Monday, October 17, 2016

DVR Diary: SPEEDWAY (1929)

William Haines is a recognizable ancestor of the boy-men who continue to infest Hollywood, and as such he was one of the biggest stars of the late silent era. Sound and scandal snuffed out his career soon afterward, and the former alone might have done it -- Haines was gay and refused to go through with a studio-arranged marriage to cover it -- because, on the evidence of the talkies of his I've seen, his shtick came on too strong in sound. He is possibly at his most obnoxious in Harry Beaumont's racing melodrama, but his obnoxious qualities -- he seems to have been arrested in development at adolescence -- were packaged to be tolerable to movie audiences. The archetypal Haines story portrays him as arrogant and selfish, albeit with an innate harmless charisma that makes women warm to him, but while today's boy-men stop right there, Haines usually suffers some comeuppance that leads him to redeem if not necessarily mature himself. In Speedway he's part of the pit crew for Ernest Torrence's long-suffering Indy-car driver, a sort of savant with engines and ambitious to race himself yet neither very ambitious nor disciplined. In Indianapolis he spends most of his time hitting on Anita Page, who turns out to be an aviatrix and inflicts a comic comeuppance on our hero by taking him on a wild, ultimately destructive plane ride. Haines makes a spectacle of himself attempting to seduce her at a diner, and later stages a fake auto accident to get her attention. I guess the girls in these pictures are supposed to be bowled over by his good looks once they realize that he means no harm, but I don't know if I buy it.

Meanwhile, Haines grows estranged from father-figure Torrence, who hopes to finally win the 500 in his final race. Our hero is seduced himself by John Miljan's dirty driver, Torrence's longtime rival, who promises that Haines can drive his car in the big race but only wants the naive young man to soup up his engine. The melodrama really kicks in when Torrence's doctor tells him his heart won't last 500 miles. With Haines now allied with his enemy, Torrence has to hand the wheel to his other pit man, Karl Dane. Miljan reclaims his car just before the race, and when Dane can't hack it as a driver, Torrence pulls a switcheroo and lets Haines drive for him. Most of the film was shot on location and while this is no Ben-Hur with motors there are a few money shots of Haines and Miljan driving on the actual race track. Haines overcomes a four-lap deficit, and just as he's poised to pull away he fakes an eye injury in an act of filial piety, the idea being to let Torrence finish the race and take the long-coveted checkered flag. This he does, only to pass out in the winner's circle, but the film isn't so melodramatic that it will kill the man off. Speedway was Haines' last silent film -- he had already spoken on screen -- and it's enlivened by racing sound effects in place of music during the climax. It is not the picture to explain Haines' appeal to modern viewers, but I don't know if any of his films can explain it now. As a very late silent, premiering in the fall of 1929, it was destined to the memory hole, but unlike some other Haines vehicles from this period, at least Speedway survives to play sometimes on Turner Classic Movies. It's arguably even more obsolete than many late silents when you consider that within five years of its release William Haines was finished as an actor and Ernest Torrence and Karl Dane were dead.

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