Fasten Your Seat Belts: Cars and the Movies

Mobile. Motion. MOVE. From the start, films showed people moving at maximum speed, leading to the golden age of the railroad picture (teens and '20s), the aviation picture (late '20s through mid-50's), and the motorcycle picture ('60s and early '70s.) But cars have never gone out of style in the movies. No matter what Hollywood decade you explore, you'll find car races, car chases, car crashes, souped-up luxury cars, and comic junkers.

Mack Sennett's Keystone Kops shorts (1912-1917) exploited every car gag imaginable. Shot on the streets of L.A., these films had collisions with locomotives, streetcars, horse wagons, and fire hydrants, breakaway cars which were nothing but chassis when the story ended, and lengthy chase scenes shot from camera cars. In the '20s, the feature comedians had their gag writers build elaborate sequences around cars. The exception was Chaplin. Although he first appeared as the tramp in Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914), his films do not feature any extended sequences with cars.

Buster Keaton, with his instinct for interlocking action sequences, used motorcycles, wagons, trains, hot air balloons, steamships -- and cars. In One Week (1920), a perfect two-reeler, Keaton and his bride finish a build-it-yourself dream house, only to be told they have built it on the wrong side of the tracks. Keaton props the house up on barrels and uses his roadster to nudge it over the tracks -- leading to a classic surprise shot. The Navigator (1924) opens with Keaton as Rollo, a jaded millionaire, ordering his chauffeur to motor him over to his sweetheart's house so he can propose marriage. The camera follows his 'trip' in one shot, as we see the girl lives across the street from him. Seven Chances (1925) has some casually thrown-off gags of Keaton 'driving' places without moving, using rear projection to change the setting.

Harold Lloyd's Hot Water (1924) has an uproarious scene in which he takes his new bride and odious in-laws for a spin in his new car. Harold is soon battling for control of the car with his mother-in-law, whose interference leads to one disaster after another leaving the car wrecked and the unhappy family being towed home.

Laurel and Hardy took a special delight in auto demolition. Two Tars (1928) is one extended wreckage scene, as the boys get stuck in a traffic jam and get into a spat with another driver (Edgar Kennedy). Soon other drivers are sucked into the conflict. Stan, Ollie, and their adversaries tear each others' cars apart by hand, tearing off fenders and doors, smashing windshields, and pulling off wheels. The boys drive away into a railroad tunnel, leading to a wonderful gag shot for the fadeout. Big Business (1929) is a similar vandalism comedy, in which James Finlayson retaliates for the damage the boys do to his house by tearing their car to pieces.

More automotive delirium from Laurel and Hardy: the picnic trip that never happens in Perfect Day (1929), as an auto trip is delayed by endless calamities, while the idiotic neighbors shout, 'Goodbye! Goodbye!'; the getaway car the boys use in Blotto (1930) to escape from Stan's vengeful wife, who shows up with a shotgun and, in one blast, blows the car up; Stan springing Ollie from County Hospital (1932); with one of Ollie's legs in a giant cast and projecting out of the open car, they predictably get into a smashup; Stan and Ollie wreaking havoc in a sawmill in Busy Bodies (1933), then driving their getaway car into the path of a giant band saw, which leaves each of the boys in a half car.

Car crash scenes in dramas and crime films are too numerous to survey. In the '30s, the car crash was an overworked plot device used to get rid of the third wheel in romantic triangles. Occasionally, a crash scene brings us something unexpected. In Cecil B. DeMille's Manslaughter (1922), snooty socialite Leatrice Joy causes the death of a motorcycle cop. The rear projection is dodgy in this scene, but the moment of impact is worked out with a stunt double, and it's jolting. A Norma Shearer adultery drama is an unlikely setting for a gory car crash, but one occurs early in The Divorcee (1930), when Shearer's spurned suitor gets drunk and drives himself and three passengers down a mountain road filled with switchbacks where he crashes. One of the girls survives but is mutilated. Her sister looks at her face and moans, 'I hope she dies' over and over.

