To most vintage movie buffs, actress Jane Withers is best remembered as the spoiled brat little rich girl who stole 1934's Bright Eyes out from under the dainty feet of star Shirley Temple. What many tend to forget, however, is that 20th Century Fox got almost as much box office mileage out of Withers as with their curly-haired, dimpled cash cow. While Fox continues to mine the Shirley gravy train with an endless supply of Barbie-pink, colorized editions of her movies, Jane's sugary output has basically fallen into obscurity. At least some of them are out there and viewable, though, courtesy of Fox's Cinema Archives made-to-order DVD program.
1941's modest, easy-going horsey drama Golden Hoofs was one of Withers' later star vehicles at 20th Century Fox, with Jane plucky as ever playing a teen who gets into a tizzy when businessman Charles "Buddy" Rogers buys up her grandfather's ranch. Does it win the loving cup, or is it a steaming pile of manure? Read on, buckaroos.
Withers' Golden Hoofs character is a bubbly and sweet natured girl who, above all else, loves horses. Jane Drake spends all her free time at the rural ranch belonging to her grandfather, Dr. Timothy Drake (George Irving). Upon hearing that the sprawling property may be sold off, she tricks the ranch's stable boy, Mose (Philip Hurlic), into a mild sickness so that the busy doctor will rush to his aid - thus enabling the girl to receive the news straight from the horse's mouth (so to speak). Sure enough, the doctor informs Jane that the sale is needed to help him acquire funds to build a wing for the local hospital. Big city investor Dean McArdle (Charles "Buddy" Rogers) arrives, intending to make a mint breeding race horses. Jane is further distressed by McArdle's plans to sell off the unprofitable trotting horses currently at the ranch - including her favorite, Yankee Doodle. With her persuasive charm, Jane manages to convince McArdle to keep the trotting horses, even teaching him how to jockey (with stunt people standing in for Withers and Rogers, natch). Annoying her dorky boyfriend (Buddy Pepper), Jane develops a schoolgirl crush on McArdle that curdles into jealousy with the arrival of the man's glamorous fiancee (Kay Aldridge). For the film's climactic race, Jane and Dr. Drake make a last ditch effort to keep the ranch by having the doctor (a former jockey) handle Yankee Doodle to hopefully become the "Golden Hoofs" winner. Their plans are thrown into doubt, however, with McArdle as his main competition on the trotting field.
Golden Hoofs coasts along on Withers' then-image as a cute, non-threatening "best buddy" type, similar to what Bonita Granville was doing in the concurrent Nancy Drew flicks (now it kinda makes sense why the real teenaged Jane lent her name to several Nancy Drew-esque mystery novels). Her everygirl appeal comes through in spades, whether she's packing a box lunch to be auctioned at the local hop, incongruously crooning a love song, or crushing over the handsome yet bland (and too old) Charles "Buddy" Rogers. She's also a good pal to the African-American character Mose, a boy who is initially set up as a non-p.c. stereotype but eventually winds up being a positive asset to the story. It's definitely a lightweight, modestly done b-movie of its time, but thanks to Jane I can think of worse ways to spend 68 minutes.
As lightweight and forgettable as it can be, there are a few other unique things going in Golden Hoofs' favor. Much of it was filmed outdoors on a real California horse ranch (undoubtedly a Wal-Mart or something now), lending the story a lot of authentic atmosphere. There's also some interest for horse lovers in having it relate to the sport of trotting, a racing method in which the jockeys prompts his or her horse to a brisk gallop from a lightweight carriage mounted behind the animal. I can only think of one other vintage film that uses horse trotting as a plot point - the 1952 comedy Ma and Pa Kettle at the Fair.
Golden Hoofs is one of six Withers vehicles that Fox has reissued as part of their Cinema Archives made-to-order DVDs. The others are Paddy O'Day (1935), Little Miss Nobody (1936), Rascals (1938), Chicken Wagon Family (1939), and High School (1940). In a perfect world, Fox would have done well by doubling up on these brief flicks and offered them as a 3-disc package (even in spartan m.o.d. form). Based on Golden Hoofs alone, it would have made for a swell set of light kiddie fare. On its own, however, the movie is a solid rental for those seeking a squeaky clean family flick not starring a certain Miss Temple.
Given the seemingly random way they put together these Cinema Archives m.o.d.s, the fact that Fox used a nice looking print for Golden Hoofs might be considered a pleasant surprise. Aside from one scene that abruptly cuts short, the clean and well-balanced picture sports lower than average instances of jumpy film, scratches and dust.
The film's adequate mono soundtrack, somewhat ragged but with clear dialogue and music, is the only audio provided. No subtitles on this no-frills release.
Nope, not even a scrap of hay.
Grammatically suspect horse trotting drama Golden Hoofs finds teen actress Jane Withers expanding her range as a plucky gal who goes out on a limb to save her grandfather's horse stables. It's perfectly harmless fun, the epitome of breezy '40s b-movie fare. The no-frills disc from Fox's Cinema Archives is pretty typical of their output, but fans of the perky young star might want to give it a peek. Rent It.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.