"We took six weeks to shoot Stablemates, and I never had so much fun making a movie. I guess it showed because the box office was sensational (the picture grossed more than three times its cost) and so were the reviews." From Life is Too Short by Mickey Rooney, page 130.
Stablemates was marketed as "The Champ of 1938," referring to Beery's turn as a boxer in the 1931 tearjerker which won* him an Academy Award for Best Actor. In a part that the Hollywood Reporter stated was originally intended for Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney took over the son role played by Jackie Cooper in the earlier film.
*Beery actually finished one vote behind co-winner Fredric March, a margin close enough at that time to be declared a tie.
MGM successfully paired Beery and Cooper a few more times following The Champ, including in the hit Treasure Island (1934), but then Cooper, despite being two years younger than Rooney, grew up. Cooper towers over co-stars Freddie Bartholomew and Rooney in 1936's The Devil Is a Sissy, the last of his successful movies as a child star at MGM. By the time of Stablemates Jackie Cooper was starring in B-movies at Universal and cheapies at Poverty Row studios like Monogram.
At that time young Rooney was on the rise with MGM. He had appeared previously with Beery in the film version of Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness! (1935), where Beery played Rooney's alcoholic Uncle. Rooney wrote that "For me the high point of making the film was getting to know Wallace Beery, a lovable, shambling kind of guy who never seemed to know that his shirttail belonged inside his pants but always knew when a little kid actor needed a smile and a wink or a word of encouragement" (76).
Wallace Beery was 53 in 1938 and on the backside of his extremely successful MGM run. Besides success alongside Cooper he made MGM a lot of money when teamed with Marie Dressler, a screen pairing that lasted until her death in 1934. While Cooper, Dressler and many others had their problems with Beery, this wasn't the case for Rooney and the two became great friends during Stablemates. Rooney described their relationship as "not just actor and kid actor but friends" (129) before telling a story about the night Beery asked him to tag along to dinner at Errol Flynn's place. As you might image that turned out to be a pretty wild time. When Rooney's father, Joe Yule, Sr., died in 1950, "We buried him at Forest Lawn, right next to Wallace Beery. I thought it was fitting that these two comedians should rest in peace, side by side (239).
One advantage Cooper had in The Champ over Rooney in Stablemates was age. Cooper was just nine when the earlier film was made; Rooney was about to turn 18 as Stablemates was filmed. A weepy nine-year-old engages a lot more sympathy than does an 18-year-old who spouts the waterworks. In the final scene of Stablemates Beery's old horse vet wonders, "I guess it'd be kind of sissy for two great big men like us to kiss, huh?" Rooney, wracked by tears, takes a moment and chases after father-figure Beery to suggest, "It wouldn't be sissy on the cheek." Rooney is just too old for it to go over as well as similar waterworks scenes did in The Champ.
But the 5' 2" Rooney would always be perfectly cast as a jockey or, as he aged, former jockey.
Already behind him by the time of Stablemates were Down the Stretch (1936) starring Patricia Ellis and Thoroughbreds Don't Cry (1937) which still has a bit of an audience because of Rooney's co-star and pal Judy Garland. After several years of Andy Hardy entries Rooney would star in his best remembered horse film, National Velvet (1944) with young Elizabeth Taylor, one which stands the test of time as a classic.
Rooney's character strongly disapproves of Beery's when they first meet Stablemates. Beery, typically drunk and disheveled as Tom Terry, tells Rooney that, "You're looking at yourself 30 years from now, that's what comes from following the racehorses." It is about five years earlier than Tom Terry's prediction, but Rooney shows us a darker side to the profession in the Twilight Zone episode he starred in titled "The Last Night of a Jockey."
Later there would be The Black Stallion (1979) and the early 90's television series The New Adventures of the Black Stallion. Rooney's older ex-jockeys get by on the talented actor's acting chops while in the earlier movies, including Stablemates, he's a saddled-up ball of energy. Andy Hardy on horse back. It could have been worse for a star of Rooney's size--just ask Frankie Darro!
