When he was sixteen, and until he was about twenty-one, Howard Hawks helped build racing cars and drove them to earn a living, getting to know the sort of men drawn to this highly dangerous profession as well as the women attracted to them. He used all these first-hand experiences to create his fourth sound film—-made right after he had directed the original Scarface—-the now little-known, rarely-seen but fast-paced, exciting, quite typically Hawksian 1932 racing drama starring a young James Cagney in only his ninth picture (in less than three years), THE CROWD ROARS (still not available for home viewing, which is a shame Warner Bros. Video or their TCM arm hopefully will soon remedy; and not to be confused with the 1938 Robert Taylor boxing picture of the same title.)
As was his unembarrassed wont, Hawks had “borrowed” the basic story line from another Warners’ picture (1928’s The Barker), changed the circus setting to racecar driving and switched the father-son triangle aspect to two (older vs. younger) brothers. When Jack Warner first read the Hawks script, he said, “This is a good story,” to which the director replied, “It ought to be—-you own it.”
But, as was also usual with Hawks, the plot is simply a peg on which to hang the incidents and characters, a way of further investigating his favorite theme: men in dangerous occupations. Primary to these kinds of Hawks men is their absolute refusal to in any way discuss or even acknowledge the hazards inherent in what they do. In another context it’s not unlike the private detective (played by Humphrey Bogart) in Hawks’ The Big Sleep who, when told, “You take chances,” responds, “I get paid to.”
I commented to Hawks about his racers having a total disregard for the dangers of their job and he said, “They fall into the same category as the men in Hatari!  catching wild animals in Africa. Every day is dangerous, terribly exciting, and they exist on that. They enjoy it and also greatly understate their feats.” Nearly all of Hawks’ adventure stories dealt with characters exactly like that, whether they were fighter pilots, tuna fishermen, frontier sheriffs, cattle-herders, or fliers in rough climates. They never explained, never complained—-death was something you ignored.
Cagney—-who, three years later, in Hawks’ memorable Ceiling Zero, would play an ace pilot with similar drinking and grandstanding problems to his race-driver here—-told me that everybody he worked with at Warners (to which he was under contract for years) was very closely supervised and had little freedom, but that Hawks was treated differently. He said that on Hawks’ pictures, no one seemed to interfere and that even his schedules were longer. This is in keeping with the amazing consistency in Hawks’ work over the years: no matter with which studio or stars he worked, his personal attitudes and signature are vividly recognizable.
Yet he had a genius for bringing out the best in each star’s persona, and Cagney is no exception—-in both Hawks pictures, he is wonderfully Cagney. The other players do brisk, evocative work: the two tough Hawksian women enacted by Joan Blondell and Ann Dvorak; the character comedy relief of Guy Kibbee and Frank McHugh; the kid brother, callow yet likeable Eric Linden. But among the main attractions are the superbly shot and edited racing sequences—-lean, unpretentious and gripping action being a Hawks trademark—-culminating, of course, at the Indianapolis 500.
After the two brothers have almost been killed during a race, they end up in a speeding ambulance, but they’re both cheering their driver on as he passes another ambulance on the way to the hospital. When I noted this never-quit attitude to Hawks, he said, “That’s the way those fellows are—-they’re crazy.” And when I asked if he had intended a touch of irony in his title, in that the crowds roar watching the spectacle and its possible carnage, he replied, “That’s why they come—-because it’s dangerous. If you took the danger out of it, they wouldn’t come.”