James Cruze | Subjects
| Visual Style
Films: The Roaring Road
| The Great Gabbo
Classic Film and Television Home Page (with many articles on directors)
| 1910's Articles
James Cruze directed both silent and sound films in the 1910's through 1930's Hollywood.
James Cruze: Subjects
- Humans linked to animals (villain shown as bear, hero linked to rat in jail: The Roaring Road,
humans in giant frog costumes in dream: Beggar on Horseback,
humans in spider and insect costumes in dance number: The Great Gabbo)
- Weddings (hero and heroine keep trying to marry: The Roaring Road,
dream with androgynous half-groom and half-bride figures: Beggar on Horseback,
strange wedding of hero and heroine: The Mating Call)
- Hero in love with villain's daughter (The Roaring Road, I Cover the Waterfront)
- Destroying windows (bars cut for jail break: The Roaring Road,
rejected woman smashes window in hero's door: The Mating Call)
- Banjo players (frog in dream: Beggar on Horseback,
boy at start: The Covered Wagon)
- Sinister secret political groups as villains, with links to the Confederacy (Knights of the Golden Circle: The Pony Express,
the Order, a Ku Klux Klan clone: The Mating Call)
- Sacred symbols profaned by villains (cathedral and wedding in dream devoted to worship of money: Beggar on Horseback,
hero crucified by the Order: The Mating Call)
- Negative views of small towns (small town constable mocked: The Roaring Road,
Florida community terrorized by a Klan-like group: The Mating Call)
- Infrastructure for communication (telegrams, phones, switchboard, Western Union, messenger boys carrying notes: The Roaring Road,
Pony Express created: The Pony Express)
- Phone calls (The Roaring Road, The Mating Call)
- Trains (race between car and train: The Roaring Road,
surreal train and station in dream: Beggar on Horseback)
James Cruze: Visual Style
- Abstract patterns (light projected on tracks by moving train, light projected on road by moving car, sparks from welder: The Roaring Road,
spirals, revolving disks: The Great Gabbo)
- Uniforms (race car driver, bellboy: The Roaring Road,
World War I: The Mating Call,
bellboy, chauffeur, footman: The Great Gabbo)
- White tie and tails (hero and men at country club: The Roaring Road,
Stroheim, singer: The Great Gabbo)
- Cutaways (dream with androgynous half-groom and half-bride figures: Beggar on Horseback,
men in dance number: The Great Gabbo)
- Top hats (top hat magically appears on hero at start of dream: Beggar on Horseback,
hero's top hat as Western gambler: The Pony Express,
singer in tails: The Great Gabbo)
The Roaring Road
An Early Racing Film
The Roaring Road (1919) is a popular early film about racecars.
While Intolerance (D.W. Griffith, 1916) is not about racing, it does have a spectacular sequence
where a car races a moving train. A similar event is incorporated in The Roaring Road.
This scene still has the power to excite contemporary audiences.
Although probably not directly ancestral, The Roaring Road anticipates
The Great Race (Blake Edwards, 1965).
- Deal with racing in an early era.
- Show sponsors for racecars.
- Show rallies on real roads going from city to city.
The Jazz Age
The milieu of The Roaring Road recalls F. Scott Fitzgerald,
both in its dynamic young hero, and the country club where he and the heroine dance.
What Fitzgerald would call the Jazz Age was getting underway in 1919.
Animals and People. James Cruze liked films in which humans are compared to animals. In The Roaring Road:
Louis Feuillade, Howard Hawks and
Jacques Tourneur are directors who like to link humans and animals.
- The irascible businessman is compared to a bear. The bear is shown doing business at his desk,
in a witty opening. This is a bit of fantasy, in an otherwise realist film.
- His daughter is known as the Cub, although she is not actually shown as a bear cub on screen.
- When the hero is in jail, he is linked to a rat in the same cell. There is a funny line of dialogue
comparing the two.
Uniforms. We get more James Cruze men in uniforms:
Weddings. No wedding or wedding clothes are shown.
But the hero and heroine's attempts to get married are a repeated plot driver throughout the film.
- Messenger boys.
- The hero and his mechanic wear racing suits.
The hero is in white tie and tails throughout much of the film's second half.
This formal wear is often associated with weddings.
A different explanation:
white tie was a signature look for star Wallace Reid, who frequently wore it on-screen.
The Roaring Road goes out of its way to have Reid in it, in the middle section of the film.
He even wears it to jail, an entertainingly perverse idea.
Before the final rally, the hero puts on driver's coveralls over his white tie and tails.
Such layered clothes over formal wear will soon show up in
L'Inhumaine (Marcel L'Herbier, 1924).
They are a cool idea.
Layered clothes in general are a motif in Howard Hawks.
Light and Abstract Film
Striking photography shows light from a moving train moving down tracks.
Even better is a similar image, showing lights from a car moving down a road.
