Friday, October 19, 2007

"A Day at Santa Anita" (1937)

The Three-Disc Deluxe 80th Anniversary Edition of "The Jazz Singer" was released earlier this week (Tuesday, October 16th). The DVD set of the momentous first-ever "talkie" movie starring Al Jolson is a handsome package with copious printed material and loaded with fantastic documentaries about early-sound-in-film and more, plus many hours of never-before-seen Vaudeville reels, and mouth-watering excerpts long believed lost from the "Gold Diggers of Broadway."

Of particular interest to Ruby Keeler fans here is the addition of a three reels with short cameos. You have to pay particular attention, because the shorts aren't listed anywhere on the box or packaging slip, you'll have to scroll through he "Special Features" of Disc One.

We first see Ruby and husband Al Jolson in the Warner-Vitaphone Technicolor two-reeler "A Day at Santa Anita." (Vitaphone production reels #8071-8072). As far as I can tell, it's the earliest colour film I've seen Ruby appear (~ an imdb entry says the film has been previously available on the "Each Dawn I Die" DVD, starring James Cagney and George Raft).

"A Day at Santa Anita" is directed by Bobby Connolly, who worked with Ruby on "Flirtation Walk," "Go Into Your Dance," "Shipmates Forever," "Colleen" and "Ready, Willing & Able." (Connolly later staged the musical numbers for "The Wizard of Oz.")

A pithy plot concerns a small girl named "Peaches," played by Sybil Jason (who later starred with Jolson in "The Singing Kid"), caught in a tug-o-war between her attachment to a racehorce named "Wonderboy" - she being the only person who can motivate the horse to win - and a Family & Children's Service that wants to take the young child away from the racetrack. The film is shot mostly on location at Santa Anita Park, with the San Gabriel mountains framing a picturesque backdrop. As might be expected in a short of this nature, Wonderboy wins the $100,000 Santa Anita Handicap, with Peaches screaming him home along the stretch rail in a moving stolen car.

There are several Hollywood cameos, including Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland and Edward G. Robinson, all playing themselves, as well as appearances by Ruby's comedic Warner co-stars Hugh Herbert, Allen Jenkins, and Frank McHugh (the latter also starred with Ruby in the 1929 Ziegfeld production "Show Girl").

Ruby makes her appearance at the 8:07-minute mark of the 18-minute short. She is announced at the track, lazily acknowledges the announcement and barely lifts her eyes or attention from her racing form. She later asks Al some betting tips, and Al cracks a joke.

Track announcer: Among the well-known people we have that great comedian Al Jolson and his charming wife Ruby Keeler.


Ruby: Jolie, you got a tip for me in this race?

Al, chuckling: Honey, you know I don't play tips - I play hunches.

Ruby: Hunches?

Al: Sure, like dreams. Think of Echo (?). For instance Ruby, I went to bed the other night, I had the most peculiar dream. I kept dreaming about hats - hats! - and I went to the track yesterday and I looked at the program and there's a horse running with the name "Hat Trick," and I put a bet on him. And who do you think won?

Ruby: Who?

Al: "Sombrero." I'll see you afer a while.

Ruby and Al appear as themselves in another cameo at the same racetrack, the MGM black-and-white two-reeler "Hollywood Handicap" (1938), directed by the immortal Buster Keaton. The plot involves a race horse named "Suzie Q" bequeathed by his owner to a group of soul-singing stablehands (The Original Sing Band). The horse is a plonker, runs a distant last, but delicately dances across the finish-line like a Lipizzaner in full view of Hollywood producers and secures a movie contract. Feature cameos include Mickey Rooney, Charlie Ruggles, Oliver Hardy, and Ruby's old 42nd Street "mentor" Warner Baxter.

The Jolsons are announced at the 6:19-minute mark, with Ruby dressed in hat and fur, with a racing form tucked under her arm.

Announcer: Al Jolson picked the winner when he got a line on Ruby Keeler.

Sidebar: We see a pair of shorts here showing the Jolsons as regular horse players, and indeed Al Jolson was an infamous punter and spent much of his free time at the racetrack. But according to Jolson biographer Herbert Goldman, his wife thought it was a drag:

[I]f horse racing was a part of [Jolson's] life, it was also gong to be part of Ruby's. The only trouble was that racing bored Miss Keeler.

Al regarded hs wife's lack of interest as a challenge. He and Johnny Donovan, who still trained Jolson's horses, presented Ruby with a two-year-old colt named Cimarron, a son of Hand Grenade, and Donovan registered a set of colors for her with the Jockey Club: "Gold and green halves, green sleeves and cap." Ruby, however, remained unenthralled by racing.

