Friday, May 25, 2012

Seabiscuit (2003) & The Story of Seabiscuit (1949)

“The Story of Seabiscuit” (1949) and “Seabiscuit” (2003) raise the question on whether or not it is better to let some time pass before making a movie about an actual historical figure or event. Exploiting the excitement of the moment is irresistible, but we inevitably learn more, and perhaps even feel more, when time matures our perspective.

The historical figure in this case is the champion 20th century thoroughbred Seabiscuit, and the event is the match race with War Admiral, and the Santa Anita Handicap…and the Great Depression.

This is our entry into Page’s Horseathon hosted by My Love of Old Hollywood. Have a look at her blog for the other entries.

This is also the second part of our series on racehorses in the movies, please see Monday’s post on “Secretariat” (2010) and “Casey’s Shadow” (1978).

The two movies on Monday gave us a chance to consider a film made during its era (1970s) and a film made in 2010 about the 1970s. The past, we noted, is always cleaned up a bit, but in our nostalgic look back we see more than we did then, and learn more.

The two movies on Seabiscuit today amplify that sensation. “The Story of Seabiscuit” was made only two years after the death of the thoroughbred and his fame was still fresh. He had been retired since 1940 after pulling himself, and much of America, through the worst of the Great Depression. The world was a different place in 1949, perhaps not ready to look back and see lessons in what had passed only the previous decade. We were still so intent on looking and moving forward. It took another generation to film a passionate tribute to Seabiscuit -- in the early 21st century, when younger filmgoers had never heard his name.

“The Story of Seabiscuit” is a pretty film, pleasant enough, but largely fictional. Shirley Temple stars with Barry Fitzgerald. They are from Ireland, uncle and niece, and come to Paris, Kentucky where Fitzgerald will work as a horse trainer. Fitzgerald discovers a spark of something valuable in the young horse Seabiscuit, which his owners disparage as poor horse. They sell him to Mr. and Mrs. Charles Howard, and Fitzgerald goes along to train him. Lon McCallister plays the jockey -- not Red Pollard. He and Shirley fall in love.

Anyone with an appreciation of horseracing or history will likely fidget under such blatantly false details, but this movie does have at least one redeeming virtue: it shows footage of Seabiscuit.

The soft colors of this film are wiped away when we find ourselves plunked down for the great match race between War Admiral and Seabiscuit. We are shown actual newsreel footage of the exciting race.

We mentioned in Monday’s post about crowd scenes and their efficacy and “reality”. In these old newsreels, we see the actual 1938 crowd, the fans who adored Seabiscuit. You can’t get any more real than that.

But unless one knows the history and the significance of the event, then watching this film may do nothing to stimulate either the imagination or appreciation for the magnitude of the moment.

This is where “Seabiscuit” (2003) shows its brilliance.

Based on the excellent book by Laura Hillenbrand, “Seabiscuit: An American Legend” (NY: Ballantine Books 2002), the film is both written and directed by Gary Ross. Wisely, he ties together scenes in the movie with narration by historian David McCullough, whose voice we may instantly recognize from other documentaries and so bestowing on this film from its opening moments the imprimatur of legitimacy. We are given to understand that this story is important and has value, and that we are capable of understanding it even if we know nothing of horses.

It is a lyrical movie, with four main characters: Seabiscuit, his owner, played by Jeff Bridges; his jockey, played by Tobey Maguire; and his trainer, played by Chris Cooper. All four are losers in life in some way or another. All four have known tragedy and disappointment, pain and sorrow. All four, through their magical partnership, will find redemption and courage, and victory.

We should note that Gary Stevens, who played jockey George Wolff, had his acting debut in this film. He was a real champion jockey, who is now retired from the sport and does commentary for TV.

William H. Macy steals his scenes as the frenetic track announcer with more gimmicks, hyperbole, and sound effects up his sleeve than…could choke a horse.

