The stallion and the mick

How The Black Stallion rode the late Mickey Rooney all the way to the finishing line.

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The Black Stallion (1979)

The Black Stallion (1979)

“What do you think you’re doing over there, sonny?”

His voice pierces the darkness. The man it belongs to isn’t much when we get a good look at him – short yet husky, sporting a plaid shirt and a face full of shaving cream. It has taken an improbable series of events to bring together old Henry Dailey (Mickey Rooney) and young Alec Ramsay (Kelly Reno). In the wake of a shipwreck, accompanied only by an Arabian stallion, Alec is briefly the inhabitant of a deserted island. The horse is by Alec’s side when he is brought back home, 1940s-era New York. After the horse is accidentally let out of Alec’s too-tiny backyard, he trots his way to Henry’s bucolic farm, where Alec has tracked him down.

The colloquial, no-nonsense tone of Henry’s voice surprises us. After all, Carroll Ballard’s The Black Stallion is thought of as a classic of children’s cinema – but it is also a proud representative of a far more unpredictable genre: 1970s cinema. Hence, much of the cast is comprised of first-timers, oddballs and misfits. Reno had never made a movie before he headlined this one. His expressions stay with us longer than his infrequent line readings.

As Alec’s father, singer Hoyt Axton brought with him a sturdy, monosyllabic manner, as well as the spottiest of acting resumes. While Teri Garr (as Alec’s mother) was an old hand, she was far from a conventional movie matriarch, and here her red lips and blond curls count for more than her dramatic chops. Until Rooney arrives, the dialogue comes in odd, poetic snatches, like what a child might overhear while eavesdropping on the grown-ups. In fact, while tagging along with his father on the doomed voyage, Alec gets his first look at the horse by surreptitiously peering into its stall on the ship.

All of which is to say that the film makes its living on sight and sounds – Days of Heaven-style – not tête-à-têtes. Early on, the ship having caught fire, cinematographer Caleb Daschanel gives us a watery inferno, equal parts orange and blue. Left by his father for a moment – they will never see each other again – Alec observes an uncanny sight: the horse bounding into the drink. The recent film adaptation of Mark Helprin’s novel of an airborne horse, A New York Winter’s Tale, was underrated, but it did not have a single image as arresting as this one. There are others: a toy horse hitting the damp sand of the island where Alec and the horse have ended up, or Alec winning the horse’s friendship with some tasty seaweed.

Before long, they are rescued, whereupon the film’s feral landscape becomes domesticated – houses and hairdos that bespeak postwar Americana – but no less weird. There is an over-the-top welcome-home tribute to Alec, where America the Beautiful is sung (“From sea to shining sea…”) and a girl recites a poem in his honour (“I think that I shall never see a boy as brave as Alec…”). At one point Garr pours her heart out to the horse as Alec snoozes at his feet. “I’m very happy to have my son back,” she says in a whisper. “Thank you. I wish you could have saved his father, too.”

Into this atmosphere enters Mickey Rooney – that is, Puck, Andy Hardy, Young Tom Edison, Homer Macauley and now Henry Dailey. In many ways, his furnishes the first real acting in the film – not glances or murmurings but a full-throated characterisation. A long-in-the-tooth ex-jockey, Henry explains his lifelong affinity for horses to Alec, now a friend. “Tried cows. Didn’t work. Five in the morning,” he says agitatedly. “Chickens – drive me nuts.”

Skulking around Henry’s farm, Alec happens upon a hidden room in which mementoes of Henry’s racing days – trophies and medals and photographs – are preserved in cobwebs. Bravely broaching the subject, Alec asks, “Why did you stop training?” Fifty years of an acting career come across when Mickey-as-Henry replies, simply, “I got tired.”

Not for long he isn’t, as soon he has persuaded himself that the horse is racing material. Like a trouper, Henry takes some hay (standing in for a horse) to show Alec what it takes to be a jockey. This really is the guy from National Velvet, isn’t he?

Later, Henry doesn’t allow doubt to creep in when a newsman is late to watch the horse in action at a racetrack. When a doubter says, “He ain’t gonna show,” Henry barks, “I don’t wanna hear that!” Rooney speaks the line with such spirit that we wonder if he has momentarily stepped out of character. Was it through the power of positive thinking that, after years of middling movies, he now had a show-offy role in a big movie, produced by no less than Francis Ford Coppola the same year as Apocalypse Now?

Reality sets in just once. Loose lips sink ships, and Alec tells his mother the big secret. You know that ‘mystery horse’ the entire country has been chattering about? It’s Alec’s horse, and Alec is going to race him. Moments later, who turns up at the Ramseys’ front door but Henry, bearing a straight-faced confirmation of Alec’s tall tale. This prompts one of Garr’s best lines: “You’ve got to be kidding!” Eventually, however, she acquiesces, a smile coming across her puffy-cheeked face. Was it Henry’s irresistible charm?

The trio is on their way to a day at the races. Ballard and editor Robert Dalva link separate reaction shots of Garr and Rooney in the stands as they watch Alec steer the horse to an unlikely win. It is almost as though Rooney has become the film’s prickly, excitable barometer. If he grimaces, so does she; if he looks jubilant, so does she. No wonder Rooney was the only actor in the cast to be nominated for an Academy Award.

“An Olivier, I daresay,” wrote David Thomson, “would stand back from this film and have to admit to the raw genius of Mickey Rooney.” Without him, we have nice scenery, gorgeous melodies (courtesy of the producer’s father, Carmine), and a helluva horse, but no emotional centre. New York Times critic Janet Maslin rendered a mixed verdict, but she was unequivocal that “Mr. Rooney lends humor and humanity to the proceedings.”

In a review of Ballard’s Fly Away Home, San Francisco Chronicle critic Peter Stack was not the first to note the director’s “genius with children and animals.” True enough, but in the case of The Black Stallion, we might add to the list: children and animals and Mickey Rooney, too.

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