Monday, March 31, 2014

The First Auto (Warner Bros./Vitaphone, 1927)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I put on TCM last night and Charles and I watched their “Silent Sunday Showcase” presentation of a film that technically wasn’t a silent: The First Auto, made by Warner Brothers (back when they were still spelling out “Brothers” instead of abbreviating it “Bros.” — take that, Clive Hirschhorn!) in 1927 and outfitted with a Vitaphone soundtrack conducted by Herman Heller (he gets a credit) that included not only a typical silent-film accompaniment (complete with easily recognizable, at least to 1927 audiences, songs about early motoring, like “In My Merry Oldsmobile” and “Get Out and Get Under,” as well as other tunes familiar to moviegoers of the period, including “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” “In the Good Old Summertime,” the “Skaters’ Waltz” — one of those melodies you’re likely to recognize even if you have no idea what it’s called — and “How Dry I Am”) but also some sound effects and even bits of human voices. The voices were almost all “wild,” recorded separately from the picture and dubbed in more or less where they belonged, but there wasn’t an attempt this early actually to have people talking to each other on screen (that would happen later in 1927, with The Jazz Singer). The First Auto was the headline attraction on the sixth Vitaphone bill, which played in a handful of theatres in the big cities — including the Colony Theatre in New York, where Vitaphone had premiered in 1926 with the John Barrymore Don Juan and a program of musical shorts that all used sound more creatively than these features did — indeed, as Alexander Walker noted in his book The Shattered Silents, many big-city audiences regarded these “canned” musical scores as a decided comedown from the live orchestral accompaniments they were used to when a major film was shown in a first-run house. (Allan Dwan, who directed the 1922 Robin Hood with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., recalled going from city to city and rehearsing the orchestra the day before the film opened to make sure they played the specially composed music in synch with the film and supplied all the required sound effects on cue.)

The First Auto is an odd little movie whose poignant depiction of technological change rings true today — adding to the irony that a film about the traumas people go through adjusting to a new technology was itself released in a process that was going to put a lot of people in the movie business (and in the movie audience as well) through a similar set of traumas as they adjusted to the technological change. It’s a film that remains moving even as the sheer rate of technological changes to which people have to adjust has sped up frantically — when Steve Jobs of Apple died one commentator noted that innovations in the computer products business happen so rapidly that within two years of Jobs’ death there would no longer be a market for any product with which he had been personally involved — whereas The First Auto takes place over a period of about a decade, opening in 1895 (we get the cue from an opening title that says the film is set “before anybody heard of Bryan”) in Maple City, Indiana. Unlike most movies of the classic era, especially ones set in small towns, the script for The First Auto (story by Darryl Francis Zanuck — a credit which startled Charles, who hadn’t realized what the “F.” stood for before — and script by Zanuck’s frequent collaborator in the early days, Anthony Coldewey) is quite specific in its geography. The principal character is Hank Armstrong (Russell Simpson), who owns the biggest and most prestigious livery stable in Maple City in 1895 and is also its leading breeder of thoroughbreds; his current star horse, “Sloe Eyes,” wins every race it enters (and is the fourth generation of her family Hank has owned). The races are trotting races, in which the jockeys ride sulkies (essentially miniature crosses between carriages and chariots, made to be as light as possible and made of metal frames to which two wheels and a seat are attached) and the horses are forbidden to gallop (if the horse breaks out of a fast trot it and its rider are disqualified) — one remembers Meredith Willson’s The Music Man, in which as part of his indictment of modern decadence in the song “Ya Got Trouble” con man Prof. Howard Hill says that current horse racing is “not a wholesome trotting race, no, but a race where they set down right on the horse!” Worse changes are in store for Hank Armstrong when inventor Elmer Hays (E. H. Calvert) comes to Maple City and, at a dinner presented by the town’s mayor, he gives a speech about the upcoming new invention, the automobile, which his factory is manufacturing at the rate of three autos a day. (As part of his presentation he shows some magic-lantern slides — the 1895 equivalent of a PowerPoint — and the last one, showing the front of his factory with his workers and their products, is shown upside down and encounters some unwelcome diversion when a cat walks across the screen.)

