Dirt tracks, open cockpits, and wicked speed — the formative years of auto racing were as dangerous as they were exhilarating. Perhaps nowhere is this spirit better captured than in the 1932 film, The Crowd Roars.
Within the first 25 seconds, a brutal crash unfolds onscreen. Then, as the car tumbles and shatters, the spectators gasp and the title cards roll into view. Starring James Cagney, Joan Blondell, and Ann Dvorak (with stunt driving performed by actual Indianapolis 500 drivers), The Crowd Roars tells the tale of a champion racer who, amidst family drama and the death of a fellow driver, falls between the cracks of the racing world and must fight his way back to the top.
But can a 90-year-old film keep the speedometer pegged for the jaded audiences of today? After revisiting this unsung classic, my answer is a resounding Yes.
Coming off the success of movies like The Public Enemy and Taxi!, James Cagney gets top billing here. The actor was known for his physical, charismatic portrayals, and he’s at his rip-snorting best as racing champ Joe Greer. His actions and motivations feel true to life, including the rivalry with his up-and-coming younger brother, Eddie (played by Eric Linden).
The main thrust of the story is this: Joe Greer returns to his hometown to compete in an exhibition race. Eddie, who’s become a champ on the local circuit, hopes to join his big brother on the national stage. But when Joe balks at the idea, Eddie vows to beat him in the next day’s race.
It’s here, after 15 minutes of setup, that we get to the first of the action. The camera and editing are surprisingly visceral, putting you smack in the middle of the dust and smoke. And with the various crashes — not to mention the script’s willingness to kill off a major character — the danger is uncomfortably close.
It should be noted that much of the action feels real because, on some level, it is. The Crowd Roars employed actual Indianapolis 500 winners as stunt drivers, including Billy Arnold and Fred Frame. They even get to play themselves, complete with speaking parts near the end of the film.
While Cagney gets top billing, much of the picture’s humanity can be credited to co-stars Joan Blondell and Ann Dvorak. The latter plays the elder Greer’s jilted lover, in one of her more relatable and heartbreaking roles. Joan Blondell provides a great turn as the quippy, vamping friend with some perfectly-timed comic beats — who winds up head-over-heels for young Eddie.
Then there’s studio regular Frank McHugh. His role as Spud Connors is arguably the most pivotal, as it’s his fatal crash that turns the film on its head. Here we see the raw, unflinching eye of director Howard Hawks. In the aftermath of a wreck, the competitors drive lap after lap through clouds of smoke and flame, holding their hands to their faces as they drive past a fire that’s burning their friend to death. It’s a pretty shocking thing to see in a movie from the 1930s, and wouldn’t have been possible just a few years later.
When the Hays Code found its teeth in 1934, the major American studios were forced to downplay violence, social themes, and sexuality in their films. For reference, check out this classic photo Thou Shalt Not, which breaks every rule in the Hays Code’s slate. Long story short, it’s unlikely that the relationships and action portrayed in The Crowd Roars would have passed the censorship board.
But pre-Code audiences knew what they liked. The film was a commercial success, earning back nearly three times its production budget. Warner Brothers would go back to the racing well in 1939 with a remake titled Indianapolis Speedway. This version (which I’ll admit, I haven’t yet seen) stars Cagney’s real-life chum Pat O’Brien, along with Ann Sheridan. Even old Frank McHugh reprises his role, bringing Spud Connors back from the dead. But it’s the original pre-code film that certainly has my heart.
Come for the cars, stay for the drama — If you’re looking for a dirty slice of motor racing history, The Crowd Roars delivers.