Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The First Auto (1927)

We are living in a time of rapid and overwhelming technological change. The technologies of 20 years ago pale in comparison to everything we have today. Our culture as we know it is necessarily changing and adapting to these advancements. It's gotten to the point that we've so wholeheartedly accepted these new technologies into our life, that we've become dependent on them and we don't understand how we ever lived without them. I've only had my iPhone a few months but now it's my treasure. I carry it around me like I was a little girl with her precious baby doll. What did I do before the iPhone? How will this effect my life?

While the changes are happening, we don't stop to analyze and study them, that comes years later when we look back on what has transpired. I think it's very important that cultural shifts be explored and sometimes it takes a few years to really realize their impact. New technology divides generations. What older generations learned from schooling and hard work over the years seems to be trumped by the new technology that is more difficult for them to grasp but is easily understood by younger generations.

Sometimes we need films and other outlets to help us understand the ramifications of the rapid change of modern technology . In 1927, a film came about that offered to analyze, discuss and reconcile the very important transition in transportation technology from horse-driven carriage to the automobile (the horse-less carriage).

The First Auto (1927) is a Warner Bros. silent which was written by Darryl F. Zanuck and directed by Roy Del Ruth. The story follows Hank Armstrong (Russell Simpson) a popular horse-racer with a prize mare called Sloe Eyes. His son Bob (Charles Emmett Mack) is highly enthusiastic about a new invention called the "horseless carriage". He shares his passion with his girlfriend Rose (Patsy Ruth Miller) who is amused by Bob but also admires him for his enthusiasm. We start at the turn of the century and progress a few years; from the invention of the automobile to the later advancement towards racing cars. Hank watches his world fall apart as the advent of automobiles threatens his business, while his son Bob sees new and exciting opportunities open up before him. Progress and change are inevitable in society and Hank has to learn to embrace this new technology whether he wants to or not.

This film is quite excellent on so many levels. It explores a major technological advancement and a change in American culture. It focuses on two characters with a specific story to paint a bigger picture. It's both sad and funny. We see the technology evolve as the autos get more and more advanced.

This film was recently made available in the Warner Archive collection and I'm so happy it was! It really is a treat to see and you should take advantage and buy a copy of this film (or rent it on Classicflix). The biggest irony of the film is that Charles Emmett Mack died during the making of this film. He was driving to the set in his auto when he was broadsided by a wagon. Mack had offered to give costar Patsy Ruth Miller a ride, but she had declined on the account of her maid insisting she got some rest. If she had gone with Mack, it's possible that both co-stars would have died that day. At the point of Mack's death, almost all of the film had been shot, give or take a few scenes. At the end, Mack's character is noticeably absent but spoken about by Hank to keep him in the story. There is also a point towards the middle of the film in which Mack's character is far away and writes letters to his girl (part of the story? a rewrite? who knows). *Spoiler Alert*: At the climax of the film, Bob is racing his car and gets into an accident. At that point it looks like he may be dead. This kind of creeped me out. I thought that this may have been his real death and they kept it in the film! But alas, it was not and his character survived, but sadly he did not.


  1. Wow, that ending must have been so jolting knowing what really happened to him!

    I've gotten ridiculously dependent on my blackberry, too. First thing in the morning I check my emails before even getting out of bed!! It's so sad. A lot of technologies I'm not happy about though-- like hand & eye scanners to clock in at work & also the onstar thing in cars.. those just creep me out!

    I'm thinking of getting ClassicFlix now instead of Netflix, especially to tap into the WB Archive! So many great, rare films!!

  2. Brilliant post! The plot in The First Auto seems to have much in common with The Magnificent Ambersons. I bet The First Auto was a film that Orson Welles saw as a 12 year old and that he was deeply moved by it.

  3. Really great post, & an interesting take on integrating new technologies. Nell Shipman did a "car film" too, called "Something New"--basically a melodrama, but the twist is that the hero & heroine escape the outlaws by driving a Maxwell across the desert. & thanks for mentioning Classicflix, which I didn't know about. I checked the site, & Eberle & I will have to sign up for that.

  4. I'll definitely have to check out The First Auto. It sounds as if it is very applicable to today. I still find it hard to believe that when I was little computers were big machines that were owned by corporations. Now I own one that is much smaller and my cell phone has more memory than those old, giant computers!


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