Squire Stebbins (Douglas Gerrard), the richest man in Maple City, buys its first auto, and there’s a marvelous scene which reveals that both Zanuck and director Roy Del Ruth started out doing gags for Mack Sennett; Stebbins finally gets his car started, only it periodically emits explosions and even when it’s working right Stebbins is unable to control it and ultimately drives it off a cliff into a convenient lake — no one is hurt but the car is, as we’d say today, “totaled.” Nonetheless, progress takes its toll on Maple City in general and Armstrong’s livery business in particular — Armstrong takes it as a personal insult when a long-time customer and friend decides against buying a new horse and, at the urging of his family, decides to do something “modern” and purchase an auto instead. It gets even worse for Armstrong when his son Bob (Charles Emmett Mack) goes over to the other side; he moves to the nearby city of Detroit and takes a job with Henry Ford, helping to develop the famous 1903 racing car which, driven by Barney Oldfield (America’s first star racing driver, who was hired as a technical advisor for the film and ended up playing himself in it — and the car we see is an exact replica of the original), promoted cars in general and Ford’s products in particular nationwide. Meanwhile, Armstrong’s streak of horse-racing wins has come to an abrupt end when “Sloe Eyes” dies in childbirth (which is our one clue that she’s a she) giving birth to another mare, “Bright Eyes,” but since horse racing is fading in popularity and the racetrack in Maple City is now hosting, you guessed it, auto races, there’s little or nothing Armstrong can do with Bright Eyes (aside from waiting three decades for Shirley Temple’s producers to appropriate her name — joke). The First Auto is listed on as a “comedy,” but it’s as much a drama as a comedy and it gets considerably darker and more serious as it progresses and Hank Armstrong loses his business, has the ignominy of having all his possessions (including Bright Eyes) sold at auction (and just to twist the knife in, the buyer of Bright Eyes turns her into a beast of burden and beats her unmercifully, leading Armstrong to attack him and the horse to escape and flee back to what’s left of Armstrong’s stable), and ultimately sets his own livery stable and barn on fire.

Then one of his few remaining friends in town tells him of an exhibition auto race scheduled for Maple City, and the two of them decide that if they sabotage one of the cars by pouring sulfur in its gas tank (incidentally in 1895 the cars were depicted as running on kerosene but by the 1904 scenes the fuel is being referred to as “gas,” meaning the gasoline almost all cars have run on ever since), it will explode in the middle of the race and no one in Maple City will ever want to buy an auto again. Only — wouldn’t ya know it? — the car he sabotages is the one his own son was planning to drive in the race, having come down from Detroit to Maple City to race, pick up where he left off with his girlfriend Rose Robbins (the mayor’s daughter, who while Bob was out of town went on a date with another guy but then walked out on him when he put the moves on her, and an ironic title says that she was the first girl to walk home from a car ride when the man driving her got “fresh”) and see if he can reconcile with his dad. Realizing that he’s sabotaged his son’s car, Hank races to the track in a carriage drawn by Bright Eyes but doesn’t get there in time to keep Bob’s engine from catching fire (Hank sadly tells Bright Eyes, “Even you let me down!”), though Bob is able to get out of the car before it blows up and there’s a final scene that establishes he’ll recover, he and Rose will pair off, and the film ends with a montage depicting the changing car models from 1904 to 1927 followed by a title, “End of the Trail … ,” and a horse silhouetted against the sunset. The First Auto is a fascinating movie, managing to balance its comic and dramatic aspects better than a lot of far more prestigious productions that have tried the same mix, and certainly its theme of the emotional impact of technological change on the people who have to live it is as current as the latest announcement from Silicon Valley. There’s also a macabre irony in that Charles Emmett Mack was killed in, you guessed it, a car accident just as he was heading for the location where the big race was to be filmed (though doesn’t specify how Warner Brothers handled the death of a leading actor and what scenes had to be doubled or faked to complete the film), essentially making him the Paul Walker of the 1920’s.