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

James Cruze directed both silent and sound films in the 1910's through 1930's Hollywood.

James Cruze: Subjects

Subjects: Society: Communication:

James Cruze: Visual Style

Visual Style: Costumes:

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). Both films:

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.

Cruze Imagery

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.

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.

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.

Infrastructure

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.

Architecture

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.

Sports Numbers

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.

Real-life Companies

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. Links:

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.