#33 in my ranking of Howard Hawks’ filmography.
Two men bond over their mutual, masculine profession, and their women get an inordinate amount of screen time, confusing what the actual point of this short movie about racing is supposed to be. Is it about brothers finding a common, dangerous interest, or is about the women who have to deal with the men who find thrill and pay by racing cars? The lack of focus and limited runtime prevents anything from really connecting as it needs to skip through a lot of emotional footwork in order to fit everything in.
James Cagney plays Joe Greer, a successful racecar driver fresh off a third major victory at Indianapolis who is going home for the first time in four years to visit his father and his younger brother, Eddie. Eddie, it turns out, has idolized his older brother and decided to become a racecar driver just like Joe, having become a local champion and inviting Joe to a local exhibition race where he shows his older brother that he has the skill to be serious. After a brief conversation where Joe tries to scare Eddie off of the work by talking up the dangers of the profession as well as the number of highly skilled competitors who barely even manage to make a living, Joe happily brings Eddie along.
The Crowd Roars movie begins to falter rather early after this, though. Joe has a girl, Lee played by Ann Dvorak, who is engaged to Joe and eager to turn engagement into marriage. She’s also the kind of girl who worries every time that Joe goes on the track, afraid that he may not come back at all. She has a friend, Anne played by Joan Blondell, who takes an immediate shine to Eddie, but Joe stands in between them. Joe, for unclear reasons, wants to keep Eddie from all drink and women while he’s in his early stages of his career. This isn’t unclear because it’s difficult to understand, it’s unclear because Joe is extremely adamant about it without explanation until much later in the film. The movie’s focus really seems to be on the women at this point, dealing with the rancorous nature of danger seeking men.
Then, in a race, a fellow racer, Spud, dies when his car catches fire and cooks him alive after Joe, in a desperate effort to pass Spud and then his brother in first place, causes the fire himself. Wracked with guilt, Joe disappears from the racing circuit, allowing Eddie to rise in the rankings of the racing world. Most of this is really told from the women’s point of view, which would be great if they were the actual point, but the movie’s ending proves that they’re not. This movie ends with Eddie and Joe reconnecting at the big race in Indianapolis. Joe rides a train surreptitiously because he has no money to Indiana and goes from racing team to racing team trying to get a job, any job, that they’ll offer him, getting turned down by all of them. It’s only after he sees Lee again that he gets in with Eddie’s team and becomes his alternate (a fact hidden from the audience until the height of the race). Eddie gets injured and Joe ends up winning the race, the movie ending with both of them in an ambulance racing the other drivers from the race to the hospital.
The frustrating part about this is that I imagine it working a whole lot better if it was simply longer. As it stands, it’s an okay little portrait of the racing world and personalities (including some real racers, apparently). It’s an easy little entertainment that doesn’t do much, but the racing’s exciting and the characters good enough to support the story and nothing more. It’s fine. There should be more, though. Joe disappearing and having most of his guilt dealt with off screen for Spud’s death feels off. The women disappearing except for reactions shots in the finale despite being a shockingly large focus of the film feels off.
I think what this movie really needed was more time. I wouldn’t want to sacrifice either of the two storylines because they’re both filled with potential, especially when you consider Cagney’s strong performance as Joe and Dvorak’s performance as Lee. This is the start of a quality movie, but as it is, everything ends up feeling too thin to carry anything other than some basic racing thrills.