As everybody knows, all dog movies are about little boys who love their dogs, and all horse movies are about little girls who love their horses. This is dutifully inscribed in the Hollywood Clichè Rule Book under the subsection "Freckles." We all can remember the precious pig-tailed miss delivering this obligatory second-reel line: "But, Mister Tom, you can't sell Blue Bonnet! You can't! You can't! He's going to win the Derby!"
But now, breed-improver fans, it is unisex time. Nothing is sacred anymore. (Which also means that for this movie they couldn't get Tatum O'Neal.) Casey's Shadow is about a boy and his horse. Except for Alexis Smith—who has been cast in the role of a bank account—and a brave girl jockey, this is an all-boy horse movie. But, different sex aside, the movie is the same breed—strictly The Story of Seabiscuit '78.
Oh, to be sure, there are concessions to modern tell-it-like-it-is-ism: an occasional naughty word, the graphic birth of a foal. More important, there is also the dramatic presentation of a very real sin in American racing: horsemen being lured by huge purses into running injured horses as well as young colts before they are ready. And in dealing with this subject, here, at last, we could have had a mature movie. But Casey's Shadow is a cheap claimer trying to compete in the feature allowance, an unassuming children's movie with pretensions to adult reality. It is bound to fail for both audiences.
Walter Matthau (above) plays the central character, Lloyd Bourdelle, a slovenly but lovable Cajun, father of adorable little Casey (and two older sons) and trainer of beautiful Casey's Shadow. Matthau, no stranger to horses and pari-mutuel windows, is likewise familiar with this role, having played virtually the same character in The Bad News Bears. So it's a gimme for Matthau—and worse, the script calls for him to chew tobacco. Whenever an actor chews tobacco, he forgets everything he ever knew about acting, believing that he can transmit all human emotions by just a-chawin' and a-spittin'. But 'tain't so. Of course, here it doesn't matter much anyway, inasmuch as the horse has the best lines.
The horse, Casey's Shadow, is a quarter horse, not a thoroughbred. The bulk of the action takes place on location at Ruidoso Downs in New Mexico, where a $1 million futurity is run every summer. But sadly, while the early scenes in Cajun Louisiana convey a sense of place, the unique cowboy folksiness of Ruidoso is buried under the hackneyed plot.
The film's few fine authentic moments are just enough to make us fret for what might have been. The birth of Casey's Shadow is, at the least, clinically revealing, and some superb footage in the starting gate is, in its way, every bit as instructional. Seldom have "we been shown on film how dangerous and exacting a jockey's job is. But above all, never before in the movies has horse racing been called to task for sending dumb, and often drugged, animals to their death by running them before their bones are properly formed or knit.
Alas, this is too subtle a visual issue to support a movie that is aimed largely at children. X rays just do not play the Bijou. So this whole excruciating dilemma—run the horse and run the risk, or take the stud money and run—which descends upon Matthau, forcing him to make painful choices, forcing him to develop his character, is largely lost. Instead, the plot plays up two baneful rivals (a trainer, Robert Webber, and his owner, Murray Hamilton), who portray such dreadful cinema prototypes of villainy that one can only suspect that in their spare time they must be trussing up virgins on railroad tracks. Whatever real conflicts Matthau's trainer must face, whatever Casey's Shadow could suggest about the failed conscience and responsibility of American horsemen in general, is left in the barn.
The script, by TV writer Carol Sobieski, gets little imaginative support from director Martin Ritt or the technical staff, and the music by Patrick Williams is an intrusive liability. Casey, played by a newcomer, Michael Hershewe, is a winning little whippersnapper. As for Miss Smith, she is much too classy and has aged too well to be recycled into such humdrum precincts—just as Mr. Matthau should stop treading dramatic water, suffering competition with adorable children and animals, and get back to acting against human grown-ups.