Dull, tired horse racing story where the best performances are the ones you're not supposed to like. 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives line of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released Maryland, the 1940 Technicolor drama directed by studio stalwart Henry King, and starring Walter Brennan, Fay Bainter, Brenda Joyce, John Payne, Charles Ruggles, Hattie McDaniel, Marjorie Weaver, Sidney Blackmer, Ben Carter, and Ernest Whitman. An A-list project aimed at recreating the studio's previous horse racing success, Kentucky (no less than studio head Darryl Zanuck himself puts his name above the title), Maryland suffers from an all-too familiar main storyline and perfunctory performances from the main actors--when the only pleasures one can get from a movie like Maryland are the exaggerated, stereotypical turns by pros McDaniel, Carter and Whitman, then you have big problems that go beyond any nagging context. No extras for this just-okay fullscreen color transfer.
Post-WWI America, in the rich, rolling hills of moneyed Maryland. At Broadlawn Manor, two thoroughbreds are born: Lee Danfield (Bobby Anderson), the son of Broadlawn's wealthy, aristocratic owners, Charlotte and Spencer Danfield (Fay Bainter and Sidney Blackmer), and Maryland Maid, a champion colt soon to be fussed over by Broadlawn's crusty trainer, William "Uncle Bill" Stewart (Walter Brennan). Fussing over little Lee is "Aunt" Clara (Hattie McDaniel), the Danfield's kind-hearted mammy, who's married to shady, dice-loving Shadrach Jones (Ben Carter), the head groomsman in the Danfield's luxurious stables. When Spencer Danfield loses his life in a tragic fox hunting accident, due in no small part to Charlotte insisting he ride the jittery Maryland Maid, Charlotte demands that the stables be shuttered and Maryland Maid shot--a demand Bill Stewart refuses. When Lee takes a spill on a horse over at Uncle Bill's, Charlotte sends Lee to Europe, intent on wiping out any connection the Danfield bloodline has with horseracing. However, by 1940, Lee (John Payne) has become a champion rider in England, and he returns to Broadlawn, where he agrees to race Bill's new wonder horse, Cavalier, in the Maryland Cup--a decision that pleases pretty Linda Stewart (Brenda Joyce), Bill's smitten daughter, and angers Charlotte. Will Bill race Cavalier? And, where, exactly, did Cavalier come from?
From what I could gather, Maryland was a prestige production that Darryl Zanuck believed would mirror the critical and box office success of Fox's 1938 horse racing epic, Kentucky. Featuring no less than three Academy Award winners (Brennan, who won a Best Supporting Actor for Kentucky, as well as Bainter for Jezebel and of course McDaniel for the previous year's Gone With the Wind), Maryland was originally conceived as a period piece set between the pre-and-post Civil War time line (...which may help partially explain why all the black servants here look, speak, and act like they just blew in With the Wind...). Scripted by Ethel Hill (In Old Oklahoma, The Little Princess) and Jack Andrews (Berlin Correspondent, Smoky), and directed by Zanuck's favorite skilled journeyman director, Henry King (Lloyd's of London, The Song of Bernadette, Twelve O'Clock High), Maryland did score with the public, helping to move contract player John Payne up through the ranks of Fox's leading men roster. Why it was a success back then is anybody's guess...but viewed today it's a rather pallid show.
Setting aside for a moment Maryland's treatment of its African-American characters, there's very little of note in the movie's central storyline, or in the lead performances, rather surprisingly (considering the pros involved here). Bainter blaming herself for her husband's death, followed by her trying to blot out Payne's love of horses and racing, was a dramatic framework that was old, old hat even way back in 1940 (you could pretty much substitute anything there for horses, and find that dynamic in countless movies). At the beginning of the movie, we're slightly intrigued by the scrappy relationship Brennan seems to have with his employer, Bainter (he operates as a family equal, apparently, with the leeway to shout down his boss). However, the script essentially splits up their storylines after her husband's death, and top-billed Brennan begins to fade away from the movie's principal focus, as more time is spent on Carter's antics and Payne's dealings with Bainter. The romance between Payne and Joyce is gossamer light, and by the time Maryland grinds on to its protracted climax, we're way ahead of the courtroom shenanigans that involve Cavalier's bloodline. Director King, not the most dynamic guy behind the camera, admittedly, but almost always a competent helmer, can't even deliver a decent finale here: the Maryland Cup race (what should be a natural is instead choppy and unimaginatively staged, with too many close-ups ruining what should have been built-in suspense). The four main leads don't help matters, oddly holding their own turns in check: Bainter does her usual imperious shtick; someone must have told Brennan to tone down his crotchety performance from Kentucky; and pleasant but dull Payne and Joyce fail to register any weight whatsoever on the screen.
And that leaves the one element of Maryland we're not supposed to enjoy...but which is, ironically, the only source of life and energy we're going to find in this mild, overly familiar outing: the black servant characters and their subplots. Yes, of course their depiction here is stereotypical and insulting, particularly bit character Aleck (Darby Jones), who's portrayed as a "yassuh darkie" who sleeps alot and bows to white folk. However...what are you going to do with the fact that Hattie McDaniel and Ben Carter, despite the limitations of their characters, do the best acting in Maryland? That they and Ernest Whitman (as Dogface, the gambler) actually give performances that seem real--regardless of what they're asked to do here--compared to the flat, correct, phony baloney turns from Bainter and Payne and the rest of the white cast? During an extended scene that perhaps (?) mimic stage acts from either black minstrels or black vaudeville (director Henry King actually worked as a minstrel performer in his youth), Carter and Whitman create an amusing sequence, nimbly choreographed like a dance, where Whitman tempts and teases Carter into losing all his money (its buzz plays like something from another movie entirely). And during a rather remarkable, show-stopping church-going scene, full of songs, fast-cutting, and sly humor, McDaniel and Carter exchange some reaction shots--while getting big laughs--that look as modern as anything in movies today (if this exact same scene had appeared in an all-black independent production from that time, its content would be lauded without contextual hand-wringing). Race-considered aesthetic discussions are all well and good--and entirely appropriate in Maryland's case, if you're of a mind to--but I'm certainly not going to add anything new to the discussion at this point...by deliberate choice, as well as the matter of obviousness (we now live in an era that has decreed--"The discussion is over!"--that a man like myself is sociologically, politically, and even genetically incapable of being anything but "racist" in thought and deed...as evidenced by the temerity of my disliking open borders and unfettered, dangerous imperators. So why bother?). What, then, exactly, are we to do when we react positively to Maryland's controversial elements? What are we supposed to do with these vibrant scenes, and these terrific, charismatic performers? Ignore them? Condemn them? Deliberately not enjoy them and castigate ourselves just because of their context? Ridiculous--they're the best things in the otherwise entirely forgettable Maryland. No apologies needed.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.