Friday, March 29, 2013

Sweepstakes (RKO-Pathé, 1931)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I screened Charles a film I recently recorded from TCM, Sweepstakes, a neat 1931 horse-racing comedy-drama from RKO Pathé. It’s basically Horse Racing Plot #101 — young jockey Buddy Doyle (Eddie Quillan, top-billed and considerably less annoying than usual) gets lured to the Woodlawn Club by singer Babe Elliot (Marian Nixon) and ends up forsaking his training for the upcoming Camden Stakes race to hang out with her and run up a huge tab to the establishment’s owner, Wally Weber (Lew Cody). This so upsets Pop Blake (Fred Barton), owner of the horse Six Shooter whom Buddy was supposed to ride in the big race, that Blake says that if Buddy doesn’t break it off with Babe he’s fired. Blake and Buddy’s combination trainer, manager and keeper “Sleepy” Jones (James Gleason, whose acerbic wit helps this movie a lot) mean this only as a bluff, but Buddy takes it seriously and signs with Wally Weber to ride his horses as long as he doesn’t have to compete directly with Pop’s horse in the Camden. Only Weber tricks Buddy into riding his Camden entry, Rosedawn, and just before the race “Sleepy” tells Buddy that he’s been set up and if Rosedawn wins a lot of corrupt gamblers will make a lot of money. So, running neck-and-neck with his former mount in the big race, Buddy starts saying “Whoop-ti-doo” to the horse — his way of controlling Six Shooter so he doesn’t have to use a whip — and as Six Shooter breaks ahead from the sound of Buddy’s voice, Buddy pulls back on Rosedawn and effectively throws the race. He’s caught doing so by the track stewards and put on indefinite suspension, and at this point Sweepstakes starts to look like a Warner Bros. film as Buddy bums across the country, getting progressively more disheveled. He tries to ride at other racetracks under a series of aliases but keeps getting caught — the last time at a two-bit track at Riverside, California in which he’s exposed by a promoter who wants him to throw his race and fired by the magnificent character villain Clarence Wilson from the W. C. Fields/Alison Skipworth vehicle Tillie and Gus — and he ends up in Mexico as a singing waiter at a café near a racetrack. (The song he sings is “Gee, I Wish I Had a Girl,” later recorded by Al Jolson in his late-1940’s comeback career for Decca.) “Sleepy” comes there to get Buddy to ride again — he can now do so legally since his suspension has expired — and even buys Six Shooter at an auction, hitting up the owners of the café for part of the money. But the reluctant Buddy, still too badly hurt by what’s happened to him before, won’t ride until Babe — who, in an intriguing variation on this story template by writers Lew Lipton (story) and Ralph Murphy (dialogue), wasn’t a conscious part of Wally’s plot but was instead genuinely in love with Buddy — talks him into it. You can guess what happens next: Buddy stages an impressive come-from-behind victory in the big race and he and Babe get into a clinch at the fade-out.

What makes this one special is the insouciance with which the writers approach the plot — they know we don’t take a lick of it seriously and they don’t either — and the marvelous touches it’s full of from the writers and director Albert S. Rogell. At the opening Buddy and his fellow jockeys live in a boardinghouse that’s virtually a combination of a military barracks and a prison, complete with rigidly enforced rules as to when they must go to bed and how they’re allowed (or not) to socialize — Buddy literally has to escape through his second-floor bedroom window to see Babe, and when “Sleepy” catches him he insists that Buddy climb up the building to get back in the same way he went out. The otherwise iron discipline of the place doesn’t stop them from giving Buddy a huge surprise party for his 21st birthday, which happens at the start of the film — and as the jockeys devour plate on plate of food and a large white birthday cake to top it off, I couldn’t help but remember the bizarre chapter in Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit on how jockeys practically pioneered binging and purging in order to keep themselves down to a light enough weight to be allowed to ride. Director Rogell, usually thought of as a hack, also brings some creative camera angles to this film, including the nice meet-cute in which Buddy and Babe glimpse each other through the round window of the door at the Woodlawn Club separating the kitchen from the dining space, and later he and cinematographer Edward Snyder throw in some intriguing shots from Buddy’s point of view. While it’s hard not to think that Sweepstakes would have been even better if it had been made at Warner Bros. and James Cagney would have played Quillan’s role (did Cagney ever play a jockey? It would seem to have been a natural part for him!), even as it stands it’s a capable foray by RKO-Pathé into Warners’ territory and probably Quillan’s best role in a film, not that that’s saying much for him.