When Frank S. Nugent and Laurence Stallings were working on the screenplay for the 1948 western 3 Godfathers, director John Ford, who felt they relied too heavily on exposition, told them, “Has it ever occurred to either of you that the first motion pictures were Leland Stanford’s studies of a running horse [the experiments on photography of motion by Eadweard Muybridge for Stanford in the 1870s]? Well, for your information, a running horse remains the finest subject for a motion picture camera. Now forget this dialogue stuff and give me some horses and real estate.”
Ford’s lifelong love of horses is evident in many of his movies from his earliest days as a stuntman and director and most famously in his many classic westerns, including his films about the U.S. Cavalry. But perhaps most touching of all Ford’s cinematic work with horses is his little-known 1925 silent film Kentucky Pride. This modest gem was absent from the acclaimed 2007 DVD box set Ford at Fox, which collected twenty-four of Ford’s astonishing list of fifty-two films for that studio. But it now has been beautifully restored from nitrate elements held by the Museum of Modern Art, with funding by 20th Century Studios (which absorbed the former 20th Century-Fox), so hopefully it will take its rightful place as one of the highlights of Ford’s rich and vast body of work.
Kentucky Pride is based on a story by Dorothy Yost, a prolific screenwriter from the silent days through 1966. Yost also wrote two lost Ford silents, Jackie and Little Miss Smiles, and among her other work are many westerns, such as Thunderhead: Son of Flicka and The Strawberry Roan, as well as The Gay Divorcee, Alice Adams, and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle. What’s most striking about the highly entertaining and endearing Kentucky Pride is that it takes several of what would become Ford’s key themes—tradition, duty, the breakup and occasional reunion of families, and what Peter Bogdanovich called “victory in defeat”—and situates them in the world of horses. It’s also a rare film charmingly narrated (through intertitles) by a horse, Virginia’s Future, the central character who comments wryly and often ruefully on how those animals have been abused by humans. Kentucky Pride is Ford’s heartfelt equivalent of later films about the abuse of donkeys, Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar and Jerzy Skolimowski’s Eo, and it has similarities to War Horse, Steven Spielberg’s tribute to the millions of horses worked and often killed in World War I.
Kentucky Pride begins with scenes of two generations of horses being suckled on the farm of a wealthy Kentuckian (Henry B. Walthall) and depicts, often in breathtakingly lyrical documentary-style footage shot in Kentucky, the early training of Virginia’s Future, named after Walthall’s daughter (Peaches Jackson), and the inevitable but heartrending separation the thoroughbred filly undergoes from her mare. From there it’s downhill into work as a drayhorse hauling junk for a cruel owner and his two unsavory pals, and for Walthall into loss of his fortune and a seedy living as a bootlegger during Prohibition. Eventually the horse’s former Irish American groom, the beloved Ford regular J. Farrell MacDonald, reclaims her in a jolly Fordian donnybrook. MacDonald, who becomes a cop in Kentucky Pride, would go on to star as a benevolent Irish cop in New York in another largely unsung Ford delight, Riley the Cop (1928), and appear in many other films for the director, most memorably in 3 Bad Men (1926) and My Darling Clementine (1946). Unlike most Ford films about the breakup of families (his favorite metaphor for the collapse of traditional societies), Kentucky Pride manages a triumphant happy ending through the horse’s offspring, Confederacy. Several of the horses are played by champion thoroughbreds of the day, notably by the legendary Man o’ War, one of the most celebrated sports figures of the 1920s, featured by Ford in a thrilling five-shot cameo.
While working as a stuntman and actor for his brother Francis Ford in the early days at Universal, John Ford became adept at horse stunts, and in the very first film he directed, The Tornado (1917), a lost short he described as a series of stunts, Ford’s equestrian derring-do was hailed by Moving Picture World: “In his hand-to-hand struggle in the cabin and the jump from the cabin roof to the back of his horse, Jack Ford qualifies as a rough-riding expert.… As a climax the hero leaps from his running horse onto a moving train!” In 1916, Ford had taken $50 of his salary as a crewman and actor to buy his first horse, a bay saddle gelding named Woodrow, and he enjoyed riding horses while playing cowboy with his early star, Harry Carey, on Carey’s Newhall ranch where they stayed while making westerns in the rough.
Among the many other Ford films in which horses play major roles are Cheyenne’s Pal and Bucking Broadway (both released in 1917), Hitchin’ Posts (1920), The Shamrock Handicap (1926), Hangman’s House (1928), and his later westerns, notably the Cavalry Trilogy (1948–50, especially in the “Roman riding” with Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr. in Rio Grande), Wagon Master (1950), The Quiet Man (1952), and The Horse Soldiers (1959). The film that put Ford on the map as an “A” director, his 1924 epic, The Iron Horse, takes its title from the Native American name for a train, while Ford celebrates the building of the transcontinental railroad during the 1860s.
Ford recalled the filming of Kentucky Pride in his 1967 interview book with Peter Bogdanovich in terms of his love affair with horses: “There was one little filly — just a beautiful thing — and she had a terrific crush on me. She’d leave the herd and run over and play with me — take my cap, run away with it and look at me — then she’d come back and drop it, and when I’d reach down to get the cap, she’d pick it up again and run away. The fellow who owned her said, ‘Why don’t you name her — she’s crazy about you.’ So I named her Mary Ford [also the name of the director’s wife], and she went out and won her first three races easy, then broke down — broke a tendon in her leg or something — and they put her to stud. I’m not a horse race fan [perhaps because of the danger it presents to horses?], but I know her get has been famous. I always remember her — she just loved me.”
That warmth and humor Ford brought to his feelings for horses are evident throughout Kentucky Pride, which convincingly employs his favorite tropes to his empathy for the animal world. The film is marred by some of the stereotypical racial and ethnic overtones that popped up in Ford’s early work, although his films were always distinguished by integrating racial and ethnic minority groups into the fabric of American society, a rare quality in films of his era. Virginia’s Future’s villainous later owners are a swarthy trio of caricatured immigrants, a Russian and two Italians. Henry Walthall is best known as the Little Colonel in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (in which Ford played a KKK horse rider); Walthall’s a superb actor who also appeared for Ford in The Face on the Barroom Floor (1923) and Judge Priest (1934), but he carries associations from Birth into this yarn that begins with the intertitle, “With us Kentuckians, pride of race is everything!” and names the mare’s foal Confederacy. Ford’s wife was a Southerner, and though the always contradictory filmmaker was a liberal on civil rights issues, Nugent observed that Ford “loves the Confederacy with all an Irishman’s affection for lost causes.”
But Ford characteristically reserves honors at the end for both the Irish American groom and a Black stable-hand as they pose in triumph with the two horses for not only a still photographer but also three newsreel cameramen. It’s a pleasure to present Kentucky Pride the way it looked in 1925, and let’s hope the restored version will be released in Blu-ray as it deserves.
Presented at SFSFF 2023 with live musical accompaniment by Wayne Barker