October 4, 2012
Review - Hot Rod Girl – U.S., 1956
Leslie M. Martinson’s misleadingly-titled film Hot Rod Girl would have made an excellent high school educational film, for the story that it weaves is so blatantly moralistic that it is impossible not to miss its messages for youngsters. The film presents viewers with an almost idealistic place for teenagers to grow up. It has concerned adults, well-intentioned police officers, and clear-cut teens whose only fault is an unhealthy attraction to illegal drag racing. It’s younger characters bob their heads and snap their fingers to the latest jazz tunes and spout sentences that must seem completely alien to their parents. In truth, this has always been true. What the young characters in Martinson’s film appear to collectively lack is impulse control. They see an open road, hear the rev of a challenger’s engine next to them, and just can’t resist the urge to put the pedal to the metal.
However, unlike recent films that glorified drag racing, Hot Rod Girl sets out to discourage its presumably young audience from engaging in the dangerous sport. In the film’s opening scene, a young man named Steve dies after being unable to contain his rage at a fellow driver who wouldn’t accept no for an answer. We watch as the challenger pulls in front of him menacingly and back into his car intentionally. Soon, Steve is traveling at breakneck speed through the calm streets of a residential neighborhood, despite the pleas of his older brother Jeff to be the better man. The accident serves as the catalyst for everything that follows, for the police feeling pressure to crack down on the drag racers, for Jeff allowing his moral authority to wane, and for danger to creep into the town in the form of an outsider who just happens to enjoy challenging those who oppose him to a little game of vehicular chicken.
The outsider is a slighter older man named Bronc Talbott (Mark Andrews). Talbot is one of those one-dimensional characters that was common in high school educational films. First, you know he’s the villain because while every other male character wears slacks and button-down shirts, Talbot wears a black leather jacket and has slicked-back hair. He also operates under the erroneous assumption that his abrasive and aggressive behavior towards Lisa Vernon, the town’s moral center, will eventually seem endearing. No explanation is ever given for any of his actions in the film - he’s just the bad guy. Any similarity to James Dean’s character in Rebel without a Cause, made two years earlier, seems unintentional.
If it is true that every film of this kind needs a villain, it is also true that it needs a clown. And in this film that role goes to the character of Flat Top. Played by Frank Gorshin, Flat Top is a wise-cracking young man who bares such an obvious resemblance to James Cagney that the script calls upon him to attempt several Cagney impressions. These are meant to be humorous, and it should be noted that Flat Top’s friends in the film routinely find him hilarious. However, it’s doubtful anyone in the audience will. The character works better in more serious moments.
The film stars John Smith and Lori Nelson as Jeff and Lisa. With their dashing looks, they are the kinds of people you’d expect to win prom king and queen. However, the film also asks you to accept them as being able the sway people their age from a life of danger. Jeff’s influence alone is credited with bringing drag racing off of the streets and onto a newly-designed legal race track. That Smith and Nelson make their roles credible is a minor miracle, especially given the fact that they are saddled with incredibly weak dialogue and some rather questionable directing. Director Martinson displays a lack of timing throughout the film, with scenes that should be short running too long and scenes that deserve more time dispensed of too quickly. When Lisa and Jeff finally share a moment of intimacy alone, the moment is quickly halted. Perhaps the remnants of the Hays Code prevented much else from occurring.
That the film ends with a confrontation between bully and hero is not a surprise. However, the film’s final confrontation is one of the film’s better moments, for it takes place in a setting that is unexpected. If only the fist fight that accompanies it were better choreographed. In the scene, bodies flail from obviously phantom punches, and characters just stand around waiting to be hit when in reality they would be putting up a much better defense.
Hot Rod Girl is a film that will likely inspire neither great passion nor utter hatred. It exists in the murky area where emotions remain ambivalent. It’s too preachy and predictable to inspire praise, yet it remains just interesting enough to avoid any strong, negative feelings. The film has some nice moments, some of them involving Chuck Conners as a detective trying to find a way to work with the drag-racing teens, yet the film seems too determined to use these moments to hammer home high-minded lessons on such topics as reckless driving, anger management, keeping a relationship strong, and abstaining from sex before marriage. At one point in the film, I couldn’t help rolling my eyes at a bit about how it is better to be coward. The problem is that the lesson was already clear. Saying it was completely unnecessary. Perhaps that’s what happens when the message is given priority over the moment. (on DVD as part of Platinum’s Adventure Classics)
2 and a half stars