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If you've never heard of Seabiscuit, perhaps it's because you weren't around during The Great Depression. Seabiscuit was such a celebrity in his day that he was regularly featured in magazines like Time, Life and Newsweek. There was more news coverage on Seabiscuit in 1938 than on FDR, Hitler, Mussolini or Clark Gable. Who was Seabiscuit? He was a horse. Seabiscuit's lightning speed and tenacious personality made this small knobby-kneed underdog racehorse an American cultural icon during the latter part of the turbulent 1930s. He shattered speed and attendance records at horse tracks all over the country. Named Horse of the Year in 1938, Seabiscuit's determination and spirit made him a symbol of optimism for the entire nation.
The 1949 feature The Story of Seabiscuit was the first movie that attempted to bring Seabiscuit's tale to the silver screen. In it, former child star Shirley Temple plays Margaret, the niece of horse trainer Shawn O'Hara (Barry Fitzgerald). The two come from Ireland to live on a California horse ranch where Shawn casts his eye on Seabiscuit and focuses his efforts on turning the unconventional horse into a racing champion. Meanwhile, his niece Margaret falls in love with jockey Ted Knowles (Lon McCallister), but fears the dangers of his risky profession.
Despite the title, The Story of Seabiscuit really focuses on the romance between Margaret and Ted. As far as historical accuracy, the film takes great liberties with the facts. While Seabiscuit and some of the people portrayed in the film such as owner Charles Howard and jockey George Woolf are based on reality, most of the characters including Margaret and Ted are fictional and had no part in the real Seabiscuit's life. Director David Butler did strive for accuracy in representing Seabiscuit's most famous races, however, including the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap and the 1938 match race against rival War Admiral, which is still considered by many to be the greatest horse race of all time. While trying to shoot a reenactment of the famous race with War Admiral, Butler encountered some difficulties. The horse playing Seabiscuit (who was one of the real Seabiscuit's sons) was too slow, and the horse playing War Admiral kept outrunning him and ruining the scenes. Butler's solution was to simply use real newsreel footage of the actual races (in black and white) and intercut it into the Technicolor film. And although the film's opening was set in Kentucky bluegrass country, it was actually filmed at Northridge Farms, a 110-acre spread near the studio which had once been owned by actress Barbara Stanwyck under the name Marwyck Farms.
Leading lady Shirley Temple actually had something in common with Seabiscuit. Both had enjoyed enormous fame during the 1930s, bringing smiles and joy to the masses during a time when few had much to smile about. By the time The Story of Seabiscuit was released in 1949, however, Shirley Temple's popularity was waning. No longer the dimpled curly-top child star phenomenon she once was, Temple was now a young woman of 21 who was already a wife and mother. She had been lucky enough to keep working during the tricky transition into adult roles, but her box office clout in 1949 was nowhere near what it had been during the late 1930s when she had consistently been the top box office draw. For The Story of Seabiscuit, Temple was loaned out to Warner Brothers by David O. Selznick and reunited with director David Butler who had guided some of Temple's earliest and most successful child pictures such as Bright Eyes (1934) and The Little Colonel (1935). It was an attempt by the studio to recapture some of the magic of previous Temple-Butler collaborations.
While director and star did their best to bring The Story of Seabiscuit to life, Temple felt like it wasn't her best work. Some suggested that her success in earlier films had been the result of her heavy reliance on her mother Gertrude's coaching, who was not around during the production of this feature. What many people didn't realize was that during the filming of the movie, Temple's marriage to first husband John Agar was on the rocks. In her 1988 autobiography Child Star she recalled the film, which originally had a different title: "Always Sweethearts turned out to be a multiple romance involving a horse with its authentic Irish trainer, Barry Fitzgerald, me, speaking in a brogue, and Lon McAllister, current craze of all bobby-soxers. As an ingenue, I was not at my best, again sounding like a Westlake schoolgirl trying to be ladylike. The role was preposterous for someone long married, a mother, and secretly traveling the road to divorce. Belatedly recognizing the risk in using "sweetheart" as a true-life title, Warner's switched the title to The Story of Seabiscuit." After a shaky opening, the film went on to do respectable box office business. For Temple, however, The Story of Seabiscuit was one of her last feature films as she eventually remarried and embarked on a successful new political career as Shirley Temple Black.
Interest in the fascinating life of Seabiscuit was reignited in 2001 with the publication of Laura Hillenbrand's thrilling fact-based book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend, which became a New York Times number one bestseller. Seabiscuit's story will be told again for the big screen with director Gary Ross's adaptation of the book set for release in July 2003. Starring Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges and Chris Cooper, it should spark a revival of interest in Seabiscuit, the little horse whose remarkable story remains an inspiration.
Producer: William Jacobs
Director: David Butler
Screenplay: John Taintor Foote
Cinematography: Wilfred M. Cline
Film Editing: Irene Morra
Art Direction: Douglas Bacon
Music: David Buttolph
Cast: Shirley Temple (Margaret O'Hara), Barry Fitzgerald (Shawn O'Hara), Lon McCallister (Ted Knowles), Rosemary DeCamp (Mrs. Charles S. Howard), Donald MacBride (Georges Carson), Pierre Watkin (Charles S. Howard).
BW & C-93m. Closed captioning.
by Andrea Passafiume