I did a search at the thoroughbred Pedigree Inquiry and could not find Ruby's "Cimarron" listed. I don't know if her horse even raced, but I've taken the liberty of adding it to their database myself, despite being clueless about the horse's Dam. Click here.

Another slice of joy in the DVD is a collection of trailers for Jolson's movies, and of particular interest for us again, the trailer for "Go Into Your Dance" (1935). The trailer runs a full three minutes.

Here's the Entertainment Event Millions Have Awaited.

Ruby Keeler co-starred for the first time with - Al Jolson.

The World's Greatest Song and Dance Combination!

In Warner Bros. Newest Musical Triumph GO INTO YOUR DANCE.

Jolson and Keller

What a Team!

Hear Al Sing 5 New Hits by Warren and Dubin.

See Ruby "Go To Town" in The "Cocktail Rhythm" number with 100 Fast-Stepping Cocktail Cuties.

Four more stars in the Supporting Cast: Glenda Farrell, Patsy Kelly, Sharon Lynne, Helen Morgan, in -

Go Into Your Dance.

A First National and Vitaphone Picture.

Go Into Your Dance.

It's the Show of a Thousand Sensations!

All the Gayety and Glamour of New York Night Life!

All the Romance and Drama of the Show World!

Combined in this Fascinating Story by the Author of "42nd Street"!

Dazzling Ensembles!

Breath-Taking Dances!

Scintillating Melodies!

Al Jolson and Ruby Keeler -

Go Into Your Dance.

The "Jazz Singer" DVD-set also presents a new feature-length documentary "The Dawn of Sound: How Movies Learned to Talk," where we see a few very brief clips of Ruby, incluing she and Al appearing at an unspecified movie-or-theatrical premiere.


The Santa Anita racetrack didn't open until 1934. Prior to that - i.e. when "The Jazz Singer" was released - drinking, gambling and horse racing were forbidden in the state of California, and Hollywood horse players had to drive south o' the border, down Tijuana way, to Agua Caliente.

(See "Fast Companions" (1932; a.k.a. "Caliente") starring Mickey Rooney and Maureen O'Sullivan; and the terrific "In Caliente," starring Pat O'Brien, Dolores del Rio, Wini Shaw ("The Lady in Red)," directed by Lloyd Bacon ("The Singing Fool," "42nd Street," "Footlight Parade," "Wonder Bar") and featuring choreography direction by Busby Berkeley.)

Arguably the greatest race horse of all time, Phar Lap, famously won the 1932 Agua Caliente Handicap weeks before his tragic death.

The book "Phar Lap" by Geoff Armstrong & Peter Thompson reports that race, on March 21, 1932, was attended by Al Jolson, Buster Keaton, Wallace Beery and Eddie Cantor. (Goldman's bio indicates Jolson played the Fox California in San Diego on the Friday, March 19th, two days before the race, and was on a "Holy Week Lay-Off" thereafter.) According to Armstrong & Thompson, on the night of the "Red Terror's" famous victory;

That night, Al Jolson was again the main act at the casino. Reflecting on the day's events, he sang a quick parody of 'It's a Long Way to Tipperary'.

It's a long way to Caliente,
It's a long way to go.
It's a long way across the ocean,
For the richest prize I know.

Goodbye Doctor Freeland,
So long, Spanish Play.
It's a long, long way to Caliente,
But Phar Lap knows the way!

There is no indication that Ruby accompanied Al to watch Phar Lap's immortal win. This was several months prior to her shooting "42nd Street," and her whereabouts are unknown.

"Wonderboy"'s fictitious win in the Santa Anita Handicap reminds us of the real winner of the rich handicap race the year the two-reeler was released, namely Rosemont, who defeated the legendary Seabiscuit by a nose.

Seabiscuit is listed by author Laura Hillenbrand as having been ridden in that race (Feb. 27, 1937) by Red Pollard. Seabiscuit's "other" jockey George Woolf used to ride Seabiscuit with his lucky kangaroo saddle - once used by noneother than Phar Lap. (Presumably it was Woolf's saddle exclusively, so I'm unsure if it was ever used by Pollard.)

Santa Anita race track is today owned by Magna Entertainment Corp., the largest racing facility empire in North America, and headed by Chairman Frank Stronach, the self-made billionaire who once washed dishes at the K-W Hospital less than a mile down the road where I live.

Connections, connections . . .

Don't forget "Shipmates Forever" is playing TCM on October 24th!


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