Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Big Wheel (Samuel Steifel, Harry M. Popkin, United Artists, 1949)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The Big Wheel was produced by Sam Steifel and Harry M. Popkin for United Artists release (Steifel is an otherwise unknown name to me but Popkin was doing some quite interesting noirs then, including the original D.O.A. and Impact) and cast Rooney as Billy Coy, whose father, “Cannonball” Coy (I joked that he had that nickname because his real given name was “Ethelred” or something equally un-“racy”), was killed in a crash two laps away from winning the Indianapolis 500. Billy is determined to make it as a driver and rise up the ranks from hot rods to midget cars to full-sized roadsters and ultimately avenge the family’s honor by winning at Indy himself (this is one of those movies that seems less written than compiled from the available well-worn clichés; for Robert Smith to be credited with an “original” screenplay is an even worse perversion of the language than usual!), and so he seeks out the Gardena, California workshop of Arthur “Red” Stanley (Thomas Mitchell), his dad’s old mechanic. Red runs race cars at the nearby Carrell Speedway, owned by Reno Riley (Richard Lane), who because he owns the track has put his own cars under the name of his daughter Louise (Mary Hatcher), a gender-bending apparition who at first looks like just one of the boys in Red’s shop until Billy gives her a man-to-man slap on the back and she turns around in shock — and he’s pretty shocked himself when he notices this being has breasts under her coveralls and is therefore female.

Needless to say, once he realizes her true gender he’s instantly attracted to her, though his main business is getting Red to let him drive cars in actual races, and though he crashes on his first time out (he takes a banked turn low when Red told him to take it high) he ultimately works up from hot rods to midgets and becomes part of a winning team — only to blow it all when he decides to celebrate one winning race by spending the night out nightclubbing with Latina singer Dolores Raymond (Lita Romay), the “bad girl” to Louise’s “good girl.” He’s drunk when he has to drive the next day and has a terrible accident in which, violating the rule under which cars have to hold their positions and not pass each other when the yellow flag is out, he tries to point out to his teammate Happy Lee (Steve Brodie) that he’s about to lose his wheel, only he ends up crashing into Lee’s car and killing him. Billy has to deal with a lot of people in the racing world — including virtually everyone else at Red’s garage — who think he deliberately killed his teammate, but eventually he gets a car to drive at Indianapolis, and he’s in second or third place with a couple of laps to go — and his mother Mary (Spring Byington) in the stands about to lose it on the spot, remembering what happened to his dad in a similar situation in the backstory — when there’s a terrible accident, a car spills fuel across the track and it catches fire, and Billy drives through but his own car catches fire and barely makes it across the finish line in third place. The winner, Vic Sullivan (Michael O’Shea), hands the Borg-Warner trophy to Billy in honor of his courage, and his career is made.

The Big Wheel is a pretty clichéd and predictable movie — we’re always about two or three reels ahead of the actual plot — though the ending is a bit of a surprise, and as Charles pointed out there are a lot of potential plot threads writer Robert Smith develops and then lets drop, like the gender-bending character of Mary (in one scene a hanger-on in the pits sees Billy kissing Mary and, since women aren’t allowed there, immediately assumes a disgusted look as if he thinks Billy is Gay — a throwback to the marvelous gag scene in Chaplin’s 1916 silent Behind the Screen in which Edna Purviance disguises herself as a man in order to get a job as a crew member in films, Chaplin discovers her real gender  and falls in love with her, and bad guy Eric Campbell sees Chaplin making love to a “boy” and makes his own mincing pass at him!) and the whole good guy-good girl-bad girl love triangle (after Billy’s hot night with Dolores costs him the next race and his teammate his life, she simply disappears from the rest of the movie except for one passing reference to her character in the dialogue). The director is Edward Ludwig, usually a reliable hack who made one masterpiece (The Man Who Reclaimed His Head, made for Universal in 1934 and starring Claude Rains, Joan Bennett and Lionel Atwill in an astonishing anti-war film that deserves to be available at DVD — is anybody at Universal Home Video listening?) and here makes the best of a small budget (much of the final race at Indianapolis is filled in with stock footage or shot in front of process screens, but the effects work is good enough that that hardly matters) and comes up with a quite exciting and compelling movie whose weakness clearly is the ragbag of clichés his writer gave him to work with.

Oddly, though, the Goodtimes DVD cover features a driver who’s obviously supposed to be Rooney driving a red early-1930’s Bugatti, a car already out-of-date for about 10 to 15 years before this film was made. And it’s also fascinating that Hattie McDaniel, in the last feature film of her career (she would do only one more project — the first season of the TV series Beulah — before her death in 1952), plays Mary’s maid, who dolls her up in the first dress she’s ever owned for her date with Billy, who doesn’t want her as a woman (not yet, anyway), but as a mechanic. Hattie’s own dress is a beautiful black velvet number that would have been more appropriate for the biopic of Bessie Smith she should have been making instead of playing one stereotyped maid role after another — indeed, she’s the best-dressed woman in the movie — and it’s ironic, to say the least, that this relatively modest (financially and artistically) movie should have two cast members (McDaniel and Mitchell) from Gone with the Wind.