Directed by James Cruze
Released April 27, 1919
Cast: Wallace Reid ("Toodles" Walden), Ann Little (Dorothy Ward), Theodore Roberts (J.D. "The Bear" Ward), Guy Oliver (Tom Darby), Clarence Geldart (Fred Wheeler). Directed by James Cruze.
When speaking of the "race car" movies of the silent era, Wally Reid is the star who usually comes to mind, and "The Roaring Road" was the movie that started the public's love affair with the genre.
In real life, Reid was an automobile enthusiast who loved to tinker with them as much as he liked to drive them. Louella Parsons wrote in her autobiography, Tell It To Louella (Puttnam, 1961) that Reid "drove the Hollywood streets as if he were on the last lap of the chariot race in 'Ben Hur'." It was only natural that some of his most popular movies would incorporate this passion.
As "The Roaring Road" opens, not a single make of car has won the Santa Monica road race, known as the Grand Prize, three times in a row. The Darco Motor Company has done it twice, and the company's president, J.D. "The Bear" Ward, wants a Darco to win this year's race to make it three and set the record. To seal the deal, three new Darco racecars are on their way by train, and three professional drivers are standing by.
Darco's top salesman, Walter Thomas Walden, better known as "Toodles," wants to drive in the race, but J.D. wants no amateurs. Toodles does not inspire any confidence in his cigar-chomping boss. The only thing Toodles wants more than the chance to race, is to marry The Bear's "motherless cub" daughter Dorothy. After a misunderstanding with J.D., the high octane Toodles gets mad, quits his job and vows to get even. To add to J.D.'s troubles, he receives word that the train carrying the three racing cars has crashed, and the cars are all but destroyed.
Unknown to J.D., an enterprising Toodles buys the three cars from the insurance company, and, with the help of Darco mechanic Tom Darby, salvages one complete race car from them. The day of the big race, J.D. is both surprised and angered to learn that Toodles has entered his "Three in One" Darco. After winning this suspenseful race, The Bear is understandably happy again and gives Toodles a new contract with an increased salary.
However, old J.D. still holds out on the most important thing that Toodles wants. He refuses, as he has done all along, to give his blessing when Toodles asks for Dorothy's hand in marriage. This time he says she must wait five years!
Lovebirds Toodles and Dorothy are convinced they can't wait five years, and he tries one more time to win the old man's confidence. In the meantime, J.D. learns from a newspaper gossip column that Toodles has been secretly driving at night to break the Rexton Motor Company's record of 14 hours from Los Angeles to San Francisco. That's about 15 minutes faster than it takes to make the trip by train! J.D.'s hackles are raised. He is steaming mad with Toodles and tells him so. In response, Toodles blows his top and quits a second time. This time's for keeps!
To save face for the Darco Motor Company, J.D. decides he must accomplish what Toodles started and calls to Chicago for his three top drivers to attempt to break the record. To J.D.'s chagrin, the governor has issued a ban on all road racing that will go into effect in four days - not enough time to get the drivers in from the Midwest. Now, he must eat crow and call upon Toodles to step in before the four days are up. Not one to forget a grudge, Toodles declines.
Wily old Bear concocts an elaborate trick to get Toodles to make the Los Angeles-San Francisco run. This will involve "kidnapping" his own daughter and taking her to San Francisco by train so Toodles will have to drive there to rescue her. This cunning plan is jeopardized by the fact that Toodles has been thrown in jail - ten days for speeding! Nevertheless, there is a race to be run and a bride to be won before the four days elapse...!
"... The audiences couldn't get enough of him behind a steering wheel. We virtually turned these road-racing items out on an assembly line, and every one was a money maker," wrote producer Jesse L. Lasky. Not only was "The Roaring Road" a money-maker, it was popular with the critics of the day, too. A reviewer in Motion Picture Magazine said, "I cannot but admit that the production as a whole is a mighty interesting piece of work," although she lamented the lack of close-ups of the handsome Reid. A review in The New York Times also praised the film, especially director James Cruze's direction of the car-train race that serves as the climax of the story. "'The Roaring Road' at the Strand this week comes to an exciting finish with a race between an automobile and a train. It is exciting, as the involuntary exclamations and applause of the spectators yesterday afternoon testified. The spectators seemed to feel themselves on the train when the passengers were seen scampering from one side of the car to the other or crowding eagerly at windows to watch the tearing automobile. The people in the theatre seats shared their sensations. And a noticeable feeling of pleasant relief after high tension calmed the house when the race was over, with the automobile the winner."
