KENTUCKY (David Butler, 1938)

Culminating in the single most exciting Thoroughbred race ever to appear in a Hollywood film, Kentucky is a small gem highlighted as well by an Oscar-winning performance. Walter Brennan (best supporting actor) is extravagantly wonderful as obstreperous old Peter Goodwin, whose family’s feud with the Dillons, also horse breeders, dates back to the American Civil War, when the two families found themselves on opposite sides of the conflict. Indeed, the whole film, adapted by Lamar Trotti and John Taintor Foote from the latter’s story “The Look of Eagles,” metaphorically campaigns for unity and reconciliation—a theme brought to fruition at Churchill Downs in Louisville as a Goodwin-owned, Dillon-trained horse wins the Kentucky Derby, bringing together, romantically, young Sally Goodwin and Jack Dillon, and necessarily exacting Peter’s death as a concession to the future. But more: when at the track Jack reconciles as well with his estranged father, the latter delivers the most moving line in the film (or in any other film ever made), to the effect that their separation may now strengthen their renewed bond. This is the real high point, especially since Brennan, so rich and colorful elsewhere in the film, more or less botches Peter Goodwin’s dropping dead, which comes soon after. One might say, cynically, the Unionist Dillons win again.
     The romance between Jack and Sally, effected under the deception of Jack’s assumed non-Dillon identity, bears the swirling imprint of Astaire-Rogers plotting, and is charmingly played by future Robin Hood Richard Greene, twenty years old at the time, but leadenly and even stupidly played by the insufferable Loretta Young. She and the black stereotypes are the film’s greatest weaknesses. One must also note that the color photography is useless and uninspired.
     Still, this is a fine light entertainment, with a dynamic Brennan.

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