by Frank Cotolo
Harness racing and movies are two ingredients that don’t mix. In comparison, purebred races and movies had a robust relationship.
With sufficient evidence, Alternative Actions (AA) in this series will explain why both of these statements are historically true and then offer the solution that has the best change to change the nature of the film industry’s ambivalence towards sport. Perhaps our case will also inspire someone to pursue a project that may be the most successful race racing promotional tool ever employed.
We must first examine Trotting’s miserable place in film history. This is not a strenuous study. From its revolutionary beginnings in the 19th century to the moment you’re reading this in the third decade of the 2000s, films that had even a hint of harness racing have been fewer than few to none.
In 2011, prolific documentary filmmaker Mark Cousins released the 15-hour Story of Film: an Odyssey, arguably the definitive audiovisual chronicle of the medium’s history. It covered the academic aspects of films while also examining the literal translation of themes, metaphors, imagery, and so on. The 15 hours pass with no mention of a screen frame related to any aspect of Standardbred culture. For our purposes, we’ll begin our series by supplementing the Cousins documentary with a list of Standardbred-oriented films.
Movie audiences got their first national glimpse of trotting in a 1934 film called David Harum, starring world-renowned American comedian Will Rogers. It’s the late 1890s and Rogers owns a racehorse with a problem – it refuses to canter. Harum finds out that the horse is a trotter and trots well, but it trots best when Harum sings along. At the climax Harum drives the horse to victory and it really is Rogers in the sulky.
For most people who saw the film when it hit theaters it was an introduction to regular bred racehorses and then just trotters, leading audiences to believe trotters moved faster while their drivers (incorrectly called jockeys) too sang to them. The film obviously did nothing to define trotting as a serious equestrian sport.
When David Harum came out, there had already been 10 thoroughbred, racing-oriented feature films since 1913. Some came from the UK, but US productions failed to attract audiences at all due to the star power of Hollywood heavyweights such as Clark Gable and director John Ford.
1944, a Saturday evening post The short story The Phantom Filly became a screenplay, written by Winston Miller, titled Home In Indiana. The racing scenes were filmed on location at the Sandusky County Ohio Fairgrounds in Ohio, and critics were more interested in Star June Haver’s “perfect figure, displayed with a lavishness that makes you wonder how.” [it] ever passed the censorship.” The trotter in the film was never identified. This film made people think that trotting races were only held at state fairs.
Speaking of state fairs, 1945 came “State Fair,” a romp about lovesick kids at the Iowa State Fair, where harness racing was just the trimming for the music and songs of Rodgers & Hammerstein. In fact, there is a boar who plays the award-winning pig Blue Boy, but a Standardbred’s name is never mumbled.
In 1948 the reviews for Green Grass of Wyoming were good, and they included praise for the beautiful trotting mare Crown Jewel and the stallion Thunderhead, her thoroughbred lover. But again, it presented trotting as a rural, stately novelty and emphasized the “romanticism” of horses as the inspiration for Crown Jewel to win a race.
Released in 1949, The Great Dan Patch starred B-movie heartthrob Dennis O’Keefe in a script by John Taintor Foote, who was involved in a number of racehorse-related films including Kentucky (originally titled The Look of Eagles) and The Story of Seabiscuit (1949), the original Thoroughbred film (more on the 2003 version follows). Oddly enough, Footes co-wrote “Kentucky” Lamar Trotti, a name that happens to contain the word “trot” and is the only reference to anything standardbred. The story delivered in the story of the great pacesetter Dan Patch is suspect at best. Still, it’s the first film by a thoroughbred pacemaker on screen and the first serious look at the breadth of the sport.
Finally, in 1952, a popular character series used harness racing as a setting in Ma and Pa Kettle at the Races. Although the Dan Patch movie made a strong case for standard breed racing in movies, this grody movie ruined any chance of taking the sport seriously in any movie context.
There is little film history for part two and it is about thoroughbreds, but these are successful running horse hero films in which we find the roots of what is wrong with all horse racing in movies and we are getting closer to our plan, “Cinema Standardbred.”