Friday, May 13, 2011

Down the Stretch (Warner Bros./First National, 1936)

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

The film was Down the Stretch, one of a number of movies about horse racing TCM has been showing this month to coincide with the Kentucky Derby, and I hadn’t held out much hope for it — it was 65 minutes long, produced by Bryan Foy (one of the Seven Little You-Know-Whats), directed by William Clemens, scripted by William Jacobs and starred Patricia Ellis and (borrowed from MGM) Mickey Rooney, and its title offered nothing more than a bland sense of “horse race-icity.” It turned out to be surprisingly good, a genuinely moving soap opera in which Rooney played Snapper Sinclair, Jr., the son of a disgraced jockey who had been framed in a race-fixing scandal and insisted on his innocence, but was barred from riding and died two years later. Snapper has grown up into a tough street kid who breaks into railroad yards for shelter and food (he steals from produce cars) and he’s about to be sentenced to one year in the reformatory (where, as any hardened moviegoer from 1936 would know, far from being “reformed” he’d end up a more hardened criminal than he was when he went in) when Patricia Barrington (Patricia Ellis), who’s in night court on a slumming trip, agrees to take custody of him if the judge will suspend his sentence.

Patricia’s interest stems from the father’s having worked for her racing stable when he rode and her conviction that he was unjustly barred from racing. Unfortunately, her trainer, Tex Reardon (Charles Wilson), believes Snapper, Jr. to be just as corrupt as his old man, so he gives him only menial tasks around the stable — until Snapper, Jr. goes into the stable at night and takes out Faithful, a rambunctious horse with speed to spare but a skittish temperament no other jockey can handle. Snapper convinces Patricia not to sell Faithful but to let him ride the horse in races — and when Patricia’s big chance for the upcoming Derby, Blue Boy, injures a leg while practicing a start with Faithful, she enters Faithful in the Derby with Sinclair aboard (though in order to avoid being associated with his dad’s alleged crimes he’s varied his last name slightly to “St. Clair”) and, of course, the horse wins. St. Clair/Sinclair continues to have a winning season on Patricia’s mounts until he’s framed by gamblers who make it look like he’s betting against his own horse so he can throw a race and make a killing.

Though he’s innocent, he’s nonetheless suspended from U.S. racing for one year — but he’s saved by Sir Oliver (Crauford Kent), a British owner who hires him to race there, and he’s an instant success on British tracks until he’s hired to race the Maharajah’s horse (we’re not told which Maharajah, but it hardly seems to matter) in the biggest British race of the year — only Patricia Barrington turns up at the same race with Faithful. It seems that her husband (Dennis Moore) lost all the family’s money and they had to give up their stables and all their other horses, and their one shot at recouping is for Faithful to win — and Snapper offers to switch mounts with their jockey and ride Faithful, but Patricia’s husband never lets her know Snapper has made that offer, so in the final stretches of the race Snapper throws it and deliberately fouls another horse so Faithful can win. He’s barred from riding for life but the money Patricia has made on the race is enough so she can buy back her stable and hire Snapper to run it.

It’s not much of a plot in synopsis, but it turns out to be the basis for quite an interesting movie — and Rooney’s acting is surprisingly subtle: scenes that a few years later would have sent him into the scenery, teeth bared, ready to do his beaver impression are played here with a welcome restraint that fits the story and makes it a surprisingly effective tear-jerker. Patricia Ellis comes off as one of those people it seems didn’t deserve to stay stuck in the “B” ranks her whole career; her performance matches Rooney’s in its quiet eloquence and grace — and even Black comedian Willie Best as Rooney’s stableboy (billed, interestingly, as William Best) gets a bit more dignity than usual even though his lines are the usual same-old same-old for Black servant characters in the 1930’s. It’s not much of a movie but it’s damned good entertainment of the kind the studio system at its best was good at churning out, and it’s well worth seeing.