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A CONFLUENCE of technologies occurred at the beginning of the last century. (How quaint this term “last century” sounds to those of us of a certain age.) The automobile and the motion picture industry were both in their infancy, and ambitions of William Kissam Vanderbilt II brought them together—to the benefit of a future renowned entertainer.
Known as Willie K., this Vanderbilt was the guiding light of the Vanderbilt Cup auto races. He patterned these annual competitions after European Grands Prix as encouragements to American automakers and drivers. The first six Vanderbilt Cup events were held on Long Island, New York, 1904 – 1910 (none held in 1907). Venues for the next five, 1911 – 1916 (none held in 1913) were Savannah, Georgia; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Santa Monica and San Francisco, California. The series returned to Long Island, 1936 and 1937 (see “Roosevelt Field—and Raceway,” http://wp.me/p2ETap-2GW).
California’s movie industry discovered the Vanderbilt Cup in 1914 in Santa Monica. Though movie-making’s earliest roots were in New York City, filmmakers had moved west to exploit southern California’s sunshine (and to avoid the Edison Trust lawyers’ patent suits). By 1914, more than half of U.S. film production was in Los Angeles. Between 1910 and 1920, Hollywood grew to a population of 35,000 (a seven-fold increase).
Italian-American driver Ralph De Palma was a turn-of-the-century Mario Andretti. Like Andretti, he was born in Italy and became a successful American race driver. Akin to Mario’s bad luck at Indy, De Palma is remembered for his dramatic loss in the 1912 Indianapolis 500, the event’s second running. He and his riding mechanic, Rupert Jeffkins, led from the third lap of 200, only to have their Mercedes crack a piston on the backstraight with two laps remaining.
De Palma and Jeffkins valiantly pushed their car to cross the start/finish line in 11th place.
De Palma’s luck in the Vanderbilt Cup was more favorable. His Mercedes finished first in the 1912 Milwaukee race. His Schroeder-Mercedes won the cup again in 1914 in Santa Monica.
The 8.4-mile Santa Monica circuit had its start/finish on Ocean Avenue. A 90-degree left turn onto Wilshire Boulevard/Nevada Avenue had the nickname Death Curve. At the 4-mile mark was a sharp left onto San Vicente Boulevard, then continued with three high-speed bends back to Ocean Avenue. By contrast to the Death Curve, the San Vicente/Ocean left was termed “a fair turn with small chance for accidents.”
Filmmakers took advantage of the 1914 Santa Monica Vanderbilt Cup to shoot four movies. Vanderbilt Cup Race (http://goo.gl/QELY3Z) is essentially a documentary starring winner Ralph De Palma. Komic Pictures Company paired this short film on a split reel with Victims of Speed (http://goo.gl/CVLHEb), a comedy pretty much forgotten with characters named Weary Willie, Dusty Rhoades and Dr. Speed.
Mack Sennett’s Mabel at the Wheel, later released as Hot Finish, starred Mabel Normand, Ben Turpin and (as villain) Charlie Chaplin. Portions of it can be viewed at http://goo.gl/0GeI00. This slapstick comedy uses the 1914 race as background, including great Death Curve footage.
Briefly, racer/villain Charlie kidnaps Mabel’s racer boyfriend. She dons the latter’s driving outfit—and wins!
There was also a kids’ Junior Vanderbilt Cup run the month before the actual 1914 Cup competition. The kids’ cars had several classes: Some were gasoline-powered. Others were pushed. Still others relied on gravity, in a precursor of Soapbox Derby racers. The Grand Prize was a silver cup (which resurfaced on eBay in 2012).
Mack Sennett used these Junior Vanderbilt Cup races for another Charlie Chaplin short, Kid Auto Races in Venice. This was Chaplin’s first outing for his Little Tramp character.
Mabel’s Strange Predicament, another Sennett/Normand comedy, also featured the Little Tramp and was filmed a few days before. However, it was released two days after the release of Kid Auto Races in Venice.
Like Sennett’s later Vanderbilt Cup flick, this one was shot during the actual event. The movie consists of Chaplin and other actors improvising gags in front of real-life spectators (http://goo.gl/HHHWrN).
In retrospect, William Kissam Vanderbilt II did more than encourage American automakers and race drivers. He encouraged a new entertainment industry too. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2014