Feb 7, 2008
Movie review by Richard Parks, photographic consultant Roger Rohrdanz
Review By Richard Parks
5 out of 8 Sparkplugs
The Roaring Road is a silent, black and white film made in 1919 and starring Wallace Reid, Ann Little and Theodore Roberts. It was directed by James Cruze from the novel by Byron Morgan, and adapted for the screen by Marion Fairfax. Frank Urson was the cameraman and chief photographer and the art director was Wilfred Buckland. Cecil B DeMille is credited, but his career was just starting out and his part in the film is not clear. DeMille is the one that we remember and by 1919 he had two other films to his credit; The Cheat (1915) and Why Let Her Go (1919). The producer was Jesse L. Lasky and the film runs for 97 minutes. The background is the original organ music used in the production and harkens back to the time when a real organist would play as he watched the movie, heightening the drama with his tones. The plot is centered on Reid and Little, who are in love with each other, but there are complications. There are always complications, that’s what makes them so endearing. The black and white film is in relatively good shape, with a few scenes, especially at night that are difficult to make out. The subtitles run the gamut from easily read and understood to grainy and unreadable. The actors of those days were trained in using body language and facial movements that make it easier to understand the plot. In fact, the second viewing, once you know the plot, is better if you don’t stare at the subtitles, but simply glance at them. The Roaring Road ranks as a 5 out of an 8 on my spark plug rating scale and is quite interesting simply as a story in itself. It has crossover appeal for those who are film buffs, movie historians, car and early racing fans. It has a few scenes of the 1919 Santa Monica Road Race, one of the premier road races of the early twentieth century. There are also some interesting scenes of Reid as he opens up the race car on the country roads. The clothing, mannerisms and scenes of early Southern California also hold interest for those who love that early period in the automobile culture.
Reid plays Walter Thomas Walden, nicknamed Toodles, a car salesman in love with Dorothy Ward (Little). Dorothy’s gruff and garrulous father J.D. Ward (Roberts) is called “The Bear” by his loyal employees. The Bear owns Darco Motor Car Company and is involved in racing competition against his rival, Rexton Cars and other manufacturers for bragging rights as to who owns the fastest and best cars. The Santa Monica Road Race is one race that Ward feels that he has to win to keep Darco’s image high in the public mind. He is expecting three of his best race cars to arrive on the train from back east, but a derailment destroys them. Toodles is a man obsessed with speed and Dorothy, his beloved, whom he feels is beyond his means and his reach. He is also a street racer and constantly taunts the police as he outruns them. Toodles buys the three crashed race cars and rebuilds them into a new race car that he calls his “3-in-1” and enters the car in the race. Ward is livid that Toodles would do this, feeling he is embarrassing his company, but Toodles struggles mightily against the odds and wins the race. The footage of the race is often reshown, so the original scenes are few in number, but they are authentic and they are outstanding. Ward and Walden go back and forth, first the Bear accepting the young man and then rejecting him. Dorothy first obeys her father, then rebels and then changes her mind. This is melodrama at its best. Finally the father tells the young suitor that he will agree to his marriage proposal to his daughter, but they must wait five years. Then he announces that he is leaving on the train for his offices in San Francisco the next day and will be gone forever.
This is all a ploy by the older man to get Walden to enter a road race contest to set a new record. The Rexton car had raced the train to San Francisco and the Bear was outraged, because they had done it without competition and a few days before the State had decided to outlaw such speed contests. The Bear needed the best driver possible and one with the enthusiasm and urgency to win. Unfortunately, Toodles in his recklessness had raced the police once too often and was in the county jail. The Bear sends his chief mechanic to break Walden out of jail. There is an interesting scene where the mechanic takes an acetylene torch and cuts through the bars without using eye goggles. Perhaps in 1919, they didn’t know the dangers of using torches without protective eye gear. Toodles is now free and with his riding mechanic he sets out to race the train to San Francisco and face the Bear and win his love. The trek is difficult and daunting, but as dawn arises, there is the “3-in-1” car on the country roads, neck and neck with the train as the crew and the passengers hoot and holler and wave him on. The Bear and Dorothy know what’s at stake, but Toodles knows only that he has to reach the depot before Ward and Dorothy arrive. He and the riding mechanic break the record by a full hour and clean the mud and grime off them. The Bear and Dorothy arrive, the plot is revealed, the couple are married and the Bear has what he wants, a new road course record.
I continued to play the tape after the movie had ended and found additional short addenda. There were six commercials, in color, from the 1950’s through the ‘70’s. They were ads for Alka-Seltzer, A-1 Steak Sauce with Boris Karloff as the narrator, Volkswagen, Shasta Orange Soda with Tom Bosley as the pitchman, Johnson Wax and Pledge and Lee Trevino touting Patio Foods’ Super Mex line of foods. It was fascinating to see something that I thought was long gone. Then “Wire Service,” a movie starring George Brent aired for a few minutes and then it ended abruptly. There were several George Barris cars featured and a car chase where Brent has uncovered something that the ‘killer’ didn’t want to be made known. There was a short film on a road race that appeared to have been done in the ‘60’s at Laguna Seca. There weren’t a lot of racing, but the cars were worth the look. You can purchase the disc containing The Roaring Road and the bits and snippets of the other interesting ads and films from Hot Rod Memories at www.hotrodmemories.com. This disc won’t appeal to everybody, but it is a hidden gem that will add to your hot rodding library and I rate it a 5 out of a possible 8 spark plug rating.
Gone Racin’ is at RNPARKS1@JUNO.COM.