By David G. Firestone
First off, Happy New Year! 2020 is upon us, which means that for the month of January, I will spotlight some little-known racing movies. Before we get to this week’s review, I do have some housekeeping things I need to discuss.
I had to make some difficult decisions in December. I spent a decent amount of time burnt out from The Driver Suit Blog, YouTube, and issues from other aspects of my life. As such, I’ve decided not to do Throwback Thursdays for 2020. These were filler anyway, so it isn’t the end of the world.
The second decision is that 2020 will probably be the last year for The Driver Suit Blog in its current form. I’ve been operating at an unsustainable level for some time, and it’s finally caught up. I will not give up, but I will probably not run as many new Friday Features as I once did, or I might rerun stuff more. I haven’t made the final decisions yet. The Driver Suit Blog isn’t going away, but I have to change for the better. With that out of the way, on to the review!
Jimmy Stewart had an acting career that spanned from 1935 to 1991. He worked with many esteemed directors, like Alfred Hitchcock, Frank Capra, Otto Preminger, and Cecil B. DeMille. Some of his most well-known movies include Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Philadelphia Story, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Naked Spur, Rear Window, Anatomy of a Murder, Vertigo, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. His likeable personality made him box office gold, and a box office god.
While most might not consider Jimmy Stewart the top choice to play a racing driver, in 1936, he starred in Speed, an MGM drama about an engineer working to make his invention a reality. Produced by Lucien Hubbard and directed by Edwin L. Marin, the movie is Stewart’s first starring role, and costars Ted Heally of Three Stooges fame. The movie was seen as “passable” by many critics, claiming that the storyline was weak.
Jimmy Stewart plays Terry Martin, an engineer at the Emery Motors in Detroit. The scene opens at a car factory which also houses a dirt track. The scene opens with Jane Mitchell watching a car get destroyed, as a part of testing. Terry is the driver, and although he crashes, he is unhurt. Clarence “Gadget” Haggerty played by Ted Healy is ensuring that Terry isn’t hurt. Jane and Terry talk for a while, and then Terry takes a tour of the factory. Jane and Terry hit it off.
Frank Lawson is an automotive engineer who is competing for Jane’s hand. As they are touring the factory, and takes her in to a restricted area, which houses testing equipment. It’s clear that Terry is her choice. Terry and Frank don’t really like each other.
The scene shifts from the factory to a random dirt road. As Frank and Jane are driving, Terry and Gadget drive by, the two testing out a new carburetor. While Jane, Frank and Jane talk, Gadget makes some adjustments to Frank’s car, which causes it to shut off, after he claims “…it’s nearly perfect as we can make it. Nothing can go wrong with it.” Gadget and Terry tease Frank, and Terry takes Jane back to the plant. En route to the plant, Terry asks Jane if she can go with him to a company party, though she declines. Frank asks her at the factory, but she initially declines his advances as well.
The scene shifts to the party, which is decorated with racing flags. Terry dances with Gadget’s date, and Frank shows up with Jane. The party progresses very slowly, as does most of the film. Terry gets drunk at the party, and then has an argument with Jane, and sends her away, not listening to her explanation. Executive Jo Sanderson confronts Terry, and they try to figure out why Jane knows as many high up as she does.
The company decides to fund the carburetor, with Frank added on the project. There is obvious tension between the two. Jane arrives and tells them that the carburetor will be placed in a car in Indianapolis, in a race car. Frank and Terry perfect the carburetor, and the team races at Indianapolis.
The scene shifts to Indianapolis, where the the team prepares for the race, and witness a crash. Jane is understandably nervous when the driver is pronounced dead. Terry gets into the car, and starts his run with Gadget, which proves a successful run, equaling the track record. Frank and Terry have a brief argument about Jane, which is broken up by Jo. The team drives back to the hotel.
At lunch, Jane and Terry meet up, and Jane explains that she is interested in him. Terry’s inferiority complex is becoming more of an issue. Frank and Jo show up, and Terry has to leave to get back to the track to continue his race work, with Frank following him. The team prepares for the race, with Terry insisting that there is something wrong with the carburetor, and Frank stating that everything is ok.
The scene shifts to the day of the race, which starts on time. The car proves itself fast, with the team watching excitedly. Terry avoids a spin, and the race continues. At lap 150, Terry makes his attempt for the lead, which he eventually gets. Terry gets into a crash, flipping over the wall. The team rushes over to the car, where Terry is hurt, but Gadget suffers serious injuries.
At the hospital, Gadget’s injuries are severe, Terry is healing. Jane walks into Terry’s room, and they discuss the events of the day. Terry blames Frank for the accident, claiming that Frank was muscling in on Terry’s carburetor design. Jane reveals that she was the one who demanded that Frank be added to the project. Terry is enraged, thinking that Jane has feelings for Frank, and sends her away.
As Terry is dealing with his injuries, Gadget is brought to see him. Though his injuries, Gadget thinks that the two are going to work on the carburetor, but Terry rebuffs him. Gadget hits on the idea for placing the carburetor in a car to attempt a land speed record(301.129 mph at the time of filming). Mr. Dean, the head of the factory, says that the carburetor isn’t being funded due to the board of directors. As Mr. Dean speaks with the owner, Jane walks in and talks with the owner, and somehow gets the decision reversed
Mr. Dean and Terry talk, and it’s revealed that the decision has been reversed. Terry isn’t willing to work with Frank. The car is readied for the test at Muroc Dry Lake in California. Jean comes in and talks with Terry about publicizing the test, and it seems as the tension between the two is gone. The new team prepared for the race, and they end up going to a barn dance. At the dance, all involved are having a great time. Frank eventually shows up. Terry is worried about the attempt the next day. Terry and Jane get into a fight, and she leaves in a huff.
The scene shifts to the test the next day. The Falcon, the custom designed car, is prepared for the test. Frank, Gadget, Jane and the rest wish him the best on his attempt. The attempt is broadcast on the radio. The Falcon outruns an airplane taking a picture of the attempt from above. As the test is going, a fuel pipe breaks, and causes a crash. Terry, having loosened his helmet, is injured in the wreck. Emergency teams arrive, and tend to him. Frank puts Terry into the car, and drives to seek help. They end up at Muroc hospital.
As Terry lies in the hospital, he wonders how he got there. It’s revealed that driving Terry in the Falcon set the record. Jane Mitchell is revealed to be Jane Emery, niece of the owner, and heir to the company. Gadget and Fanny Lane make up, and Terry and Jane finally fall in love.
In summary, I agree with the critics who say that the movie is passable. It’s nothing ground breaking, and there are a lot of cliches. I didn’t like this movie for the same reason I loved Greased Lightning. In Greased Lightning, there is a great ratio of racing plot and character plot. With Speed, it’s mostly character plot, with a little racing plot.
The characters aren’t great either. Jimmy Stewart is good in his role, but the rest of the characters aren’t good. The antagonist, Frank Lawson, isn’t really that unlikeable, and doesn’t fill the antagonist role well. Most of the other characters are bland. Only Terry has any real depth to him. Even characters who are supposed to be protagonists aren’t really likeable. The twist with Jane at the end is predictable. The whole movie is a bland racing movie. I’m giving this a C. It’s bland and mediocre.
Next week, a movie from 1947.