Reginald Denny falls in love with a beautiful young woman. Unfortunately, she happens to be the daughter of the man who smashed his car and left him with a fear of driving. Will their love survive autophobia?
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And Not a Single Sequel
Well, we should probably address the elephant in the room before going forward. This picture has absolutely nothing to do with either the Roger Corman-produced cheapie or the multi-billion dollar action film franchise that shares its two-adjective title. Also, to my knowledge, star (and accomplished boxer) Reginald Denny never found it necessary to mandate the number of punches he would receive in a picture, unlike certain other tough guy performers. So, a point to the silent, I think.
Denny was one of the big stars in the Universal stable during the silent era and he made boxing pictures but his modern claim to fame lies in breezy comedies. He played a would-be yuppie with major credit debt in Skinner’s Dress Suit, a hypochondriac-turned-daredevil in Oh, Doctor and a lovesick trust fund baby on a road trip in California Straight Ahead.
Maybe he was too handsome. Maybe he should have worn a silly mustache. Maybe he played one too many dramatic parts. Whatever the reason, Denny is not generally listed as a comedian and his films are not often included among the great comedies of the silent era. (Despite the glowing write-up in Kevin Brownlow’s classic The Parade’s Gone By…) As a result, he’s a bit of a hidden treasure and a nice breath of fresh air for anyone who likes to laugh but doesn’t necessarily enjoy slapstick.
Fast and Furious’ only connection to the similarly-titled talkies is that it’s all about cars. Specifically, car races. I’m not a big fan of sports pictures but I do enjoy a good racing comedy. You have everything: suspense, humor, stunts and, quite often, some impressive cinematography.
Fast and Furious lives up to its title from the very start. The earliest form of camera movement was almost certainly fastening it to a moving vehicle and cranking away. Director Melville W. Brown and cinematographer Arthur L. Todd update the old 1890s trick by combining footage from the front and rear of a speeding car while cutting to the speedometer. Essentially, it puts the audience in the driver’s seat complete with rearview mirror. (The illusion isn’t perfect—there are shots of spinning wheels too—but it’s pretty darn close.)
The car speeds along hitting hay bales and only narrowly missing men women and animals. The driver of this wild vehicle is J.D. Smithfield (Claude Gillingwater), who is accompanied by his daughter Dorothy (Barbara Worth). Such recklessness cannot go on for long without somebody getting hurt and that somebody is Tom Brown (Reginald Denny), a perfectly innocent motorist whose car is totaled by Smithfield.
Tom miraculously survives the crash and before he is hit by a second car and rushed to the hospital, he falls head over heels in love with Dorothy and thinks of nothing but her during his recovery. Once he is discharged, he sets out to find her but is inhibited by his new (and understandable!) phobia of cars and automobile horns. Still, he is determined and hires a hansom cab to take him around Los Angeles in search of the Smithfield residence.
Smithfield has not learned a thing from his earlier accident and indulges in a fit of road rage at the hansom cab blocking the intersection. Tom fails to recognize the man who nearly broke every bone in his body (concussions will do that), rips off his car horn and tweaks his nose.
Tom realizes his mistake too late but how can he woo Dorothy if her father absolutely loathes him? Well, what with one thing and another, Tom ends up posing as a famous racecar driver and it just so happens that Smithfield is in need of his services…
The one the strong points of this picture is the screenplay credited to Reginald Denny and Raymond Cannon. While the humor is derived from impossible situations, the story keeps just a few toes on the ground and the plot flows smoothly with each event logically leading to the next. If you think this should be a basic ingredient, you are probably going to be surprised by how many movies do not accomplish this.
Further, the mistaken identity plot device works because it does not come off as creepy. You see, mistaken identity is a common comedy trope but it often falls flat because the character’s reasons for deception are not properly established or because there is a power imbalance between the characters.
In Fast and Furious, Tom is desperate to reset his relationship with the Smithfields. Smithfield has commissioned an enormous sculpture in the shape of Billings, a famous racecar driver. But Billings is on the run from a jealous husband and sculptor Dupont (Armand Kaliz) needs an emergency replacement model pronto. He offers to patch things up between Tom and the Smithfields if he will be his model.
Well, one thing leads to another and Dupont needs to produce the famous model for the sculpture, so… Before Tom knows it, he is the new Billings.
In short, a classic bit of snowballing for humorous effect. Tom doesn’t lie because he is a deceitful person or for malicious reasons, he just kind of ends up trapped.
The picture is also quite imaginatively directed. In addition to the opening scene described above, we get an exciting race at the finale and an amusing sight gag in which Tom imagines a pacing Dupont to be Felix the Cat. (One of Felix’s signature bits was to pace back and forth looking furtive.) We also get more point of view shots with what looks like a handheld camera.
Worth and Denny have nice, pleasant chemistry as the leads and, amusingly enough, Dorothy is as much of a motorhead and leadfoot as her father. I certainly hope the events of the picture fully cured Tom’s fear of fast cars and horns because his relationship with Dorothy might be a bit too harrowing otherwise.
Denny is his usual breezy self here, playing an agreeable all-American who just wants to marry the girl of his dreams. Denny doesn’t mug or overplay beyond what would be expected in films of this time, place and genre and perhaps his subtlety is against him when lists of the best silent film comedians are put together. But he sells the story and his timing is excellent, so let’s give credit where credit is due even if this isn’t slapstick. (The mistaken belief that slapstick was the only silent era comedy that counted can please go away now.)
If you like car race pictures or romantic comedies or both, this film will delight you from beginning to end. It’s snappy and likable and the impressive direction and cinematography are the icing on the cake.
Where can I see it?
Great news! Robert Fells has posted an HD transfer of the picture derived from the print held by the Fondazione Cineteca Italiana on YouTube. The title cards have been translated back into English. So, no need to pay a dime to see this picture!
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Reginald Denny reminds me of Cary Grant in this movie — a handsome, urbane fellow who doesn’t seem to mind being made into a figure of fun. Very entertaining!
Yes, his lack of vanity is a big part of his success as a comedian.
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