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Pride of the Blue Grass

Pride of the Blue Grass(1939)

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teaser Pride of the Blue Grass (1939)

During the Golden Age, major studios released B-movies to supplement their primary output. Contrary to current usage, the term B-movie did not originally refer to inferior, poorly crafted fare. Instead, the term was applied to movies with low budgets, short shooting schedules, and short running times. B-movies generally ended up as matinees or on the bottom half of a double bill. Pride of the Blue Grass (aka Steeplechase) was a typical B-movie produced by Warner Bros.' B-unit in 1939. (In 1954, Allied Artists released an A-budget film with the same title, starring Alan Ladd, but it is not a remake of this modest drama.)

Just over an hour long, Pride of the Blue Grass is a briskly paced, horse-racing tale about Gantry the Great, who, together with trainer Danny Lowman, overcomes many hardships to become a steeplechase champion. The story opens with the colt's birth during a terrible thunderstorm. A lightning bolt strikes the barn, setting it on fire, which results in the deaths of Lowman's father and Gantry's mother. The much reviled Mack Lowman had been accused of illegal tipping at the race track, so few people step up to help Danny and the orphaned colt. Danny leaves Gantry in the care of neighbor Midge Griner, whose father, the Colonel, owns a large stable nearby, while he sets out to gain experience as a jockey on the West Coast.

Months later, Danny finds himself facing time in a juvenile detention center for selling tips at the racetrack, though he proclaims his innocence. Gantry is also in trouble, having gained a reputation for being untrainable. Midge persuades her father to give Danny a job to save him from reform school, and, in turn, Danny makes it his task to train the misunderstood horse. The official trainer for Griner's stable resents Danny's intrusion, particularly after the young man turns Gantry into a potential winner. The Colonel enters Gantry into the Harvard Stakes and is won over by Danny when the horse crosses the finish line in a blaze of glory. Over the next six months, Gantry continues to win races for the Colonel's stable. Not only does he keep the stable running with his purse money, but he becomes the Colonel's only viable Kentucky Derby entry.

Just before the Derby, the jealous trainer delivers a blow to Gantry's head, causing the horse to become blind, but no one discovers this problem until the actual race. When Danny pulls up during the race to avoid injury to himself and his horse, the Colonel accuses him of throwing the Derby--something Mack Lowman might have done. A vet diagnoses Gantry's blindness and recommends that the Colonel put the horse down, but Danny insists that he can train him for another type of racing, the steeplechase. Together with Domino, the stable's African American groom, Danny retrains Gantry to jump fences, shrubs, and streams using a series of vocal commands. Danny, Domino, and Gantry secretly enter England's Grand National in Liverpool, while the Colonel frets over losing the stable. When Gantry wins the Grand National against the odds, the stable is saved and the Colonel understands that Danny is not like his father.

Like most B-movies, Pride of the Blue Grass featured actors who were not major stars. The B's tended to feature stars on the ascent, stars on the decline, or actors with little or no star power at all, though that was not a reflection on their talent. Radio actor James McCallion was cast in the lead role as Danny Lowman, but his everyman looks and lack of charisma destined him for character roles. After Pride of the Blue Grass, McCallion was not credited with another film role until 1954 when he appeared in Playgirl. However, he carved out a living as an actor in television, beginning in 1955 with a role in the anthology series The Pepsi-Cola Playhouse. He worked continually on the small screen over the next 20 years as television evolved from live drama to episodic adventure and dramatic series. Perky Edith Fellows, who costars as Midge Griner, had appeared in films throughout the 1930s in child roles, and Warner Bros. seemed to be grooming her for a place in their roster of stars. In the same year as Pride of the Blue Grass, she starred in Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, which launched her in a series of warm-hearted comedies about the Pepper family based on Margaret Sidney's books. Short in stature, Fellows was cast in juvenile roles throughout the 1940s when her film career stalled. Like McCallion, Fellows made the transition to television early on when she appeared in an episode of Musical Comedy Time in 1950. Though working less frequently than McCallion, Fellows managed to land small roles in episodic television until the mid-1990s, making notable appearances in popular series such as ER.

The most memorable star of Pride of the Blue Grass is the four-legged cast member billed as Gantry the Blind Horse--a racing thoroughbred named Elmer Gantry who had gone blind from disease. Horsewoman Eleanor Getzendaner had trained Elmer Gantry for triple-bar exhibition jumping by using voice commands for each stage of the jump. And while Danny Lowman uses that technique to train Gantry the Great in the film, the plotline of Pride of the Blue Grass is purely fictional.

