Here is some hay to chew on whilst you wait for today’s Kentucky Derby to get under way.
1. In the late 19th century, Coney Island had no less than three horse racing tracks, making it the horse racing capital of the country. This is why Steeplechase Amusement Park (founded 1897) based its titular ride on the sport.
2. Dion Boucicault’s 1866 play Flying Scud founded the entire subgenre of horse racing dramas (first plays, later movies). Critics hated it, but audiences thrilled to the special effects in the climactic horse race (done with dioramas, puppets, scrolling scenery and a horse on a treadmill). And yes, I agree with critics that it’s a tedious genre. To fix the climax of your play on the outcome of a fictional race? How dumb must one be to get excited about such a thing? Well, not too dumb I guess — the subgenre exists in the movies to this very day.
Sorry to disappoint you, but it’s very hard to get ahold of a copy of Flying Scud. I read it about 15 years ago in the America’s Lost Plays anthology in the Performing Arts Branch of the NYPL, where I assume it remains.
3. It was in the tradition of this well established subgenre that George M. Cohan wrote his first full length musical Little Johnny Jones, the source of his songs “Give My Regards to Broadway” and “I’m a Yankee Doodle Boy”. Cohan whipped up patriotic emotions by setting down his American jockey Little Johnny Jones in Jolly Old England, which Americans still sort of hated and distrusted as traditional enemies — at least philosophically — back then. Things like worshiping Royal Weddings used to be considered very un-American.
4. There can be no greater measurement of the decline of the Marx Brothers (at least in spirit) by 1937 than the fact that the sausage-makers at MGM warped and twisted the great screenplay they were developing about an insane asylum into yet another conventional horserace drama. While not yet as wretched as the three MGM films that were to follow, the dropoff in quality, at least from the standpoint of writing and performance, is precipitous. Compare the climactic horse race in this film with the climactic football game in Horse Feathers and you’ll glean what’s missing. Furthermore, by the time the robots at the studio were done wreaking their damage, just about all the surreal “insanity” stuff (i.e. real Marx Brothers type stuff) was gone in all but a half dozen scenes, leaving exceedingly lame jokes about hypochondria and medicine. I dislike this movie as only a true Marx Brothers lover can dislike. Groucho would return to the tracks in his 1952 comedy A Girl in Every Port.
7. Budd Fisher’s Mutt and Jeff were racetrack gamblers.
8. It Ain’t Hay (1943) is Abbott and Costello’s contribution to the horse race genre.
9. Frank Capra loved racetrack settings for his movies: Just watch Broadway Bill (1934), Riding High (1950) and A Hole in the Head (1959)
For more old school show biz flummery, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.