Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Bus That Couldn't Go Slow

TCM's programming theme for tonight is "The Need For Speed", which obviously implies a bunch of movies about fast cars and car racing. The last of these movies, Speed, either overnihgt or early tomorrow morning at 4:45 AM depending on your perspective. This, however, is not the 1994 Keanu Reeves film, but a completely unrelated 1936 film starring James Stewart.

One of Stewart's first starring roles, this Speed sees Stewart as Terry, a test driver for a car manufacturer who's learned everything he knows about cars from practical experience. He believes he's invented a new type of carburetor that could reduce fuel use substantially without compromising performance. Of course, there's a problem in that he needs money to perform experiments, and as a test driver he doesn't have money. Enter Frank (Weldon Heyburn), an engineer with the diploma to prove it. Tht diploma means he might just have the clout to get somebody to fund experiments in a carburetor, but it also means he might get the credit for it. There's a natural tension, I suppose, between Terry and Frank, but it's also one that's been artificially blown out of proportion so that there will be the requisite conflict for a Hollywood movie.

The blowing out of proportion comes in the form of Jane (Wendy Barrie). She's a newly-hired PR person for the car company, but what nobody knows is that she's the niece of the company's owner. She uses that familial influence to get the funding for Terry's experiments, but a stipulation is put on the money that Terry has to use a qualified engineer -- and isn't it just so convenient that Frank is around! Complicating matters is that Jane is lovely to look at, so of course Terry and Frank are both going to fall for her. Gotta blow that conflict way, way out of proportion.

Anyhow, at this point, the action shifts first to Indianapolis, which of course was the site of the most prestigious car race in the 1930s before there was a NASCAR. The carburetor is going to be used on the car they're going to race there, but something goes wrong, injuring Terry and making him bitter at Jane even though we know he's supposed to be with her. Terry is determined to continue his experiments, eventually taking him to the salt flats in Utah, which realy is a place people have gone to for decades to try to set automobile speed records, although the names have been changed. There's some more artificial drama that strains credulity, but the right people end up living, presumably happily ever after.

Speed is strictly a B movie, despite the presence of James Stewart in the cast. This was before he became a star. The plot is trite, to be sure, with a whole bunch of standad plot points thrown in: the love triangle; the man who may be more in love with his work than the girl and is almost too stupid to see how right the girl is for him; the setbacks; and the supporting characters. Here, that's Ted Healy as Stewart's mechanic, and Una Merkel as the other girl. It's nothing special, but it's mildly entertaining, and always interesting to see a young James Stewart.

I don't think Speed has ever received a DVD release, even though Warner Home Video should hold the rights to it. They could release it through the Warner Archive or put it on one of those bare-bones four film box sets that TCM likes to advertise, but that doesn't seem to have happened yet.

No comments: