Seemingly a pedestrian throwaway Warner Bros. production, but in fact a severely overlooked film within Howard Hawks’ filmography. He puts his own personal stamp on this racing film, making Joe a character always out of our reach with his near-psychotic obsession with ‘the lure of responsibility’ as Robin Wood calls it, and protecting his brother from ‘booze and women’. As a result, the film is extremely ostracizing to its women, played by Ann Dvorak and Joan Blondell. Dvorak is, once again, a self-sacrificing martyr, treated at worst like muck and at best indifferently. She’s a doleful ball of tears, following Joe to the ends of the earth; it’s shameful to witness. Joan Blondell starts as her wise-cracking hip-to-the-game self, only for the film to throw that back in her face once she falls hard for Joe’s brother. It seems like The Crowd Roars is going to give them a sympathetic perspective, as they have scenes between themselves, girls consoling and giving each other a dose of the hard facts. But no. Dvorak and Blondell, two of the best there ever was, are undermined at every turn. ‘Hawksian’ women these are not, at least not in the positive sense.
But Hawks was always like this. There’s room for some awesome women in his films, but when it comes between male bonding and the thrill of occupational hazard, women are seen as sniffling encroaching clumps of threat. Disrupting the purity of maleness and subsequently blamed so that the men don’t actually have to reflect on their own self-doubt. Joe has given himself to racing wholeheartedly. And to booze and women, but that doesn’t mean he’ll let his brother Eddie do the same. Joe is a fascinating character, mainly because he’s so unreachable and self-loathing, extending his misogynistic bile onto Lee and Anne and his projecting his own self-doubt onto Eddie. Hawks infuses a lot of complex and contradictory emotions into a standard racing pic.
Speaking of racing, Hawks also embeds his love and practice of racing into the film, making sure a concentrated authenticity enters the lengthy racing scenes. It pays off. We get actual racing footage, real racers cameo in the film, and an emphasis on the dirt, the tangibility of life and the dusty closeness of death. The singular depiction of Spud’s burning flesh, the racers horrified reaction to the smell as they drive through it. You feel it. Hawks makes you feel it.
I may have major issues with it, but I also have to love The Crowd Roars at least within the Hawks oeuvre and for the fact that it’s a Warner Bros. pre-code with James Cagney (fabulous as always), Joan Blondell and Ann Dvorak. It can’t get much better than that no matter the circumstances.