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She Went to the Races (1945) was Ava Gardner's twentieth film for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, but as she wrote in her autobiography, "In the period between 1941, when I first arrived in Hollywood, and 1946, when I did Whistle Stop and The Killers, I appeared in seventeen [sic] films. No one noticed. The films were barely memorable and you'd need a magnifying glass to pick me out of them. I was there all right, married to Mickey [Rooney], arriving at the studio every morning right on time, a face or figure in the crowd. I might be swirling on a dance floor, joining a gang of kids outside the drugstore, or splashing in the water on a crowded beach. Invisible, but there."
In the film, Frances Gifford plays a professor who comes up with a scientific formula for predicting horse-race winners. She falls in love with trainer James Craig, who thinks her formula is ridiculous. Gardner plays the third side of the love triangle as a beautiful socialite (with the unlikely name of Hilda Spotts) who tries to steal Craig away. Rounding out the cast were old reliables Sig Ruman, Edmund Gwenn and Reginald Owen. She Went to the Races was shot in a few weeks beginning in May, 1945, during which World War II ended in Europe and Ava Gardner found herself engaged to bandleader Artie Shaw, after having divorced Rooney.
Frances Gifford had been groomed by MGM for stardom, but is completely eclipsed by Gardner in the film. Author Jeanine Basinger wrote, "The audiences saw the truth in a revealing scene in which Gifford and the leading man (James Craig) are arguing outside an elevator in a hotel corridor. Suddenly, the elevator doors open and out steps Gardner. She moves into the frame, delivers a line or two in her low, husky voice, and walks off. It's not much, but it's everything. The minute Gardner appears she takes it all away from both Gifford and Craig. It's not just that she's fabulous looking. So are they. It's not just the careful lighting, the framing of her medium close-up. No, it's the x factor. Gardner's got something extra - a lot of it, in fact - and it's fully on display. She's got star written all over her, and within a year, she was one."
Gardner would have to wait until The Killers to make it to the big time. Tag-lines like "THEY'RE OFF! (IN MORE WAYS THAN ONE)" "WE PROFESSORS STARTED OUT LOOKING FOR BUGS...BUT FINISHED LOOKING AT HORSES!", "HORSES ARE HARD TO FIGURE...BUT DON'T BET ON WOMEN!" "A NECK-TO-NECK FINISH!" "SHE PUT HER MONEY ON THE WRONG HORSE...BUT HER FAITH WAS IN THE RIGHT GUY!" certainly did nothing to help promote She Went to the Races. The audience knows a mediocre movie when it sees one, and She Went to the Races was nothing but a pretty 'B' picture, which was apparent to New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther. His scathing review termed it a "so-called comedy". "[T]he people at Metro apparently thought there might be some fun in showing a team of mental wizards raising funds for further research at the track...And they put them to work in this fable, which thoroughly mangles horse-racing and love. The cast is plainly competent; the script most obviously is not. The result is about as gratifying as a ticket on a horse that places fifth."
Silent comedy legend Buster Keaton actually worked on the screenplay though he is uncredited and he also allegedly makes an unbilled cameo appearance as a bellboy.
Producers: Frederick Stephani
Director: Willis Goldbeck
Screenplay: Lawrence Hazard (writer); DeVallon Scott, Alan Friedman (story); Buster Keaton (uncredited)
Cinematography: Charles Salerno
Art Direction: Preston Ames, Cedric Gibbons
Music: Nathaniel Shilkret
Film Editing: Adrienne Fazan
Cast: James Craig (Steve Canfield), Frances Gifford (Dr. Ann Wotters), Ava Gardner (Hilda Spotts), Edmund Gwenn (Dr. Homer Pecke), Sig Ruman (Dr. Gurke), Reginald Owen (Dr. Pembroke), J.M. Kerrigan (Jeff Habbard), Charles Halton (Dr. Collyer), Chester Clute (Wallace Mason), Frank Orth (Bartender Skelly).
by Lorraine LoBianco
Basinger, Jeanine The Star Machine
Crowther, Bosley "Out of the Money: She Went to the Races", New York Times 1 Feb 46
Fowler, Karin J. Ava Gardner: A Bio-Bibliography
Gardner, Ava Ava: My Story