History Makes Movies Better

There are 365 days in a normal non-freaky-leap year. Each of those days marks the anniversary of all sorts of crazy shit. Some of that crazy shit has been made into movies.

November 28

Unfortunately, an Internet-connection issue prevented me from posting this on its appropriate date. Alas, alack. So it goes. Just close your eyes and pretend it is yesterday. Wait. Now you can’t read. I guess open them again.

490 years ago today Ferdinand Magellan (and his crew, of course) reached the western opening of the South American straight that would one day bear his name, becoming the first European to sail westward from the Atlantic Ocean into the Pacific Ocean. But Magellan never got to celebrate with his homies waiting for him back in Spain, as he was hacked to death by irate islanders in the Philippines midway through his journey home. As any marathon runner will tell you, the true glory is just reaching that finish line. So sorry, Magellan, today’s column is for finishers only. Finishers like Frank Duryea.

It was 115 years ago today that Frank Duryea became the first person to roll across an automobile race finish line.

If you ask the average person who built the first American automobile, they will likely say Henry Ford (well, in reality they’d probably say, “Uh… I don’t know.”). But a “horseless carriage” built by Frank and his brother Charles sputtered out of the Duryea’s Springfield, Massachusetts workshop in September 1893 – a good three years before Ford test-drove his Quadricycle. They also beat Ford to the punch again when they founded the Duryea Motor Wagon Company in 1896, producing the first commercially available automobiles in America (though Ford ultimately won the war by using a little thing called the assembly line).

Like the Wright Bros, the Duryea Bros were in the bicycle business, when they saw the exciting opportunity to expand into a whole new kind of transportation. Their first car had a one-cylinder engine, a three-speed transmission, and topped out at 7.5 miles an hour. The following year they designed a more powerful car with a two-cylinder engine. It was this vehicle that they entered in the world’s first automobile race.

On Thanksgiving Day, November 28, 1895, the Chicago Times-Herald sponsored a 54-mile race from downtown Chicago to Evanston, Illinois and back, with a top prize of $2000. Including the Duryea car, the other entries were two electric cars, and three gas-powered Benz cars from Germany. The race began in Jackson Park under snowy conditions at 8:55am. At 7:18pm Frank Duryea piloted his car across the finish line. Only one other vehicle even made it as far as the finish line (one of the Benz, at 8:53pm). The remaining cars all went the way of Magellan. Stabbed to death by irate Filipinos. Or maybe they just broke down. Either way they never reached the finish line.

Since that day the Duryea Bros have slipped into obscurity, but auto racing certainly has not. For better or worse, race car drivers have played a major role in America interests, both in real-life and in popular culture, for as long as their have been movies.

Wallace Reid
Reid was the son of a film actor/writer/director, and got lured into the burgeoning silent film industry through some nepotism. Despite his keen interest for behind-the-camera work, the studios were even keener to capitalize on the handsome good looks that would eventually get Reid dubbed “the screen’s most perfect lover.” He was featured in both of D.W. Griffith’s famous epics, Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916), but was most loved for playing a series of race car drivers with subtle names like “Speed” Carr or “Dusty” Rhoades in now mostly forgotten films like The Roaring Road (1919), Double Speed (1920), Excuse My Dust (1920), Too Much Speed (1921) and Across the Continent (1922). Reid married then Hollywood hottie Dorothy Davenport, but sadly, Reid’s career (and likely his legacy) was cut short when he injured himself while shooting The Valley of the Giants (1919) and subsequently became addicted to morphine. He died of an overdose in 1923.

The Crowd Roars (1932)
This early Howard Hawks film (released the same year as Scarface), stars James Cagney as a champion driver who returns home to compete in a local race. During the race another driver dies in a wreck, which causes Cagney to lose his nerve, and his little brother (Eric Linden) ends up winning. Now Cagney’s career hits the skids as he watches his brother’s climb. The film is packed full of cameos from then famous race car drivers, like Billy Arnold, and the awesomely named Stubby Stubblefield. The film was remade in 1939 as Indianapolis Speedway, and later suffered an editing snafu when some of the remake’s stock footage was accidentally added to a re-release of the original film, suddenly teleporting cars and celebs from 1939 back to 1932 in random shots.

The Big Wheel (1949)
Mickey Rooney stars as Billy Coy, a wannabe racer whose famous racer father, “Cannonball” Coy, died in a fiery crash during the Indianapolis 500. Starting as a mechanic, Billy works his way up to become a legitimate driver. His career is almost derailed when he is blamed for a crash that kills another driver, but eventually Billy earns his way back into the circuit and lands a slot in the coveted 500. The film features a somewhat Rudy-like finale, in which Billy manages to valiantly finish third, after suffering sever burns when his car catches on fire, inspiring the actual winner to turn over his trophy to Billy. Awww.

