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Just prior to making A Family Affair (1937), his first appearance as Andy Hardy, the role that would make him a full-fledged star at his home studio, Mickey Rooney was loaned by MGM to Warner Bros. for the lead in the B picture, Down the Stretch (1936). It was a role that would prepare him for notable future performances. Here, he gets to play both a reform school delinquent--which he would do to perfection in Boys Town (1938)--and a jockey, a character he would play again due to his diminutive stature in such films as Thoroughbreds Don't Cry (1937) and National Velvet (1944).
In Down the Stretch, Rooney's Snapper Sinclair is saved by a wealthy young woman from serving a one-year sentence in a state reformatory for stealing when he was hungry. Heiress Patricia Barrington agrees to take custody of him when she realizes he is the son of the man who was instrumental in making her father's stables such a success. But Snapper's late father was also an infamous jockey who threw a race, giving his young son much to live down both professionally and personally. The young man soon wins the trust of both his benefactor and her wildest horse, the supposedly untamable Faithful. Sinclair, using the name Fred St. Clair, rides the horse to several victories, but he's framed by a gambling racket and gets banned from racing in the U.S. He accepts an offer to work in England, leading to the film's climax, a decisive race when Snapper must decide to win with the maharajah's horse he's riding or throw the race to keep Patricia from financial ruin.
Rooney's co-star in Down the Stretch is Patricia Ellis, whose tall, blonde looks suited her well in the part of upper-crust Patricia Barrington. Ellis made nearly four dozen movies in her seven years in the business, mostly B pictures at Warner Brothers. She made her last movie in 1939 and retired from pictures after marrying in 1940. Ellis was the stepdaughter of Alexander Leftwich, a theatrical producer-director and sometime actor who appeared in a number of small film roles, also mostly at Warners, between 1937 and 1941. As a producer, Leftwich brought to the stage such musical hits as George Gershwin's Strike Up the Band and Girl Crazy, coincidentally film hits for Rooney and Judy Garland in 1940 and 1943.
Also featured in the cast of Down the Stretch is Willie Best (1913-1962), a talented African-American actor who did fine work, much of it comic, despite the stereotypical roles black actors were confined to at the time. Best came to Hollywood as the chauffeur for a Mississippi couple on vacation and decided to stay to break into show business. He made his first film in 1930 and over the next 20 years appeared in more than 100 pictures, working with such stars as Barbara Stanwyck, Ronald Reagan, Ann Sheridan, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, and many others. He finished out his career working on television in the 1950s. Bob Hope, who worked with Best in The Ghost Breakers (1940) and Nothing But the Truth (1941) considered Best one of the finest talents he had ever worked with. Typical of the treatment of black actors in this period, Best's credit in the trailer for Down the Stretch referred to him as "the newest dark cloud of comedy." On the other hand, he received fourth billing in the film, a rare high spot for African-American players in the studio age.
Director William Clemens was a reliable and busy B unit fixture at Warners and other studios during his relatively brief career (1936-1947), turning out several entries in popular series built around teen sleuth Nancy Drew and shadowy crime-fighting figure The Falcon.
Rooney would be loaned out a few more times over the next few years, but once his stock rose at MGM with the Hardy series and appearances in several A pictures, the studio decided to keep their little moneymaker working at home through the remainder of his contract.
Down the Stretch's pre-release title--referring to the problem parentage of both Rooney's character and the wild horse he rides--was "Bloodlines."
Director: William Clemens
Producers: Hal B. Wallis, Bryan Foy
Screenplay: William Jacobs
Cinematography: Arthur Todd
Editing: Louis Hesse
Art Direction: Ted Smith
Cast: Patricia Ellis (Patricia Barrington), Mickey Rooney (Snapper Sinclair), Dennis Moore (Cliff Barrington), Willie Best (Noah), Gordon Hart (Judge Adams).
by Rob Nixon