drive around in funny-looking but very dangerous jalopies and have fights and misunderstandings and hard times, and the brothers fight over a girl and so on and so on.

I am not a big fan of racing movies. The only racing films that I have seen that I can think of right off-hand are "Viva Las Vegas," "Deathrace 2000," "Cannonball Run," "The Gumball Rally," "The Great Race" and "Talladega Nights." And most of these are joke racing movies. Especially "Talladega Nights," a movie that I found hysterical.

Racing dramas I stay away from. And, after viewing both "The Crowd Roars" and "Talladega Nights," I think I have made the right choice. I kept seeing things in "The Crowd Roars" that made me think of "Talladega Nights." James Cagney and Frank McHugh are racing partners. Cagney overshadows McHugh. Cagney's ego leads him to make a very bad decision. (It's much worse for McHugh than it was for John C. Reilly. There's a horrible crash and he burns to death. Whenever the other drivers drive by the burning wreckage, they hold their noses because of the stench of burning flesh. Very effective ploy for early sound film. And the wreck is all Cagney's fault, of course.)

Cagney hits rock bottom. He can't race because, when the going gets tough, he has flashbacks to that moment in the race when it all went bad. (He doesn't run around in his underwear screaming because he's imagining he's on fire. But that would have been great!) But, due to a weird set of circumstances, he steps in at the Indianapols 500 and wins the race! Woo-hoo!

The film also stars Joan Blondell and Ann Dvorak, and they do the best they can with the meager roles they are given.

Now, I'm not suggsting that anybody who made "Talladega Nights" stole any ideas from "The Crowd Roars." It's unlikely that any of the cast or crew even saw it.

What I'm pondering is this: Are there really so few available racing movie cliches that "Talladega Nights" can poke fun at so many of them that are in a 1932 racing movie that nobody who worked on the "Talladega Nights" is likely to have seen? If I watch, say, "Days of Thunder," am I going to see all the Talladega Nights cliches in a single film, and it will be all the cliches from "The Crowd Roars"? I know there are a few racing films that pre-date "The Crowd Roars," so now I'm wondering what I would see in those racing films.

Maybe it's just the nature of racing as a subject for drama.

I got a little bored with "The Crowd Roars" at times, but I love early '30s films, and I generally tape a lot of short '30s films off of Turner Classic Movies, and I always watch them to the end. Usually, there is a moment or two that makes the whole thing worthwhile even if it drags a bit at times. After the horrible crash mentioned above, "The Crowd Roars" really picks up. And the ending made the whole thing worth the time I put into watching the beginning.

Cagney has just unexpectedly saved the day by being a substitute driver when another driver was hurt. He comes in first at the Indianapolis 500! By a nose! But there's a big crash just after Cagney crosses the finish line!

He comes to in an ambulance, and he's not hurt that bad. He sits up and looks through the opening into where the driver sits. He can see all the traffic and the siren is blaring, and, up ahead, he can see another ambulance. The driver tells him that it's the other driver, the guy Cagney barely beat in the race, who was also hurt in the wreck.

"Catch him!" says Cagney. "You can't let him beat us to the hospital."

The ambulance driver nods and floors it, as you do when Cagney tells you to do something.

In the other ambulance, the other driver has also just regained consciousness. He's not too badly hurt either. He hears the siren blaring from the chasing ambulance. The driver tells him it's Cagney, going to the same hospital.

"What?!? Are you going to let him catch us?!?" says the injured racer.

The ambulance driver also floors it! And the film ends with two ambulances, almost neck-in-neck, careening madly through the streets of Indianapolis, racing each other to the hospital!

It's great.

They need to make a sequel to Talladega Nights just to make fun of this scene.

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