The Roaring Road (Paramount, 1919)
Toodles Walden (Wallace Reid) is a sales agent at Darco Motors but he aspires to being a racecar driver. His boss, J.D. Ward (Theodore Roberts), won’t give him a break. When a shipment of Darco racers are destroyed in a trainwreck, Toodles and his mechanic friend (Guy Oliver) buy the scrap pieces and assemble a Frankenstein Darco that they enter in the race themselves. Toodles wins, which pleases J.D., but not enough that he’ll consent to Toodles marrying his daughter (Ann Little).
Toodles gets into a bit of a funk, which he works through by secretly trying to beat the San Francisco-Los Angeles speed record — currently held by Darco’s arch nemesis, Rexton. As the window for beating the record closes, it becomes imperative that Toodles succeeds, or else Darco will be the laughing stock of Gasoline Row. To provide some motivation, J.D. lets it slip that he intends to take his daughter back east for a year — they leave on the eight o’clock train tonight. If Toodles hopes to see her, he’ll have to beat the train — and the record.
Between the two racing set pieces, there’s really not much to this film. The love story angle is slight and the Darco-Rexton rivalry is slighter still — it’s literally nothing more than a couple throw-away lines. In this genre, though, that wouldn’t matter at all if the racing sequences landed.
The second one does. Toodles is speeding through town and countryside over good and bad roads, which provides variety. The race is also mostly at night, with some interesting light effects. The train lends a sense of urgency, particularly when the tracks and the road briefly run side-by-side and Toodles has to beat the train to the crossing. Given that Toodles is such a static character, we wisely cut back and forth between the car and the train, to see the increasing excitement of the passengers and J.D.’s growing approval. I should say now, Wallace Reid might be first billed, but Theodore Roberts is the real star of the film. Roberts is an enormous character that completely overshadows Reid whenever they share the stage.
The first race… it’s so boring. I don’t suppose there are that many ways to shoot a car speeding around an oval track, but there surely must be more than the handful of angles we get here. They just go round and round for ten long minutes. And the cars themselves are so nondescript, if it weren’t for periodically cutting back to the scoreboard, you’d have no idea who was winning. Even J.D. doesn’t do much to buoy the excitement. It isn’t until the race is over and Toodles has won that he stops sulkily chomping on his cigar.
The Roaring Road isn’t Reid’s only racing film. He did several — indeed, he was particularly known for them. Roaring Road was released in 1919, which was the same year that Reid was involved in a trainwreck. It left him pretty banged-up and in considerable pain. To keep working, he was kept pumped full of morphine on set — leading to his becoming addicted to it. I don’t know if Roaring Road came before or after that, but it would explain his acting.
Theodore Roberts is excellent, but it’s never a good sign when a supporting character consistently and thoroughly upstages your lead. The San Francisco-Los Angeles race is exciting and well photographed, but it’s the last reel in a five reel picture. It rarely feels interminable, but the movie does drag for much of its runtime. I know why they didn’t — in 1919, the shorts market had all but dried up — but with such a threadbare story, they should have just jettisoned all the padding and fluff and released a two-reeler.
I’m not sure. I certainly don’t “like it”, but I think that — if taken in parts — there are enough good bits to elevate it out of “don’t like it”.
My rating: Meh.