Directed by Harry Pollard

Cast: Reginald Denny (Tom Hayden), Gertrude Olmsted (Betty Brown), Tom Wilson (Sambo), Charles K. Gerrard (Creighton Deane), Lucille Ward (Mrs. Brown), John Steppling (Jeffrey Brown), and Fred Esmelton (Thomas Hayden, Sr.)

Fast Cars, A Wedding, and the Honeymoon Special

Complications are inevitable for Tom Hayden and Betty Brown. They are engaged to be married, and their fathers are Thomas Hayden, Sr., the "money king and builder of the world's fastest racing cars," and Jeffrey Brown, "his bitterest rival, whose ambition is speedway supremacy."

The union of these two should mean the merging of two very successful car manufacturers and the end of a rivalry over which is the fastest racing car -- Hayden's Moonbeam or Brown's Special. However, in spite of the impending marriage, the two men still continue to argue over who has the fastest car. Brown argues that Hayden's Moonbeam doesn't stand a chance without Tom behind the wheel, a challenge that obviously plays a part in the film's race finale.

Tom, however, is totally oblivious to such concerns. He is busy having a farewell dinner with his male companions, or so Betty and the two mothers think. Actually, Tom and his cohorts are being pulled around some mountain roads in his "Honeymoon Special," a camping trailer he bought to take on his post-nuptial vacation. While being pulled around by the chauffeur, Tom and his buddies are busy having a wild bachelor party in the trailer with party hats, musical instruments and general carefree abandon.

The film wastes no time in bringing the viewer to the edge of his seat as the trailer hitch comes loose, and the "Honeymoon Special" zips wildly down the curving mountain road. After taking the viewer on a nail-biting ride in which Tom tries unsuccessfully to utilize the emergency steering system, he runs off the mountain side and through a large billboard.

Tom wakes up in a hospital with his servant "Sambo" by his side and a huge X-shaped bandage across his nose barely concealing two raccoon-like black eyes. Suddenly realizing he has only 13 minutes to get to his wedding, he and Sambo run out of the hospital with nurses shouting, "Stop him! Stop him!" Outside, an ambulance has just driven up with a mentally unbalanced woman in the back. Sambo jumps in the driver's seat, Tom jumps in the back to finish putting on his clothes, and off they go!

Once inside the ambulance, the woman attaches herself to Tom crying "Darling, darling, my long lost darling!" In the meantime, word had reached the wedding party that Tom has been seriously hurt. As the ambulance drives up, the entire wedding party hurries outside. Tom is furiously trying to get away from the woman before anyone misunderstands, and it seems at first that he has.

He removes himself from her grasp, jumps outside the ambulance, and slams the rear doors just as Betty arrives -- obviously glad to see her husband-to-be is still alive. Suddenly, the ambulance doors fly open, and the woman throws her arms around Tom's neck. She takes one look at Betty and exclaims, "So -- you would leave me for her?"

The Browns leave in a rage, and Tom's father tells him, "You've lost a fine girl -- broken the friendship of two families and ruined a great business deal -- from now on, you shift for yourself till you've proven yourself a man -- I'm through." And all of this has taken place in the first 14 minutes of the film!

A Mobile Diner, Mud and Madness

However, the best is yet to come. Tom converts the trailer into a mobile diner that caters to tourists traveling west. Sambo is the cook, and Tom serves as host for the diners in the trailer and in a canopy-covered deck on top. They are shown traveling over the wide-open spaces with a string of cars behind them caravan style.

There's a method to Tom's madness, though. Betty and her family, along with a caravan of servants, are on their way to California for the big Los Angeles race. Tom's on his way to the races, too, but Betty is the "driving" force behind his excursion.

Tom accidentally happens upon the Brown caravan when Mr. Brown's big touring car gets stuck trying to cross a creek. Mr. Brown's pomposity gets soaked a couple of times when he falls in the creek trying to get his car out.

In the car behind him is Betty and Creighton Deane who "expected to put money in the Brown factory and his heart in Betty's lap." When he stands up in his convertible to say something to Brown, Brown's spinning wheels douse both Deane and Betty. Tom happens upon the scene, and Betty is surprised (and maybe a little glad) to see him. The caught-off-guard, blank stare on her mud-covered face is priceless!

Both parties end up in the same auto camp that night much to Mr. Brown's chagrin. Tom has everything going his way with a successful diner, plenty of customers and lots of fun and dancing. Betty has to stand back and watch, hurt and just a little envious. Her family's troubles come to a head when the entire staff of servants quits and deserts them in the middle of nowhere.

Betty and Tom do get back together before the evening is over, but the night turns "wild" when a storm comes up and all of the animals at the local circus escape. What follows is almost 12 minutes of sheer mayhem. With swirling winds already raising everyone's fears, an elephant tears down the Browns' tent. The Browns go to find Betty in her tent and encounter a lion instead. Sambo is first chased by a chimp and then a mule. Tom is chased up a tree by a bear.

One of the funniest scenes occurs during all of this commotion when the ultra-dignified Creighton Deane, asleep in his lounge chair, dreams that Betty is in his arms kissing him. Actually, he has a chimpanzee in his lap that plants a "big one" on his lips!