I wonder how many Americans watch more than three horse races per year these days? For the past few decades we've been all about team sports. Baseball has long held a grip on the American public and exploded into unprecedented popularity when Babe Ruth buried the deadball era with his unprecedented power surge of the 1920's. College football may have been the most popular spectator sport in America at that time, but as for the pros two very different sports with deeper roots gripped the passions of Americans in the twenties and thirties: boxing and horse racing.
Boxing had its own version of Ruth, Jack Dempsey, who was even more famous than the Babe at his peak. After Dempsey retired the sport suffered a decline but by the time we're discussing, the time of Stablemates, it had regained its grip over the public largely thanks to the exploits of Joe Louis. Louis had finally ascended to the heavyweight championship throne with his 1937 knockout of the Cinderella Man, James J. Braddock. Louis, an African-American sports figure of unprecedented popularity, would hold the title an incredible eleven years.
By the time of Stablemates Babe Ruth had been retired three years though the Yankees were still winning championships without him. Their ballpark, Yankee Stadium, had recently hosted Joe Louis' most famous victory in a June 1938 rematch where he avenged a previous defeat at the hands of German fighter Max Schmelling, fighting under the banner of the Nazi swastika. But the most popular sports figure in America at that time wasn't a man, it was a horse. That horse would play a role not only in promotion of Stablemates but even appear in the film himself.
"Seabiscuit was the single biggest news-maker of 1938, and that was a really momentous year. During that time, even people who didn't give a damn about horse racing were following him," author Laura Hillenbrand told Publisher's Weekly in 2001 when her book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend, not only revitalized the legend of one horse, but singlehandedly brought horse racing back to the big screen.
The 2003 film Seabiscuit, based on Hillenbrand's book, would be the first Hollywood film about horse racing since Let it Ride in 1989. "In the time of the actual Seabiscuit, the 1930s, Hollywood made sixty-eight movies with a horse-racing theme" (McGinniss).
Stablemates may have been just one of those sixty-eight and (hopefully) not the best one of them, but given the timing it may be the most fascinating when viewed with regard to the Seabiscuit legend.
That legend in brief: Seabiscuit wasn't pegged as a champion from the get-go. Despite good breeding he didn't win much at the start of his career and was considered a bit of a failure when his original owners sold him. Under new ownership and ridden by jockey Red Pollard he began to string together an impressive number of victories in 1936. After losing by a nose to Rosemont at the 1937 Santa Anita handicap, Seabiscuit was shipped East where he won 5 out of 5 races. 1937 built the legend as Seabiscuit won 11 of 15 races and was the leading US money winner on the track. Despite that he lost the American Horse of the Year Award to a champion named War Admiral who had won the triple crown that year. In 1937 and throughout 1938 anticipation grew for a match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral to once and for all prove which horse was best. The match race was set up and scratched a few times before finally being run on November 1, 1938 when Seabiscuit beat the 1-4 favored War Admiral by four lengths. This sealed the legend. And Seabiscuit would be American Horse of the Year for 1938.
Stablemates premiered in American movie theaters on October 7, 1938, just three weeks before the much anticipated Seabiscuit-War Admiral match race. 40,000 people attended the November 1 match race at Pimlico; an estimated 4 million listened on the radio. 4,000,000. Is it any wonder that Stablemates would gross three times cost?
Stablemates not only focused on the same general topic currently transcending sports and captivating Americans, but even stabled Rooney's Lady Q right next to that idol of millions, Seabiscuit, in a scene just before the big race at the end of the movie. As for that big race, well, that was also a chance for moviegoers to see Seabiscuit in action: The footage used was the inaugural 1938 $50,000 Hollywood Gold Cup race at Hollywood Park Racetrack. Seabiscuit won that race by two lengths.
Mickey Rooney wrote that "We shot some scenes before, during, and after the running of the $50,000 Hollywood Gold Cup. That gave our picture the kind of authenticity director Sam Wood wanted" (129). Furthermore Rooney claims that Seabiscuit owner C.S. Howard found him at the track one day and asked him if he'd like to work out Seabiscuit. Rooney said he "breezed Seabiscuit for five eighths of a mile in 1:01 and 2/5," concluding that "You could look it up" (129).
