This week we’re going to talk about horses. Four movies, three horses, two blog posts, and one blogathon. More about that later.
In this season of thoroughbred horseracing where every two weeks we have another event -- the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and coming up, the Belmont Stakes -- most of us follow these events on television. I watch them every year, mainly because of the excitement that I still remember as a child watching one horse called Secretariat win each one of them, one by one.
Horse races take only a couple minutes, but reading this post is going to take up your whole lunch hour. Another Long Post from Another Old Movie Blog.
This two-part series is about a sense of personal nostalgia, but also the way the movies take this idea of nostalgia and use it as a device for storytelling. We’ll be comparing films made in particular eras -- in this case the 1930s/40s and the 1970s -- and contemporary films set in those eras which always tends to clean up the past a little. We remember things a little brighter than they were.
Today we’re going to discuss “Secretariat”, and “Casey’s Shadow” (1978) that take us to the 1970s. Friday we have “Seabiscuit” (2003) and “The Story of Seabiscuit” (1949) that take us to the 1930s. We’ll conclude on Friday, rather than the usual Thursday post, so we can latch onto the horse blogathon sponsored by Page over at My Love of Old Hollywood.
Secretariat and Seabiscuit were real horses. Casey’s Shadow is a fictional character, and that film is based on a short story by John McPhee that was originally published in the New Yorker magazine April 29, 1974. It is about a real race, however, the Ruidoso All-American Futurity held in New Mexico, which is called the richest horse race in the world. Secretariat and Seabiscuit were thoroughbreds, but Casey’s Shadow is a quarter horse, which excels at shorter races under a quarter of a mile. It is the most popular breed of horse in America, and they can be found anywhere from racecourses, to working ranches.
We hear a lot about breeding in these movies. Breeding, and training, and heart, a sense of courage in the horse, and the jockey, and sometimes in the owner. There’s also lot about money changing hands.
Secretariat became a rock star, featured on magazine covers and the talk of everyone everywhere. Even for those of us who grew up in suburbia and had very little contact with horses knew his name. Children sped on their bikes down the street pretending they were riding Secretariat.
The early 1970s was an age where sports heroes began to take off in popular culture. I’m not sure if it was because of the disillusionment with Vietnam War, Watergate, or the general cynicism that began to creep into our society, but we looked to sports for heroes, and they came by the bushel full in the 1970s. Tennis stars became household names, and Muhammad Ali of course, and baseball players began to garnish fabulous salaries. The Super Bowl started becoming an event in popular culture and not merely a sporting event, giving birth to the Super Bowl Party and the end cap display of nachos in grocery stores. Sports moved from the back page of the newspaper to the forefront of our consciousness.
And then there was the mighty Secretariat, no less a hero because he was a horse.
But I’m not sure it packs enough of a punch to instill this sense of understanding for someone too young to remember. “Seabiscuit”, which we’ll talk about on Friday, does.
When we are young we soak ourselves in popular culture: TV, music, commercials, everything is grist to the mill of our development. The older we grow, the less influenced we are by popular culture, the less we even care about it.
It is a true story of owner Penny Chenery Tweedy, a woman in a male-dominated sport -- the sport of Kings. She is a Denver housewife and mother of four, whose father owns a horse farm in Virginia. She grew up in a world of orderly stables, green pastures set off by neat white fences, a grand house with a dark paneled den laced with photos of horses on the walls, and shelves and mantles lined with trophies. Her elderly parents die, and she must dispose of their estate. Her brother, who is a university professor and has no interest in the horses, wants her to do this quickly. He fears a six-million dollar estate tax. We should all have such worries.
We get snatches of Miss Lane’s family life, her ersatz hippy daughter (though to be fair, most teens in the late 1960s and early 1970s if they aspired to the hippy counterculture really were ersatz, only playing at the game), and her lawyer husband who wants his wife home and out of the horse business. After a few wins and some feel good speeches, her husband comes around and the kids see what a great mom they have because she’s doing her own thing, which is groovy, and being successful at it, which is groovier still.
The horse racing scenes of necessity must be controlled, but this is done fairly well. We get our share of thundering hoof beats and panting, snorting horses, though most of the drama in the movie is centered on Diane Lane.
Among Penny’s speeches: “Our father came from nothing. And his legacy to me isn’t money. It’s the will to win, if you can, and live with it if you can’t.” A fine and sensible legacy, but her brother wants none of it, “If you stumble and fall, you don’t just make us fools, you make us beggars.”
We may have grown tired of the chauvinist streak in characters who today sound like cartoons for doing it, but we have to remember that the women’s movement was in its early days. His sentiment is genuine. What did not sound genuine to me was a reporter’s marveling at another horse “turning in awesome workouts,” and her daughter commenting on seeing Lane on TV, “Mom looks awesome.” This was years before we turned “awesome” into a meaningless word parroted with unrelenting foolishness.