These beautiful images look like something out of Stan Brakhage.
They are abstract patterns, and look like something out of the whole tradition of
abstract light-show films. Cruze would later make a different kind of abstract film,
with the geometric pattern of the spiral in The Great Gabbo.
Also visually pleasing: the shower of sparks emitted from a welding torch.
In addition to headlights, the racecar has a huge spotlight, for night driving.
I've never seen this in other films.
The Roaring Road offers a guided tour of America's technical infrastructure.
We see the transportation network: roads, cars, car dealerships, a police motorcycle,
gas station, trains. And the communication network: telegraphs, phones, a switchboard,
visits to Western Union, even office boys and messenger boys carrying notes.
Joseph H. Lewis is a later director with a deep interest in infrastructure.
This exploration of infrastructure means that The Roaring Road is an early example of a film
interested in technology. Please see my detailed list of
Best Science Fiction, Fantasy and High Technology Films.
Films about Science and Technology form an important strand of film history.
The window at the jail has both a glass window, that can be raised and lowered, and then bars outside that.
I don't recall seeing a glass window in a jail cell before.
The hero is nicely photographed through a glass pane at the club.
The hero is #11 in the race. This number is on both the chest of his uniform, and on his car.
Phallic numbers like 1, 4, 7 and 9 have a long tradition in sports films.
See my lists in Sports Numbers and Their Symbolism.
The Roaring Road is an early example of such numbers.
A number of real life companies show up in The Roaring Road.
I have no idea if the companies paid money to appear, as a "product placement", or not.
Darco cars were real cars employed in racing in 1919. Unfortunately,
I'm not an expert on classic cars, and can tell you little about them.
There are interesting scenes showing offices of the real-life company Western Union.
Western Union is shown doing services I had no idea it did: transporting cars,
making timestamps to certify races (fascinating).
The Great Gabbo
The Great Gabbo (1929) is the great granddaddy of all those
stories about strange ventriloquists. It has been much imitated ever since.
Dances and Dreams
The imagery in The Great Gabbo echoes that of earlier James Cruze films.
The dance numbers seem especially close to the dream sequence
in Beggar on Horseback.
One dance number in The Great Gabbo shows humans taking
the roles of insects and spiders, crawling up a huge web. This
recalls the human-like frogs in Beggar on Horseback. Both
films have elaborate, but not realistic, costumes, which suggest
such an animal-human fusion.
Another dance number in The Great Gabbo involves both the
leading man and many of the chorus in a formal cutaway for the
men. The dream sequence in Beggar on Horseback also centers
on a wedding, with androgynous figures half in male formal wear,
half females in bridal gowns. There is also the strange wedding
in The Mating Call. Another number in The Great Gabbo
involves clothes that alternate big areas of black and white,
both within costumes, and between adjacent men and women in the
chorus line. This too has something of the same graphic effect
as the half-and-half wedding costumes in Beggar on Horseback.
Men are in uniforms in The Great Gabbo, including what
seem to be bellboy outfits in a dance number, and the paired chauffeur
and footman-dummy handler in the restaurant sequence. This echoes
The Mating Call, where the hero also starts out in uniform.
The uniforms, while dashing, seem to mock their wearers, because
all of these men seem completely powerless. All of the outfits
seem to be fancy dress military uniforms.
The dance numbers feature the two leads dancing, backed up by
a large chorus. This seems like a standard film convention. But
it also echoes scenes with the vigilante group in The Mating Call,
which show individuals on trial before a large group
of similarly costumed people.
Murnau and Sunrise: Influences on Cruze
Other imagery in The Great Gabbo seems unique to this
film, as far as I can tell with what I know about Cruze's work.
The spectacular revolving disks behind a dance number, are among
the most abstract and geometric backgrounds anywhere in American
film. A giant spiral disk recalls spiral imagery in other filmmakers.
Please see the article on Fritz Lang's
M (1931) for more details on "spirals in the movies".
If I had to guess, an ancestor for Cruze's spiral could be the
spiral sign on the building in the vision of the city at the start
of Murnau's Sunrise (1927).
At the end, when Stroheim has a mental breakdown, he sees mental
imagery that consists of previous scenes in the film, projected
onto "windows" within the current screen. This recalls
a bit the mental imagery at the start of Murnau's Sunrise
(1927), which appears in a rectangular window-like region on the
top of the screen. However, Cruze goes beyond Murnau to combine
this imagery into multiple "windows" within the frame.
He also varies the size of the windows in creative ways. This
is an ingenious bit of innovative cinematic form.
Both of these possible influences from Murnau build on the vision
sequence near the beginning of Sunrise. While other directors
were struck by Murnau's camera movements, Cruze seems to explore
the potential of cinematic visions, set forth by 1) unusual sets
(the spirals) and 2) the use of mental imagery, formed by windows
within the frame.