Constructed with the logic of Ping-pong balls imprinted with plot points and picked at random from a bingo cage, Red Hot Tires doesn’t waste any time and launches right into the action. Midget race cars roar forward in process shots, the peculiar aerodynamics of rear screen projection slightly diminishing the dramatic effect, the autos appearing to drift back and forth across frame like hovercraft. A perfectly acceptable opening for a B movie about car racing, it hardly prepares an audience for the story that follows, which doesn’t so much have a plot as a series of narrative non-sequiturs.
The race ends, and it’s disconcerting to learn that Johnny (Frankie Darro), the winner of the race, isn’t the hero of the movie but rather the young kid who wants to be like the hero, Wallace Storm (Lawrence Talbot), who has been standing “heroically” at the edge of the track…not doing much of anything. A dictionary definition of the word “hero” might read “a man of exceptional courage, nobility, and strength, who is celebrated for bold exploits,” but in Red Hot Tires, a hero is someone who drives a car—and that’s it.
Given the constraints of Storm’s character, it’s surprising how little driving he does. His heroics behind the wheel are restricted to a race at the beginning of the movie, which goes unfinished because of an accident, and part of one at the end. He is seen racing one other time, autos crashing and burning all around him, a crazy smile on his face as he threads his way through a montage of stock footage and newspaper headlines depicting his meteoric rise as a racer south of the border.
Despite being released in 1935 (two years after midget car racing became a sport), Red Hot Tires plays like the final entry in an extended series of films, doing its best to put a new spin on an old idea. But with decades of racing movies still to come, the basic story beats of the genre were far from played out. What seems more likely is that even in 1935, the fatal flaw in racecar movies was apparent.
A not unlikely story conference:
Director: I want to make a movie about men and machines, about what drives someone to race cars.
Producer: Right. But here’s my problem with that. Other kinds of races—running, skating, horse racing—they all go around the track one time. The final race in this movie you want to make, how many laps are there?
Producer: Uh-huh. Listen. I’m just spit-balling here, but what if we throw in a murder?
Director: A what?
Producer: A murder. Or, anyway, a frame-up for murder, just to get away from the racetrack for a bit. There could be a big courtroom trial, also.
Director: I guess so, but then we’d get back to the racetrack, right?
Producer: Not so fast. We might be missing an opportunity here. (Pause.) I’ve got it! There could be a last-minute reprieve. Hell, while we’re at it, why not have a prison break?
Director: A last-minute reprieve and a prison break? But what about the race? Men and machines…
Producer: Yeah. You’ve got a point. What about this: the hero’s an escaped convict now. He hightails it down to South America, becomes a big sensation on the racing circuit there.
Director: He what? Hell. If you’re going to do all that, why not throw in a Ben-Hur angle?
Producer: Ben-Hur? That’s ridiculous. (Pause.) What’d you have in mind?
Director: I was being sarcastic! (The producer waits.) Spikes on wheels. The bad guy uses them in a race against the other drivers—except it backfires on him and he gets killed.
Producer: You know, that could work.
Like a racecar retooled for nothing but speed, Red Hot Tires has been stripped of back story, character development, and common sense to accommodate the crazy exigencies of its plot. The narrative swerves wildly all over the place as stars and supporting cast do double and triple duty simply to advance the story from one unlikely scene to the next. Bud Keene (Roscoe Karns), the comic sidekick, devises and executes a plan to break Storm out of prison; Patricia Sanford (Marry Astor), the love interest, designs racecars and convinces the governor to grant Storm a pardon; and Johnny (the only driver to actually win a race at this point) puts together who it was that framed Storm. Meanwhile, Storm, feeling sorry for himself, is furiously shoveling coal into a prison furnace, making life hard for the lifers who are forced to keep up with him.
Clocking in at 61 minutes, Red Hot Tires calls for a cast of “types,” one-dimensional characters without a past to explore or nuance to appreciate. Even so, with the hero perpetually waiting in the wings, the supporting cast is called upon to think and act independently. Relieved from the duties of love interest and comic sidekick, respectively, Patricia and Bud drive the hero’s car for the first 60 laps of the climactic 200-lap race. As the radio announcer and spectators cheer them on, there’s a sense of shared disbelief, a realization that maybe even supporting characters have a hero’s journey of their own to make.
Embracing the absurd right up to the very end, Red Hot Tires refuses to acknowledge the limitations of budget, geography, and logic. Storm is flown by biplane from Brazil to Daytona, and with the race already underway, the plane sets down on the infield of the track. Happily for Storm, the culprit responsible for the murder has been apprehended (thanks to Johnny), and a souped-up racecar (designed by Patricia and tested by Bud) waits in the pit. All Storm needs to do is slip in behind the wheel and perform the single function he is capable of: driving. 140 laps later, the checkered flag flashes, the race ends, and Storm heroically sits in the car, Patricia next to him, the crowd cheering his stage-managed victory.
The film’s final seconds tick down like the expiring moments of a fairytale spell; Bud, Johnny, two cops, and the presiding judge from Storm’s trial rush forward and surround the racecar. Storm announces his intention to marry Patricia, and she is transformed from intelligent, free-spirited heroine back into patient, supportive love interest. Everyone jokes that Storm and Patricia should adopt Johnny (although he appears to take it seriously), and Johnny regresses from independent problem solver to clueless juvenile. And Bud, briefly a thinking man of action, is relegated once again to comic sidekick status.
Before the cops can put the cuffs on Storm, the judge intercedes and explains the racer is no longer wanted by the law, clearing the way for the hero’s happy ending and a future of proscribed opportunities and narrow prospects for the rest of the cast. But even as the picture fades to black, there’s the hope one last crazy plot twist remains, something so ludicrous, so unexpected it will throw the movie wide open again.
Maybe Bud will become the fast-talking, quick-thinking campaign manager of the governor.
Or Johnny will pursue a career as a gumshoe, finding it more rewarding and exciting than racing cars.
Or maybe Patricia will ditch Storm at the wedding altar and decide what she really wants to do is not just design racecars–but race them.
But no, the screen goes black, and Red Hot Tires is over.