She should have been "far out".
A favorite shot: when a little girl takes Secretariat’s picture. She’s holding one of those 110 Kodak cameras with the flash bar on top. How many of you had one of those?
“Casey’s Shadow” (1978) is both brisk in its 1970s reality -- it was after all filmed in the era it depicted so there’s nothing artificial here -- and strangely lulling in the direction of Martin Ritt, who takes us on the journey of another horse to both victory and tragedy, and dealing with each with a shrug. There are no platitudes here, and this is not a “feel-good” movie. There is humor, tinted by the 1970s cynicism that grew even stronger the farther we get away from the sight of Diane Lane in her formal gown, complete with opera gloves, talking to her horse.
The pace is slow -- the movie’s pace, not the horse’s -- and this reflects the original short story, which is quite long and leisurely. Movies are not made this way anymore, and neither are short stories. Our attention span has taken a hit in the last 30 years or so.
The story is set in the back Cajun country of Louisiana, where Walter Matthau plays a horse trainer, who drifts in and out of his Cajun accent, and sometimes goes by the nickname of Coonass.
Neither Casey, played by Michael Hershewe, nor his middle boy, have southern accents, though his eldest son, Buddy, played by Andrew Rubin, does attempt one.
Actually, pigsties are neater than their tumbledown house. No neat white fences here. Both the house and the barn look like they’re about to fall down.
In “Secretariat” we are introduced to the idea of breeding through sires and dams, and how important bloodlines are to determine not just the health of a horse, but the spirit. We get more lessons on breeding in “Casey’s Shadow”, but not just about quality horses. What makes a quality human is also explored.
Alexis Smith plays Sarah Blue, a southern gentlewoman who owns and breeds champion quarter horses. Breeding quality is her mantra. Unlike Diane Lane, Miss Smith manages a credible soft southern accent. But, we do not see her even once in opera gloves. First, because we are in the late 1970s now, and styles changed with alarming swiftness. Elegance has been replaced by leisure suits. This I remember, too, from childhood.
Another difference that distinguishes her from the dainty Miss Lane is a surprising yuk, yuk, yuk chuckle that sounds like Mortimer Snerd. At first I thought she meant to inject the flavor of cornpone in her character, but then it struck me that possibly this was close to how Alexis Smith really laughed.
Director Martin Ritt, whose “No Down Payment” we covered a few weeks ago, had a style of direction that leaned toward introspection and a natural feel for his characters and setting. “Casey’s Shadow” is shot with this leisurely sense of a natural setting, there is very little manufactured drama in terms of camera shots or lighting. Indeed, most of the film is shot outdoors.
Alexis Smith’s performance in this movie is probably the most natural and unaffected she ever gave, so it stands to reason Ritt would allow Smith’s own ridiculous laugh to rip out of her.
In his “Everything Was Possible - The Birth of the Musical ‘Follies'” (Alfred A. Knopf, NY, 2003), author Ted Chapin called Smith’s laugh a cackle. Columnist Louella Parsons referred to “…that devastating laugh of hers,” (syndicated in Milwaukee Sentinel, May 27, 1948). “I haven’t known a girl to laugh like she does since Carole Lombard.”
I also got a chance to hear a clip of a 1980 radio interview where she does, indeed, rip out a maniacal giggle in between intelligent and ladylike remarks. It seems this was a goofy side of her Warner Bros. decided not to show in their carefully groomed ice princess.
Smith has the job in this movie of being the moral counterpart to Walter Matthau. He falls from grace big time, and his own code of ethics, which is simply, “Never run a hurtin’ horse.”
But he is only human, and greed is a very human failing.
In quarter horse breeding, artificial insemination is allowed (it’s not in the breeding of thoroughbreds), and through some shady deal, the semen is sold without Miz’ Blue’s control. And when it comes to breeding her horse, she is a bit of a control freak.
They strike a deal where she can buy the colt after the big race.
But events conspire to challenge Matthau’s single code of ethics: “never run a hurtin’ horse.”
First, Casey, who roams backwoods race courses looking for someone to con and beat at pool or matching pennies -- he is his father’s son -- twice injures the horse in foolish demonstrations and a race for money. Walter’s ready to kill him, but we begin to see it’s not just because the boy has done a cruelty to the animal; it’s because the animal is their fortune and the kid is blowing it.
As much as we want to throttle Casey for his shiftless and thoughtless behavior, the little boy also breaks your heart. His mother ran out of him, and his adored older brother Buddy will go away soon because Alexis Smith has hired him to be her new trainer. A rival trainer kills his pony (accidentally -- he had intended to kill Casey's Shadow). Everybody leaves Casey. Walter pays little attention to anything but his beer.