This particular sequence is interesting due to some excellent photography by Frank Urson of the night scenes and the added tension brought about from racing over the mountainous terrain in the dark. Today, it may not create a great deal of excitement to those who have been jaded by the many crash-and-burn car movies of the last 30-40 years. But remember that in 1919, these racing scenes were shot on a dirt track, and without the rear projection, safety gear or sufficiently safe automobiles that existed in the later films. The New York Times reviewer said, "Frank Urson is reported to have directed the reproduction of the race. To him, therefore, must go credit for a masterpiece of picture-making."
Director James Cruze was born in 1884 and spent several years on the stage before becoming an actor in 1911. His decision to turn to directing in 1918 was obviously a wise choice. "The Roaring Road" was only his fifth directorial effort, with three of the five being Reid vehicles. He has also director Reid in "Alias Mike Moran" and "The Dub," which most likely have not survived. However, four short years later he assured his immortality among silent movie directors with "The Covered Wagon" in 1923. He was at one time married to serial queen Marguerite Snow, but his more memorable union was his marriage to Betty Compson in 1925, a marriage that lasted seven years. Of his direction in "The Roaring Road," The New York Times said, "The whole production was under the direction of James Cruze, who handled it capably. He caught the spirit of the photoplay and put that in the picture rather than the star or any of the other players."
Theodore Roberts, known to all as "Daddy" Roberts, made his mark on the stage. In 1910, he decided to enter films as "an experiment." Consequently, he ended up making a major career in movies. Wallace Reid had known Roberts since well before his movie-making days, and it was actually Roberts' performance in a play written by Reid's father that encouraged him to become an actor. Roberts was a close friend and trusted counselor throughout Reid's short but troubled life. Daddy's most famous prop in most of his films, was his ever-present cigar and wreathes of smoke. He and his cigar are right there in character in "The Roaring Road."
Because of the popularity of this film, Reid made a sequel to "The Roaring Road" the next year entitled "Excuse My Dust" in which he returns as Toodles Walden with Ann Little as his wife and wily old Daddy Roberts back again as "The Bear."
Reid and veteran character actor Roberts are the catalysts that make the movie work, especially with the constant conflagrations their tempers cause - however, Roberts' characterization of the crusty J.D. Ward was more popular with the critics. "Reid has the featured role, and is satisfactory, buthe major acting is done by Theodore Roberts and notably well done," said The New York Times. According to the Variety reviewer, ". . . it is not a stellar vehicle for Wallace Reid, who is utterly eclipsed by Theodore Roberts in the role of 'The Bear' . . . This is no reflection upon Reid's talents, which he utilizes neatly and acceptably in 'The Roaring Road' as 'Toodles,' but 'The Bear'; is a character role, and when handled by one of the greatest living character actors - if not the greatest - the result was inevitable, viz., he walked away with the show." Little, as the romantic interest, and the other players do not have a lot to contribute to this rugged story and are hardly noticed by the reviewers.
Overall, "The Roaring Road" is a neat little movie with a legitimate story, not just a series of automobile races strung together. The New York Times reviewer said, "But although the plot of the photoplay is nothing important, there is more to 'The Roaring Road' than the final race. The story moves at racing speed most of the time and the final climax comes consistently enough. "Variety said, "The picture is first rate comedy with a lot of corking thrills. It will please any picture audience. As the reviewers noted, Roberts is always a joy to watch, and he's convincingly gruff and obstinate in this movie - enough to provide a satisfactory antagonist for Reid's go-getter "Toodles." And although Reid may be overshadowed on the acting scale by Roberts, he is still engaging and bright in this story, as he was in most of his films prior to the later ones that begin to show tell-tale signs of his drug addiction. If you want a double-feature for a great evening's entertainment, get "The Roaring Road" and "Excuse My Dust" and watch them back to back!
NOTE: Unknown Video offers a double feature DVD with "The Roaring Road" and Wallace Reid's sequel to the movie, "Excuse My Dust." Click here for more information!
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