“Once upon a time, a horse was a horse… and was loved as such. This was even before Dan Patch started breaking records, or the Vanderbilt cup races had come to displace the county fair. The latest thing then was a bicycle built for two… Bryan hadn’t been heard of… and a nickel was still respected — of course this was in 1895.”
Hank Armstrong (Russel Simpson) is a champion of the horse racing sport just before the turn of the 20th century. He also owns a stable. So, it’s understandable that the invention of the very first automobile –or “horseless carriage” — doesn’t sit too well with him.
Hank’s son, Bob (Charles Emmett Mack) feels just the opposite of his father. He couldn’t be more excited about these newfangled autos. When one of many arguments between father and son about the “horse vs. car” debate ensues, it turns violent, Hank nearly whipping Bob until Bob’s girlfriend Rose (Patsy Ruth Miller) breaks it up.
Bob decides to leave home and find a job in Detroit’s new, booming auto industry, while Hank stands his ground and stubbornly tries to keep his stables running.
The First Auto was directed by Roy Del Ruth and in addition to the cast noted above also features pioneering auto racer Barney Oldfield, playing himself.
Hank is a man willing to beat his son over an argument about cars, so not exactly a likable character, but the viewer can easily understand why he is so fearful. Just look at what happens to him: a passion lost due to its new-found irrelevancy, and financial ruin on top of that. He channels his fear and anxiety about the future into harsh words and cruelty against anyone who so much as looks in the direction of a horseless carriage, which is of course very destructive.
The poster for The First Auto on Warner Archive Instant (where I watched the film in January) calls it “a medley of laughs and tears,” which is a very accurate description of the film. There are a few very sad scenes, some funny, some tense. I found the death of Sloe Eyes, with Hank’s heartbroken reaction and Bob’s nonchalant attitude when learning the news, to be very emotional. (What can I say? I’m an animal lover.)
Sloe Eyes dies, and with her, the use of horses for transportation — despite the risks of the fledgling automobile. Stebbins, the town’s resident rich man, is informed that his life insurance policy has been cancelled due to his purchase of one of these dangerous contraptions.
But The First Auto is not really a simple tale of the horse vs. auto, tradition and safety vs. progress and danger debate. The film instigates thought about how the world and technology move forward, those who distrust change and try to stop it, and the cost of change as the world does progress.
It’s also quite an action-packed film, with some very good stunt work: a car driving off of a cliff and into a lake, for example, and a horse carriage vs. horseless carriage race. Of course, Barney Oldfield’s speeding bullet racetrack scene is a sight to behold as well.
The First Auto isn’t a perfect film, but it’s an interesting watch, particularly for classic film fans also interested in the birth of the auto industry and its portrayal in popular culture. The score: 3.5/5