While short silent films are easy to watch, there are also longer, multi-reel full movies that without audio can be difficult to watch sometimes. This is also true when it comes to more serious movies. One such example is the 1919 Wallace Reid classic The The Roaring Road. It’s a decent movie, but can be difficult to watch.
The movie starts with with a title card describing “the four hundred mile Santa Monica race, known as the grand prize, has long been a classic event in motor-dom, but has never been won three times by any one make of car.” Short aside, I should use the term “motor-dom” more often. There is a brief shot of racing before we get a title card introducing “J. D. Ward, nicknamed “the Bear,” President of the Darco Motor Company. Theodore Roberts.” Roberts is the actor playing Ward. The shot then turns to footage of an actual bear sitting at a desk, which fades to the character of J. D. Ward. Another title card states that he has won the Grand Prize with the Darco Ninety, and he wants to win a third one.
Ward gets a phone call telling him that his cars will be in town later that day. Ward meets with the drivers, and they talk about the race. We are then introduced to Wallace Thomas Walden, better known as Toodles, who is Ward’s best salesman, and played by Wallace Reid. Toodles wants to race in the Grand Prize, but Ward won’t let an amateur race in his cars. Toodles enjoys taking his anger about this situation out on motor cops. He proceeds to outrun a motorcycle cop.
Then we get introduced to Dorothy Ward, referred to as “The Bear’s motherless cub.” Toodles wants Dorothy’s hand in marriage. Dorothy and Toodles meet and talk, and then The Bear calls Fred Wheeler in to explain his resignation. The scene shifts between Fred and The Bear , and Dorothy and Toodles. Toodles gets suggested to replace Fred, and The Bear gets a test. While Toodles passes the test, he quits in anger. Tom Darby, a Darco mechanic is introduced. As if this isn;t bad enough, the tran carrying the race cars has wrecked, and Darco is out of the race.
Inspecting the wreckage, Dorothy, Tom, and Toodles hatch a plan to enter a Darco in the race, by salvaging the three wrecked cars into one car. The Bear is not happy, but because Toodles owns the car himself, The Bear can’t stop him from entering the race. The 400 mile race starts. The Bear is not sold on the “Three-in-One” but the car starts to show speed. The Bear is still negative about the situation. As the race continues, Dorothy tries to convince The Bear that this isn’t an act of revenge, but Toodles and Tom really trying to win the race.
Then The Bear gets a signed contract from Toodles, and The Bear. The letter contains a threat to slow down on lap 40. The Bear doesn’t want to sign, but by lap 38 out of 40, Toodles is in the lead. Toodles goes through on his threat to throw the race by slowing on lap 40, but then roars back into first. Toodles wins the race, and The Bear and Darco win their third Grand Prize. All is forgiven between The Bear and Toodles, but there is tension, when Toodles asks for Dorothy’s hand in marriage. The Bear responds by saying that she won’t get married for 5 years.
This does not sit well with Toodles, who vents to Dorothy, without realizing that The Bear is listening. As this is happening, we learn that Rexton, the main competitor to Darco has been disqualified from the record from San Francisco to Los Angeles, supposedly with Toodles behind the wheel. The Bear is furious, and calls Toodles into his office, demanding an explanation. Before he can talk, Toodles tells The Bear that the wedding is next week. The Bear shows Toodles the newspaper, and demands answers. Toodles quits and messes up The Bear’s office, and leaves. The Bear calls his pro drivers to beat the Rexton San Francisco to LA record. There will be a total ban on road racing soon, and none of the pro drivers can make it, so The Bear enlists the help of Toodles, who rejects him.
The Bear tries to convince Dorothy that she and Toodles are done, and they are moving starting that night. This is part of a plan hatched by The Bear to get Toodles back in a car for the record attempt. It’s then revealed that Toodles has been jailed for 10 days for speeding. After a long scene of Toodles in jail, he is broken out by Tom. Tom provides Toodles with a stock car, and the chase is on. While Tom pretends to send a telegram, he officially records the start of Toodles’ attempt. It’s at this point, that I notice that Toodles and Tom are racing while wearing sunglasses AT NIGHT! The Bear is nervously chain smoking.
While racing, Tom and Toodles have to deal with hazards, such as roads closed, and getting stuck. The run continues into the night. The Bear and Dorothy continue their train trip while Toodles continues his run. Eventually, the two vehicles meet. The Darco races in front of the train, and makes it to San Francisco. The Rexton record is beaten by an hour, and The Bear allows Dorothy and Toodles to be married.
I really liked this movie, though the lack of sound made it hard to follow sometimes. The only real thing I didn’t like was J.D. The Bear Ward. He isn’t a true antagonist in certain points. Also, I don’t like that every time he is on screen, he is smoking a cigar. Still, I like this movie so I’ll give it an A-.
Next Week, the sequel to The Roaring Road, Excuse My Dust.