Along with Mr. McCullough’s voice, we have montages with newspaper headlines, period music, and still photos of life in America in the 1930s. These are effective parody of classic film techniques. If a filmgoer knew nothing of that period, he would come away with a wealth of knowledge, and with a compassion for everything he did not understand.

This is the genius of the film. As we noted in “Secretariat” on Monday, we tend to clean up the past a bit when we make a movie about days gone by. As in the case of “The Story of Seabiscuit” (1949), we sometimes entirely obliterate it. “Seabiscuit” (2003) succeeds I think by acknowledging from the start that its audience may know nothing about the 1930s and have no great feeling for horseracing. The narration, and the time-travel glimpses into the era are like the way a grandfather tells a story to his small grandchildren about what life was like when he was boy.

Grandpa pulls us on his lap and explains that candy cost a penny. He explains that there was no television. We have to understand these things first before he gets into his tale. Now, maybe he embellishes a little bit, but certainly through his telling we can hear and see and smell the details of his story about sneaking into the circus tent (or what have you).

Sometimes the best way to tell a story is to not assume your audience will appreciate it or understand it -- but help them to do so. It doesn’t necessarily talk down to them. If done the right way, it’s just holding their hand.

Handholding can be very comforting.

Other elements in this movie are universal, so we don’t need explanation -- Jeff Bridges’ sorrow at the death of his child. Tobey Maguire’s being haunted that his parents abandoned him in the early years of the Depression because they had too many children to feed. He was the oldest so it was time for him to take care of himself.

The story of Seabiscuit really was quite remarkable. A battered horse, he came to be a champion racer. He beats the best horse of the day. His jockey is injured and can no longer ride. Then the horse is injured, and his racing days are thought to be over. Both jockey and horse help each other to recover. They come back and win one final grand race. It may seem saccharine, but it was true.

I love William H. Macy’s line, “I can take one comeback, but this is ridiculous. Who’s next, Lazarus?”

I especially love the closing shot, where we race to the finish line through the horse’s perspective, and a slow fade, as if the race never really ends.

“Casey’s Shadow” misses the glorious and unabashed sentiment of “Seabiscuit” (2003), and “Secretariat” fails to really take the audience by the hand to appreciate the era of the early 1970s as well as “Seabiscuit” does with the 1930s. “The Story of Seabiscuit” (1949) has really only its archival footage of the great horse to recommend it.

I think younger audiences when they see “Seabiscuit” can appreciate the enormity of that horse’s impact on American popular culture in his day.

I know I can accept it at face value, and not just because of this movie.

I remember the horse Secretariat and the huge thrill we got watching him win each race, one by one, of the Triple Crown. Anyone who recalls that will understand the Depression audiences who hunkered by their radios to listen to Seabiscuit tear down the back stretch.

Largely because of that memory, I’ll be watching the Belmont Stakes next Saturday to see if I’ll Have Another will be the first horse in 34 years to take the Triple Crown.

Please have a look at the other blogs participating in the Horesathon sponsored by My Love of Old Hollywood.


Jeff Flugel said...

Very interesting comparison between these two films. I have seen and enjoyed the newer SEABISCUIT, but didn't know the older film even existed! Probably my lifelong antipathy to Shirley Temple caused me to overlook it.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Welcome, Jeff. I don't think the older movie is well known. I get a kick out of the segments in the film that suddenly shift to black and white - sort of a reverse "Wizard of Oz" effect to establish setting.

Page said...

Two Shirley Temple films in one Blogathon. Ivan will be so pleased! Ha Ha

I actually love that the original Seabiscuit fades into actual racing footage. Isn't it grand that after over 60 yrs Seabiscuit AND even War Admiral are familiar names to us?

Growing up in southern California I found myself at Santa Anita and Hollywood Downs racetracks with my parents during my teen years. I still find it insane that kids were allowed at tracks. Of course my mom would bet on horses for me too. I actually got to see Willie Shoemaker race. For the longest I held on to my t-shirt which said "The Shoe Wants You"

The recent Seabiscuit is such a great film. As you noted, Macy's scenes were a stand out then with McGuire and that flaming red hair, riding such a iconic horse. I'm such a huge fan of Jeff Bridges that anything he's in is fine by me.

