Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Racing Strain (Willis Kent Productions/Maxim, 1932)

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

The “feature” Charles and I watched last night was one I had recently downloaded from and the person who uploaded it had decided to shorten it by leaving off the credits, so it wasn’t until I looked it up after we watched it that I knew anything about it other than its title, The Racing Strain. The site listed two films by that title, one from 1918 about horse racing and this one, from 1932, about auto racing. It was a Willis Kent production, based on a story by Dorothy Davenport — billed as “Mrs. Wallace Reid,” widow of the major silent star who in 1923 achieved the unfortunate distinction of becoming the first (but hardly the last!) Hollywood movie star to die a drug-related death. (Like such later stars as Lionel Barrymore, Bela Lugosi and Edith Piaf, Reid had become addicted to opiates after he was prescribed them medically — in his case as painkillers following injuries he sustained making the 1919 film The Valley of the Giants, later remade with Kirk Douglas as The Big Trees — and he died of flu in a sanitarium while he was trying to kick his habit.) His widow teamed up with producer Willis Kent to make a film called The Road to Ruin, originally filmed as a silent in 1928 and then remade as a talkie in 1934 (it’s better by far than the other anti-drug movies of the period — Reefer Madness, Marihuana: Weed with Roots in Hell, Assassin of Youth, Cocaine Fiends, Narcotic — but it’s still a cheap, seedy exploitation movie), but she worked on other movies with Kent as well and this one was a vehicle not only for her but her son, Wallace Reid, Jr., who played the male lead. The film opens at an Indianapolis 500 race in the early 1920’s —though the cars we see in the race are early-1930’s production convertibles that wouldn’t have existed in the early 1920’s and wouldn’t have raced at Indianapolis when they did exist — in which race driver Jack Westcott (Lorin Raker) has a fatal crash. Like an opera character, he doesn’t die at once but manages to linger long enough to tell fellow driver King Kelly (Paul Fix) to take care of his son Bill (Dickie Moore) — the boy’s mother Rose left Jack years earlier and he hasn’t heard from her since, so his dying wish is that his son be raised by someone he loves and trusts.

The film flashes forward 10 years and Bill is now a teenager played by Wallace Reid, Jr. He and King are driving across the country in a raggedy-looking old Model T Ford which seems to be missing its fenders, and there isn’t a clue as to how they’re supporting themselves, but it’s quickly established that King was a star racing driver until he was indefinitely suspended from the sport for driving a race while drunk. While he and Bill, whom he calls “Big Shot” — a name his dad gave him literally with his dying breath — are driving across the desert they meet a young society woman, Marian Martin (the appealing Phyllis Barrington), and her surprisingly butch Aunt Judy (Ethel Wales) — we even see her in pants — in a fancy car that’s stopped running. Both King and Bill have a look at its engine before they realize that it’s out of gas, and they offer to tow it to the nearest gas station, though King insists on sitting in the big car with Marian and Bill ends up in the same seat as Togo (Otto Yamaoka), the Martins’ chauffeur, whom they run across inside a tree where he’s been chased by a cow he thinks is a bull. (The other characters immediately recognize the beast as a cow, and director Jerome Storm gets close enough to her udders that we do, too.) Needless to say, a romance develops between King and Marian, and she tells him of a mysterious “friend of my mother” who, she suggests, has enough pull with the racing authorities to get King’s suspension lifted as long as he agrees to remain sober. (It’s not surprising given Dorothy Davenport’s background that substance abuse, addiction and recovery feature prominently in her plot!) The mysterious “friend” turns out to be her father (J. Farrell MacDonald), who owns an auto company and not only gets King’s suspension lifted but gets him a ride for the first big race of the new season at Ascot near Los Angeles (which, according to an reviewer, was a real-life track that eventually closed because so many fatal accidents took place there). Needless to say, “Speed” Hall (Eddie Phillips), who won the racing championship after King was ruled off, becomes his rival not only on the racetrack but for Marian’s affections as well, and “Speed” is being backed by two sinister promoters who have bet heavily on the upcoming race and can’t risk King being able to drive in it, so they determine to sabotage him somehow. “Speed” is against this — he wants to beat King fair and square — but they meet and, without “Speed”'s knowledge, hatch a plot to get King out of the big race.

Meanwhile, there’s been another plot line in which Bill has developed into a capable driver but doesn’t want to race because he can’t get rid of the memories of his father’s death — so the “racing strain” in his blood has manifested itself in another way: he’s hooked up with a couple of promoters in the area who own a plane and sell rides as a carnival attraction. He begs them for chances to take up their plane and shows off his skill as a superb stunt pilot — the point is he isn’t willing to race cars but can do aerobatics because his father didn’t die in a plane crash and therefore isn’t traumatized by flying the way he is by driving — and the two plot lines converge at the end when we learn the plot the promoters has hatched to keep King out of the big race: they send him a letter from Bill’s mother Rose, or at least a woman purporting to be Bill’s mother Rose (both the American Film Institute Catalog and list the character as “Tia Juana Lil,” played by Mae Busch, but it’s not at all clear from the actual movie whether she’s an impostor or the real Rose Westcott fallen to lushdom in a Tijuana bar), demanding that she get back her kid. King decides that he has just enough time to drive to Tijuana, settle with Rose (or Lil,  or whatever her name is) and get back to drive in his race, but when he gets there “Rose” insists that she join him for a drink before she negotiates her payoff. The drink is drugged, and King loses consciousness. Bill and Marian find the note King got and Bill realizes the only way they have to rescue King in time is to fly, so he borrows his friends’ plane again, lands it three miles outside Tijuana (on an otherwise deserted strip of desert where a Mexican cabdriver just happens to be parked), and they set off to rescue King from the baddies, which Bill accomplishes with ju-jitsu moves Togo taught him. So now the suspense is whether they can get King back to the track in time and how the writers (Betty Burbridge and producer Kent, working from Davenport’s story) will resolve it — will King recover from the knockout drug in time to race or will Bill take over and drive his car to victory? Eventually Bill wins the race, overcomes his fear demons, but sneaks out of the car with no one the wiser and everyone at the track (including King himself, once he recovers) convinced that King drove the winning race.

The Racing Strain isn’t much of a movie but it’s quite good for the budget and the time: the script is quite well done, expertly constructed and building emotional identification with the characters instead of observing them from above, like lab rats, as all too many modern movies do; director Storm’s work is technically excellent and, though the racing sequences must have been liberally filled out with stock footage, the joins are surprisingly convincing and enough racing scenes were specifically staged for the film (probably at the real Ascot raceway) that we believe these people are actually driving an auto race, with all the risks attendant thereto. As for Wallace Reid, Jr., he has an almost unearthly beauty and he’s a good enough actor it’s surprising he worked only sporadically — just 10 films in all over 11 years, ending with an uncredited role as a pilot in a 1943 war movie called Bomber’s Moon ( lists 12 acting credits for him, but the first two were as children in his dad’s movies in the early 1920’s). The Racing Strain is the sort of film that deploys the expected clichés but does so in a fresh and surprising way, and as I noted above there’s real suspense over which of the two obvious plot resolutions the writers will use — and auto racing is intrinsically exciting from a visual standpoint and it’s surprising more films haven’t been made about it, especially since just about every article I’ve read on the subject says it’s the world’s most popular sport (though according to one source I’ve read, if you added all the different variations of football — rugby, soccer, American and such oddball variations as Aussie rules — and counted them as one sport, that would be more popular than auto racing).