What can be said about Charlie Chaplain that hasn’t already been said. The man was a legend in silent film, with his trademark character known as “The Tramp.” He was a man who knew comedy, and who could attract an audience to a cinema like few before or since. Chaplain comedies were gold during the silent era, but Chaplain had a hard time adjusting to sound in his movies, and as such, his career took a bit of a downturn. This downturn would eventually spiral with a series of controversies, on and off screen. By 1952, Chaplain would see himself banned from reentry into the United States, and spent the rest of his life in Europe, where he died in 1977.
Wikipedia describes The Tramp as follows: “The physical attributes of the Tramp include a pair of abnormally large baggy pants, an abnormally tight coat, an abnormal bowler hat, an abnormally large pair of shoes, an abnormally springy and flexible cane, and an abnormal toothbrush moustache- a mass of contradictions, as Chaplin wanted it to be. The Tramp walks strangely and uncomfortably because of the ill-fitting clothing; either he is wearing secondhand clothes, or they are originally his but he can’t afford new ones, which brings us to the conclusion that the Tramp may have seen better days, but he maintains the attitude and demeanor of a high-class individual; as long as he acts like one he can believe that he is one, and is able to keep his hope that some day he actually will be again.
Chaplian himself stated :”I wanted everything to be a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large … I added a small moustache, which, I reasoned, would add age without hiding my expression. I had no idea of the character. But the moment I was dressed, the clothes and the makeup made me feel the person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked on stage he was fully born.”
While the world knew of The Tramp’s many movies, few remember that the first appearance of the character was in a racing film. Chaplain and director Henry Lehrman attended the 1914 Junior Vanderbilt Cup in Santa Monica, California. There, they shot Kid Auto Races at Venice.
The film features Chaplian trying to stand in front of a camera filming the races, much to the chagrin of the camera crew. At one point, the camera angle switches to film the camera that Chaplian is standing in front of. It’s a very simple premise, but boy does it work! This is not only a funny movie in its own right, but it’s also the launch pad for a legendary career. I can’t say anything bad about this, so it gets an A.
Next week, we switch from comedy to action and romance.
Before we get to the movie review, I have some housekeeping to take care of. I’m starting a new job soon, so I won’t have as much time to devote to The Driver Suit Blog as I once did. As such, I will only do Friday Features every other week. The Tracker and Grades will be unaffected. With that out of the way, let’s get to the review:
I have a great deal of respect for silent movies. Nowadays anyone can shoot their own shows for YouTube, with the greatest technology a person can have. Back when movies first started in 1894, sound technology wasn’t even close to being a thing, so “moving pictures”, which movies were called, had no sound, and usually, at theaters, there was someone playing a piano for the audience. Once movies with sound, or “talkies” became a thing, silent film was done pretty much for good.
It’s easy to dismiss silent films as obsolete, but these movies can be really entertaining. Guys like Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, and Charlie Chaplin made the genre their own, and produced some very hilarious films over the years. One of the most popular stars of the silent era was Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. While Arbuckle was known for his movies, he is better known for the death of Virginia Rappe, at a party at the St. Francis Hotel, in San Francisco. While Arbuckle was not responsible for her death, the press at the time painted a picture of Arbuckle as a violent rapist, which would destroy his career. History has since vindicated Arbuckle, but that was of little comfort to a comedian who had everything stolen from him.
One of Fatty Arbuckle’s early roles was in a 1913 Keystone film named The Speed Kings.
It stars Ford Sterling as Papa, Mabel Normand as Mabel, and Teddy Tetzlaff, Earl Cooper, and Barney Oldfield as themselves. The plot is that Mabel and Papa are going to watch the races, Papa is a fan of Cooper, whereas Mabel is a fan of Tetzlaff. While Cooper and Papa are talking, Tetzlaff and Mabel sneak off to a bench for some alone time before the race. Papa decided to sabotage Tetzlaff’s car to keep him from winning the race and his daughters heart.
The day of the race comes, and Papa and Mabel attend. They briefly see Barney Oldfield in his car, and in that same brief sequence, Fatty Arbuckle also make an appearance. Mabel goes to see Tetzlaff, and this enrages her father. She takes a seat, and the race begins. The racing footage itself was from several races, so it does look kind of odd, but it’s not bad. Given the technical limitations, some of the footage shot for the short is really good.
During the race, Mabel goes on to the track and stands next to Fatty Arbuckle, who waves the flag. An argument ensues, Papa attacks Fatty, and Mabel and Papa have a chase back to their seats. Papa’s sabotage works, and Tetzlaff’s car is damaged, forcing him and his mechanic to pull over and fix it, losing the lead to Cooper. Cooper wins the race, and Papa tells Cooper that Mabel is his, though Mabel runs towards Tetzlaff. Mabel and Tetzlaff embrace, while Papa decides to have another fight with Arbuckle, as the movie comes to an end.
While I did enjoy this movie overall, there were a few issues. First, the race footage looks odd when compared to more polished movies. Sometimes the race is on a track, other times it is on public roads. The second, and bigger problem is Papa. Papa is played by Ford Sterling, a well-known and respected silent film veteran. My problem with Papa is that Sterling is way too over the top with his facial and body expressions, especially when compared to the rest of the cast. He is overacting, while everyone else is acting normally, and it just looks odd. Still, I like the movie, so I’ll give it an A-.