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The Roaring Road (Paramount, 1919)

The Roaring Road screenshot 1The Roaring Road (Paramount, 1919)
Directed by James Cruze
Starring Wallace Reid

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.

The Roaring Road screenshot 2Between 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 screenshot 3The 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.

The Victoria Cross (Vitagraph, 1912)

Screenshot from The Victoria CrossThe Victoria Cross (Vitagraph, 1912)
Directed by Hal Reid
Starring Wallace Reid and Edith Storey

Lieutenant Cholmodeley (Wallace Reid) is in love with the Colonel’s daughter, Ellen (Edith Storey), and wants to marry her, but her father (Tefft Johnson) won’t allow it until Cholmodeley has “earned his spurs”. War has just been declared between Britain and Russia and the Lieutenant and Colonel are called to the Crimea. To be nearer her love, Ellen joins Florence Nightingale (Julia Swayne Gordon) and follows the troops as a front-line nurse. There, she witnesses the charge of the Light Brigade, where Cholmodeley distinguishes himself by rescuing a fallen comrade and fighting off several Russians in the process. Back in England, he’s awarded the Victoria Cross by the Queen (Rose Tapley) and the Colonel gives him his consent to marry Ellen.

The Victoria Cross (1912) is an excellent example of a “quality film”, a curious genre that emerged and disappeared in the early 1910s. Describing what a quality film is and why they came into being could fill whole books (and, indeed, it has), but in the briefest terms, a quality film is a movie with a historical, biographical, or literary nature viewed through an American moral lens intended to be watched by recent “undesirable” immigrants (Jews, Italians, Poles, etc.) as a means of uplifting and Americanizing them. Further, although they were never the target audience, the mere existence of quality films acted to legitimize motion pictures in the eyes of the upper classes, who until that time looked at them with xenophobic suspicion (cinema tickets were affordable even for the lowest rungs of society and the silent drama does not require one to understand English, you see). Nearly all the major studios made at least a couple, but Vitagraph was the undisputed champion of the quality film. The Victoria Cross ticks all the right boxes and would have met with the approval of the “uplifters”, but what’s slightly unusual for the genre, it’s a pretty well-made and entertaining film, too.

One thing that impressed me was how it handled the charge of the Light Brigade itself. Rather than portray the charge directly, it’s shown from Ellen’s perspective, back at camp through binoculars. It’s a novel device that allows the film to focus on individual snapshots of the battle, making it seem like they must be taken from a much larger picture. The film already has a large cast, with 80-100 extras and half as many horses, but only seeing them in close-up through the binoculars, it seems truly massive. It’s easy to believe that you’re actually watching 600 mounted men charge against the cannons. Compare The Victoria Cross to something more conventionally staged, like The Battle (1911), and you’ll see what I mean.

And it’s just super fun in an action movie sort of way. When Cholmodeley charges in to save his fallen comrade on the field, he’s rushed by three enemy soldiers that he fights off with his sword. The last he lifts up in the air, over his head, and then slams into the ground. We cut back to Ellen, and when we return, there’s a whole pile of bodies at his feet. I will say that the film starts off a bit slow, but once the battle is underway, it’s incredibly entertaining.

My rating: I like it.

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