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August 1972

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Original Article

Cagney



CAGNEY: "Look, kid, only a few ever win Y'got that? The rest are just out there on the track. And a lot of them guys are good drivers and got good cars. But they don't win, see?" THE KID: "But why is that? How come they don't win?" CAGNEY: "Mostly luck, kid. Some got it; most ain't." THE KID: "I don't care! I still want to be a driver!" CAGNEY: "Look; kid, it's a rotten dirty business. The crowd's out there doin' one thing; watchin' for wrecks and roarin' for blood. I tell you, it's a rotten business, and the only time they notice most of us is when we get spread all over the track, 'cause that's what they come for." THE KID: {his voice rising hysterically) " I DON'T CARE! L'M GONNA DRIVE!" CAGNEY: "Okay, kid. Have it your way. But don't expect no help from me." Jimmy Cagney, the hard-bitten laconic ace race driver, took a quick suck at his flask, spat venomously into the grease pit and strode out into the night, trailed by his trusty faithful mechanic. I sat clutching my aluminum disposable can of Fresca, perched on the edge of the Naugahyde neo-Spanish sling chair in my totally impersonal Holiday Inn room. Cagney's bitter rasping tones made a curiously telling commentary on the mass produced Nice Guy friendliness of the Holiday Inn there is no way I could ever picture him checking in with his credit card and asking the desk clerk where the ice machine was. By an incredible stroke of luck the late movie, which is the ultimate boon to and savior of the sanity of the habitual traveler, was THE CROWD ROARS, an authentic classic. I had seen bits and snatches of it before, but it was the first time that I had a chance to watch it from beginning to end, from first frame to last. THE CROWD ROARS is one of those rare pictures that really says it. For that reason, of course, it has been largely ignored by the movie myth-chasers, in much the same way that any movie which would dare to show early frontiersmen and Indians the way they really were would be denounced thunderously as being resolutely against every damn thing imaginable. One line winged out like a shaft of stainless steel: "They come lookin' fer wrecks and roarin' fer blood." Now that's just not the kind of thing you hear mentioned in your average Steve McQueen movie. In fact, the crowd is rarely mentioned in today's racing epics. For that matter, the actual machines are rarely touched upon. Old Steve, his crinkly quizzical eyes and his twisted grin, occupies the wide screen perpetually as do, from time to time, the wan girls who flip over him. We see brief fleeting images of sports cars amid jazzy split-screen techniques and stop-image sequences that give you about as much feeling of a race, an actual race, as a set of Kodachrome slides do of Chartres. Let's face it. In most races the crowd really comes alive when that pillar of smoke rises over there by the South Turn. Excitement quickens; necks crane; eyes bulge. The yellow light flashes and the crowd feels that delicious feeling of excited mock fear for the lives of the victims and that secret hope that it is "something big" that will make all the papers and they can say they were there. The bitter character that Cagney plays in THE CROWD ROARS is worth watching; a disillusioned angry professional who loves racing but fears the crowd. That title is not an accident. It doesn't have a nice chic name such as WINNING or GRAND PRIX. It says it. Let's face it, men, the goddamn crowd does roar. Anyone who has watched that leaping, surging gang of maniacs who rush to the rail on any given Wide World of Sports. Special knows exactly what Cagney was talking about. Not only that, but Howard Hawks, the director, interspersed his dramatic scenes with actual footage of disasters that really did happen at Indy. None of your carefully-staged stunt-man specials. Students of the Indy 500 can recognize every one of those spectacular flaming crashes that takes place before your eyes in THE CROWD ROARS. In fact, ironically, appearing as actors in the film are Ralph Hepburn, Fred Frame, Wilbur Shaw, Billy Arnold and Shorty Cantlon, authentic Indy heroes of the period. Hepburn himself was later a victim of the very thing that the movie was meant to be about. Howard Hawks has never really been given much credit for being what he was and is. His films are always fascinated by technology, as well as the perverse enjoyment of the crowd, the mob, in death and disaster. His eye has always been cold and unrelenting in its non-sentiment. Sure, he makes concessions to the conventions of movie making: the victorious hero, the happy ending - which, by the way, in THE CROWD ROARS significantly enough takes place in an ambulance, a scene in which Jimmy Cagney, the winner, is being borne to the hospital while an ambulance up ahead carries the late Billy Arnold, a true Indy winner and victim, to the same emergency ward. Joan Blondell in THE CROWD ROARS makes Jane Fonda in KLUTE look like the star of a local Girl Scout Troop. Sleazy, bitchy, and with a sardonic, cutting, sarcastic wit, she is the perfect bimbo for Cagney's down-and-out, hard-drinking racing professional who can't get a car at Indy. The movie is larded with actual references to the historic lore of the old track. Cagney at one point remarks: "Fred and Augie say it'll run, and that's enough for me." He was making glancing reference to Fred and August Dusenberg who designed the great monsters that thundered over the treacherous bricks and carried the likes of Billy Arnold to glory and death while the crowd roared. Rather than putting a smooth veneer on the past, Hawks' films are perhaps strongest in previewing the future. The era in which we now exist. A perfect example and commentary from Hawks' in THE CROWD ROARS follows a scene in which Cagney recommends dual carburetion to The Kid who has somehow acquired a Miller Hartz Special. Cagney: "Kid, it looks.like she can run." THE KID: "Yeah, I been doin' pretty well on the dirt tracks at fairs and stuff." Cagney: "She'll do even better with another carburetor. Shorty, get the kid's Miller runnin' right. If he's gonna race, he might as well win." After which followed some of the most harrowing and realistic dirt track sequences ever put on film. Anyone who watches these dirt track sequences alone will realize why dirt track racing has all but disappeared.


Copyright: 1972 Car and Driver

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