To Please a Lady (1950)
Best known for National Velvet (1944) and The Yearling (1946), Clarence Brown helmed this film about surly race car driver Mike Brannan (Clark Gable). When Brannan refuses an interview request from sexy columnist Regina Forbes (played by sexy Barbara Stanwyck), she winds up writing a piece suggesting that Brannan – much like Mickey Rooney in The Big Wheel – is to blame for the crash that took the life of another driver, and Brannan is soon disbarred from the racing circuit. Forced to earn a living driving in a stunt show, Brannan must now earn enough money to buy his way back into the big leagues. Character actor Will Greer co-stars.  

Red Line 7000 (1965)
Howards Hawks returned to race cars once again with his third-to-last film, which is about various men juggling various women as much as it is about racing. James Caan stars as Mike, a member of a racing team. When one of Mike’s teammate’s dies, his fiancée decides to stick around. Then there is the team owner’s daughter. Plus the girlfriend of the team’s resident womanizer. Who will end up with who?! The film features a pre-Star Trek appearance by George Takei and a young Teri Garr appears (uncredited) as a dancer in a nightclub.

Grand Prix (1966)
This kinetic piece of adrenaline cinema from director John Frankenheimer features an international cast. The story follows four Formula One drivers – James Garner, Yves Montand, Brian Bedford, and Antonio Sabato (father of underwear model, Antonio Sabato Jr.) – and the respective women – Eva Marie Saint, Geneviève Page, Jessica Walter – who cope with the lifestyle of having romantic partners in a dangerous line of work. Toshirô Mifune appears in the film, with his dialogue re-dubbed by voice actor Paul Frees (best currently remembered as the omnipresent Ghost Host guiding your tour at Disney theme parks’ Haunted Mansion). Garner became so proficient while studying auto racing that after the film was completed he took the sport up as a hobby.

The Love Bug (1968)
Released the day before Xmas, 1968, Walt Disney’s family classic went on to become the highest-grossing film of 1969. Based on Gordon Buford’s book, Car, Boy, Girl, the film follows down-on-his-luck race car driver Jim Douglas (Dean Jones), who defends the honor of a junky Volkswagen Beetle during a showroom auction, only to find the car outside his garage the following morning. Soon Douglas and his quirky junk-artist friend, Tennessee (Buddy Hackett), realize that “Herbie,” the car, is a sentient being. Together they enter a big race to restore Douglas’ career and stick it to Peter Thorndyke (David Tomlinson), the rich dickface who Douglas had defended Herbie from in the beginning. Three sequels were to follow: Herbie Rides Again, Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo, and Herbie Goes Bananas. Plus a short-lived 80’s TV series, Herbie the Matchmaker. The film was remade as a 1997 TV movie, starring Bruce Campbell, and rebooted theatrically with Lindsay Lohan as Herbie: Fully Loaded (2005).

Speedway (1968)
This was Elvis Presley’s twenty-seventh film, and one of his last before he hung up his acting cape. Elvis stars as Steve Grayson, a stock-car champion who is such a kind soul that he is always sharing his winnings with those in need. Unfortunately this generosity, combined with the “help” of his bumbling manager (Bill Bixby), finds Grayson in trouble with the IRS. An IRS agent, Susan Jacks (Nancy Sinatra), is sent out to put Grayson on a budget that will help him pay off the government. Grayson tries to woo Jacks, but she finds him unacceptable. That is until all his song singin’ and Elvis-y charm wears her down. Supposedly, in Pulp Fiction (1994), the design of the classic car dining-booths in Jack Rabbit Slim’s is taken from Speedway.

Le Mans (1971)
This could be seen as the ultimate racing fan flick, given that there is no dialogue until roughly 30 minutes into the film. Le Mans is equally light on plot too. Steve McQueen stars as Michael Delaney, a champion race car driver participating in the famous 24-hour race in Le Mans, France. While there is a subplot involving Delaney wooing the widow of a man whose death he may be responsible for, this film is pretty much all about racing. John Sturges was originally hired to direct the film but repeatedly butted heads with McQueen and was ultimately replaced by Lee H. Katzin. The film is best remembered now for it ultra-realistic portrayal of the races.

The Last American Hero (1973)
Based on an Esquire article by Tom Wolfe recounting the younger days of real-life driver and moonshiner, Junior Johnson, Jeff Bridges stars Junior Jackson, a flamboyant young man who learns his driving skills while evading cops during his illegal whiskey runs. When his father goes to jail for “moonshining,” Junior hits an outlaw stock car racing circuit in order to support his mother, eventually making the transition into professional racing. But his personality and independent spirit makes waves in the big money, corporate sponsorship world of NASCAR. Ned Beatty, Valerie Perrine, Gary Busey, and Art Lund co-star.  

