Speed Devils (1935)

vt Thru Traffic
US / 60 minutes / bw / Melbert, Perfect Circle, Warner, Hoffberg Dir: Joseph Henabery Scr: Burnet Hershey Cine: E.B. DuPar, Ray Foster Cast: Marguerite Churchill, Paul Kelly, Russell Hardie, Leo Curley, Walter Fenner, Earl Mitchell.

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After a crash at the Madison County Fair Ground, rival racecar drivers Marty Gray (Kelly) and Dan Holden (Hardie) find themselves in adjacent beds in the Harristown Hospital. When Dan’s told his injuries mean he must give up racing for life, Marty, whose injuries are less debilitating but still likely to keep him out of the game for a while, suggests they set up a garage together.

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Dan (Russell Hardie) grins up at girlfriend Pat among the spectators.

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Marty (Paul Kelly) clearly envies Dan the love of Pat.

When Dan’s girlfriend, Pat Corey (Churchill), crack reporter at the Harristown Times, brings flowers to his bedside it’s clear she’s a big hit with Marty, too, and, once the two men are on their feet again and running their auto-repair business, it’s obvious his yearnings are silently reciprocated. Even the stingy Harristown City Treasurer, P.H. “Phil” Caldwell (Mitchell), one of their first customers, can see that.

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Things come to a bit of a head at a swanky party thrown at the Blue Moon Inn by the newly incumbent Harristown Mayor (uncredited). Pat suggests a moonlight stroll to Marty and tells him to stop treating her like poison ivy. He explains he’s madly in love with her but, y’know, you just don’t doublecross a pal—a stance he maintains even as she (a) explains that, to her, Dan’s merely a dear chum rather than a heartthrob and (b) threatens to throw herself at Marty right then and there.

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Pat (Marguerite Churchill) in party finery.

Meanwhile, indoors, the Mayor is introducing Dan to two of the Harristown councilors, Logan (Curley) and Hart (Fenner), with the suggestion that they investigate the possibility of Holden & Gray being given all the council’s automotive business. What the Mayor doesn’t realize—and what the ever-naive Dan most certainly doesn’t—is that Logan and Hart are crooks, in league with the corrupt boss Tim Calloway, whom the Mayor has recently toppled on a reformist ticket and who’s supposedly now out of the picture.

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Scoundrelly councilors Logan (Leo Curley, left) and Hart (Walter Fenner).

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Pat (Marguerite Churchill) tells Phil Caldwell (Earl Mitchell) a thing or two.

Later, when the two garagemen discuss this, Dan’s all gung-ho for the prestige and the business while Marty is dead-set against it. He points out that soon the politicians will be demanding kickbacks, so that in order to make any sort of profit Holden & Gray would have to start economizing on their standards, lowering the quality of their work and using CHEAP PARTS rather than the GOOD STUFF like Perfect Circle Piston Rings:

Marty: “Now wait a minute. Look at the Windsor Garage, that’s had all the city business. You know the kind of work they’ve been turning out. I don’t believe they’ve ever made a dime off the city. They’ve had to put in cheap parts to break even. Look how many of their customers have come over to us. They’ve lost almost all their business. That’s what cheap parts do to you.”

One of the Perfect Circle company’s ads just happens to be to hand so that Marty can wave it at Dan and, incidentally, the camera.

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Marty (Paul Kelly) talks earnestly about the love of his life — Perfect Circle Piston Rings.

Call me slow on the uptake but it was only at this point in the proceedings that I connected the name of the movie’s supposed producer, Perfect Circle (in conjunction with Warner Bros.), to the frequent emphasis that there’d already been on the false economy of using cheap parts, especially in the matter of piston rings. The poster on the wall, the display case on the counter . . . now that I squinted at the brand-name . . .

(For those fetishistic about their piston rings, as Marty seems to be throughout Speed Devils, the Perfect Circle Co. is now part of Mahle GmbH. At least, according to Wikipedia.)

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Pat (Marguerite Churchill) and Marty (Paul Kelly) confront the truth about themselves.

Logan and Hart, having learned of Marty’s intransigence re the matter of council business (and on the use of cut-price piston rings), scheme in machiavellian fashion. They reason that, if only they could drive a wedge between Dan and Marty, they could drive the latter out of Holden & Gray and set up the chiseling, kickbacking deal they’ve been hoping for. So they lure ace investigative journalist Pat to the Blue Moon Inn with the whisper that there’s going to be a clandestine meeting there of Tim Calloway and his corrupt cronies. Next, Marty gets a fake call that there’s a busted car to repair at the Blue Moon Inn. Finally they trick Dan into going there too.

