A century ago, the simultaneous invention of motor cars and motion pictures was a match made in Hollywood heaven, and over the years, movies have created some magical road trip memories. As with all Hollywood concoctions, road trip movies vary hugely in quality, but the ever-changing background scenery can carry great interest and evoke strong emotions even when the acting leaves something to be desired. And when the story does lag, there’s always the visual fun of a car chase to keep us on the edge of our seats.
Out of the hundreds of contenders, here’s part one of a brief chronology of classic road trip films (part two will follow next week). And if you want to shout out about one or two I have overlooked—please do. Parental Warning: Some of these films may inspire you to have crazy road adventures of your own.
Though you can trace road trip themes in the earliest Hollywood Westerns, to my mind the first great, enduring Hollywood road trip movie is a true classic: the original “screwball comedy” It Happened One Night which, in 1934, paired up runaway rich girl Claudette Colbert with charming rogue Clark Gable.
Toward the end of the Great Depression, another essential road trip movie captures the great trauma of the Dust Bowl in stark black and white imagery: The Grapes of Wrath, which tracks the homeless Joad family as they follow Route 66 from Oklahoma to the Promised Land of California.
One more great road trip movie came out in the 1930s, and though it doesn’t actually involve cars, it does revolve around a road so it still deserves a mention: The Wizard of Oz from 1939. Surprisingly, considering its lasting popularity, the film was a box-office failure. It also reminds me a good bad joke:
Q. Why did the chicken cross the Yellow Brick Road?
A. Because, because, because, because, because…!
After the devastation of the Second World War, as Europe rebuilt and recovered, a number of films took the road trip motif overseas—with memorable results. One of my all-time favorite road trip films is Wild Strawberries, filmed in the late 1950s by Swedish master Ingmar Bergman, which tells the quietly moving story of an aging professor traveling across the country and coming to terms with life, death, and roadside rest stops.
Much more upbeat, another overseas road trip classic is Two for the Road, starring the ever elegant James Mason and the lovely Audrey Hepburn as they tootle around Provence in some gorgeous automobiles: the supporting cast includes a Mercedes 230SL, an MG TD, a Triumph Herald, as well as a VW bus and Ford station wagon.
Moving back to the States, the enduring romance of the open road was captured in the picaresque TV series, Route 66. Filmed on location all over the US, not just along the fabled highway, during its 4-year run, Route 66 featured two dashing young men driving a covetable Corvette around the country while having exciting adventures everywhere they went, working, playing, fighting, and falling in and out of love. Fun to watch, and involving a galaxy of as-yet-unknown actors, Route 66 documents the peak years of classic roadside America before the arrival of today’s limited access, fast-food-chain-linked freeways.
Next Week – Easy Rider to Zombieland (and more!)