Though the titles may be the same, these two films offer up a totally different universe in the world of sports and also server to spotlight how one major Hollywood studio presented their product versus another. In this case the earlier version was released by Warner Brothers. Arguably featuring their biggest male star on the lot. It’s backdrop is the world of car racing. The latter film was from MGM and again featured what may have been their biggest male star on the lot with boxing serving as the focal point of the story.
The Crowd Roars (1932)
When it comes to casting a cocky, brash racing car driver is there any doubt that Jack Warner would assign this film to James Cagney? Cagney fits the bill when this Howard Hawks film gets underway. Having just won his third race at the Indianapolis Speedway, Cagney is the celebrated hero of the track and returns home to renew ties with his family. Most notably his younger brother Eric Linder who has a serious case of hero worshipping his big brother. Linder wants nothing more than to emulate Cagney on the track and make a name for himself as well.
At the local raceway in his hometown, Cagney, puts on a friendly racing demonstration with co-driver and frequent co-star, Frank McHugh. Also driving in the race is younger brother Linder. He impresses Cagney enough that Jimmy takes him on as a protégé. Bringing the kid on to the team is going to mess up Cagney’s love life. He’s got a steady gal played by Ann Dvorak. They’re not married but the implication that they are lovers is easy to read. Let’s not forget this one is a “pre-code.”
It’s second billed Joan Blondell who is Cagney’s main opposition. He can’t stand her. Again, being this one was made before the code he pretty much insinuates she’s a whore. In order to keep his younger brother on the straight and narrow, he breaks things off with Dvorak and when he finds his kid brother fawning over Blondell he manhandles her to the point that he’s driving a serious wedge between him and little brother. Turns out Joan really is falling for the kid afterall.
Cagney’s got a drinking problem and it isn’t getting any better. All this leads to a fiery crash on the track that really holds up resulting in the death of one of our leading players. Stock footage I assume it to be but it’s quite effective under Hawks’ direction. Guilt sets in and our leading man is on a downward spiral to the bottom of a bottle. While his career collapses it’s Linder’s who is assuming the number one ranking.
Is Cagney washed up? Maybe the love of a good woman might set him straight? Could be but whichever way this goes I just loved the ending when Cagney coaxes an ambulance driver carrying him off to the hosptal to defeat the other ambulance bringing in another racer.
“A smashing, crashing race track romance!” according to the film’s trailer.
Cagney could play these cocky roles in his sleep. While he’s got pal McHugh along for the race the only thing the plot is really missing here is inserting Pat O’Brien into the festivities as either a priest trying to keep Cagney on the side of righteousness or maybe as a father figure/friend presenting a calming presence versus Cagney’s fists first attack on life. Isn’t it ironic that O’Brien would play the Cagney role in the 1939 remake Indianapolis Speedway with McHugh playing the same role he did here as the mechanic loyal buddy.
As a Warner Brothers feature the film has a coarseness to it that is common under the studio banner. No it’s not a gangster picture but they still have Jimmy playing up the tough guy when he pushes Joan around even if it is without a grapefruit. Cagney would only work with Hawks once more on the 1936 feature Ceiling Zero which not surprisingly had Cagney opposite O’Brien as was the norm during the 1930’s.
Finally the film should offer up plenty of interest beyond those who are fans of Cagney. Racing enthusiasts might enjoy the footage of these now ancient machines and in many cases the dirt tracks they were run on. Real life drivers included are just names to me but again racing historians may know them. Included are Shorty Canyon, Wilbur Shaw, Stubby Stubbyfield and Billy Arnold.
Time to fast forward to six years to ….
The Crowd Roars (1938)
For this MGM effort from house director Richard Thorpe, Robert Taylor takes to the center of the square ring as “Killer” McCoy, a young light heavyweight on the rise in the world of boxing. Using the plot device of a child actor (Gene Reynolds) in the Taylor role we’ll see the early years of McCoy raised by a layabout drunk for a father portrayed by MGM favorite, Frank Morgan. Through happenstance the boy meets and is befriended by world champ, William Gargan, and travels with the fighter’s entourage learning the fight game and sadly being financially abused by his father.