They patch up the horse and he’s sound enough to run. They truck him from Louisiana to New Mexico in a horse trailer pulled by Matthau’s broken down pickup. Casey’s Shadow wins a qualifying heat. They’re one step away from going to Tahiti. Where the women don't wear no tops.
But the horse hurts his leg. He’s limping a little bit. If Walter pulls out of the finals, Alexis Smith will still buy the injured horse. They’ll get $50,000 just for not running him. Walter will lose nothing.
His sons do not want him to race Casey’s Shadow, and neither does owner, Harry Caesar.
Walter is obstinate. He tells them, “This horse is my only chance. You see Sarah Blue offer ME a job, or Ted Patterson or anybody?”
He tries to explain his shift in values.
“I had my beer, farm, you kids. Seemed like enough to me. More than enough…then he come along.” He wants to, “Get my name in the record books…right up there along with Sarah Blue and God. I know it’s wrong to run a hurtin’ horse, Buddy, but I got to do it.”
When they saddle up the horses for the big race, Matthau and his team are stoic, all business, tightening, fastening, poking and prodding the horse like he is a boxer in the locker room getting ready for a match. Alexis Smith, however, combs her fingers through her horse's forelock, wipes his face, runs her hand over his eyes, carefully slipping on the blinkers, looking like she is dressing her child for school. Any minute you expect her to lick her fingers and smooth down his hair. She smiles at him. Her pride and joy. One senses she is simply more comfortable with horses than people.
Buddy is very careful about standing and taking off his hat in her presence, but he needs to remind Walter to do this. Walter sometimes does and sometimes doesn’t. Especially when he’s drunk.
Matthau’s character is laconic, and larger than life despite his low-key amusement at hustling suckers at country racecourses. He is incorrigible, lovable somehow despite his lack of grace. But when this choice comes up that he has to make -- race an injured horse or not, this is where we determine the kind of man he is.
He races the horse.
It’s very absorbing, except for the scene where Casey’s Shadow wins the race and we see Walter Matthau hoot and holler and run onto the track. I couldn’t help but think of him as a movie star who plays a scene in front of a crowd who were told by the announcer, “We’re going to hold the sixth race for a few minutes so a movie can be shot. When Walter Matthau runs across the track, everybody cheer and clap.”
It looks artificial despite its ironically very natural setting.
Just like John Malkovich wishes, “Bon chance” to the jockey in “Secretariat”, Walter and Buddy wish “Bon chance” to the middle son who is the jockey on Casey’s Shadow. We never get to know much about him, except he’s girl crazy.
Then, after the jubilation of the win, they discover the horse is lame. For good. The vet recommends he be euthanized.
There’s no real loss here, in business terms. Alexis Smith will not buy the lame horse now, the deal is off, but she is not disappointed about that; there will be other horses. She is angry because Walter willingly destroyed a horse for his own personal gain.
The horse is no longer needed now the race has been won and Walter's got the money and his name in the record books. The animal is disposable.
His sons are disgusted with him, and the younger ones want to go with Andrew Rubin to his new job as Alexis Smith’s trainer. She takes them all in.
In the final scene, the boys go home with their father. Blood may be thicker than water, but one can’t help but feel they’d be better off with Miz Blue. She runs a tight ship, and they’d get three square meals a day with her.
Walter’s paying for the horse’s operation is not entirely altruistic. The horse will never race again, however as a champion it will earn high stud fees. No loss. Except to the horse, perhaps, who now must endure a long, painful ride home to Louisiana and perhaps pain the rest of his life. We don’t know.
We only see lovable scamp Walter Matthau and his three aimless boys going home together. It should be enough, and it’s not, even though these are the cynical years of the late 1970s where the kind of platitudes we see Diane Lane spout are too unrealistic, perhaps too embarrassing to hear anymore.
Perhaps this is what made an otherwise interesting film founder at the box office.
Alexis Smith, interviewed by Ed Blank of the Pittsburg Press December 17, 1978, noted that she enjoyed working with Walter Matthau and admired Martin Ritt, “He brought out really human qualities in all in all of us. It was one of my best working experiences.”
In the New York Times of November 11, 1978, she noted that there were three directors in her film career from whom she felt she learned the most. These were Edmund Goulding, who directed her in “The Constant Nymph” (1943) see this previous post here, Frank Capra, who directed “Here Comes the Groom” (1951) see post here, and Martin Ritt of “Casey’s Shadow.”
I get a chuckle out of the ice princess, clad in jeans, strolling into a crowded bar for a business meeting to the background sound of “Ramblin’ Man” by The Allman Brothers Band.
TCM is showing “Casey’s Shadow” Friday, June 1st at 8:00 a.m., if you want to have a look. Let me know what you think.
Come back Friday for more horse racing, and two very different movies about the same famous champion, Seabiscuit, as part of Page’s Horseathon.