Burn ‘Em Up O’Connor (1939)
Directed by Edward Sedgwick based on Sir Malcolm Campbell’s novel “Salute to the Gods” screenplay by Milton Merlin & Byron Morgan this film features the ever annoying Dennis O’Keefe in the title role first name Jerry as an obnoxious country bumpkin that becomes a race car driver. The underrated Nat Pendleton is the highlight of the film playing (as usual?) the dumb sidekick of the lead character.
Jerry O’Connor (O’Keefe) drives a tractor at breakneck speed while his mechanic friend Buddy (Pendleton) whistles to make sure he turns left before he goes off an embankment. Both are enamored with race car driving: Jerry so much that he makes his friend sit through a “B” picture (hopefully not this one) again so he can see the newsreels about racing that precede it. One day while the two are looking at a racing magazine a driver crashes his mini race-car into a nearby fence. Seizing upon the opportunity Jerry gets money from Buddy to give the driver $75 for his wreck. With the mini-car repaired Jerry literally runs into a young woman (Cecilia Parker) in her automobile while he’s trying to demonstrate it to a circus manager. After the accident he attempts to back her car down a hillside but it rolls over. She then tricks him into showing her his mini-car such that she can drive it away from the overbearing bore.
Later when Jerry gets his mini-car back he sees the young woman again. He follows her to a dirt race track where showing off for her he impresses Mr. Eberhart (Addison Richards) by making high speed turns around the loop. Soon thereafter he wins his very first race impressing Pinky Delano (Harry Carey – Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)) whose daughter Jane is the young woman Jerry has been pursuing. Delano hires Jerry and Buddy and introduces them to his other drivers crew and team physician ‘Doc’ Heath (Charley Grapewin). Delano’s Rockets seems to be jinxed though: their lead driver “Frenchy” died in a crash that Jerry & Buddy had seen in a newsreel. Subsequently as part of the team now the two witness “Rocks” (Alan Curtis) Hogan (Tom Neal) and “Lefty” (Tom Collins) all die in fiery crashes when they failed to make a turn at high speed during consecutive races. Though Buddy somehow comes under suspicion from the other mechanic Mac (Frank Orth) it’s he that figures out “somebody must be doing something” other than sabotaging the race-cars.
From there the story is pure hokum not the least of which is a sudden change of heart by Jane about Jerry … though this may pale in comparison to a couple of ridiculous things which happen during the climactic race.