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Remind Me
,The Big Wheel

The Big Wheel

Racetrack pictures come in a variety of flavors - comic (Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby [2006]), gritty (Fury on Wheels [1971]), glitzy (Grand Prix [1966]), distaff (Heart Like a Wheel [1983]), musical (Spinout [1966]), biographical (Greased Lightning [1977]) and even existential (Le Mans [1971]). In many ways, racetrack films are bastard sons to the western, with the cowboy replaced by the driver, his horse by a fast car and the army fort for the speedway garage. While just about every race car movie pits its protagonist against an antagonist in the form of a better/faster/more experienced driver, the true black hat of the piece is invariably that part of the hero's psyche that must be broken and rebuilt so that the character may, win or lose, become whole.

The Big Wheel (1949), starring Mickey Rooney as the ambitious son of a celebrated champion racer who lost his life racing for the checkered flag at the Indy 500, is standard issue. The independent production, picked up for distribution by United Artists in November of 1949, etches Rooney's "dirty little grease monkey" Billy Coy as an archetypal man-child whose humility and maturity are forged in the kiln of his relationships with a crusty father figure (Thomas Mitchell), the tomboy mechanic (Mary Hatcher) who loves him and the racing buddy (Steve Brodie) whose jocularity and selflessness mark him as the film's sacrificial lamb. The script by Robert Smith (99 River Street [1953]) provides Billy with a doting mother (Spring Byington), who fears the fast track will gobble up her only child as it did her husband, and a vixen in the leggy form of a cabaret singer (Lina Romay), a textbook man-eater who siphons off Billy's winnings in a montage of overflowing champagne glasses.

At this point in his career, Mickey Rooney had a lot in common with Billy Coy. The former Joe Yule, Jr., had recently ended his high profile marriage to starlet Ava Gardner and given up his MGM contract, which had paid him $5,000 a week. Newly married to actress Martha Vickers, Rooney was guided by his gut and his instincts, both of which led him astray. After nearly coming to fisticuffs with outgoing MGM head Louis B. Mayer and letting his ego scotch a number of potentially lucrative business deals, Rooney was forced into a run of low paying B pictures, of which The Big Wheel is among the best. Then best-known as a reliable director-for-hire and for a multi-picture association with John Wayne, Edward Ludwig shot most of The Big Wheel at a Gardena, California speedway, which does triple duty as Carrell Speedway, Culver City Stadium and even Indianapolis Motor Speedway, although the majority of the film's concluding scenes are accomplished via second unit footage (grabbed at the 44th Indy 500 race in May 1949) and rear projection. Director of photography Ernest Laszlo would go on to celebrated collaborations with directors Robert Aldrich, Stanley Kramer and Billy Wilder and win an Academy Award® for his work on Kramer's Ship of Fools (1965).

Financing for The Big Wheel came in part from former heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey. The "Manassa Mauler," who held the world heavyweight title from 1919 until 1926, had starred in a low budget serial, Pathe's Daredevil Jack (1920) with Lon Chaney, and was married to actress Estelle Taylor from 1925 to 1933. The Big Wheel marked an early role for Denver Pyle (then in the second year of a five decade career) with a bit as a dour racetrack medic and was the final film appearance for Hattie McDaniel, who had been the first black actress to win an Academy Award® for her work as Scarlett O'Hara's acerbic housemaid in Gone with the Wind (1939). McDaniel plays another domestic in The Big Wheel, relegated to a single scene and never sharing the screen with her Gone with the Wind costar Thomas Mitchell. Mickey Rooney enjoyed a comeback to A-list status with a supporting role in Mark Robson's Korean war drama The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954) and continues to make film appearances, making his 84 year career the longest in Hollywood history.

Producers: Mort Briskin, Samuel H. Stiefel
Director: Edward Ludwig
Screenplay: Robert Smith
Music: Gerard Carbonara, Nat W. Finston, John Leipold
Film Editing: Ernest Laszlo
Cast: Mickey Rooney (Billy Coy), Thomas Mitchell (Arthur 'Red' Stanley), Mary Hatcher (Louise Riley), Michael O'Shea (Vic Sullivan), Spring Byington (Mary Coy), Hattie McDaniels (Minnie), Steve Brodie (Happy Lee), Lina Romay (Dolores Raymond), Allen Jenkins (George), Dick Lane (Reno Riley).
BW-92m.

by Richard Harland Smith

Sources:
The Leading Men of MGM by Jane Ellen Wayne (Da Capo Press, 2006)
Indy: The Race and Ritual of the Indianapolis 500 by Terry Reed (Potomac Books, 2005)

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