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"Even people who don't know a mare from a gelding will find the racing lore entertaining," declared The New Yorker in its review of Boots Malone (1952). The New York Times observed that "the rough assortment of horse trainers, jockeys, agents, touts and granite-faced track employees forms a sharp and amusing caboodle. It is loaded with details of jockey-training and other track techniques, all shot in actual horse parks."
Those are good notices for a movie that is today essentially forgotten. Boots Malone was, in a sense, "forgotten" even at the time of its release. Producer Milton Holmes sued Columbia Pictures for $1 million for not publicizing and distributing the film according to the contract. He claimed that Columbia spent less than 5% of the customary amount to publicize it, that small houses were used for first-run bookings, and that the studio released the picture too late to qualify for Oscar® consideration, even though they had told him it was potential Oscar® material.
Holmes was also one of two screenwriters who worked on Boots Malone. The other, Harold Buchman, was originally uncredited due to his blacklisting after refusing to answer questions by the House Un-American Activities Committee. His credit is now restored. Meanwhile, another writer, Leo Katcher, sued Columbia for $50,000, claiming that the studio plagiarized two of his scripts to come up with Boots Malone.
As for the film itself, Boots Malone is a coming-of-age story with echoes of The Champ (1931). Newcomer Johnny Stewart plays a rich runaway whose love for horses leads him to a racetrack where jockey agent William Holden takes him under his wing. The kid learns to become a man (and jockey), while Holden finds new strength of character. Above all, however, Boots Malone is a film of convincing atmosphere, depicting quite well the seedier side of the racetrack world, including the hangers-on and crooks who will do anything for a buck. It was filmed mostly at real tracks and stables.
18-year-old Johnny Stewart had just appeared on Broadway in The King and I, playing the young Siamese prince. William Holden, on the other hand, was by now a huge Oscar-nominated star with movies such as Sunset Blvd (1950) and Born Yesterday (1950) under his belt. He had just finished work on a minor film, Submarine Command (1951), and as film historian Lawrence Quirk has written, "[Boots Malone was] slight stuff, though the star turned in his customary sincere job... The picture did nothing to advance Holden's career; it did nothing to hinder it either." A year later Holden would be starring in Billy Wilder's Stalag 17 (1953), for which he would win his only Academy Award. Before that, however, Holden would work with Boots Malone director William Dieterle one more time, on The Turning Point (1952).
Boots Malone was scored by Elmer Bernstein, working on only his second feature film.
Producer: Milton Holmes
Director: William Dieterle
Screenplay: Milton Holmes, Harold Buchman
Cinematography: Charles Lawton, Jr.
Art Direction: Cary Odell
Music: Elmer Bernstein
Film Editing: Al Clark
Cast: William Holden (Boots Malone), Stanley Clements (Stash Clements), Basil Ruysdael (Preacher Cole), Carl Benton Reid (John Williams), Ed Begley (Howard Whietehead), Ralph Dumke (Beckett).
by Jeremy Arnold