Cast & Crew
In Carrell, California, Billy Coy, an aspiring race car driver, goes to Arthur "Red" Stanley's automotive garage and offers his services as a mechanic. After Red tells him that he is not hiring, Billy notices an autographed picture of the legendary driver "Cannonball" Coy, who was killed in a terrible accident during the Indianapolis 500, and reveals that he is Cannonball's son. Red, who used to be Cannonball's mechanic and clearly carries a torch for Billy's mother Mary, agrees to give the young man a job. On his way out, Billy meets tomboyish mechanic Louise, whose father, Reno Riley, owns the nearby racetrack. One day, Red allows Billy to drive one of his cars in a qualifying race, but the cocky Billy ignores his advice and spins out. Billy then asks Louise to meet him at the track Saturday night, and she gleefully assumes that he plans to take her on a date. When she arrives wearing a fancy dress and high heels purchased for the occasion, Billy explains that he was hoping she would help him install some carburetors, and Louise gamely conceals her disappointment. Later, Billy asks another owner, Deacon Jones, to let him drive in an upcoming race, but Deacon has already hired Happy Lee, another mechanic from Red's shop. In defiance of racing superstition, Billy accepts another owner's offer to drive a green car, which has been considered unlucky because Cannonball was driving a green car when he crashed. During the race, driver Vic Sullivan runs Billy's car off the track, but Billy walks away from the crash unscathed. Afterward, Happy burns his hand on an exhaust pipe, and Deacon agrees to let Billy drive the next race in his place. Billy wins the race, and when Happy recovers, they become Deacon's new racing team. One night, to celebrate his winning streak, Billy goes to a nightclub, has too much to drink and is arrested for speeding on the way home. The next day, Red bails Billy out of jail and advises him not to race that night, but Billy ignores him. During the race, Happy's wheel becomes loose, and Billy, pulling up close to his car, tries unsuccessfully to warn him. When the wheel flies off, Happy skids to a halt, and Billy is unable to stop in time and hits him. Happy is trapped in his burning car, and Billy cannot get past the flames to rescue him. Shunned by the other drivers and fired by Deacon, Billy decides to leave California. After promising Louise he will meet her at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Memorial Day, Billy goes East and gradually rebuilds his racing career. While he is gone, Red and Mary get married. One the day of the Indianapolis 500, Mary watches nervously from the stands as Billy races in Red's car. With only one lap left to go, Billy's engine catches fire, but he risks his life to continue driving. After crossing the finish line in third place, Billy jumps from the car just moments before the gas tank explodes. As Billy and Louise embrace, the winner of the race gives his trophy to Billy to honor him for his exceptional skill and bravery.
Nat W. Finston
Joseph H. Nadel
Harry M. Popkin
Harry M. Popkin
Samuel H. Stiefel
Samuel H. Stiefel
The Big Wheel
The Big Wheel (1949), starring Mickey Rooney as the ambitious son of a celebrated champion racer who lost his life racing for the checkered flag at the Indy 500, is standard issue. The independent production, picked up for distribution by United Artists in November of 1949, etches Rooney's "dirty little grease monkey" Billy Coy as an archetypal man-child whose humility and maturity are forged in the kiln of his relationships with a crusty father figure (Thomas Mitchell), the tomboy mechanic (Mary Hatcher) who loves him and the racing buddy (Steve Brodie) whose jocularity and selflessness mark him as the film's sacrificial lamb. The script by Robert Smith (99 River Street ) provides Billy with a doting mother (Spring Byington), who fears the fast track will gobble up her only child as it did her husband, and a vixen in the leggy form of a cabaret singer (Lina Romay), a textbook man-eater who siphons off Billy's winnings in a montage of overflowing champagne glasses.
