Monday, April 21, 2014

Red Hot Tires (Warner Bros./First National, 1935)

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

Charles and I watched Red Hot Tires, a 1935 Warner Bros./First National programmer (the opening titles identify Warner Bros. as the producing studio but the closing titles have the First National logo and name!) supposedly about the world of auto racing, running a little over an hour and with not exactly a stellar cast for the period: Lyle Talbot is top-billed as hot-headed mechanic and driver Wallace “Wally” Storm, with Mary Astor as his love interest. She’s Patricia Sanford, daughter of race-car manufacturer Martin Sanford (Henry Kolker), and Wally’s rival for Patricia’s affections is Griffin (Gavin Gordon, considerably more butch than usual but just as oily and mean), Sanford’s star driver. Wally builds a special car but Sanford gives it to Griffin to drive, and, not trusting either Wally or his assistant Bud Keene (a nicely edgy supporting performance by Roscoe Karns), Griffin has the car checked out by his own mechanic, Curley Taylor (Bradley Page). The film opens at a midget car race (at the notorious Ascot Speedway in Los Angeles, which was eventually closed down because so many fatal accidents occurred there) won by Johnny (Frankie Darro, usually cast as a jockey and probably grateful this time around for being allowed to use a more modern means of transportation than a horse!), who seems to be Wally’s protégé both as a driver and as a hot-headed guy all too prone to settle his disputes with his fists. Wally’s own temper gets him fired by Sanford, but he gets a ride in an upcoming big race from another owner and duels with Griffin for the lead.

Unbeknownst to him, Griffin and Curley have outfitted his car with something that looks like a can opener and is intended to slice apart any car that comes too close to him — an interesting high-tech equivalent to the “Grecian wheels” on the bad guy’s chariot in Ben-Hur — though when the two cars finally tangle during the race it’s Griffin’s car that’s forced off the track and crashes, killing him. Wally is convicted of second-degree murder in Griffin’s death on the ground that he had threatened to run him off the track before the race began, and he’s sent to prison — whereupon the film turns into a quite close remake of The Life of Jimmy Dolan, a Warners programmer from 1933 in which the hero, a boxer played by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., is similarly convicted of murder and, like Wally in Red Hot Tires, becomes a fugitive from justice. (Dolan got a more come scritto remake in 1939 with John Garfield in the Fairbanks role and Busby Berkeley, of all people, directing — and doing so surprisingly well!) Wally joins an escape attempt that happens — ah, the irony — the exact same day Patricia arrived at the prison with the governor’s pardon in hand (courtesy of Johnny, who actually saw Griffin and Curley install the Grecian can opener on Griffin’s car and therefore knew the truth all along but hadn’t been allowed to come forward during the trial), and he and Bud flee to South America, where he becomes a star driver using the name “Bulldog Banks.” He wins the Argentinian Grand National (shown here as a standard oval-track road race but in fact a bizarre event that ran mostly through back roads closed for the occasion; the first great race driver of the post-World War II generation, Juan Manuel Fangio, got his start in these wild events and said driving them was quite a bit riskier and more difficult than the Grand Prix races he competed in later) and gets recruited by, you guessed it, Patricia Sanford to drive a new car she’s designed herself to compete in the “Dayton 500” (read: the Indianapolis 500, and actually represented by stock footage of the famous Indianapolis “Brickyard” at a time when the track actually was paved entirely in bricks; later an asphalt surface replaced all of it except for one foot of brick left in place near the starting line for historical reasons).

No one else has caught on to Banks’ dual identity — even as his South American race triumphs are getting front-page treatment in U.S. papers (it must have been a slow news year) — but Patricia figures it out from the old song lyric, “The bulldog on the bank/And the bullfrog in the lake,” which Banks Storm used to warble with Bud in their off hours at the track while both were working for her dad. The problem is that Storm is a wanted man, and Curley reports him to the police and threatens to have him arrested as soon as he goes near the track — but Storm evades them by having a South American pilot fly him in and land his plane in the track’s infield so he can make it to the Sanford pits and take over the driving from Bud (while Patricia herself continues as the ride-along mechanic cars were allowed to have then). Frankly, I was expecting Wally to bail out of the plane and make a spectacular entrance at the track via parachute, but even Warner Bros. probably didn’t have the money to stage that on a “B” budget! Of course it all ends well: Wally wins the race, his legal troubles are conveniently forgotten (it helps that the judge in his case is sharing Patricia’s box at the race, and also that one of the cops has money on Wally to win and therefore is in no hurry to arrest him!) and he and Patricia are in a clinch at the fadeout. There’s nothing particularly innovative about Red Hot Tires — even the title was ripped off a Warner Bros. silent from 1925 (though it doesn’t appear that they have similar plotlines) — and there’s not much in the way of action to satisfy the auto racing fan (though one does get interesting glimpses of pre-World War II Indianapolis and that notorious killer track in L.A.), but it’s still a harmless time-filler even though its most talented actors, Mary Astor and Frankie Darro, are rather wasted.