It's great that race horses have been given such great tributes on screen.

So glad you've worked so hard on doing a double post. It's great getting to see these polar opposite comparisons.

A wonderful read as always and a fun contribution to the Horseathon.

Caftan Woman said...

I've avoided the 1949 film because in the back of my mind I thought I wanted to see the "real" story. I haven't been avoiding the 2003 movie, I just haven't fit it in yet. I think I may have been perhaps a little leery about how the time and place would be handled. You've certainly moved it up on the old gotta-get-to-it list.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Page, I heard Ivan dated Shirley Temple in high school and she dumped him. Since then he's been nothing but sour grapes at the mention of her name. Because he's still carrying a torch.

How neat that you've been to Santa Anita and Hollywood tracks. I'd love to do that, just to see them.

Thanks for hosting such a fun blogathon.

Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

Totally off topic, but I absolutely love Shirley Temple's wardrobe in The Story of Seabiscuit. I especially wish I had that red gingham sundress she wears when she first meets the jockey! I think it's a cute, nice-looking film even though if you know anything about Seabiscuit you know most of it's fiction.

I haven't read Laura Hillenbrand's book (though I saw most of Seabiscuit on TV once), but I have read Ralph Moody's Come On Seabiscuit! I thought it was fascinating that Moody and Seabiscuit's trainer were both working on Colorado ranches at about the same time.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

CW, I think you'd be pleased with "Seabiscuit" - 2003. It's a valentine, start to finish, and expertly put together.

Grace, I think wardrobe probably accounts for 50 percent of our enjoyment of old movies. I agree that "Seabiscuit" 1949 is a cute movie, but it might have held up better through the years if it were not about a famous horse whose tale was well known at the time. If they had just chosen a fictional horse and set the uncle and niece from Ireland down in Kentucky, that might been a better story.

Do have a look at Hillenbrand's book if you're interested -- it's splendid.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Sorry, I meant "Elisabeth". My backspace key went to the kitchen for a cup of coffee.

FlickChick said...

Jacqueline - nice 1-2 punch on both posts. The new "Seabiscuit" is such a fine film and the Shirley film is pretty hokey but you are right - The Biscuit and War Admiral! Money can't buy that excitement. Thanks for many horse-happy memories!


Wow, I di'nt know that Seabiscuit was a real horse! I must confess that only the first movie called my attention, because of an older Shirley Temple.
I'm also in the blogathon, with A day at the Races.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks, Flick Chick. So glad to see fans of the the Biscuit.

Welcome, Le. I'll look forward to reading your entry in the blogathon.

whistlingypsy said...

Jacqueline, I have seen both film versions of the Seabiscuit story, the more recent being my favorite film centered on horse racing. Since I saw the later version first, I was a bit troubled by the factual inaccuracies in the earlier film, but I didn’t need to force any suspension of disbelief. I think the earlier film is like its lead actor and actress, encouraging a warm feeling of nostalgia for another place and time. However, when viewed through the perspective of the life and times of the men involved, and the country as a whole, the later film evokes a depth of emotion for the simple act of watching an astonishing horse overcome extraordinary odds.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Well said, gypsy.

Yvette said...

I saw SEABISCUIT (2003) on the big screen where, I think, a lot of movies featuring horses are best enjoyed. Actually I have the dvd but haven't watched it in a while. Thanks to your review, I'm going to watch it again this weekend. It really was a wonderful movie.

For all the reasons you state and also because it was just plain good movie-making.

I loved Tobey MacGuire's red hair!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Yvette, I can imagine "Seabiscuit" on the big screen must have been fantastic. Good point that movies featuring horses are best enjoyed that way. Enjoy the movie this weekend.

silverscreenings said...