After this Keystone-style sequence of events, the viewer may wonder what more could there be, but we still have the big race which Tom must win to get Brown's permission to marry Betty, and all of this is complicated further when Tom is thrown is jail!

Wacky, Zany, Good Hokum

In Classics of the Silent Screen (Citadel, 1959), author Joe Franklin said Denny's films "zipped along at a fast pace, all dominated by the ebullient and breezy personality of Denny," and "California Straight Ahead" is no exception. The story is nothing new -- a boy loses his girl, falls into disfavor with her family, and, because he wins a big race at the end, everything is just dandy again -- but Denny's likeable personality and the string of comical incidents, almost non-stop, keeps the viewer's attention from beginning to end.

Gertrude Olmsted is charming as the wronged bride-to-be. In the scene where the car is stuck in the creek, the blank stare she gives Tom with mud splattered all over her face is classic. At the auto camp, Tom knows Betty is alone in her tent, and, to attract her attention, he uses a fan to blow the aroma of the chicken her way while playing sad music loud enough for her to hear. She can't stand it any longer and goes to his diner. Olmsted effectively runs the gamut of anger, then petulance and, finally, coquettishness as Betty and Tom make up. Fortunately, several of Olmsted's (sometimes spelled Olmstead) films are available for viewing today -- "The Monster" (1925) with Lon Chaney, "Cobra" (1925) with Rudolph Valentino, "Sweet Adeline" (1926) with Charles Ray, "The Torrent" (1926) with Greta Garbo, and "The Boob" (1926) with George K. Arthur. However, for some reason, she shines with more personality and charm in her two films with Denny -- 'California Straight Ahead" (1925) and "The Cheerful Fraud" (1927) than in any of these others. Maybe she was more suited for comedy, or maybe Denny simply brought out the best in her, but, either way, she's a welcome addition to the Denny films, and neither would have been as good without her.

Esmelton and Steppling do a fine job as the warring patriarchs, but Steppling actually contributes the most to the film since it is his character, Jeffrey Brown, who provides the conflict for Tom. From the moment he thinks Tom has been two-timing his daughter, Steppling gives an excellent portrayal of the stubborn, obstinate, unforgiving father. When Tom offers to pull his car out of the creek, Brown refuses the favor. Tom does it anyway, and Brown refuses still to give any thanks. It is Brown who has Tom arrested, then makes a deal with him to drive his race car just so he won't drive for his own father, then changes his mind and has a cop chasing Tom with a warrant all during the race. Steppling growls his way through all of this superbly.

The one flaw in the picture is Tom Wilson's characterization of Sambo. Apparently the name is supposed to make it clear to us he's a black man since Wilson still looks like the dusky-painted Caucasian he is. A real black man in the part with some humor that wasn't based on worn-out stereotypical behavior would have improved the role in the film immensely.

Franklin described "California Straight Ahead" as "wacky, zany," but not in the same sense as a Semon comedy or even a Keaton. Denny wanted his comedy believable, even if it was low comedy. "Good hokum, I love -- low comedy, pies in the face, pratfalls, and so on. But it's got to belong," he told Kevin Brownlow. The sequence where the circus animals escape and converge on the auto camp is probably one of the most outlandish (and funniest) ever in a Denny film, but Denny and director Pollard make it work. "To do farce properly, you take an almost impossible situation but you play it legitimately," Denny explained.

In Denny's world, nothing is ever as simple as it should be, and that is still the foundation of "California Straight Ahead." The bachelor party in the camping trailer results in a heart-stopping, runaway ride down a mountainside. He commandeers an ambulance to get to his wedding on time, and there's a crazy woman inside. He spends the night at an auto camp, and escaped circus animals turn the whole place upside down. He sets out to win a motor race, and he's chased the entire time by a warrant-serving police officer.

The film's charm does not rest solely on situations, either. No one but Denny could have carried this film as well. The looks of exasperation as he tries to free himself from the clutches of the mentally disturbed woman while Betty walks away are pure Denny. The easygoing charm with which he wins her back at the auto camp is a delight to watch. Admittedly, we don't have as much opportunity to enjoy the Denny personality as we do in "Skinner's Dress Suit" (Universal, 1926), considered by many to be his best film, but "California Straight Ahead" is still uproariously funny in parts, absolutely charming in others, and downright exciting at other times. Highly recommended!

End Note

It is unfortunate that more Denny films aren't available today. His silent film legacy basically rests on three features -- "California Straight Ahead" (1925), "Skinner's Dress Suit" (1926) and "The Cheerful Fraud" (1927). However, if the quality of these three films was consistent throughout his entire career in the silent era, Denny is certainly one of the most underappreciated comedians to come from this era. Walter Kerr included Denny as one of the "demiclowns," that second echelon of comedians just below "The Big Four," in his book "The Silent Clowns" (Alfred A. Knopf, 1975), and Kevin Brownlow devoted a whole chapter to Denny in "The Parade's Gone By" (University of California Press, 1968). Anyone who has not seen one of these Denny comedies is certainly missing out on one of the most enjoyable and original comedians of the silent era.

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