Seabiscuit

Produced by and distributed in 2003 by Universal, budget of $86 million, gross of $120 million, Technicolor 35mm negative, 2.35:1 screen ratio, digital sound, 141 mins., DVD released 2004.
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Tobey Maguire as jockey Red Pollard, Chris Cooper as trainer Tom Smith, Jeff Bridges as owner Charles Howard
Seabiscuit was an unknown race horse purchased by Charles Howard in 1936 and trained by Tom Smith. Jockey Red Pollard had been riding in Tijuana until 1934 when Mexico banned gambling, and he returned to the United States. He teamed up with Howard and Smith in 1937 to ride Seabiscuit to victory in the Governor's Handicap in Detroit September 7. "In the winter of 1937, America was in the seventh year of the most catastrophic decade in its history. The economy had come crashing down, and millions upon millions of people had been torn loose from their jobs, their savings, their homes. A nation that drew its audacity from the quintessentially American belief that success is open to anyone willing to work for it was disillusioned by seemingly intractable poverty. The most brash of peoples was seized by despair, fatalism, and fear. The sweeping devastation was giving rise to powerful new social forces. The first was a burgeoning industry of escapism. America was desperate to lose itself in anything that offered affirmation. The nation's corner theaters hosted 85 million people a week for 25-cent viewings of an endless array of cheery musicals and screwball comedies. On the radio, the idealized world of One Man's Family and the just and reassuring tales of The Lone Ranger were runaway hits. Downtrodden Americans gravitated strongly toward the Horatio Alger protagonist, the lowly bred Everyman who rises from anonymity and hopelessness. They looked for him in spectator sports, which were enjoying explosive growth. With the relegalization of wagering, no sport was growing faster than Thoroughbred racing. Necessity spurred technological innovations that offered the public unprecedented access to its heroes. People accustomed to reading comparatively dry rehashes of events were now enthralled by vivid scenes rolling across the new Movietone newsreels. A public that had grown up with news illustrations and hazy photo layouts were now treated to breathtaking action shots facilitated by vastly improved photographic equipment. These images were now rapidly available thanks to wirephoto services, which had debuted in Life in the month that Pollard, Howard, and Smith formed their partnership.

William H. Macy as Tick Tock McGlaughlin
But it was radio that had the greatest impact. In the 1920s the cost of a radio had been prohibitive - $120 or more - and all that bought was a box of unassembled parts. In unelectrified rural areas, radios ran on pricey, short-lived batteries. But with the 1930s came the advent of factory-built console, tabletop, and automobile radio sets, available for as little as $5. Thanks to President Roosevelt's Rural Electrification Administration, begun in 1936, electricity came to the quarter of the population that lived on farmlands. Rural families typically made the radio their second electric purchase, after the clothes iron. By 1935, when Seabiscuit began racing, two thirds of the nation's homes had radio. At the pinnacle of his career, that figure had jumped to 90 percent, plus eight million sets in cars. Enabling virtually all citizens to experience noteworthy events, simultaneously and in entertaining form, radio created a vast common culture in America, arguably the first true mass culture the world had ever seen. Racing, a sport whose sustained dramatic action was ideally suited to narration, became a staple of the airwave. The Santa Anita Handicap, with its giant purse and world-class athletes, competing in what was rapidly becoming the nation's most heavily attended sport, became one of the premier radio events of the year. In February 1937, all of these new social and technological. forces were converging. The modern age of celebrity was dawning. The new machine of fame stood waiting. All it needed was the subject himself. At that singular hour, Seabiscuit, the Cinderella horse, flew over the line in the Santa Anita Handicap. Something clicked: Here he was."

In October 1938, Samuel Riddle, owner of the Triple Crown winner War Admiral, agree to race Seabiscuit in a special event, the Pimlico Special in Baltimore, Maryland, on November 1, 1938. The racetrack was owned by Alfred Vanderbilt, Jr., heir to the Vanderbilt fortune after his father went down with the Lusitania in 1915. "For the next month America hung in midair. The names War Admiral and Seabiscuit were on everyone's lips, stories on the horses were in every paper, and the inflamed division between the horses' supporters broadened and deepened into a fanatical contest of East versus West. One reader be came so furious when journalist Nelson Dunstan switched his allegiance from Seabiscuit to War Admiral that he threatened to attack him. 'Everybody,' Vanderbilt recalled, cared about it. 'Even President Roosevelt was swept up in the fervor. A rumor that he was going to 'denounce one of the horses' during a Fireside Chat made the rounds, but he kept his allegiances secret. 'The whole country is divided into two camps,' wrote Dave Boone in the San Francisco Chronicle. 'People who never saw a horse race in their lives are taking sides. If the issue were deferred another week, there would be a civil war between the War Admiral Americans and the Seabiscuit Americans.'"

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revised 3/1/04 by Steven Schoenherr | Filmnotes