Bryan Foy, the head of Warners' B-unit, produced Pride of the Blue Grass, and it was a testament to his experience that he could squeeze so many events into a 65-minute running time. As the son of legendary vaudevillian Eddie Foy and one of the Seven Little Foys in his father's act, Bryan had grown up in show business. He left vaudeville in 1918 to become a director of short comedies for Fox Film. Adrift in Hollywood during the 1920s, he worked as a free-lance scripter and a gag writer, most notably for Buster Keaton. Because of Foy's vaudeville background and experience with writing gags, Warner Bros. signed him in the mid-1920s to direct their sync sound shorts on Vitaphone. As luck would have it, Foy was in the right place at the right time when he was assigned the 1928 gangster drama Lights of New York, planned as a two-reel silent. The unexpected popularity of The Jazz Singer (1927) prompted the studio to expand it to a 57-minute, sync-sound feature, which they promoted as the "first 100 percent all-talkie." The addition of the sync sound sequences, which reflect the limitations of the early sound technology, turned the action-filled short into a clumsy, static talkie, but the novelty of recorded dialogue made Lights of New York a box-office hit.

Though not a great director, or even a good one, Foy exhibited a knack for crowd-pleasing entertainment, which helped him make the transition to producing. In 1935, he was named the head of Warners' B-unit, where he made $750 per week. The purpose of his unit was to keep the studio's facilities, crews, and second-tier talent operating at top efficiency while supplying a steady stream of low-budget movies. His success in this position earned him the nickname "the Keeper of the B's" as well as a boost in salary; by 1938, he was earning $2,000 per week.

Warner Bros. had earned a reputation for efficient filmmaking, and Bryan Foy's approach to production fit the studio's agenda perfectly. His success resulted in a large degree of autonomy. Hal Wallis, who was Warners' executive in charge of production, exerted no control over Foy, and Jack Warner was rarely involved with the B-unit until viewing the final cut of the films. Foy's experience with his father in vaudeville had helped him hone his major talent as a producer--keeping production costs to a bare minimum without cutting the entertainment value. His unit was limited to a budget of $5 million per year, which covered a slate of two-dozen B-movies. In 1936, he exceeded his typical slate by producing 29 films, and in 1937, he made 40. Foy's cost-efficient approach included tight schedules in addition to tight budgets. Preproduction and postproduction amounted to three to four weeks combined, while shooting lasted between 15 and 25 days. Vincent Sherman did pen an original screenplay for Pride of the Blue Grass, but often Foy cut costs by reworking the scripts of existing A-budget films. For example, Tiger Shark (1932) was turned into Bengal Tiger (1936) by Foy's unit; Five Star Final (1931) became Two Against the World (1936).

Pride of the Blue Grass exhibits some of Foy's typical methods for controlling costs. Sequences were filmed in a variety of medium shots and close-ups to avoid any emphasis on the low-budget sets and painted backdrops. Likewise, most of Gantry the Great's training, whether for the Derby or the Grand National Steeplechase, occurs in the same grassy area in isolation from the farm's other horses, while the human characters interact inside one room of the Griner mansion. The entire Griner Stables is never shown: There is no visual sense of how large the mansion is, how many barns make up the stable area, or how many horses the Griners own. A voiceover narration describes Danny Lowman's life from his father's death to his appearance in juvenile court in a matter of seconds, so that his experiences on the West Coast do not have to be filmed. Racing footage is kept to a minimum by using inserts of newspaper headlines--a favorite cost-cutting tactic by Foy--to detail Gantry's success as a race horse.

In 1940, Warners' B-unit was phased out. Bryan Foy moved to Twentieth-Century Fox for a while but returned to Warner Bros. during the 1950s, where he produced another technical landmark that proved a major box-office success, House of Wax (1953) in 3-D. Leaving on a high note, Foy's last film as a producer was released in 1963. The highly popular P.T. 109 was based on John F. Kennedy's best-selling memoir of his World War II experience. Though most of Foy's films are not critically acclaimed classics, the old vaudevillian knew how to make entertaining fare to please the public.

Producer: Bryan Foy
Director: William C. McGann
Screenplay: Vincent Sherman
Cinematography: Ted D. McCord
Editor: Frank DeWar
Art Director: Stanley Fleischer
Music: Howard Jackson
Cast: Danny Lowman (James McCallion), Midge Griner (Edith Fellows), Elmer Gantry (Gantry the Blind Horse), Colonel Griner (Granville Bates), Domino (Sam McDaniels), Dave Miller (Arthur Loft), Mack Lowman (John Butler).

by Susan Doll

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