Monday, February 21, 2011

Long Shot (Fine Arts/Grand National, 1939)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Long Shot, a thoroughly undistinguished but moderately charming film about horse racing from Fine Arts Pictures, releasing through Grand National, in 1939. It was directed by Charles Lamont, who also got an “associate producer” credit, from a screenplay by Ewart Adamson based on an “original” story by Harry Beresford and George Callaghan — “original” definitely in quotes because the film is a ragbag of clichés arranged so predictably one knows almost from the first reel how it’s going to come out. The dramatis personae include young horse owner Jeff Clayton (Gordon Jones, a more attractive and personable leading man than usually got to star in an indie), whose horses are consistently winning races against those of his mentor and role model, old rancher Henry Sharron (Henry Davenport); Sharron’s niece Martha (a young Marsha Hunt, starting a career that should have taken her to major stardom and probably would have if she hadn’t been blacklisted) and her fiancé Lew Ralston (C. Henry Gordon), who expects to marry Martha despite her own uncertainty and the opposition of uncle Harry, who’s read him as someone who’s up to no good — as have we, if for no better reason than C. Henry Gordon is playing him!

Ralston has concocted a plan to rig every race in which Sharron’s horses are involved so that the family loses everything and then Martha will have to marry him for his money — though exactly how he manages this is left a mystery by the writing committee, who leave quite a few loose ends in a messy script that at times seems like what A Day at the Races would look like if you cut the Marx Brothers out of it. Sharron’s ranch and stables are foreclosed on but he and his jockey, Danny Welch (George E. Stone), spare one horse, Certified Check (sufficiently important to the story that the horse who played him, “Denmore Chief,” is listed as part of the cast — fittingly, since the horse delivers a more powerful and emotional performance than some of the humans in the film!), by turning him loose in the wilds of Arizona. (The fact that a thoroughbred racehorse wouldn’t last two days on the open range was cheerily ignored by the writers.) Certified Check is caught in a roundup by a horse-trader but Jeff, Danny and Jeff’s Black manservant Tucky (James Robinson, doing the shuffling-servant bit only marginally less offensively than Stepin Fetchit — his performance reminded me of Godfrey Cambridge’s comedy routine about a movie he’d supposedly made in which he played a slave supposedly mourning the death of his owner by grabbing hold of his corpse and calling out to him, “Massa Jack, Massa Jack” — Cambridge’s punchline was, “You know, they never released that picture — ’cause I never released Massa Jack!”) buy him after Danny tricks the horse-trader into thinking he’s lame.

In the film’s one even remotely creative plot twist, Henry Sharron fakes his own death and has his lawyer write a will leaving half of Certified Check to Jeff and half to Martha, in hopes that they’ll get together, run the horse and fall in love — despite the complication that because of an auto accident (Martha struck him with her car), Jeff has been left with a rib lodged dangerously close to his heart that could stab him internally and kill him if he ever gets too excited, which he interprets as an instruction to stay out of horse racing forever. Nonetheless, Martha traces Certified Check to Arizona and she, Jeff, Danny and Tucky travel the country entering Certified Check in minor races — only to find that he veers off the rail in mid-race and quits running. Henry poses as his own ghost to come to the camp from which Jeff and Martha are operating and tell Tucky to tell Jeff to have Danny run the horse in the middle of the track, where he’ll do better — and with a few more clichéd complications (like the moving van they commandeer to take Certified Check to the Santa Anita handicap by enrolling its driver and, later, the truck’s owner and the young couple whose furniture they were supposed to be transporting in their scheme to keep Certified Check a long shot so they can make lots of money betting on him in the big race), ultimately Certified Check wins the Santa Anita handicap despite the efforts of Lew Ralston to sabotage him — though Ralston’s instruction to his jockey to foul Danny don’t lead to any obvious result in the race and it becomes just one of the many dropped plot threads with which the writers have littered their script (the bit about Jeff’s rib being lodged near his heart and threatening to stab him to death disappears in mid-movie, and nothing is made of Ralston and his right-hand man sneaking a peek at one of Certified Check’s practice runs and discovering that the horse is genuinely fast and a real threat to Lew’s plans to make a killing on the race with his own horse).

Long Shot lumbers along for 67 surprisingly slow-seeming minutes until it ends the way we knew it would back in reel one. The writers seem to have drawn some elements from the real-life story of Seabiscuit (who’s actually mentioned in the film’s dialogue) — a horse who comes out of nowhere, a lame jockey (Danny supposedly had an accident but, he reveals later, was really tripped up by one of Ralston’s jockeys in a big race Ralston wanted to win by any means necessary) and a final victory at the Santa Anita Handicap, the race in which Seabiscuit established himself — but both of the movies actually based (more or less) on the Seabiscuit story are better than this one!