At this point in his career, Mickey Rooney had a lot in common with Billy Coy. The former Joe Yule, Jr., had recently ended his high profile marriage to starlet Ava Gardner and given up his MGM contract, which had paid him $5,000 a week. Newly married to actress Martha Vickers, Rooney was guided by his gut and his instincts, both of which led him astray. After nearly coming to fisticuffs with outgoing MGM head Louis B. Mayer and letting his ego scotch a number of potentially lucrative business deals, Rooney was forced into a run of low paying B pictures, of which The Big Wheel is among the best. Then best-known as a reliable director-for-hire and for a multi-picture association with John Wayne, Edward Ludwig shot most of The Big Wheel at a Gardena, California speedway, which does triple duty as Carrell Speedway, Culver City Stadium and even Indianapolis Motor Speedway, although the majority of the film's concluding scenes are accomplished via second unit footage (grabbed at the 44th Indy 500 race in May 1949) and rear projection. Director of photography Ernest Laszlo would go on to celebrated collaborations with directors Robert Aldrich, Stanley Kramer and Billy Wilder and win an Academy Award® for his work on Kramer's Ship of Fools (1965).
Financing for The Big Wheel came in part from former heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey. The "Manassa Mauler," who held the world heavyweight title from 1919 until 1926, had starred in a low budget serial, Pathe's Daredevil Jack (1920) with Lon Chaney, and was married to actress Estelle Taylor from 1925 to 1933. The Big Wheel marked an early role for Denver Pyle (then in the second year of a five decade career) with a bit as a dour racetrack medic and was the final film appearance for Hattie McDaniel, who had been the first black actress to win an Academy Award® for her work as Scarlett O'Hara's acerbic housemaid in Gone with the Wind (1939). McDaniel plays another domestic in The Big Wheel, relegated to a single scene and never sharing the screen with her Gone with the Wind costar Thomas Mitchell. Mickey Rooney enjoyed a comeback to A-list status with a supporting role in Mark Robson's Korean war drama The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954) and continues to make film appearances, making his 84 year career the longest in Hollywood history.
Producers: Mort Briskin, Samuel H. Stiefel
Director: Edward Ludwig
Screenplay: Robert Smith
Music: Gerard Carbonara, Nat W. Finston, John Leipold
Film Editing: Ernest Laszlo
Cast: Mickey Rooney (Billy Coy), Thomas Mitchell (Arthur 'Red' Stanley), Mary Hatcher (Louise Riley), Michael O'Shea (Vic Sullivan), Spring Byington (Mary Coy), Hattie McDaniels (Minnie), Steve Brodie (Happy Lee), Lina Romay (Dolores Raymond), Allen Jenkins (George), Dick Lane (Reno Riley).
by Richard Harland Smith
The Leading Men of MGM by Jane Ellen Wayne (Da Capo Press, 2006)
Indy: The Race and Ritual of the Indianapolis 500 by Terry Reed (Potomac Books, 2005)
The Big Wheel
The film's opening credits include the following written prologue: "Grateful acknowledgement for their invaluable assistance is made to the AAA, the URA, the Racing Drivers of America, the Indianapolis Speedway and Mr. Wilbur Shaw." According to a Hollywood Reporter news item dated June 23, 1949, Shaw was the president of the Indianapolis Racing Association and the Indianapolis track and acted as technical advisor. In a July 14, 1949 item, however, Hollywood Reporter reported that Don Sutton, a representative of the Indianapolis Speedway, would serve as technical advisor. According to information contained in the copyright records, this film was former boxer Jack Dempsey's first venture as a full-fledged producer, and was the first release of Samuel H. Stiefel Production.
On June 21, 1949, Hollywood Reporter reported that Fay Bainter was cast in the picture, but she did not appear in the final film. A July 6, 1949 Hollywood Reporter news item noted that Monte Blue had been added to the cast, but his appearance in the released film has not been confirmed. According to the Daily Variety review, filming took place on location at the Indianapolis Speedway and an unidentified race track in Culver City. According to a May 23, 1963 Hollywood Reporter news item, the film was acquired by Sigma 3 for re-release under the title Thundering Wheels.