#51 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
I had no idea what this movie was about beyond the very brief description on its IMDb page, and I thought it was going to be a little drama about the Irish poor trying to make the rent. Boy, was I wrong. It’s almost a remake of Kentucky Pride in plot and structure except told from a purely human perspective. Taking the racing world from a different angle, we see a more cohesive experience with an ensemble approach that almost comes together well enough to work. The Shamrock Handicap ends up sharing a key failing with a lot of early narrative features, though, that really holds it back.
Back in the Old Country the O’Hara family is a landowning clan with tenants, but the family is beginning to fall on hard times with a tax collector arrives and demands five years back taxes. Despondent, the patriarch of the family, Sir Miles (Louis Payne) decides to take his three horses to town to sell to cover the cost. Ordering his servant Con O’Shea (J. Farrell MacDonald) and horse trainer Neil (Leslie Fenton) to demonstrate them in town to an American buyer, Orville Finch (Willard Louis), Sir Miles becomes eager to sell at the highest price, but Neil, while demonstrating the jumping skills of the first two horses, can’t quite say goodbye to the third, Dark Rosaleen. He botches the jump, but Orville can see talent when he sees it and offers to bring Neil to the United States as a jockey. He’s eager to go, but his has to promise to Sir Miles’ daughter, Sheila (Janet Gaynor), that he will send for her when he gets rich.
The movie feels like it’s setting up to be just Neil’s story through its first act, but the short running time and plethora of side characters turns it into an ensemble piece. There’s heartwarming stuff throughout providing pretty consistent entertainment around a host of Irish people coming to America and finding a new home. The first and foremost is Neil, hitching along with Finch and getting injured in his first race (just like Virginia’s Future in Kentucky Pride). His efforts to make friends with the other jockeys leaves him with friends in the face of destitution after Finch had bet everything on him. At the same time, the O’Haras and O’Sheas come to America as well, lured by the overly positive letters that Neil had sent home. Sir Miles was happy to leave his tax bills behind for the promise of a new life in America, but hard work is what greets him, as well as a family of his former tenants who have made well and started a thriving business.
This ends up all clashing a bit with the story of finding family again in the New World not really gelling with the large race that ends the film. It’s easy to see Ford’s love of interesting side characters in this early part of his career because they tend to end up dominating the films, especially the shorter ones. If The Shamrock Handicap was thirty minutes longer, it would more clearly be about one thing (probably Neil and the race) while the rest would end up feeling more like support. However, because the movie is so short, all the different aspects end up dominating to largely the same degree, diluting what would have been the central point. None of this is really bad, but it just clashes up against itself.
The end race needs to be noted on a technical level. The corresponding race in Kentucky Pride was pretty much incomprehensible because it was filmed in black and white, without sound, and entirely from cameras hundreds of feet from the action. With the horses being so small on screen, it became impossible to discern one from the other. Ford learned a lesson there, and his horserace that ends The Shamrock Handicap is actually shockingly well put together. He used a greater variety of angles to sell the action, including studio shot closeups of the actors in front of rear projection to fake it, providing the audience with a view inside the action to help guide us and inform us of what’s actually happening. It’s a far more interesting look at a horserace than before.
I think I sound like a broken record about ensemble pieces, maybe even closed-minded. Why not just enjoy the nice side-characters along with the central story of a jockey learning to get back on a horse? Because the two sets of stories end up feeling like their from different movies rather than parts of the same film. Cutting out the O’Sheas and O’Haras adventures in the New World would do little to affect the storytelling of Neil, and vice versa. They don’t feel vital to each other, so while they might both be fine, they don’t really belong together.
It’s a step up from Kentucky Pride, but The Shamrock Handicap isn’t quite the whole film experience that Ford was capable of. It’s got some entertainment to it, but ultimately it’s a bit too fractured overall.