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 Big Wheel tells the story of Billy Coy (Mickey Rooney) and his desire to be the best racecar driver, like his late father “Cannonball” Coy before him. He and his mother Mary Coy (Spring Byington) moved to the west coast, got a job with his father’s former riding mechanic and now racecar owner Arthur “Red” Stanley (Thomas Mitchell), and began fielding his little hot-rod on local tracks. After wrecking his own car and a borrowed Midget-class racecar, he finally caught a break after lucking out into substituting a comically injured driver, becoming part of another team after displaying great skill. Success came quickly… and so did the party-hard lifestyle.
During a race, everyone noticed that his teammate Happy Lee (Steve Brodie) wasn’t aware that his car was suffering from mechanical problems. Billy tried to get close to him, ignoring the yellow caution flag, but the wheel on Happy’s car let loose and Billy collided with him, sending Happy through the fence. Happy dies burned alive.
Animosity for Bill ran high, not only because of his unprofessional conduct off-track (he was sprung from jail/drunk tank and went straight to race on the night of the accident), but also because of his arrogance and single mindedness, further demonstrated by jumping the yellow caution flag (they didn’t notice Bill was trying to warn Happy). In their eyes, Bill was a reckless menace… just like his late father actually was (Mary confirmed this). Fired from the team, disillusioned at the truth of his father and with no one willing to help him, Bill decides to move back east and start again.
Billy does find success, now in the big leagues. Even though the opportunity presented itself to race at Indianapolis Speedway the same day, after having a heated discussion with car and California racetrack owner Reno Riley (Richard/Dick Lane)-who just so happens to be his girlfriend’s father- about the Happy Lee accident, Billy jumps over to Red’s struggling team. After some more struggling, Billy qualifies and enters the race… with a little help from Billy’s girlfriend, Louise Riley (Mary Hatcher), who supplied a “borrowed” supercharger from the Riley team.
After a spectacular race, Billy finished third due to the fact that his car ran over burning fuel on the track, catching fire. Due to the smoke and the burns he suffered, it’s still a respectable finish, though Billy didn’t really think so. Still, due to his bravery, the winner of the race gave a surprised Billy the trophy.
There’s a lot to like in this movie. It recognizes that back in the day (before Billy’s time), mechanics rode with drivers. Also, it talks about front-wheel drive racecars, which not only did exist, but also highlighted the variety of machinery being put through its paces during that time period. There was even a shot of a Mercedes-Benz racecar in the pits! Further research shows just how the game was changing from its pre-WWII days during this era, as this wonderful little article shows.
Like other racecar-based movies, this one acknowledges the help of racecar driver groups and the racetracks. The movie makes good use of stock footage. We’ve all seen crash film from the era, with this one not lacking in that department. It’s still a shock to see: on one scene we see a driver crash and get flung out on the track. He was able to walk away, with serous road rash at least, but still…!
Death during races happen, they’re a serious plot device, though you’d feel you’d seen the death by fire before. Indeed you may have, but let me explain: the death of Happy was graphic, but not as the subtly horrific as in the 1939 movie Indianapolis Speedway, where the smoke and smell of the burning corpse shook drivers and the main character to the core. The idea of having that smell, the strongest sense tying to one’s memory, in my recollection sends chills down my spine.
One thing I’d change was to include one or two scenes that shows the progression of the relationship between Billy and the tomboy Louise (she’s great), rather than having Louise showcase her dress and horrendous/amusing high-heel walking technique (Mary Hatcher is a looker in this film even while wearing boy’s clothes). That’s pretty much it. Then there’s another aspect that was covered that I haven’t seen before in these films: the silent suffering of loved ones that see how the men in their lives risk everything. They support this lifestyle, but wish they didn’t it, hoping that it will all be over so they can be together again. The movie doesn’t resolve this, it’s a complicated matter that even in the more dramatic 1966 movie Grand Prix can’t even try to solve. But it’s pointed out, and that must count for something.
Movie poster: www.moviepostershop.com