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MGM's spirited racetrack yarn Thoroughbreds Don't Cry (1937) has the distinction of being the first film to team up Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. The story concerns an English boy, Roger Calverton (Ronald Sinclair), who travels to America with his grandfather (C. Aubrey Smith) to race their beloved horse, Pookah. Mickey Rooney plays the smug but talented jockey Timmie Donovan, whom Roger wants to ride Pookah to victory. Judy Garland plays Cricket, the precocious niece of Mother Ralph (Sophie Tucker), who runs a boarding house for jockeys where Timmie lives.
MGM originally bought Thoroughbreds Don't Cry with Mickey Rooney and fellow MGM child star Freddie Bartholomew in mind. When Bartholomew was unavailable to play the role of young Roger, MGM promptly scooped up Ra Hould, a child actor from New Zealand who had been playing similar Bartholomew type parts in pictures for Paramount and Republic Studios. His name was changed to the more palatable Ronald Sinclair, and he was given equal billing on Thoroughbreds alongside Mickey and Judy.
At first, Thoroughbreds didn't include a role for a young female lead. However, MGM was eager to showcase their rising young singing star, Judy Garland, who had just made a memorable splash in Broadway Melody of 1938 (1937) performing her charming "You Made Me Love You (Dear Mr. Gable)" number. MGM knew it had a great talent in Garland, but she was tough to cast. At the awkward age of 15, she was too old to play little girls and too young to play adults. Seeing an opportunity to get Judy back on the screen in a youth-oriented picture, MGM had the role of Cricket hastily added to the Thoroughbreds script for her. She was given two songs to sing, both of which had been cut from Broadway Melody of 1938: "Got a Pair of New Shoes" and "Sun Showers." Judy recorded both, but only "Got a Pair of New Shoes" made it into the final cut.
Judy and Mickey Rooney worked beautifully together, and their affable chemistry was immediately evident on screen. Their lifelong friendship had begun earlier when they were both students at Ma Lawlor's Professional School in Hollywood. When Judy came on board at MGM, Mickey showed her the ropes. At the age of 17, he was already an old pro. A veteran of dozens of MGM's popular Mickey McGuire series and several other films, Mickey Rooney's star was well on its rise when he made Thoroughbreds Don't Cry. As a team, Mickey and Judy were a hit with audiences. They went on to star in a total of 8 successful films together.
For blues belter Sophie Tucker (once described as 'a battleship with a voice like 70 trombones'), Thoroughbreds marked the second time she co-starred with Judy Garland. In Broadway Melody of 1938, Tucker had played Judy's mother. Tucker was newly under contract to MGM in 1937 and just beginning a film career after 30 successful years on the stage. At that time, she recalled in her 1945 autobiography Some of These Days: The Autobiography of Sophie Tucker, it seemed that all of her East coast contemporaries were flocking to California to try their hand at talking pictures, so she thought she too would give it a try.
To Tucker's annoyance, MGM intended to build her up as the next Marie Dressler, the popular character actress who had died just a few years earlier. Since Dressler and Tucker were close in age and physical type, MGM dressed Tucker in Dressler's old costumes and planned for her to take over roles that Dressler would have played. Tucker, however, had no intention of being turned into someone else. She completed her role in Thoroughbreds since she was contractually obligated, but she didn't enjoy it as much as she'd hoped. "I didn't particularly like my part," said Tucker. "It was a part any fifty dollar character actress could do better than I. Producer Harry Rapf kept telling me, 'Here's your chance to be another Marie Dressler!'"
Tucker, who was a singer at heart, was further disappointed that there were no songs for her to perform in Thoroughbreds. She did, however, enjoy working with the young castespecially Judy Garland, for whom she predicted great things. "I said to L.B. (Mayer) and to everyone on the lot," recalled Tucker, "'Judy, if carefully handled and groomed, will be the big MGM star in a few years.'" And right she was.
Mickey Rooney believes that Thoroughbreds Don't Cry was a turning point for Judy Garland in terms of the way she saw herself. Embarrassed by her awkwardness in earlier efforts like Pigskin Parade (1936), Judy was only just beginning to see the possibilities of her film career. "Judy and I went to the preview together," Rooney recalls in his 1991 autobiography Life is Too Short, "and as we watched ourselves on the screen, I sneaked a look every so often at Judy. She seemed rapt by what she saw up there: her own movie persona taking shape...I think it was that night that Judy's star was born."
"Short on logic but long on pep, [Thoroughbreds Don't Cry] gallops gaily into the stretch," praised New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther when the film was released to enthusiastic audiences. "Mr. Rooney...manages to streak with a brilliant performance which lends a certain quality to the whole picture...Judy Garland is the puppy-love interest who tosses off some scorchy rhythm singing."
Thoroughbreds Don't Cry was only the beginning for Mickey and Judy. Soon the two would hit the stratosphere of fame when Mickey met up with the Hardy family and Judy was swept up by a tornado that took her to a land called Oz.
Producer: Harry Rapf
Director: Alfred E. Green
Screenplay: Eleanore Griffin, J. Walter Ruben, Lawrence Hazard
Cinematography: Leonard Smith
Film Editing: Elmo Veron
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Nacio Herb Brown, Al Jolson, Joseph Meyer
Cast: Ronald Sinclair (Roger Calverton), Judy Garland (Cricket West), Mickey Rooney (Timmie Donovan), C. Aubrey Smith (Sir Peter Calverton), Sophie Tucker (Mother Ralph), Forrester Harvey (Mr. Wilkins).
BW-80m. Closed captioning.
by Andrea Passafiume