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Crowd Roars, The (DVD Review)

1 Oct, 2012 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$18.95 DVD-R
Not rated.
Stars James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak.

In part because Howard Hawks’ early non-film resumé included racecar driving, this pre-FDR mix of “wheels” and (sometimes) hooch has the makings of a prototypically crackling melodrama directed by the auteur Pantheon heavyweight. Instead, as it now stands, it’s only a “might-have-been” with a few crackling scenes because the original 85-minute running time was long ago shorn to 70 — the version that has played forever and a day (or at least, in my personal moviegoing experience, as long as I can recall).

As a result, characters who hardly know each other in one scene seem to be chummy in the next, and fleeting intros segue into amorous affection in a blink. This is an endeavor where we have to have to fill in some blanks, though lead James Cagney was so explosive in this early part of his career that I wonder if there’s a Cagney vehicle spanning 1931-35 that isn’t at least of some residual interest. And if Cagney is captured here in a peak of his career, co-star Joan Blondell is captured in the peak of hers — though, interestingly, the two aren’t romantically paired. Instead, she gets embroiled with a Cagney kid brother played by a less-wimpy-than-usual Eric Linden. Is it possible that there was some obscure Federal statute at the time that said every contemporary-to-the-time Warner melodrama had to feature a kid brother — possibly one even to be killed if it’ll increase the hero’s stature as a dramatic force who must now come to terms with the emotional hard-knocks of life?

Cagney’s squeeze turns out to be Ann Dvorak, suffering on screen again and ingesting cigarettes with cause. She’s amid a sexual affair sans wedlock that Cagney is suddenly anxious to curtail. Rightfully taken as a slight, it’s motivated by Linden’s position to witness and be offended by it (though he probably wouldn’t be: see Blondell). Cagney has his own problems amid Prohibition, and though I know it was common for the movies to flaunt drinking when the scourge was in full force (at least on paper), here’s the plot-central racing champ drinking from bottles and flasks while Dvorak pleas with him to cut down — racecar driving being one of those professions where active impairment of one’s reflexes isn’t necessarily the best way to go.

Just as old-school Warner Bros. was famed for trimming running times for re-issue and then scrapping or losing the cut footage (as I would bet happened here), it was also known for recycling old scripts for remakes less than a decade after the original was in theaters. Crowd was remade in 1939 as Indianapolis Speedway, with real-life Cagney pal Pat O’Brien, John Payne and Ann Sheridan. I saw it as a kid years before I saw Hawks’s original for the first time, and I suspect it reused some of the original’s racing footage — as in the climactic bit where tread on a tire starts flapping as prelude to a blowout or big-time skid, and the driver has to make a decision about whether or not to abort the race. Doing such a thing, of course, would not have been the ’30s Warner Bros. way, so take it from there. The remake doesn’t get shown too much anymore, and I haven’t seen it since Link Wray’s recording of “Rumble” was charting. But running another 85 minutes, which this time remain intact, I suspect that the ’39 variation coheres more successfully. And  also suspect that O’Brien’s parallel to Cagney’s character wasn’t even given a post-Production-Code opportunity to have sex without benefit of clergy — though thanks to the fall of Prohibition, he would have been allowed to take a legal swig. 

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