I like how you've included both movies in one post! I found the original movie a bit hard to watch, but the actual footage of Seabiscuit is breathtaking. Also, I agree with Elisabeth's appraisal of Shirley Temple's wardrobe in this movie. :)

panavia999 said...

A person should watch the old Seabiscuit movie and pretend it's entirely different horse. It's such a silly movie. The 1940's "Dan Patch" movie also takes huge liberties. I assumed it's because the owners and/and their children were still alive. ( Dan Patch was just as big in his day as Seabiscuit and a successful sire, which Seabiscuit was not. )

The new Seabiscuit movie takes plenty of liberties too. The character of Mr. Howard did not resemble the real man. He was portrayed as a larger than life cliché when in fact he was quiet and self effacing, but that's not good Cinema! His grandchildren were annoyed. War Admiral was portrayed as a huge horse compared to Seabiscuit, when in fact the two horses were almost exactly the same size. The real difference between them was conformation and personality. (Seabiscuit = cowhorse conformation, nice . War Admiral = almost perfect conformation, mean.) Again, it's not good Cinema to have a contest between two horses ideally suited to a match race BECAUSE of their close similarities and close blood ties. The movie just had to over play the under-dog card.
I actually prefer the documentaries that came out the same time as Hillenbrand's book and the movie. Real footage and even some nice interviews with very old people. In her youth, my mother knew several trainers who worked for Charles Howard. She met Seabiscuit and Tom Smith.
Here is a funny story. My mother said when she knew the horsemen who worked for Charles Howard, she was given one of Seabiscuit's fly sheets and one of his sweat scrapers. She said the sheet had Seabiscuit's name on it. She kept it at the barn where she boarded her horse, and it was stolen in the 1950's. Growing up we used that sweat scraper on all our horses. (A sweat scraper is a long slightly curved piece of hardwood which is used to remove sweat and water. Horses love it. These days they are made of plastic.) After my mother died, I went to her house to retrieve the heirloom silver and *the scraper*. I couldn't find it any place the horse supplies were kept. I finally found it in her dresser drawer. It was her favorite memento. I still use it on horses - it's like a good luck token. I also keep it in my bedroom in between uses. Of course, no one can prove the scraper really came from Seabiscuit's tack box. I just know my mother believed it and I grew up believing it. It's such a fun thought.

panavia999 said...

Another very good movie about horse racing is "Ruffian", made by ESPN. It is a pretty accurate movie portrayal of horse racing and ends of course in a devastating and graphically depicted tragedy. "Phar Lap" was the Seabiscuit of New Zealand & Australia in the early 1930's. The movie "Phar Lap" is a feel good horse film until the horses tragic demise which is underplayed. Phar Lap's early death in California was also very grim. The Australians still have not forgiven us for that. There is a 1999 film "Shergar" about the thoroughbred stallion kidnapped by the IRA for ransom. In 1999 they did not know for sure the fate of the horse, so made a happy ending. Now they know that Shergar was most foully murdered by IRA thugs, so the movie is like a horrible joke now.
The 1984 movie "Champions" is about jockey Bob Champion's battle with cancer and the horse Aldaniti recovering from serious leg injuries and going on to win the 1981 Grand National. Most of the movie is concerned with the jockey and less with the horse but what's is really nice is that Aldaniti played himself in the movie. The Big Race was re-enacted on the Aintree racecourse and they used real footage. The real race is so long and grueling that the movie race is shorter than the real thing!
Finally there is a comedy "Fast Company" about a small time horse trainer and his promising horse. For Hollywood, it is a pretty good portrayal of life on the small time race circuit. It stars Howard Keel, Polly Bergen and Nina Foch, Marjorie Main. Nobody sings!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Silverscreenings, I guess we've reached an agreement on the Shirley Temple movie. And wardrobe.

Panavia, I'd forgotten about the Dan Patch movie. Maybe I can tackle that another time. Thanks for providing so much wealth of detail on the background of these movies and these famous horses. Your knowledge is impressive, and I appreciate you filling in the blanks.