The years pass and at the fifteen minute mark, Taylor, takes over the acting duties from young Reynolds as the lead character. Gargan has lost his title and retired while his trainer, Lionel Stander, is now training Taylor. Morgan is a hanger-on and still drinking and gambling money away he doesn’t have. Taylor’s rise is about to take a nasty turn. Morgan owes a gambling ring run by Edward Arnold $600 and Taylor figures to square it after his next fight. What Taylor doesn’t figure on is being matched up against Gargan making a comeback to earn some money after bottoming out. He’s got nothing left in his punches and Taylor knows what he has to do. KO his old mentor but sadly his punch proves fatal earning him the nickname “Killer.”
Though he tries to escape the fight game, Taylor, is drawn back to it and agrees to let Arnold silently back him. It’s strictly business but when Taylor meets Arnold’s daughter, Maureen O’Sullivan, a romance is sure to develop driving a wedge between the underworld figure and the fighter.
As Taylor rises through the ranks and closes in on a title shot the drunken Morgan unveils more then he should to a rival mobster played by Nat Pendleton. “Why, Tommy’s right has the kick of a Missouri mule, the speed of a striking cobra, and the aim of William Tell.” It’s all going to culminate in the classic “Taylor better throw the fight if he wants to see his sweetheart alive again” scenario and it’s a heck of a ride towards the final bell.
What makes this film grand entertainment is the cast assigned to the production by Mr. Mayer. Taylor is just coming into his prime years as a leading man and is more than up to the challenge of presenting a fighter on camera. Arnold always made for a good heavy when need be and who doesn’t love the gravel voiced comic relief provided by Lionel Stander? Aside from HUAC that is. The Wizard himself, Frank Morgan, is a credit to any production and shines here as the no good Dad looking to do the right thing when it counts the most and then there’s the lovely Jane. I’m referring to Miss O’Sullivan with her distinctive voice and nurturing on screen presence.
There’s also a comical turn by Jane Wyman as Maureen’s girlfriend who has her eye on Taylor leading to a funny bit when she realizes it’s not her that he’s after. Keen eyed western fans will be quick to spot both Don “Red” Barry and Paul Fix as a couple of thugs attempting to play it tough when called upon. And as we’re hanging out in the boxing gym you’ll be sure to spot a cameo by “Slapsie” Maxie Rosenbloom.
Director Thorpe would long be associated with Robert Taylor. They’d work together a total of eight times by my count. The majority of their teaming occurred on big budget MGM films of the 1950’s. Titles like Ivanhoe and Knights of the Round Table and the lesser known Tip On a Dead Jockey.
If the character “Killer McCoy” sounds familiar then maybe you’ve seen the 1947 remake that MGM put out starring Mickey Rooney as the title character. If not I’d recommend it right alongside this Taylor effort that has the Louis B. Mayer touch in both formula and sentiment.
Which of these two will I be sure to revisit first? Hate to pick between Cagney and Taylor but will say with the advancement of sound productions, the Taylor film is far more polished than the Cagney effort. So which would you prefer, Taylor in the ring or Cagney on the track?
Both sound amazing Mike. Both added to the list. I need to raise the ante on my 30s film viewing.
There’s so many well known titles on the surface but thousands more that are worth looking into beyond the accepted classics.
Since I’ve seen neither, I’ll have to go with the actor I enjoy more, which would be Cagney…although the latter version sounds like the better production overall. But wait, we have some pre-code shenanigans with the former…hmmm.
You nailed it. Most are gonna go with Cagney and that I think is because history has served him better than Taylor. Kind of sad. I often use Taylor when referring to an actor that has been lost to time. Guy was enormously popular and made some great films but it’s Cagney that has lived on due to the gangsters I think and the fact that imitators loved to do him for many years. Truthfully the 1938 film is far the better film but then there’s Cagney…..