Thursday, January 15, 2009
The Crowd Roars
[This is a contribution to the Early Hawks Blog-a-thon hosted right here at Only The Cinema. It will run from January 12 to January 23, 2009.]
How do you manage to bring together Howard Hawks, James Cagney, fast race cars and hot women, and still make a lousy picture? Against all odds, The Crowd Roars pulls off this unlikely feat, as Hawks desperately tries to find something of worth in this pallid racing melodrama. Part of the problem is the hero, the thoroughly unlikable stock car driver Joe Greer (Cagney), a nasty, arrogant, misogynistic drunk who neglects his long-time girlfriend Lee (Ann Dvorak), hypocritically implying that she's a tramp and a loose woman because she sleeps with him without being married. Joe's the kind of guy who always wants a woman around, but then won't marry her because she's so easy, and the pre-Code script pulls few punches in establishing the seedy parameters of Joe and Lee's relationship.
This openness is somewhat refreshing, as is the early indication of Lee's growing disgust with this arrangement, especially since Joe has decided that she's not good enough even to bring home to his family. But the script soon enough dispenses with Lee's hard streak, turning her into just another weepy, long-suffering girl who just wants to be by her man's side, even if he treats her with open contempt. Dvorak has a silent star's charisma, and an ability to say everything she needs to with her thin dark eyebrows and the flashing intensity of her stare; whenever she has to speak, however, her shrill melodramatics threaten to break glass for miles around, and her teary pushover routine quickly gets tiresome. You can tell what the film thinks of women in general when Joan Blondell arrives on the scene, as Lee's no-nonsense gal-pal Anne, spouting tough talk about rotten men and engaging in brazen sexual manipulation just for the fun of it. Soon enough, though, she's just as weepy and downtrodden as her friend, head over heels in love with Joe's forgettable twerp of a brother, Eddie (Eric Linden, seemingly wearing as much lipstick as the ladies in the film). It's obvious enough by this point that the women's only role here is to cry over their men and, as usual for a Hawks film, to come between them.
Except that, in this case, when Lee and Anne plot to break apart the two brothers, even Hawks can't work up his usual enthusiasm for the brotherly camaraderie they're supposedly disrupting. Eddie is a lame cipher, and Joe, even as played by the naturally charismatic Cagney, is just a jerk with a terminally low opinion of "dames" and an overprotective streak for his brother that, if Hawks had cared to, could easily have been developed into a weird homoerotic tension. The film cares so little for its supposed dramatic arc that, in the oddly clipped and rushed final ten minutes of the film, the brothers' reunion and reconciliation — the scene that would have to be the thematic center of the film — actually happens offscreen. The film is strangely paced, often dragging in its largely redundant early sections and then accelerating into an incoherent blur for the finale, completely eliding seemingly crucial scenes during the course of the final race. The editing is often crisp and blunt, and the time line is frequently confused, skipping over what must be quite long periods of time with hardly a hint that it's even happened.
So the film has a rough foundation to overcome, and its demand that audiences respond to and root for the increasingly nasty Joe — who even winds up getting his best friend killed in a race — doesn't help matters. It's not like Eddie is much of an alternative, of course, and in fact the film suffers from a total vacuum of real lead presence. For a time, it even looks like Hawks has resigned himself to making the girls his leads instead, and the early scenes between Lee and Anne are some of the film's best non-racing sequences. By focusing on the lives of the women while the men are off doing their manly pursuits, these brief scenes deconstruct and comment on the typical Hawksian male bonding picture: instead of seeing the men racing and winning prizes and facing death, we see the women sitting alone, receiving terse telegraphs that keep putting them off. It's a neat reversal of the usual Hawks genre picture, a focus on the forgotten, left-behind women for a change, though it unfortunately doesn't last very long.
A more typically Hawksian pleasure is to be found in the film's high-impact racing scenes. The rear projection race track footage is much more distracting than the similarly crude techniques used in The Dawn Patrol a few years earlier. It may just be that the aerial rear projection, with its big stretches of featureless cloudy sky, is much easier to fake than the race track milieu. But Cagney and Linden just wind up looking vaguely silly sitting in front of these rear-projected shots of the track, their goggled heads shaking from side to side. Even so, Hawks manages to make the racing scenes energetic and viscerally exciting by cutting fast, minimizing the rear projection's distraction by blowing smoke and dust across the frame, and splicing in substantial footage of real races. The semi-documentary racing sequences have all the verve and high-octane punchiness missing from the rest of the film: Hawks cuts between high angle overviews of the track and closer views that capture a few cars jockeying for position. At several points, he even crouches down into a low angle perspective where the speeding cars seem to be looming overhead. And the frank, abrupt way he films the car crashes, or the horrifying death of one driver in a ball of fire, accentuate the feeling of tension and encroaching mortality that so often hovers over Hawks' male groups, whether they're pilots at war, criminals in prison, or race car drivers.
These racing scenes are the film's whole raison d'être, and for the most part they're the only scenes in the film that really feel like Hawks. There's an economy and precision to these scenes, particularly in the way Hawks inserts close-ups of a spinning wheel or a foot pressing down on a pedal, purely technical details that enhance the gritty realism so characteristic of Hawks' depictions of men at work. This quality is almost entirely missing in the slack melodrama that makes up the rest of the picture, and if there are occasional other scenes that show some spark of vitality, there are few that live up to the brilliant, exciting final scene, which seems to promise a rowdier, wilder, more fun movie following "the end." The last sequence follows an ambulance carrying wounded race car drivers away from the track, and the patients begin urging the ambulance staff to drive faster, to cut corners, to pass the other ambulance. It's a blast, and Cagney comes alive as he never does anywhere else in the film, gleefully sticking his bandaged head out the back of the ambulance to sneer at those left in his wake. Hawks should've cut everything else and made this the first scene of a much better film.