Dawn said...

Jacqueline, I have seen both film versions of Seabiscuit. The newer version (2003) is my favorite. I think it is because it seemed to pull on my heartstrings a little more..

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

It's a fine film, to be sure. So glad you're part of the Horseathon.

angelnumber25 said...

Great review of both films!
I haven't seen the 1949 version, as I had heard in advance that it is in essence a fictional story. I love the 2003 film as I feel it's not only a well-put together film with great acting, but a mostly accurate portrayal of racing. The only thing that really bothered me about it were the inaccuracies that Panavia pointed out, and they way they Hollywooded the ending by changing the way the Big Cap was run. Having read Hillanbrand's great book, I didn't see why that had to be changed, as it was already a remarkable story.
I liked how you mentioned exploring the ways we deal with history the more distance we grow from it.
And I'll also be rooting hard for I'll Have Another on June 9. How exciting would that be?

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Welcome, angelnumber25. Yes, that would really be something if I'll Have Another won the Triple Crown.

That's an interesting point about the changes in the movie from the Hillenbrand book. Old Hollywood, as we can see from the first Seabiscuit movie, made changes from the truth all the time to exploit what producers felt would be a more marketable story. But today? With a wealth of information at our fingertips - literally with Google - the general public knows what elements of a movie are fictional and what are fact. So why try to change a story anymore? Because sometimes facts are not a dramatic as the filmaker wants them to be? I don't know.

DorianTB said...

Jacqueline, despite my dear late dad having been a bookie, I'm nowhere near as knowledgeable about horse-racing as I'd like to be, so I especially appreciate your excellent double-feature of the 1949 and 2003 movie versions of Seabiscuit's story! :-) Of course, I was particularly riveted by your review of the 2003 version, but I especially appreciated the photo of the actual spectators. I really got a kick out of William H. Macy (he's a Team Bartilucci fave) and his line "I can take one comeback, but this is ridiculous. Who's next, Lazarus?" Your post was a fascinating history lesson, and you did a fine job of getting us into the protagonists' heads!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks so much, Dorian. You know, the idea of your dad being a bookie conjurs up images of you being Little Miss Marker. Just like Shirley Temple.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

I have to confess that I've not seen either of these films. I do have a note from my mother, however -- the newest Seabiscuit I haven't seen due to the fact that...well, I don't get around to seeing a lot of new movies. The older one...well, Page has already addressed that issue (there's not nearly enough Pepto-Bismol in the world to help me tolerate a Shirley Temple film).

But this is a splendid review, and with folks like Chris Cooper and William H. Macy in it I'll keep an eye out for it if it comes my way.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks, Ivan. I don't see too many new movies, either. Not unless they're on TV, I happen to be flicking channels, and at least 30 seconds captures my interest. This is very rare.

As for Shirley Temple and the 1949 movie, well she got the job because Margaret O'Brien was busy that day. These things happen.

panavia999 said...

There is a cute movie short with Sybil Jason called "A Day at Santa Anita" where Sybil is the usual niece or grand daughter of the ubiquitous crusty old trainer from Ireland. She's also a budding little jockey. I believe she sings and dances in jockey silks. The horse wins of course. It's cornball and really cute. The 1949 Seabiscuit movie is like an extended version of that short - without the charm. :-)

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Does sound cute. Filmed on location?

Citizen Screen said...


Whew! Am I ever glad I didn't read your post before I posted mine. I too wrote about Seabiscuit (2003), loved it as much as you but do it not half the justice. Also enjoyed your comparison, although I've never seen the 1949 film. Wonderful post. And LOVE the music!


Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you, Aurora, and welcome. I liked your post on "Seabiscuit" very much. Page put together a great blogathon, and half the fun is reading everyone's different perspectives. It was a nice variety of movies.

By the way, you put up some really terrific screen caps.

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