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Hollywood has saddled up many times before 'Dreamer'

| Sunday, Oct. 23, 2005

Horses• Hollywood loves 'em. Or did. We don't see them so much since westerns and the live-action bucolic family films went out of style.

Horses and their stories don't seem to move fast enough for children weaned on video games and computer-generated effects.

But the arrival on Friday of the unnecessarily over-titled "Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story" encourages us to hope that good animal fables can still be green-lighted in the land of "Doom" and "Waiting."

Best horse picture ever• Gary Ross' "Seabiscuit" (2003) belongs at or near the top of the list, but several others earn their oats.

Any list of horse-focused films has to include "National Velvet," the 1944 family classic in which an impossibly beautiful Elizabeth Taylor, as Velvet Brown, runs the Grand National Steeplechase with some of MGM's finest stable mates alongside her -- Donald Crisp, Angela Lansbury, especially Mickey Rooney, but also, in her Oscar-winning performance as the mother, Anne Revere.

"International Velvet" (1978), a sequel with Nanette Newman as the adult Velvet, Christopher Plummer as her lover and Tatum O'Neal as her racing niece, passed muster briefly before passing into celluloid oblivion.

Rooney, though, horsed around quite a lot. His first picture with Judy Garland was "Thoroughbreds Don't Cry" (1937), and his last Oscar nomination to date was for "The Black Stallion," exquisitely directed by master cinematographer Carroll Ballard.

That was about a boy and his horse. For whatever reason, girls more often get the better horse stories, as when Shirley Temple starred in the fictional "Story of Seabiscuit" (1949) and Donna Corcoran in the endearing "Gypsy Colt" (1954).

Comedy actors regularly mount up for laughs, as Bob Hope did when he teamed with Lucille Ball for "Sorrowful Jones," which already had been made with Pittsburgh native Adolphe Menjou as "Little Miss Marker" (1934) and was to be resurrected in 1980, again as "Little Miss Marker," but with Walter Matthau and Julie Andrews.

Hope played the ponies and introduced the song "Silver Bells" in "The Lemon Drop Kid" (1951).

Groucho Marx was Hugo Z. Hackenbush when he and his anarchic brethren headed for "A Day at the Races" (1937).

Bud Abbott and Lou Costello had one of their bigger hits with "It Ain't Hay" (1943). Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis raced through "Money From Home" (1953) before their off-screen feuding became say-it-ain't-so news. Crooner Bing Crosby nurtured a nag in "Riding High" (1950), a remake of "Broadway Bill" (1934).

Francis the Talking Mule was the bane and the best friend of Donald O'Connor in a slew of comedies that inspired the TV series "Mister Ed" (1961-66), but only in "Frances Goes to the Races" (1951) were horses prominently featured.

But then, countless movies took us to the races for key scenes, including two particularly memorable '50s movies, Stanley Kubrick's "The Killing" (1956) and Frank Capra's "A Hole in the Head" (1959).

"Phar Lap" (1983) tells the true story of a New Zealand horse who died under suspicious circumstances in Mexico.

We can't begin to address all of the westerns featuring faithful, treasured, mythically gifted horses.

But two offbeat British films warrant inclusion on any list of unusual horse stories.

In Sidney Lumet's 1977 film of Peter Shaffer's stylized stage drama "Equus," Richard Burton acts the psychiatrist who penetrates the soul of anguished stable boy Peter Firth, who blinded several beloved horses.

None is so unconventional, though, as "The Rocking Horse Winner" (1949), a disturbing and startling little movie. John Howard Davies plays a boy who intuits the outcome of races by riding his toy rocking horse. Easy does it, son.

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