Scarface (1932) is the ultimate gangster film, with several montages of gangsters speeding through the city in touring cars, unleashing bombs and machine gun ammo. Late in the film, Tony (Paul Muni) is chased by a carload of contract killers. He smashes his car into them. There is a stunning shot of the two cars careening over an embankment.

Crime sprees on the open highway have been filmed compellingly over the years. Fritz Lang's You Only Live Once (1937) is an early and uncredited look at the Bonnie and Clyde saga, with Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sidney as the doomed criminals. Raoul Walsh's High Sierra (1940) features Humphrey Bogart in his best-to-date performance as Roy Earle, an ex-con who pulls off the robbery of a swanky resort hotel but meets his doom as he tries to shake off police pursuit in the mountain roads. Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour (1945), the ultimate low-budget noir, follows Tom Neal down the highway through Nevada, Arizona, and across to L.A., and shows how he becomes involved with Vera (Ann Savage), the most unpleasant femme fatale of them all.

Even better is the visually arresting, tightly written Gun Crazy (1949), which shares some of Detour's plot elements. Here, John Dall is lured into a life of crime by the beautiful and deadly Peggy Cummins. They go on a multi-state crime spree, highlighted by the amazing sequence in which they commit their first bank job. Shot from the back seat of the getaway car in one continuous, three and a half minute take, it is a bold, avant-garde statement from director Joseph H. Lewis, in a film marked by crisp photography and loaded images. After the payroll robbery the two commit at a meat packing plant, Lewis gives us an image probably never seen before in films: Cummins, filmed from the back as she sits in a convertible, is whipped so hard by the wind that her hair parts in the middle, right down to the scalp.

The Big Steal (1949), an early Don Siegel film, is a chase story that plays out through the villages, deserts, and mountains of Mexico. Accused thief Robert Mitchum tracks down the actual felon (Patric Knowles), while both a U.S. lawman (William Bendix) and the Mexican police are on their trail. All the characters take to the road in this witty, heavily plotted film.

The road trip as a metaphor for fulfillment and self-discovery was big in the '60s and '70s, but it has antecedents in '30s films. W.C. Fields never made a better film than It's a Gift (1934), and the final third has Fields driving his family west to make a fortune as an orange grower. The scene in which they picnic on a millionaire's estate (which they think is a public park) and thoroughly trash the place is a perfect slice of Fields' subversive humor.

Will Rogers and family also head west in Mr. Skitch (1933), but Rogers' humor shapes this story into whimsical Americana. Zasu Pitts plays his affectionate but exasperating wife. Along the way, the family visits Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, but the most memorable sequence has them staying at an auto camp, an experience most of us will never have outside of the movies.

Here are four quite different, classic car scenes from the '50s:

Bette Davis (Margo) and Celeste Holm (Karen) in All About Eve (1950), stranded in a car with an empty fuel tank, meaning that Margo will miss her theater performance, causes her to reflect on aging, her career, her love life, and her identity as a woman. All of these thoughts pour out of her in one of Davis' most accomplished speeches, in a role which showcases all of the shading, both broad and nuanced, of which she was capable.

The 'coulda been a contender' scene between Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger in On the Waterfront (1954), one of the two or three most famous moments in Brando's career, and an idealization of screen acting for the past 60 years. (The odd set of blinds behind the actors is there because the company did not have access to a studio with rear projection.)

The 'chickie run' on the clifftop in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), in which James Dean and Corey Allen find out who is the braver man. This scene has been excerpted many times in documentaries to show the teen culture of the '50s. Natalie Wood flags the racers ahead in her powder blue skirt. It was iconic the day they shot it.

Detective James Stewart trailing Kim Novak over the hills and canyons of downtown San Francisco in Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958), driving in a dreamy, repetitious cycle encapsulating the film's sense of a spongy, timeless emotional void.