Sunday, October 12, 2008

Funny car crashes

I read a bunch of international news sites, and one of the recent headlines is the death of a prominent European political figure in a car crash. Now, that's not funny, but I couldn't help but think Hollywood's treatment of cars and how unrealistic it was in the studio era.

A lot of this, I think, has to do with rear-projection photography. A lot of the time that characters are in cars -- especially when they're in convertibles -- they're not on any real road, but on a sound stage with stock footage of roads playing on a screen in the background. The result is a scene that looks obviously fake. Watching a drunk Cary Grant trying to negotiate rear-projection in North By Northwest is a hoot, even though it's supposed to be a suspenseful scene.

But it's not just the rear-projection that's bad. Lana Turner gets in a car crash in The Bad and the Beautiful. After she finds Kirk Douglas sleeping with another woman, she leaves Douglas' palatial estate in tears and tries to drive through the tears, and it's unintentionally. It's not the only time Lana Turner got into such a funny car crash, either; she's in one at the end of The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Of course, there are also the times that Hollywood intended car crashes to be funny. This is in all those ultraviolent cartoons that are supposedly a bad influence on the kiddies, when characters get into crashes and come out seemingly unscathed. Think of poor Wile E. Coyote. But even in live-action movies, bad driving could be a source of humor. Barbara Stanwyck takes the stick shift from Ben Lyon at the end of Night Nurse, leading to multiple instances of her putting the car in reverse, and accidentally hitting the car behind them. And who can forget Gene Tierney in The Mating Season? She get a car trapped on the edge of a steep hill, and when John Lund tells her there was a lot of space to turn the car around, she responds, "I'm a pretty lousy driver", just before the car goes crashing down the hill.

They don't make car jokes like they used to.

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