It’s 1895 and everyone is talking about the newfangled horseless carriage, which leads to conflict between a horse-loving stable owner and his auto-mad son. Notable as an surviving example of a Vitaphone synchronized score in a feature-length picture.
Home Media Availability: Released on DVD
The Merry Oldsmobile
“A horseless carriage? That will never catch on!”
And that is the central premise of The First Auto, a fuzzy study in nostalgia set during the motor car revolution that kicked off in the United States in the 1890s. Venerable character actor Russell Simpson plays Hank Armstrong, buggy race champion and owner of a fine livery stable. His son, Bob (Charles Emmett Mack), on the other hand, is absolutely cuckoo for those brand-new automobiles.
While Hank is portrayed as a fuddy-duddy for his refusal to accept that cars have an undeniable appeal, the film makes him sympathetic by showcasing his deep affection for his thoroughbred horses, Sloe Eyes and Bright Eyes. When Sloe Eyes passes away, director Roy Del Ruth cranks the sentimentality to eleven. Bob, meanwhile, cannot be bothered to get out of bed and comfort his dad and stands by while the late Sloe Eyes is mocked by some pro-automobile locals. At one point, Hank threatens to horsewhip his own son, driving him off to seek is fortune.
Despite never having displayed a single likable character trait, the film follows Bob’s adventures in Detroit. He runs into Barney Oldfield (himself, and no stranger to the movies) and spots Henry Ford as they test out his brand new 999 motor car. We then get a montage showing the development of cars into the sleek, modern machines of 1905. Meanwhile, Hank stews and goes bankrupt and is forced to sell Bright Eyes. There’s a horse stealing plot that never goes anywhere but Hank quickly gets her back again.
In the midst of all this, there are antics at the magic lantern show and the soda fountain. A very young William Demarest attempts to inject levity by juggling eggs and pouring water down his friend’s pants. Sound was very good to Mr. Demarest.
(Spoiler) The film concludes with Hank sabotaging Bob’s car offscreen without knowing it belongs to his son. He and Bob’s fiancée, Rose (Patsy Ruth Miller, the official star of the picture), race to the rescue with Bright Eyes but are too late. Hank sets fire to his stable but Rose rushes in to tell him that Bob is all right (offscreen) and father and son reconcile (offscreen) before going into the auto business together (offscreen), succeeding (offscreen) and the film ends with Hank attending an auto race while Bob and Rose attend a horse show (offscreen).
The First Auto is a mixed bag. Some of the nostalgia is genuinely fun but the jerky plot gets in the way. While the romantic leads are Charles Emmett Mack and Patsy Ruth Miller, their characters are not particularly compelling and, in the end, Russell Simpson pretty much holds it all together in the face of some rather intense sentimentality. I am not opposed to emotion in a silent movie but all those dramatic crying scenes with little payoff in either plot or character development do become wearing. The fact that Simpson sells most of his scenes is very much to his credit.
The few viewers who saw The First Auto with its original sound discs might have noted parallels between its plot about unreliable new technology slowly catching on. Warner Bros. had banked on sound movies in the form of Vitaphone synchronized scores. That is, instead of the more advanced sound-on-film, they bet on reaching market first with sound on separate phonograph discs.
Sound-on-disc had been attempted before prior to the First World War, notably by both Gaumont and Edison with full talking pictures and musicals, but had never advanced past a curio. At first, Warner Bros. steered clear of full talking feature films, focusing instead on orchestra scores and sound effects.
The Vitaphone technology had made an auspicious debut with Don Juan (1926) but had been struggling since. In The Talkies: American Cinema’s Transition to Sound, 1926-1931, Donald Crafton points out that Warner Bros. had planned to install 350 systems by the end of the 1926 calendar year but the work fell behind by months and by mid-1927, only 51 machines were in use and subsequent Vitaphone subjects failed to catch fire.
We all know that the sound revolution would catch fire later in 1927 but The First Auto was not given a particularly warm critical reception. It was panned as a choppy, dragging affair. Photoplay pointed out that cutting back on the sentimentality, romance and “alleged comedy” in favor of more auto stuff would have improved the film considerably (and they were right) but Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times praised the picture as good, nostalgic entertainment.
The First Auto was indeed designed to lean into the childhood nostalgia of the Lost Generation and it comes out swinging with the opening credits accompanied by the 1905 hit In My Merry Oldsmobile. The score continues to deliver the Tin Pan Alley hits throughout the picture and also references popular songs in visual gags, like a lapel button referring to Oh, You Kid. Given the wild popularity of nostalgia soundtracks in modern films, it’s interesting to see the concept emerge so fully formed.
The picture also makes use of sound with audio effects, horse hoofbeats and the like, and a few odd instances of the character’s name being spoken. Ironically, in a film that was made to generate laughs from earlier, awkward attempts at “progress,” the biggest flaws come from the synchronized sound gags. During the magic lantern scene, there are interminable shots of extras and bit players experiencing Vitaphone guffaws. The joke is withered in seconds but it keeps right on going.
In addition to its use of sound, The First Auto is also notable for the tragic death of romantic lead Charles Emmett Mack. Mack was killed in an automobile accident on his way to film scenes for The First Auto. In a rather callous item found in the trade magazine Moving Picture World, Warner Bros. announced that the picture had been “practically completed before the accident” and would be released on schedule.
The studio was true to its word and The First Auto was released when it was promised, splashy New York premiere and everything. Mack’s death was lightly covered in the press, along with a revelation that a script girl working on the picture had also been killed by an automobile. One breathless piece stated that since deaths came in threes, they were awaited the final entry in the fatal trio. Classy.
Given the choppiness of the romance and the failure to include a touching hospital reconciliation scene in this extremely sentimental picture, it’s possible that Mack’s death interfered with the original plans for the picture more than Warner Bros. admitted in their press release. On the other hand, there was never really any emotional resolution to the legal and emotional tangles surrounding Bright Eyes the colt, which only involved the very much alive Russell Simpson, so maybe it was just dodgy writing all around.
A trade item published in February of 1927 stated that the slate of Warner Bros. productions would be released on time, so it doesn’t seem that there was any kind of wiggle room for The First Auto, which debuted in June of that year with a special appearance by Barney Oldfield.
They say you don’t want to know how sausage is made and that’s true in the case of The First Auto. All the literal blood, sweat and tears, not even a simple dedication to Mack and he was barely mentioned in the film’s publicity push, which was minor at best. Barney Oldfield was the big name being pushed, despite his very brief cameo.
It’s possible that The First Auto could have been made better with a more flexible release schedule and without the on-set tragedies but the fact remains, its makers did not seem to know what kind of film they wanted to release. The sentimentality is laid on thick but is never carried through. The comedy relief feels detached from the picture and it seems like everyone involved would have been happier making a straight automobile documentary. The vintage cars are great fun to see but they deserved center stage throughout the picture and failing to give it to them was a fatal error. Story man/producer Darryl F. Zanuck seems to have dropped the ball.
The First Auto is an interesting study in how the film industry mined nostalgia for box office gold, a practice that now dominates genre filmmaking, but it never quite finds its feet. It’s not a terrible picture but nothing is ever really resolved, and the most dramatic moments occur offscreen.
If you’re an automobile history nut, there will probably be something to see here. Ditto if you are a fan of any of the leads. But in the end, The First Auto is a middling programmer.
Where can I see it?
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