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Hollywood and the Indianapolis 500

Thursday, May 14, 2020 Donald Davidson, Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Clark Gable

Of the numerous Hollywood “epics” of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s in which the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has either been featured or at least touched upon, only three films were actually MADE here.

Featured Image: Hollywood icon Clark Gable reading the official race program while attending the 1950 Indianapolis 500.


Of the numerous Hollywood “epics” of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s in which the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has either been featured or at least touched upon, only three films were actually MADE here. This is to say, where the principal actors and actresses specifically traveled to the premises for the purpose of shooting scenes, as opposed to doing so in a Hollywood studio and having their scenes later edited in with “mock” racing action and/or newsreel footage. 

The three were Speedway (1929), To Please A Lady (1950) and Winning (1969), all of the others such as The Crowd Roars (1932), Speed (1935), The Blond Comet (1941), The Big Wheel (1949) and The Roar Of The Crowd (1953) having been “studio jobs.” 

Speedway, one of the last silent films ever made, was a tongue-in-cheek comedy starring William Haines, a leading matinee idol at the time, Anita Page, who was hugely popular in the late 1920s, and three great character actors, Karl Dane, Ernest Torrance and the excellent “villain,” John Miljan. It was produced and directed by Harry Beaumont and edited by George Hively, who six years later was to win an Academy Award for “cutting” John Ford’s The Informer.

To Please A Lady, which like Speedway was an MGM production, starred Clark Gable, Barbara Stanwyck, Adolphe Menjou and Kokomo, Indiana-born Will Geer, while the director was the highly respected Clarence Brown who had directed Greta Garbo several times. There was a rather ironic coincidence in that when MGM’s Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg had elevated a young Gable from “bit parts” to a starring role in a 1931 film entitled The Easiest Way, his first leading lady had been none other than Anita Page. 

Winning, filmed during the summer of 1968 and released in the spring of 1969, was a vehicle for the husband and wife team of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, while also starring Robert Wagner, Clu Gulager and a young Richard Thomas. The famed multi-Academy Award-winning Edith Head designed the clothes.   

The principals of Speedway arrived by train at Union Station during the middle of May, 1929 and stayed just up the street at the Severin Hotel at the corner of South Illinois and Georgia Streets. They spent the next couple of weeks traveling back and forth between the track and the hotel and seemed to really enjoy themselves. They were well received both by the participants and the crowd and just about every concession was made to them by Eddie Rickenbacker’s track management staff, this being only the second year under Rickenbacker’s stewardship. 

The crew was even given permission to record race morning activities from the track itself, and in an unprecedented sight for the times, not one but two vehicles led the field around on the pace lap, a twin sister to the Studebaker President pace car going first and being outfitted with a tripod and 35mm camera. A large number of 14 cameras were set up at various vantage points around the track and all three of the day’s accidents were captured, although appearing considerably later in the production than they had taken place in reality. A footnote concerning pole-sitter Cliff Woodbury’s turn four, lap four wall-smacker (which appears almost at the end of the race in the film), is that the point of impact was so close to the cameraman that he had to seek medical attention due to flying debris. 

Leon Duray, the 1928 pole-sitter who briefly appears in the film as himself, doubled for “villain” John Miljac, while Deacon Litz was chosen to double for Haines, Dane and Torrance, each of whom share the “winning” car during the final scenes. The Duray and Litz cars were used extensively in garage area scenes with the actors, and the production staff must have been jumping for joy when both cars actually led the 500 on race day. Others who are either briefly showcased or can be seen in various off-track scenes are Harry Hartz, Louis Chiron, Babe Stapp and Chet Gardner.

Clark Gable was quite passionate about making To Please A Lady and it shows in the finished product. He had regularly attended races at the famed Legion Ascot Speedway in Alhambra, California in the early and mid-1930s---he presented the Clark Gable Gold Cup to winner Rex Mays on September 12, 1934---and that is where he first met Wilbur Shaw in 1932. The two of them also shared a common interest in flying, Gable taking lessons at around the same time Shaw was partners in a West Coast air charter company and coincidentally tutoring James Stewart, who starred in 1935’s Speed. 

