Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Crowd Roars directed by Howard Hawks (starring James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak, Eric Linden, Frank McHugh, Guy Kibbee)

The Crowd Roars (1932). Screenplay ("Dialogue and Screen Adaptation") by Kubec Glasmon, John Bright, Seton I. Miller, and Niven Busch (credited as "Nevin") from a story by Howard Hawks.

Joe Greer (James Cagney) is a famous race car driver coming home to visit his kid brother, Eddie (Eric Linden). Joe knows exactly how dangerous a profession racing is and balks when Eddie wants to get involved because he idolizes Joe. Joe's feelings on the subject even extend to not marrying his best girl, Lee (Ann Dvorak), though it's pretty plain they are married in every other sense.

When Joe realizes Eddie is determined, however, he promises to show him the ropes while trying to shield him from the darker side of life — like his relationship with Lee, which he calls off when he finds Eddie drinking with Lee and her friend Anne (Joan Blondell). Anne responds to the blow to Lee by seducing Eddie, but they fall in love instead.

Soon, Eddie becomes Joe's rival on the racetrack, and the ultracompetitive Joe's impulsivity leads to a confrontation on the track. Joe's relief driver, "Spud" Connors (Frank McHugh, who had a small but important role as the drunk in Union Depot), puts himself between the brothers and gets killed for his trouble. (Reportedly, Cagney and McHugh began a conversation on the first day of filming that would lead to a life-long friendship.)

Cagney's star was still rising during the time of The Crowd Roars, and he displays the usual angry hothead persona he specialized in during this period — throwing men and women around equally. Blondell also offers few surprises, playing to type in her usual tough-talking, no-nonsense guise. But both actors are comfortable in their typecasting and give solid performances.

The real surprise was the fantastic acting of Ann Dvorak. I'd never seen her in anything before this, and she steals the movie away from Cagney and Blondell. Her performance is heartbreaking, going from indignant to desperate to loving in an instant, but always with a good heart, making us feel Lee's pain at the way Joe treats her. Eric Linden is forgettable as Eddie, his main contribution being an enthusiastic "I'll say!" Also watch for ubiquitous character actor Guy Kibbee in a small role (I'm not even sure if he had any lines) as Joe and Eddie's father, "Pop" Greer.

The story is thin, the characters two-dimensionally drawn, but the dialogue is entertaining and Blondell in particular has some great lines. Unfortunately, the ending tends toward the ridiculous, as it tries its best to take the melodramatic events and make a happy ending out of them by quickly forcing the characters through a series of unbelievable situations and coincidences.

But it remains a lot of fun even then, with redemption just around the corner and a quick chuckle before the end titles — and seeing racing in this era, with no visible protection for the drivers, was an eye-opener especially during the crash scenes. The Crowd Roars is not a classic by any means, but fans of director Howard Hawks will likely want to see this early venture (released just two weeks after his legendary Scarface, also with Dvorak).

Interesting trivia: A French version called La foule hurle was being filmed concurrently with director Jean Daumery and star Jean Gabin. In 1939, The Crowd Roars was remade as Indianapolis Speedway. Rumor has it that all of the racing footage was taken from the original and used in the remake, and when the attempt was made to replace the footage back into the original, some of the remake's footage was included by mistake, and so both films are practically indistinguishable during their racing scenes. Conveniently, Frank McHugh played Spud in the remake, too.


J.C. Loophole said...

If you liked Ann Dvorak (and who doesn't like Joan Blondell) - check them both out in Three on a Match. Excellent Pre-code flick on the Forbidden Hollywood Collection Vol. 2 DVD Set.

Craig Clarke said...

That set is definitely on my wish list. Thanks for the reminder.

Judy said...

Popping over from Wordpress to see your blog.:) I enjoyed your review of this movie - am very interested to learn that McHugh plays the same role in the remake, and also that there was a French version being made at the same time.
I definitely agree with you that there are too many twists and coincidences towards the end - have to wonder if maybe some dramatic footage was cut out and lost as well as the racing scenes being re-used.
I haven't seen much else with Dvorak, unfortunately, but she is excellent in 'G-Men', again with Cagney.

Craig Clarke said...

Thanks for stopping over. And for the recommendation of G-Men.

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