Death Race 2000 (1975)
This Roger Corman cult classic is based on the short story “The Racer” by Ib Melchior. The pitch black satire, directed by Paul Bartel, tells the tale of a dystopian American future (the year 2000) in which the Transcontinental Road Race, a race in which drivers are awarded points for mowing down pedestrians, is the most popular event in the country. Frankenstein (David Carradine) is the reigning champion, and is the government’s man. He is reportedly part machine and unkillable, surviving his many crashes. As it turns out, there have been many Frankensteins and Carradine is simply the latest. It also turns out Carradine has plans to take down the current system. After winning the race, he plans to shake hands with the President, and blow both of them up with a bomb implanted in his prosthetic hand. Sylvester Stallone costars as Frankenstein’s #1 rival. Paul WS Anderson remade the film, minus the satire but plus Jason Statham, in 2007.

Cannonball (1976)
The Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash was an actual illegal cross-country race run several times during the 70’s. Both Cannonball and The Gumball Rally were inspired by the real race and released the same year. This film again pairs Paul Bartel and David Carradine. Carradine plays a recently released convict, “Cannonball” Buckman, who is trying to reignite his racing career by entering the Trans-America Grand Prix, which goes from LA to NY. The problem is that Buckman is still on parole. Getting caught in the race will mean heading back to prison. While never becoming a Death Race, the race does devolve into a chaotic demolition derby, culminating in a massive multiple-car pileup. Martin Scorsese, Dick Miller, Robert Carradine, Roger Corman, and Sylvester Stallone make cameo appearances.

Greased Lightning (1977)
Speaking of films based on the true story of a driver who honed his skills running illegal booze, this film from semi-seminal African-American director, Michael Schultz – Cooley High (1975), Car Wash (1976), Krush Groove (1985), The Last Dragon (1985) – is a loose biopic of Wendell Scott, the first African-American stock car racing champion. Richard Prior stars as Scott, who becomes a taxi driver after World War II, then becomes a driving badass running moonshine through the Virginia backwoods. Soon he is climbing the rungs of the professional racing circuit, battling racist racetrack owners and police officers as well as other drivers. The film co-stars Beau Bridges, Pam Grier, and Cleavon Little, and was co-scripted by fellow 70’s African-American filmmaking legend, Melvin Van Peebles.

The Cannonball Run (1981)
This perennial of 80’s/90’s television is another film inspired by the Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash (often referred to simply as the Cannonball Run). Directed by stuntman turned filmmaker, Hal Needham  – Smokey and the Bandit (1977) and the BMX cult classic Rad (1986) – this amiable piece of fluff is generally remembered for its all-star cast and popularizing the end credits blooper reel tradition. Essentially plotless, the film follows a massive assortment of quirky characters as they illegally race across the country. The cast includes Burt Reynolds, Dom DeLuise, Roger Moore, Farrah Fawcett, Jackie Chan, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Jack Elam, and Adrienne Barbeau, among others. Though Reynolds and DeLuise heavily improvised their dialogue, the original script was written by automotive journalist Brock Yates, who participated in the actual Cannonball Run. According to Yates, some of the film’s wackier moments were in fact lifted from real-life, such as contestants who used an ambulance to fool the police and a team made up entirely of sexy females. The film was a monster hit and spawned two lazy sequels, Cannonball Run II (1984) and Speed Zone! (1989).

Days of Thunder (1990)
1980’s producing powerhouses Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer reteamed with director Tony Scott and Tom Cruise, hoping to recapture their Top Gun (1986) glory with a “Top Gun on wheels.” Cruise stars as the unfortunately named Cole Trickle, a driver who is recruited by car dealership tycoon Tim Daland (Randy Quaid) to race for his team in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. Nicole Kidman plays Cruise’s love interest. Robert Duvall plays his surly pit crew leader. Michael Rooker plays his first rival. Cary Elwes plays first his teammate, then his second rival. John C. Reilly plays a member of the pit crew. What was viewed as something of a slam-dunk fizzled at the box office. Though it did inadvertently produce Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999), by introducing Cruise and Kidman to each other.

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006)
John C. Reilly returns to lampoon films like Days of Thunder in Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s follow up to their sleeper hit, Anchorman (2004), which highlights the cultural shift auto racing has taken in the past few decades – becoming synonymous with Southern and middle-American culture, in particular culture seen as “white trash.” Ferrell stars as Ricky Bobby, who was born in the back of a speeding car and has since been destined for “go fast.” Along with his doofus best-friend, Cal (Reilly), Bobby is the best there is. That is until he races French Formula One driver, Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen). When Girard proves a faster driver, Bobby pushes himself too far and causes a huge wreck. Afterward Bobby believes he is paralyzed, even though he isn’t. Once his life falls apart, Bobby must strive to reach the top again. After real-life NASCAR driver Carl Edwards wrecked his car 100 feet from the finish line on the final lap of the 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup Aaron’s 499 (at Talladega), Edwards ran across the finish line on foot. Edwards later admitted: “I’m kind of a Will Ferrell fan. He did that at the end of Talladega Nights.”

Well, that’s it folks. See you next time. Still plenty of history and plenty of films left.