Classic Film Guide

First Auto, The (1927)

Directed by Roy Del Ruth, with a screenplay by Anthony Coldeway (Glorious Betsy (1928)), this silent, written by the Irving G. Thalberg Award winning producer Darryl F. Zanuck (‘G’ Men (1935)), tells the story of how the automobile replaced the horse as the primary means of transportation etc. in our society. The life of a man who's both a livery stable owner and a winning racehorse trainer (in lieu of the buggy whip manufacturers) is used to give substance and feeling to those who were affected the most by this revolutionary time in our history.

It's 1895 in Maple City and Hank Armstrong (Russell Simpson) races his prize horse Sloe Eyes to victory once again. Meanwhile, his son Bob (Charles Emmett Mack), and a lot of the rest of the town, is excited about a new gadget dubbed the horseless carriage. Initially, only the richest man in town (Douglas Gerrard) can afford to buy the noisy, constantly backfiring new contraption, and he receives a cancellation notice of his life insurance policy from his insurance company just before he tries out the dangerous new invention. Eventually, of course, automobiles become safer and Henry Ford revolutionizes the manufacture of them such that anyone can afford one. This upsets father Hank, but not son Bob, who goes to Detroit to see the master driver Barney Oldfield (playing himself) achieve a mile a minute (60 miles per hour) at a race track.

Hank, whose horse Sloe Eyes had died shortly after giving birth to a colt Bright Eyes, even challenged, raced and beat one of these horseless carriages, but the town (indeed, the whole country) didn't care because of their fascination with the new technology. So, Hank becomes increasingly more despondent and bitter. Eventually, his business fails such that he must auction everything, including Bright Eyes. In a mini-Black Beauty-like episode, he sells his last prized possession to a man (Noah Young, uncredited) who treats Bright Eyes badly, such that the horse runs away. Hank's anger turns to sabotage against the machine he blames for his downfall, but the target of his act turns out to be the vehicle his son is scheduled to race in an exhibition the next day. Once he realizes what he's done, Hank races to stop the race but is too late to prevent his son's car from a near fatal crash. The special effects used in this scene are laughably dated to the point of being pathetic. It looks like someone scratched the film itself with a needle to simulate a fire burning. Of course, Hank eventually accepts the inevitable, as have we all.

William Demarest plays a local, egg juggling man. Actor Charles Emmett Mack, who played Hank's son Bob, ironically was the victim of a real automobile accident during filming (on the way to the set?) such that his character is conspicuously missing in the film's final scenes.

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