So however sappy you might find Stablemates it's well worth remembering its distinct place in the time capsule of history and pop culture.
The film itself focuses on Rooney's Mickey, trainer then owner then jockey of racehorse Lady Q. After Lady Q lets down owner Mr. Gale (Arthur Hohl) in an early scene at the track he washes his hands of her and threatens either the glue factory or lion's cage at the zoo for the Lady. Mickey is practically in tears as he successfully begs ownership from Gale.
Also hanging around the track is Wallace Beery's old bum, Tom Terry. Tom bunked with Mickey the night before Lady Q blew that final race for Gale. He had hoped to sell his services to Gale the next morning and dope up the Lady for her big race.
"Trouble with that horse is, she's sick," Tom tells Mickey after Lady Q fades in the race.
Tom tells Mickey that he suspects Lady Q has the same problem that the famed Ski Ball had had. But Ski Ball had a smart young vet around to perform an operation removing a tumor from under one of the horse's hooves and nursing her back to health and championships afterwards. Mickey soon discovers that Tom was that young vet and begs for him to perform the same operation on Lady Q.
The welfare of the horse helps to bring Tom and Mickey together with Tom eventually performing a most unofficial ceremony declaring Mickey his adopted son. They hike off together with their Lady Q and plans to run her at a big race in Burlington. Mickey hopes that "If Lady Q wins a lot of dough maybe I can go to school and become a vet." He wants to be just like his new pop.
Their hike is interrupted by a rainstorm which causes them to seek shelter in the barn that turns out to belong to Miss Sanders (Margaret Hamilton). Sanders, recently widowed for the fifth time, greets them with a shot gun before putting them to work and eventually setting her sights on Tom as husband material. After all, he fits the clothes.
But Tom has a dark past that is slowly realized by one of Mickey's track buddies, Barney (Minor Watson), a detective. After Barney puts together just who Mickey's new pop is, Mickey is forced to break off the relationship with the old man and try to get Lady Q in the Burlington stakes race on his own.
It all comes to a teary, glorious conclusion as Mickey is aided by a kind horse owner, Mrs. Shepherd (Marjorie Gateson), and Tom shows up to give Lady Q some final repairs before making an honorable and, again, teary, exit.
Despite the friendship, great chemistry and the undeniable popularity of Stablemates, Rooney seems a bit off and I didn't find this to be one of his better performances. Beery is fine called upon to play drunk through the first half of the film and just as tired and weather-beaten when he sobers up for the second half. As Rooney wrote, "In Stablemates, Wally Beery and I were playing ourselves or, at least, playing the selves that we had become in our movies" (128). Through experience Beery is a bit better at playing himself by this time.
B.R Crisler applauded both men in his New York Times review of October 21, 1938 writing that "Stablemates is Mickey's baptism of fire; 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." He obviously liked Mickey a lot more than I did in this one.
Rooney had already appeared in his first few Hardy family movies by the time of Stablemates which was itself filmed right after Rooney had played in what would be the critically acclaimed Boys Town. This was the start of Rooney's extremely successful run at MGM that would culminate in his becoming the top drawing movie star in the world for 1939, '40 and '41!
Stablemates certainly played a part in that rise but plays as a footnote today.
While I personally didn't care much for the movie I find the surrounding history of its time and place extremely fascinating. In my book that makes it worth viewing as a curiosity alone. But if you are a fan of Beery in The Champ and can stomach the sort of weepy that Stablemates becomes you might find yourself an admirer of the movie itself as well.
This article is one of several posts about horses in film and/or movies with horses that was written as part of the first ever Horseathon hosted by My Love of Old Hollywood. Please see all participating sites and horse-themed film articles contributed to the Horseathon HERE.
- Andriani, Lynn. "PW Talks with Laura Hillenbrand". Publishers Weekly 1 Jan 2001: 75.
- Crisler, B.R. Rev. of Stablemates. The New York Times Film Reviews (1932 - 1938). New York: Times Books & Garland Publishing, Inc., 1990.
- McGinniss, Joe. The Big Horse. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007.
- Rooney, Mickey. Life is Too Short. New York: Villard Books, 1991.