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n 1927, it took only three spoken words and some sound effects to tell The First Auto, an otherwise silent story about the birth of the automobile. DirectorRoy Del Ruth, one of Warner Brothers' most prolific directors at the time,filled the picture with details about the birth of the horseless carriage.He even cast legendary racecar driver Barney Oldfield in a small role. Butthe film was far from a documentary, as writer/producer Darryl F. Zanuckbuilt the story around the conflict between a father who raises and raceshorses and a son involved in the fast-rising automobile industry.
Del Ruth was a mainstay at every studio he worked for (including MGM and20th Century-Fox), but he's probably best known for his work at WarnerBros., where he labored from the mid-'20s until 1934. He was a majorinfluence on the studio's gritty fast-paced style before the arrival ofProduction Code enforcement in 1934. Among his most notable films therewere the first screen version of The Maltese Falcon (aka Dangerous Female, 1931), which featured blatant depictions of all the sexuality John Huston was only allowed tohint at in his classic 1941 version; the breakneck newspaper comedyBlessed Event (1932); and three films that helped establish James Cagney'stough-guy image, Taxi! (1932), Blonde Crazy (1931) and LadyKiller (1933).
On The First Auto, he worked with a combination of establishedplayers, future stars and one tragic might-have-been. Russell Simpson hadalready made well over 60 films by the time he took on the role of thefather clinging to his old-fashioned ways. He would go on to become amember of the John Ford stock company, playing Pa Joad in The Grapes ofWrath (1940) and taking on small roles in Ford's My DarlingClementine (1946), Wagon Master (1950) and The Horse Soldiers (1959). Rose, thegirl Simpson's son leaves behind as he rises through the auto industry, wasplayed by Patsy Ruth Miller, already a major silent star, most notably asEsmeralda in Lon Chaney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). She wouldretire from acting in 1932. Two years before playing a small role as thevillage blacksmith in The First Auto, Gibson Gowland had scored hisgreatest screen triumph, as the doomed dentist McTeague in Erich vonStroheim's legendary Greed (1925). By contrast, William Demarest, cast asthe "Village Cut-Up," was still more than a decade away from his greatestscreen roles, in such classic Preston Sturges comedies as The LadyEve (1941), Sullivan's Travels (1942) and The Miracle of Morgan'sCreek (1944). In the '60s, he would win a new generation of fans as UncleCharlie on the family sitcom My Three Sons.
The film's one tragic question mark was Charles Emmett Mack, starring asSimpson's up-and-coming son, who leaves behind the family business and hischildhood sweetheart for success in the auto industry. Mack had beenmaking films since 1921, and The First Auto, made when he was only27, was one of his best roles. What might have followed is anyone's guess,as he only made two more pictures before his death in a car accident on theway to the studio, an ironic end considering his role in The FirstAuto.
Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck
Director: Roy Del Ruth
Screenplay: Anthony Coldeway, Darryl F. Zanuck (story), Jack Jarmuth(titles)
Cinematography: David Abel
Art Direction: Lewis Geib, Esdras Hartley
Score: Herman S. Heller
Principal Cast: Russell Simpson (Hank Armstrong), Charles Emmett Mack (BobArmstrong), Patsy Ruth Miller (Rose Robbins), Barney Oldfield (The OldDriver), Gibson Gowland (The Blacksmith), William Demarest (The VillageCut-up).
by Frank Miller