As part of our virtual visit to Saratoga, each night we will be watching a classic film set in Saratoga Springs or that features horse racing. Some of these are films we watch every year before we travel to the Spa. Others we will be watching for the first time. Here’s our daily commentary:
Day 1 – Saratoga (1937)
This film, produced by MGM in 1937, is perhaps best known as Jean Harlow’s final film. She died toward the end of the production, and to complete it, the studio used a double, who is only seen from the back. Her vocal imitation of Harlow’s distinctive voice is always a bit off.
We’ve grown to love this film for many reasons. Much of it was filled on location. There are several shots of the race track’s distinctive peaked roof and other parts of the grounds. You’ll see a quick glimpse of the United States Hotel, which once was the largest resort hotel in the country. It’s no longer standing, but the Adelphi Hotel, which was renovated several years ago, gives you a sense of the grand hotel tradition that made Saratoga Springs a favored summer resort for more than 150 years.
The movie divides most of its action between race tracks and trains, two of our passions. There are key races not only at Saratoga but also at Hialeah (Florida) and Churchill Downs. The concluding race at Saratoga features the Hopeful Stakes, a race that is still run every Labor Day at Saratoga featuring 2-year-old thoroughbreds whose owners are hopeful of greater success in their 3-year-old season. The train episodes frequently include club cars dubbed the “Racing Special” and are filled with jockeys, trainers, owners, handicappers, and bookies who follow the horse-racing circuit from Saratoga to Belmont and Aqueduct to Pimlico to Hialeah to Churchill Downs. What a wonderful gypsy life!
We also love the movie for the many fine actors. Gable, playing a wise-cracking bookie, is at his comic best. For my money, this may be Harlow’s best featured performance, next to Dinner at Eight. The cast includes Lionel Barrymore, as Harlow’s feisty grandfather.
Of course, I found several Fred Astaire connections. Cliff Edwards, who plays Gable’s bookmaking partner, appeared with Fred Astaire on Broadway in Lady, Be Good! (1924). His nickname was “Ukulele Ike,” and you’ll see why as he strums that instrument in the song “The Horse with the Dreamy Eyes.” With its rotating verses sung by different passengers on the train reminds me of “The Man on the Flying Trapeze” in It Happened One Night, which also starred Clark Gable.
Another Astaire connection is Frank Morgan (best known as the Wizard of Oz), who appeared on Broadway with Fred in The Band Wagon (1931) and in two films: The Broadway Melody of 1940 and Yolanda and the Thief. Margaret Hamilton, who appears in a brief scene on the train, was the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz.
Hattie McDaniel turns in a wonderful performance with some clever singing and comic repartee with Gable. This was two years before they appeared together in Gone with the Wind, for which McDaniel won an Oscar. Other notable cast members include Walter Pidgeon and Una Merkel.
The song featured in Saratoga is our song for Day 1’s video slideshow. The tune was composed by Walter Donaldson (best know for “My Blue Heaven” and “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm?”). His song “You’re Driving Me Crazy” was included in the Broadway show Smiles (1930), which starred Fred & Adele Astaire and Marilyn Miller.
Day 2 – Seabiscuit (2003)
This may be our favorite horse racing movie, because of the poignant story that highlights the importance of five elements necessary for any great race horse: the horse, the jockey, the trainer, the owner, and the fans. What makes the movie so wonderful is how the author Laura Hillenbrand weaves together the stories of these five into a deeply moving whole. If you have not seen this movie, do so. And if you have not read Hillenbrand’s book, do it now!
The performances by Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, and Chris Cooper are superb. The moving score by Randy Newman perfectly fits the story. Gary Ross directed with a deft touch. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Editing.
Day 3 – A Slight Case of Murder (1937)
Tonight’s movie is one we haven’t seen before, A Slight Case of Murder (1938), starring Edward G. Robinson. We picked it because it was supposed to have some scenes set in Saratoga, but it turned out that the setting was in name only. There were no scenes at the race track. Robinson and his wife and his merry band of former gangsters leave New York City for the summer to stay in a rental cottage in Saratoga. This comedy, directed by Lloyd Bacon (who is better known for musicals such as 42nd Street and Footlight Parade), starts with the end of Prohibition, which forces Robinson and his gang to go straight, reluctantly. The movie is mildly entertaining. Robinson does a better job in Brother Orchid and Larceny, Inc. in this genre of gangster comedy. There are plenty of familiar character actors from the Warner Brothers studio to keep a measure of interest. The script is by Damon Runyon. We’ll look for a firmer racing film tomorrow night.
Day 4 – The Homestretch (1947)
This is another movie we have not seen before, and it’s main appeal was its focus on horse racing. The Saratoga connection is very brief: showing the cover of a program from the Saratoga Race Course. The action goes around the world with scenes at many famous tracks throughout the United States, as well as England and South America. The plot is rather frustrating, and the character actors are not used to the best advantage. You can see the whole film on YouTube.
Day 5 – The Track at Saratoga: America’s Greatest Race Course (2013)
Rather than a Hollywood classic, we will watch a documentary produced in 2013 about the Saratoga Race Course. Our turf writer friend, Teresa Genaro, appears in this film, which gives a wonderful overview of the Spa and why so many people love it. You can see the 56-minute film free online on the web site for WMHT, the public television station in upstate New York.
Day 6 – Saratoga Trunk (1945)
Based on a novel by Edna Ferber, this film was directed by Sam Wood and stars Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman. The same team had just finished a film based on Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls in 1943, when they shot this picture, though it wasn’t released until 1945. It’s typical of the grand sweeping melodramas of Ferber, such as Showboat and So Big. The title is a bit misleading, as only the last third of the story takes place in Saratoga, and the trunk is a railroad trunk line, a railway that provides the main connection between two major destinations: in this case the coal boats off Lake Erie and the population centers of the Northeast. Most of the early action in the film takes place in New Orleans. We chose it for tonight because the action in Saratoga features some of the town’s famous springs and the big resort hotels of the late 1800’s.
Day 7 – It Ain’t Hay (1943)
We’re usually not fans of Abbott and Costello, but since this film is based on a Damon Runyon story (as was A Slight Case of Murder) and has scenes of racing at Saratoga, we have added it to our watch list. The cast features two of our favorite character actors, Eugene Pallette and Cecil Kellaway. The full movie is available on YouTube.