Bankrupt in New York? California, here we come! That, in a nutshell, is the plot of Rubber Tires, a romantic road comedy from the tail end of the silent era. Can our madcap family roll into Newhall in their battered flivver? Well, of course they can but getting there is (theoretically) all the fun.
You mean THE Harrison Ford?
Harrison Ford was a popular leading man in the silents but he is most often brought up today because of his shared ownership of a very famous name. The two Mr. Fords are not related and the first Harrison passed away when the modern Harrison was just fifteen.
Information on the first Harrison Ford is scarce. He shunned publicity and was all but forgotten at the time of his death. Eve Golden has an affectionate tribute to him in her essay collection, Golden Images, and her work is the primary source for this article.
A Missouri native, Ford started out on the stage before turning to the newly-respectable motion pictures in 1915, the same year that feature-length films completely took over the industry. He started out as the second lead to more famous stars (such as Wallace Reid and Fannie Ward) but soon earned a reputation for light marital comedies. He worked most often with the Talmadge sisters but also supported Marion Davies. He was also steadily paired with the charming Marie Prevost and Phyllis Haver.
Harrison Ford was known as a consummate professional, not given to tantrums or inconveniencing his co-stars. His balanced personality and flair for comedy ensured him steady work while his more flashy rivals saw their careers sputter out.
Ford is often listed as a casualty of sound and all the Singin’ in the Rain mythology that comes with it. (His voice is fine. Behold!) In fact, he returned to the stage. Perhaps he did not care to learn a new method of film acting. Perhaps he was just tired of Hollywood. In any case, he quietly retired some time later and, it is presumed, enjoyed a quiet life of pottering in his beloved garden. He passed away as a result of injuries sustained when he was hit by a car.
So, is our silent Harrison Ford worthy of attention in his own right or is he rightly relegated to being a trivia footnote? That’s what were are going to be looking at today.
You see, unlike poor Theda Bara, many of Mr. Ford’s films survive. This gives us a unique opportunity to enjoy and assess his talents.
Rubber Tires was one of many films produced by Cecil B. DeMille during his brief stint as the head of his own studio. Silent movie economics worked as follows: Expensive special productions would pack ‘em in the aisles (but carried enormous risks due to their mammoth budgets) while smaller program pictures would be made cheaply and pay the day-to-day bills with little risk. The problem was that DeMille’s “bigger is better” attitude also applied to the programmers and his productions had some of the highest budgets in the industry.
This made terrible economic sense and eventually sunk DeMille as an independent producer but the lavish, risk-taking productions have taken on a new life with modern silent fans. The zany plots and excellent quality make for enjoyable viewing. Further, the DeMille programmers often featured juicy (and sometimes very empowered) roles for women. There is a lot to love.
This is where Rubber Tires comes in. It was a DeMille programmer released in 1927. In addition to our Mr. Ford, it features Bessie Love (another unjustly forgotten star) and was directed by once and future Little John, Alan Hale. (Hale, of course, shares a name with his famous son.)
The plot is simple. Love plays Mary Ellen Stack, the breadwinner of her family. Her mother (May Robson) keeps house and her father (Erwin Connelly) is an idle sloth. Her kid brother, Charley (Junior Coghlan), engages in the usual “cute” antics that child actors subject audiences to.
The family barely scrapes by in a New York apartment. They own a second home in Newhall, California but it is being seized to pay a tax bill. That day, Mary Ellen is fired and the situation looks grim. Then our heroine comes up with an idea. They will sell every stick of furniture, whch should raise enough to cover the taxes, buy an inexpensive car and roll to California on rubber tires.
Mary Ellen buys an old junker from Adolph Messer (John Patrick), who is less a character and more a walking collection of ethnic stereotypes that would make George Lucas blush. As it turns out, the car just happens to be the very first vehicle produced by a company that has just made its one millionth auto. In celebration, they want to track down car number one and post large billboards offering $10,000 for its return.
The Stacks know nothing of this and drive off toward their new home. On the way, they run into Bill James (Harrison Ford), who used to date Mary Ellen. Bill is just as smitten as ever but Mary Ellen wants nothing to do with him. She manages to sneak away with her family while his back is turned.
Bill is not so good at taking hints. Most of us would consider our ex sneaking away to be a sign that they do not wish to rekindle things. Not to Bill. Nope. He quits his job on the spot, buys a car with no motor and persuades other motorists to tow him along as he follows Mary Ellen.
Once again, a romantic comedy delivers behavior that would get the rest of us a restraining order.
Anyway, he follows Mary Ellen around and annoys her until Stockholm syndrome sets in and she starts to like him again. Ah! Romance!
Meanwhile, Messer sees the ads, realizes that he let $10,000 roll away and races off to repurchase the car. The accompanist on the DVD makes the questionable decision of playing Hava Nagila as Messer chases our heroes. Oh. My. Gravy.
Finally, he tracks down the car but by then, Pa has swapped it. (The other party in the swap is a Mexican couple, complete with—you won’t believe this—title card accents!) Messer hears the news, shows the Stacks a newspaper ad promising $10,000 for the car, asks half-heartedly about the new owners and then… gives up? Yes indeed. After chasing that car from New York to Colorado, Mr. Messer is neither seen nor heard from again.
Racist, unfunny and has absolutely no impact on the plot? Alrighty then.
With Messer out of the running, the Stacks decide to try to chase down the car and get it back. The rest of the film is taken up with their pursuit.
Harrison Ford’s character was meant to be zany and fun-loving but his aggressive and stalkerish behavior make him creepy in the extreme. This is a pity. You see, once he and Mary Ellen get back together, they make a very cute couple. However, it’s hard to overlook the hero’s bizarre actions at the beginning.
The best performance in the film easily comes from Bessie Love. A charming and underrated actress, she is plucky and spunky enough to make us believe she can manage a cross-country trip. While her character certainly picks up the Idiot Ball more than once, she is still the most relatable person in the film. Sadly, fans of Harrison Ford will likely be disappointed by his mile-wide performance.
Rubber Tires suffers from unfulfilled promise. While the movie has many cute ideas, few are allowed to fully play out. For example, the reward posters are steadily pasted just minutes after the Stacks pass by but what could have been an amusing running gag is quickly abandoned. Mary Ellen’s second suitor is a would-be silent film actor but the very meta concept is never explored. He may as well have been a fireman or a diamond cutter or a sous-chef for all the difference it makes to the plot.
In addition to being riddled with bad accents, the title cards fall into the trap of being zany for the sake of being zany. The best titles showed wit and sass, yes, but they also moved the plot forward. These title cards are frequently duds and some are so absurd that the humor remains a mystery.
Rubber Tires has a following but I do not feel that it lives up to the other DeMille programmers I have seen. The plot meanders, Harrison Ford’s character is creepy, there is very little suspense or payoff and the whole thing is basically held together by Bessie Love’s onscreen cuteness. Harrison Ford has been better showcased elsewhere (particularly when paired with Marion Davies or Marie Prevost) and most everyone else involved has done better work. This one gets a solid-ish “meh” from me.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★½
Where can I see it?
Released on DVD by Grapevine.