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At the end of his first year with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1936, a young contract player named James Stewart had appeared in no less than nine films! Among these were the musical Born to Dance (he had a small singing role!), After the Thin Man (in which he played the killer), and Small Town Girl where his performance was praised by several critics; The London Observer wrote "In case somebody wants to see really distinctive acting, there is Mr. James Stewart in one of those small-time, small-town parts that are the salt of any film he essays." All of these roles were supporting parts with one exception - Speed - in which Stewart took top billing. It was not the film that would catapult him into the ranks of Hollywood's leading men, however. That would have to wait until 1939 when he starred in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Destry Rides Again. Nevertheless, Speed proved to be a great training ground for the rising actor and showed he could carry a movie through his winning personality. Stewart would later champion the studio system for the valuable experience it offered screen newcomers: "The only way to learn to act is to act...For instance, I would have a tiny part in a big picture with stars like Clark Gable and Jean Harlow and others, and then I would have a big part in a tiny picture [Speed] and so on."
Speed was partially inspired by a real event - Malcolm Campbell breaking the world's speed record for an automobile (he drove a Bluebird). The event took place on September 3, 1935 at the Bonneville Salt Flats and MGM wanted to capitalize on the public's interest in it by following up with a similar story. Stewart plays Terry Martin, a test driver for the Emory Automobile Company, who is trying to perfect a new high-speed carburetor. Cocky and ambitious, Terry also pursues the company's attractive new public relations representative, Jane Mitchell (Wendy Barrie), who just happens to be the niece of the company's boss. A rivalry for Jane with fellow engineer Frank Lawson (Weldon Heyburn) creates complications for Terry but after surviving a race car accident at the Indianapolis speedway, he is sufficiently humbled and a better man for it.
Even though Speed was Stewart's first starring vehicle it was little more than a glorified B-movie, clocking in at just under sixty-six minutes. MGM had arranged with Chrysler Motors in advance to use their equipment, cars, buildings and testing grounds for the film and there is also a great deal of footage devoted to the automobile assembly line process in a Detroit factory. If it wasn't for the slim love story angle, Speed could almost pass as an infomercial for the car industry. But even if the film didn't exactly maintain the pace of its title, it's not without interest for Stewart fans and some of the cinematography by Lester White (high-speed races filmed through the windshield of the test car) is exciting. Though Stewart would later recall little about the making of Speed, he did retain one important memory of it. In A Wonderful Life: The Films and Career of James Stewart by Tony Thomas, the actor remembered that his co-star Ted Healy gave him some invaluable advice as an actor: "He told me to think of the audience not simply as watchers but as collaborators, as sort of partners in the project. He was right, and that helped me in my attitude toward the business."
Producer: Lucien Hubbard
Director: Edwin L. Marin
Screenplay: Milton Krims (story), Lawrence Bachmann (story), Michael Fessier
Cinematography: Lester White
Film Editing: Ben Lewis
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Edward Ward
Cast: James Stewart (Terry Martin), Wendy Barrie (Jane Mitchell), Una Merkel (Josephine Sanderson), Weldon Heyburn (Frank Lawson), Ted Healy (Clarence "Gadget" Haggerty), Ralph Morgan (Mr. Dean).
by Jeff Stafford