Indianapolis Speedway (1939), a review:

Turner Classic Movies likes to release a number of movies from their collection in batches to form a theme. War movies, Clint Eastwood movies, Dracula movies, etc. I just so happened to find out that they were gonna give car movies, so I recorded those whose reviews garnered my attention. Warning: spoilers ahead!


The movie is the story about the Greer Bros., older brother Joe (Pat O’Brien) and younger brother Eddie (John Payne). Joe’s a successful racecar driver, but having seen both the good (success, money, etc.) and bad (everything from lousy pay to broken dreams and shattered bodies) of the automotive racing world, he wishes more for Eddie, who’s treated more like a son than a brother. But Eddie has the racing bug as well, having built his own racecar (complete with a supercharger of his own design!) and becoming a local champion. Even while crashing out in a brotherly exhibition match didn’t put a hamper on his enthusiasm. Running away to L.A. where Joe hangs out, he has no choice but to teach Eddie properly, provided that Eddie hits the books as well.

Problems arise when Eddie and Frankie (Ann Sheridan) fall in love. Joe didn’t think highly of Frankie to begin with (she’s a friend of Joe’s girlfriend), but he really didn’t like that his little brother was dating and partying with her behind his back rather than studying. This splits the brothers up; the animosity carried on to the track, now in rival teams. Spud (Frank McHugh), Joe’s best friend and teammate, tried to literally intervene between the two on the racetrack. After having his car bumped as a clear message to get out of the way, Spud’s car burst into the flames, claiming his life in horrific manner.

Joe wasn’t the same afterwards, falling from the winner’s circle. Meanwhile, Eddie went straight to the top in racing, business and relationship status with Frankie. Joe finds himself at the Indianapolis Speedway, desperately looking for a job. He did find his old flame Lee Mason (Gale Page), who played a key role in motivating Joe to face his fears and his brother, who just so happened to be relieved from racing duty due to an injury suffered a little earlier. Having made peace, both brothers get in and win Indy… and a trip to the hospital. Competitive as ever, both of ‘em goad their respective ambulance driver to beat the other on their way to the hospital.

Aside from a small continuity mistake when recycling footage for other sequences, I have three other complaints: First, I seriously dislike the ‘family-man-has-to-die’ trope, which would still be in used 50+ years later, like in Top Gun (1986). This might be a personal complaint, but it has to be said. My second complaint would be how easy it was for one driver to jump into the driver’s seat. I know time was of the essence in the story, but surely there were rules and procedures to follow; an example would be the physical exam shown in the 1929 movie Speedway, a movie which was far from perfect. This wasn’t the first time I’ve seen this happen before: 1935 movie Red Hot Tires did this in a way when a driver just flies in to race (literally!), though he was expected to participate. Now, Red Hot Tires is lighter-hearted when compared to Indianapolis Speedway, so I’ll let it slide with the former, but not with the latter. As mentioned earlier, there was a death that was a serious turning point in the movie; things are a little more serious, meaning that jumping in and saving the day feels a little lazy.

Lastly, I’ve been watching a batch of car movies that span over twenty years, ranging from 1929 to 1949. Just about all of them use the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as a backdrop (significant or otherwise) in their story. As one might’ve deduced by the movie’s title, this one’s no different; the final climactic race takes place at this racetrack, were such locale was only used. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway was to racing movies back then as Carnival is to Rio de Janeiro movie scenes.

The craziest thing I found while researching the movie (aside how they really tried to cash in on Ann Sheridan’s popularity by pretty much selling her as the main character on the movie posters) was that this is actually a remake of the 1932 movie The Crowd Roars (which I find to be a better opening title than Indianapolis Speedway). What I don’t understand is why was this movie remade just seven years later (I would’ve loved to read what movie critics of the day thought about this). It did open my eyes to just how horrific Spud’s accident was: even back when death’s presence in automobile racing was far from uncommon, the smell of a burning human being is enough to shake up these automotive gladiators.

Don’t let the negative aspects put you off from watching the movie. As automobile enthusiasts, we gravitate to these movies because of the machinery and lifestyle portrayed in them. A lot of these movies are weak in other areas (something that regrettably still happens today). But Indianapolis Speedway is actually not only watchable but a treat to do so as well.

We’ve all seen snippets of old racing film from that era, but the dirt track/dust bowl racing scene was an eye-opener to just how dangerous these driving conditions are in an already dangerous sport. Aside from enjoyable train vs. car scene, the ambulance racing ending scene was my favorite. A lot of the movies that I’ve seen from that era seem to end a little abruptly (example: 1931 movie Dracula), but having the Greer Bros. competing with each other wrapped up the film nicely.





Movie poster: Wikipedia. They really had the best quality image.

2 thoughts on “Indianapolis Speedway (1939), a review:

  1. Pingback: The Big Wheel (1949), a review: | It Rolls.

  2. Pingback: Hot Rod (1950), a review: | It Rolls.

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