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Stablemates (1938) offers a chance to see what happens when two equally famous scene-stealing actors are forced to play opposite each other for an entire movie.
The film is a tearjerker punctuated by comedy -- essentially a reworking of The Champ (1931) set at a racetrack, with Wallace Beery as a down-and-out vet who strikes up a warm yet rocky friendship with an orphaned stable boy played by Mickey Rooney. (His role was originally meant for Judy Garland.) Rooney manages to buy a good-for-nothing horse named Lady Q and convinces Beery to operate on her, turning the horse into a winner. Meanwhile, Beery and Rooney develop a father-son relationship. But will the police catch up to Beery, who is wanted for horse-doping and causing the death of a racer? Margaret Hamilton is also in the mix, lending good comic support as a five-time widow.
Variety called this picture "a B-budgeter of A-quality" and praised director Sam Wood's pacing "for proper see-sawing of dramatic tension and sentiment."
But The New York Times, in flowery prose, mused on the most interesting aspect of the production, the casting of the two leads: "We doubt if any other two stablemates in Hollywood could have translated the horsy hokum of such a plot into the fine professional sentimentality that causes handkerchiefs to break out like signals presaging the storm of embarrassed nose-blowing that is to follow.... Mickey turns on the tears, the laughs, the hysterics, at will, just like the perfect little screen virtuoso he is.... Anybody who can just break even before a camera with the invincible Beery is good, and Mickey, full of the fire of youth, even gets a shade the best of the encounter."
Stablemates also features a cameo by a very famous public figure of the day: the race horse Seabiscuit. Producer Harry Rapf arranged to film the actual 1938 Hollywood Gold Cup horse race for use in the film. Seabiscuit won it. Incidentally, this was the inaugural running of the Hollywood Gold Cup, which is still one of the most prestigious horse races on the west coast.
The film is also an early credit for screenwriter Richard Maibaum, who would go on to great fame as the most prolific writer of James Bond movies, right up to his death in 1991. Maibaum wrote (or co-wrote) the scripts for thirteen of the first sixteen Bond films.
Producer: Harry Rapf
Director: Sam Wood
Screenplay: Richard Maibaum, Leonard Praskins (writers); Reginald Owen, William Thiele (story)
Cinematography: John Seitz
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Edward Ward
Film Editing: W. Donn Hayes
Cast: Wallace Beery (Doc Thomas 'Tom' Terry), Mickey Rooney (Michael 'Mickey'), Arthur Hohl (Mr. Gale), Margaret Hamilton (Beulah Flanders), Minor Watson (Barney Donovan), Marjorie Gateson (Mrs. Shepherd), Oscar O'Shea (Pete Whalen).
by Jeremy Arnold