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Marty (Paul Kelly) tries to calm Dan down.

Dan, discovering Marty and Pat seemingly having a tryst behind his back, beats Marty unconscious and departs huffily into the night. Pat inadvertently starts a fire when she chucks the Blue Moon Inn’s maitre d’ (uncredited) at the table where her uneaten oyster stew has been being kept hot on a chafing dish. Marty, in an upstairs room, recovers consciousness only to start suffocating from smoke inhalation and staggers around coughing mightily as the flames encroach . . .

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The Blue Moon ablaze.

The ending’s obvious from here. An earlier attempt to rescue Marty by Pat and the Blue Moon’s waiter Sam (uncredited, which is a damn’ shame because the actor’s really good in the part), made as all others were shrieking and fleeing, was beaten back, but Dan arrives in the nick of time and . . . you guessed it.

Reconciled, the two pals are once more recuperating in adjacent beds in the hospital when Pat arrives to visit. Dan is by now okay about relinquishing Pat’s heart to Marty, which is dandy because it allows her to fit in one final piece of vital product placement:

Marty: “I can see why this is going to be a perfect triangle.”
Pat: “Perfect triangle, hell. This is going to be a . . . Perfect Circle.”

I’ve seen a couple of examples before of movies that were made by mainstream studios for theatrical showing, but underwritten by a corporation whose products were promoted through the movie, but those others were animated shorts: this is the first time I’ve seen a full-length feature produced in this manner. And, to be honest, despite the heavy-handed product placement, it’s quite a neat little offering. Some of the dialogue, in particular, is a cut above the average for a B-movie.

For example, early on during that swanky party at the Blue Moon Inn, Marty is having trouble tying his bow tie, and asks help from the waiter Sam (who really, really deserves to have been given a proper credit):

Sam [indicating a couch]: “Y’all better lay down here, sir.” [ties perfect bow tie. “There you are, sir.”
Marty: “Oh, Sam, you’re a wonder. But tell me, why did I have to lie down?”
Sam: “Boss, that’s the only way I know how to tie a bow tie. You see, I done used to work for an undertaker.”

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Waiter Sam (uncredited) demonstrates the art of bow-tie tying.

Some years before the making of Speed Devils, Paul Kelly—who here plays Marty—served time in jail for manslaughter. Kelly had been having a torrid affair with actress Dorothy Mackaye, wife of the actor Ray Raymond, and picked a fight with the wronged husband—who died of his injuries. Kelly served just over two years of a ten-year sentence. Mackaye, too, did jail time, in her case for what was in effect perjury. Later the couple married, and Mackaye wrote a play, Women in Prison (1932), based on her prison experiences. This has been filmed twice, first as Ladies They Talk About (1933) dir Howard Bretherton and William Keighley, with Barbara Stanwyck, and then as LADY GANGSTER (1942), dir Robert Florey, with Faye Emerson.

Marguerite Churchill’s life was somewhat less eventful than Kelly’s. She had a screen career that was really quite distinguished in its earlier years, although it then petered out until she was doing oaters and, well, movies like this one; in acting terms she seems a cut above the rest of the cast. Among her roles were Mary Douglas in The Valiant (1929), Ruth Cameron (opposite John Wayne) in The Big Trail (1930), Kay Loring in Girl Without a Room (1933) and Janet in Dracula’s Daughter (1936). It was while making the Western Riders of the Purple Sage (1931) that she met her future husband George O’Brien. Of their children, Darcy O’Brien was a noted writer, author of novels such as A Way of Life, Like Any Other (1977) and Power to Hurt (1996) as well as the true-crime book Two of a Kind: The Story of the Hillside Stranglers (1985), while their daughter Orin O’Brien has been a double bassist with the New York Philharmonic for many years.

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You can find Speed Devils to watch or download (under its variant title, Thru Traffic) at the Internet Archive.

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2 thoughts on “Speed Devils (1935)

  1. Hmmmm. This one I have never crossed paths with, but you have unearthed more than a few pre-coders worth investigating. As always a marvelously penned analysis in more ways than one!

    • This one’s no more than a workaday movie, but it’s to the credit of those concerned that it attained even that standard bearing in mind it’s in essence an extended ad. And, for me, it has great curiosity value.

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