“Do you know who that is? That’s Joe Greer, one of the best men to ever sit behind a wheel…”
It’s clear pretty early on in Howard Hawks’ thirteenth feature where his priorities lie. A keen racing enthusiast (as well as aviator) from his youth, it would appear that the opportunity to mount his camera on one of the famous Dusenberg cars and send it round the Indianapolis circuit at punishing speeds totally eclipsed his need to frame these sequences in anything but the most hokey narrative, one that cares little for coherent resolution and relies solely on the natural charisma of its leading man to limp its way back to the track at any opportunity.
Watching it straight after his later masterpiece The Big Sleep (1946) didn’t do it any favours either. Where I’d just spent two wonderful hours in the company of what could perhaps be considered the prototypical Hawksian woman, Lauren Bacall’s Vivian Rutledge, the regressive nature of the sexual politics that seem to typify his early works was here exemplified both by Cagney’s unsympathetic misogynist Joe Greer, and the two female leads played by Joan Blondell and AnneDvorak, Hawks mistress in real life, whose defiant Cesca Camonte in his previous feature Scarface, (released the same year) would have scoffed at the submissive romanticism of her character Lee Merrick here.
Having just won at Indianapolis, Cagney heads back to his home town with his relief driver in tow to be reunited with his father and younger brother Eddie, a racing enthusiast and driver himself who idolises his elder brother and is keen to prove his worth behind the wheel. Joe doesn’t want his girlfriend Lee to join him, thinking her not good enough to meet his family and hypocritically refusing to marry her on the basis of their already consummated relationship. Agreeing to take Eddie on tour with him, Joe leaves Lee with her roommate Anne (Blondell) to mope around waiting for the men to return. There’s a promising section where we remain with the two women in their apartment instead of following the men to the track, but it’s barely developed beyond the single scene and any depth to the characters established here (and in Dvorak’s opening scene on the train) quickly reverts to negative stereotype, particularly in the case of Blondell, whose cynical pursuit of Eddie as revenge for Joe dumping Lee may be a recurrent Hawksian theme (a woman driving a wedge between the men) but her initial feistiness is swiftly replaced by tearful neediness when she actually falls for wet fish Eddie (it seems Hawks really can’t pick his romantic leads in these early pictures, Phillips Holmes in The Criminal Code being just as bland and forgettable).
It doesn’t help that Joe is such an unlikeable character either. A single-minded drunk, who can’t seem to see beyond the bonnet of his car (he even speaks in racing metaphors “race cars have one seat”) his over-protective relationship with his brother is bizarre at best, and his wallowing in self-pity when deserted by him (but still pined for by Lee) elicits little sympathy during his tearful moment of realisation in the final act. Not that Hawks seems especially concerned, he may give Cagney a scene of reconciliation with Dvorak, but that with his brother (upon which the plot by this point hinges) is missed out entirely, barely acknowledged in even the most basic expository dialogue, they’re suddenly reunited offscreen and thrown into a race car together for the final Indianapolis showdown. The cut playing at the BFI Southbank runs to 71 minutes, and apparently an 85 minute version exists (or existed) which may serve to paper over the narrative gaps, but I’m unable to say for certain.
Where the film does come to life however is on the track. The three big race scenes are truly thrilling, and you can see how much fun Hawks must have had in realising them. He manages to strap his camera to every part of the specially designed cars, capturing the speed and dust billowing from the track from every conceivable angle. It’s helped hugely by the location filming, dialogue taking place over the live roar of the engines and the incessant talk of carburettors and exhaust manifolds could have only come from the pen of a petrol-head. The inclusion of real-life drivers in the final section, each playing themselves, make The Crowd Roars an historical document of a period in racing history of perhaps greater value than the thin narrative would otherwise merit, and some dodgy back projection aside, the attention to detail on the circuit coupled with Hawks’ great skill in cutting the race for maximum impact, make it a welcome indulgence in the same manner as McQueen’s Le Mans (1971) or Cronenberg’s Fast Company (1979). The final gag in which Cagney leaps from his seat and eggs on the ambulance driver taking him to hospital to overtake the ambulance in front is a beautiful Hawksian touch that almost makes its preceding faults entirely forgivable.
The Crowd Roars – 1932 – USA – 71 mins – Dir : Howard Hawks