Yes. Yes! It’s another I saw when it came out. I must have been nine years old when I caught this at the Palace Theater in Granbury. It’s The Big Wheel, from 1949 and distributed by United Artists. What makes this one the Bad Movie of the Week is the lame plot. I’m not going to detail it, just show some images and mention a few things viewers should take away. Images are screen shots from TCM, and details are from the Wikipedia entry.
I saw this once, then never again until it popped up on Turner Classic Movies a few years back. There are a number of scenes I carried with me from the initial viewing. Here is one of them. It’s Mickey Rooney as Billy Coy, driving his mother Mary (Spring Byington) out to California. Billy is driving like a bat out of Hell. He takes after his late father, who was a race car driver, killed years back in the Indianapolis 500 race.
Billy takes a job as a mechanic at a racing shop in Carrell, California. A sign proclaims “You are now entering Carrell, California, the little town with the big track. Headquarters for western auto racing.” Younger racing fans, including me, remember this as Gardena, home of Ascot Park, noted for motorcycle dirt track racing. The shop owner is “Red” Stanley (Thomas Mitchell), who had been the late Mr. Coy’s mechanic.
An early encounter with cute Louise Riley (Mary Hatcher) almost ends in disaster. He gives her a swat on the butt before discovering she’s a girl and that her father is a wealthy race promoter and owns the local track.
Red is delighted to hear the widow Coy is in town, and he pays a visit to rekindle an old fire. This ends well with the two tying the knot.
Not so well the romance with cute Louise. Billy asks her on a date, and she foolishly shows up loaded for bear. He had in mind an interlude with a new carburettor.
Essential to the plot is that Billy strikes everybody as brash and self-centered. It’s later going to be easy to not like him. He does promote himself into a spot driving a midget racer on the local track.
Initially Billy is a great success, rising to stardom in regional competition. However he catches the blame for a deadly crash and is ostracized by all but Louise. He leaves California for the East, seeking to make it big racing the big cars.
Which ultimately brings Billy, and viewers, to the Indianapolis 500 race, where the movie is going to end.
It’s apparent the producers went to the race and collected a wad of atmosphere for use in the film. Else, they just scooped up some stock footage after the fact.
I have to conclude the movie accurately depicts auto racing as it was practiced in the early days. Actors are shown driving the open-wheel racers in their shirt sleeves. Yes, that’s an unbuttoned down collar flapping in the breeze at over 125 miles per hour.
Neither did the drivers wear seat belts. One shot shows a driver being ejected from his car after a crash. The movie shows racing accidents that are apparently not staged. Again, footage from the famous race.
Some obvious special camera work was employed, as in this scene shot from a car on the track.
It recalls the work of John Frankenheimer 17 years later in Grand Prix.
The Indianapolis sequences shows some nice racing action, but nothing covers up the unimaginative plot by Robert Smith. I recall that when I saw this as a kid the plot managed to build excitement and suspense as to the outcome. Back in those days I was easier to manage.
Byington lights up this production, as she managed to do throughout her long and successful career, including her own show as December Bride, a role foretold in this production.