In 1947, with Shaw now President and General Manager of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Gable was the guest of Tony Hulman for the 500. There is a famous photograph of the start from turn one in which Gable can be seen clearly sitting in Hulman’s box. He was back for the third time (unless he had previously attended earlier races as an unknown) when he made To Please A Lady. Not only was he on a first name basis with many of the drivers (he had also been attending the midget car races at Gilmore Stadium), but he was pals with most of the actors and production staff, particularly Adolphe Menjou, Brown and cameraman Harold Rosson. Brown, incidentally, told reporters that as a young man he had been a test driver for the Stevens-Duryea automobile firm in Massachusetts. 

When it became known that the film was going to be shot and that Gable would be spending much of May at the track, Hulman and Shaw agreed he should have something appropriate to drive around in. Aware that he had just recently taken delivery of a Jaguar XK-120 in California and had fallen in love with it, they sought to find a duplicate. The legend is that one was located in Chicago and that Shaw flew up there to drive it back. It was used by Gable as his “drive around town” car and then subsequently appeared in several parades, including one in Terre Haute in which Hulman drove with Gable as his passenger. It remains today in the Speedway’s Hall of Fame Museum collection and with very low mileage on the odometer. There is the distinct possibility that the XK-120 which appears in a “back lot studio” scene during the film, may well be Gable’s own.

The “doubling” of Gable was accomplished in several ways. Many of the closer shots were of a professional West Coast driver named Harry “Butch” Eisele, who raced for many years under the name of “Bud Rose” and who bore an uncanny resemblance to Gable. They became good friends and Gable was said to have been quite disappointed when Rose chose to continue racing rather than accept an offer to be the actor’s full-time “double.” 

The car used for cockpit scenes and stationary shots was a 1948 Kurtis-Kraft which had run in the 1948 and ’49 500s as the Don Lee Special, driven in both years by Mack Hellings. Tommy Lee, the son of the deceased Don Lee, had also passed away since the 1949 race and MGM had purchased the car from his estate for use in the film. It was made up to resemble the #17 Wolfe Motor Company Special which veteran driver Joie Chitwood had qualified for the 1950 race. In those days before the mandatory use of uniforms, Chitwood was obliged to arrive on race morning dressed in exact duplicates of the gray slacks and blue polo shirt Gable had been wearing for his scenes during the preceding days.  

A number of race people appear in this film, specifically Cliff Bergere, a 16-race veteran of the 500 who had announced his retirement earlier that month. Near the end of the film, when Barbara Stanwyck tries to get into the infield hospital after Clark Gable’s character, Mike Brannan, has been involved in an accident, the guard who stops her at the gate, saying, “You can’t go in there. Nobody’s allowed in there,” is Bergere. As a Hollywood stunt man who had worked in something like 400 films over a 30-year period, he was an old friend of Brown’s. 

In addition to using footage from the race, two or three mornings were set aside for filming some “staged” action, using a rather mixed bag of participants, including several who ended up not qualifying for the 500. The drivers were paid $55 per day (with many happy to get it) and the car owners $125, the better-known drivers being Duane Carter and Henry Banks. The camera car used for these sequences was driver Manuel Ayulo’s personal “track roadster” hot rod, with Ayulo himself at the wheel.

Johnnie Parsons, the 1949 AAA National Champion, was named the film’s technical adviser and he hit it off with both Gable and Stanwyck. As it turned out, he gave them plenty to cheer about as the race wore on. This was the fourth year for Borg-Warner Corporation to supply a Hollywood actress for the purpose of greeting the winner in Victory Lane and it was decided to take advantage of Miss Stanwyck’s presence and give her double duty. She was beside herself with joy when who should wheel in at the conclusion of the rain-shortened event but Parsons. 

There is a little side story that when Parsons was celebrating with his wife, team members and sponsors later that night at a private dinner downtown at the Claypool Hotel, there was a knock on the door. A female voice was heard inquiring as to whether Johnnie Parsons was in the room and no sooner had she been told, “I’m sorry, ma’am, this is a private function,” than Parsons came to her rescue by calling out, “Hey, let her in. That’s Barbara Stanwyck.”

Both Gable and Stanwyck were extremely popular with the racing crowd, and Gable especially appreciated being able to wander through the pits and garage area unmolested and generally treated as “one of the boys.” When shooting was completed, he and his current wife left for Chicago, from where she flew to her native England and Gable returned by train to Los Angeles. Stanwyck flew home and then headed for Europe, where her husband, Robert Taylor, was shooting Quo Vadis.

Although Winning was not released until May of 1969, much of it was shot during the summer of 1968, about six weeks of which were at the Speedway. Not only were several cars and drivers put on the payroll, but many of the “fans in the stands” were paid $20 per day and fed a catered lunch in return for sitting in the hot sun for hours on end and occasionally being obliged to move from section to section in order to give the impression of a full race day crowd. The majority of them tended to be wives and friends of participants and various and sundry other folk who lived in the area, many of them taking over books and/or knitting to occupy themselves during the sometimes interminable period between one “take” and the next. 

Bobby Unser has a brief line and the familiar voices of Tom Carnegie and Sid Collins can be heard commentating in the background. Broadcaster Lou Palmer is seen and heard in Victory Lane and starter Pat Vidan is featured prominently, while others appearing, albeit fleetingly, are Johnny Rutherford, A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Dan Gurney, Gary Bettenhausen, Jim Malloy, Mel Kenyon and mechanic Herb Porter.

Rather than use Tony Hulman’s actual race day version of “Gentlemen, Start Your Engines,” director James Goldstone decided to have Tony stage several takes during one of the summer sessions. At the conclusion, an aide produced a couple of forms to fill out and reminded Tony of a conversation which had taken place during the spring. For delivering the four words he had made famous, and at the track he owned, Tony Hulman was required to join the Screen Actors Guild.

Two-time 500 winner Rodger Ward was the “supervising race consultant” as well as the driver of the camera car, which was a partially stripped and modified Lincoln Continental convertible. A converted Can-Am car was also used with Bob Bondurant as driver. The original plan had been to begin shooting in the spring, but Ward suggested they wait for the outcome of the race because of the strong possibility that one of several turbine-powered cars might win. They took his advice and waited, which is why “Frank Capua” (Newman) ended up resembling winner Bobby Unser. 

Ward was evidently not around or else overruled when somebody decided it would be authentic to have “Frank Capua” arrive at a race night party in the film (a) nonchalantly carrying the Borg-Warner trophy, and (b) doing so using only one hand. The real trophy weighs 80 pounds and the winner is not normally permitted to take it with them. 

Another point of amusement is that the fictitious “Hoosier Motor Inn,” which is clearly the real Speedway Motel in the early scenes, undergoes a mysterious transformation at some point and appears near the end of the film as something totally different in spite of having the same name.  

It is believed that Newman’s longtime obsession with motorsports was actually spurred by the making of this film and that he had little or no interest before it. By the time the shooting came to an end, however, he was hooked. At a trackside “wrap” ceremony on the final afternoon, Henry Banks, then the USAC Director of Competition, presented honorary Championship driver licenses to Newman and Robert Wagner. An obviously delighted Newman edged closer to Banks and discreetly inquired, “What do I have to do to get a real one of these?” to which Banks replied, “Run a lot and get back to us.” 

Of those 500 films in which the principals did NOT shoot scenes at the track, perhaps The Crowd Roars and The Big Wheel were the most notable. Starring James Cagney, Ann Dvorak, Joan Blondell, Guy Kibbee and Frank McHugh, The Crowd Roars was both written and directed by another Hollywood “giant,” Howard Hawks, an aviation buff who had also been spending a lot of time at Legion Ascot Speedway. He too had befriended Wilbur Shaw, and until the March 1933 “bank holiday” temporarily froze his assets, Hawks had been planning a 500 entry with Shaw as his driver.

Although the shots supposedly taken in the pits at Indianapolis were actually a combination of a Culver City back lot and Legion Ascot Speedway, several drivers played themselves. Harry Hartz, Fred Frame and Billy Arnold each have several lines and deliver them with surprising proficiency, especially Arnold. Shorty Cantlon gets to say, “Hello, Joe” and another 500 standout has a brief scene in which he is the butt of an inside joke. A cloth-helmeted character, sitting with his back to the camera, on a stool at what is supposed to be Tom Beal’s trackside diner, notes that Arnold, Bill Cummings and Louis Meyer (incorrectly spelled as “Meyers”) are posted on a chalkboard as having the best odds to win. He gently needles the actor playing Tom Beal over why his own name is not listed. “When you get good enough and fast enough,” concludes “Beal” after a crusty, take-it-or-leave-it defense of his odds-making, “your name will go up there too.” The next shot reveals that the person who has been raising the question is a grinning Louis Schneider, winner of the most recent (1931) 500.

A main point of amusement for racing buffs in this film is that the interspersed “mock” racing action was evidently staged at some point during the dead of winter because it appears to be freezing and there are no leaves on any of the trees. 

For some unknown reason, The Crowd Roars was rather mysteriously remade only seven years later as Indianapolis Speedway, using virtually the same script and even much of the same action footage. The main problem, historically, is that the drivers and riding mechanics are still wearing cloth helmets, four years after hard helmets have become mandatory and two years after riding mechanics are no longer required. Not only does Frank McHugh repeat his original role, but the entire sequence in which he perishes in a fiery accident is from the original, including the close-up, back projection shot of him covering his face. In spite of starring Pat O’Brien, Ann Sheridan and John Payne, it proved to be a rather disappointing effort. 

If Mickey Rooney’s The Big Wheel appears to have been shot in a hurry, it is certainly no coincidence. As he explained during an unexpected visit to the track in the summer of 1978, he had come to a major disagreement with MGM’s Louis B. Mayer over Mayer’s refusal to allow Rooney to perform “Andy Hardy” on radio. When Rooney demanded that he be released from his contract, Mayer pointed out that Mickey still “owed them some pictures.” The number settled upon was 14, all of which Rooney shot in the period of one year. “I had it worked out,” he recalled, “that I would go in and do all my scenes as quickly as possible and go on to the next one with everybody shooting around me. I did some real stinkers and The Big Wheel was one of them. I shot it in three weeks.”

But it remains a cult favorite.

This one also used some “mock” action filmed during the summer and the car coming down the main straight “on fire” at the end of the race is a not-too-happy Sam Hanks, who was obliged to set off an eye-stinging smoke bomb at the appropriate moment. 

Rooney claims in one of his several autobiographies that he arranged for a starlet named Marilyn Monroe to appear in some of the crowd scenes, although no one we know has ever been able to spot her. Another rather ironic footnote is that when Virginia Mayo came to the track as Borg-Warner’s Hollywood actress in 1956, she was accompanied by her husband, Michael O’Shea, who had been the “villain” in the Rooney film. 

During his 1978 ride around the track, Rooney proved to be surprisingly knowledgeable and pointed out to his less than enthralled side-kick the precise location at which Bill Vukovich had lost his life while leading in 1955. He also discussed Foyt, Andretti, the Unser brothers and even Janet Guthrie while recalling that he had frequently gone to Gilmore Stadium and Carrell Speedway in Los Angeles in the 1940s. 

Among still other films, there was 1953’s The Roar Of The Crowd, starring Howard Duff and featuring speaking parts for Johnnie Parsons, Duke Nalon, Henry Banks and Manny Ayulo, while 1941’s The Blond Comet concludes with a lady driver (Virginia Vale) faking exhaustion near the end of the 500 so that her macho relief driver boyfriend can go on and win. An aging Barney Oldfield appears as himself in this one but falls far short of Fred Frame and Billy Arnold in terms of acting ability. And then there was 1935’s Speed, which follows James Stewart from a crash at Indianapolis to a run for the Land Speed Record at the Muroc dry lakes (!) with a car built by Lou Moore and Harlan Fengler. When that crashes too, the solution to rushing the injured Stewart to the hospital as quickly as possible is solved by transporting him IN THE DAMAGED LAND SPEED RECORD CAR.

In summary, these and still other “epics” have always been great fun to watch, but longtime racing enthusiasts generally feel that the serious, true-to-life classic film about the Indianapolis 500 has yet to be made.