Film production in silent days was radically different from movie-making in the sound era. Silent films were usually shot from a scenario -- a detailed synopsis -- rather than a precise script. In post-production, the editor and title-writer of a silent film had great creative freedom to restructure the footage, often turning a languid drama into an over-the-top comedy.
I have a strong suspicion that 'The Sporting Chance' was shot in such free-and-easy circumstances. This film starts out as a fairly straightforward drama with some touches of drawing-room comedy. As it progresses, the film's events (and the characters' behaviour) become increasingly implausible, and the climactic horse race casts plausibility to the winds, resembling a real-life race meeting about as much as the climactic football game in 'Horse Feathers' resembles an actual football match.
I never fault a comedy movie for being implausible, but I do feel that any movie (or other narrative work) has to establish its ground rules at the beginning. The first few minutes of 'Horse Feathers' (or any Marx Brothers movie) make it clear that we're going to see something that bears no semblance to reality. 'The Sporting Chance' doesn't get screwy until the third reel, and so we've been led to expect a fairly realistic story. I laughed several times during this movie, but I felt as if I'd been misled by the film-makers: baited with one type of story, then switched to something much less plausible.
Lou Tellegen gets top billing in this film, but in fact he's the villain. Darrell Thornton (Tellegen) is a jaded playboy who throws elaborate parties with kinky trimmings. He holds an indoor horse race, consisting of six 'flappers' galumphing through his house on little tiny ponies. Then he invites his guests to see the trained sea lions in his pool: these turn out to be girls in oilskin swimming cozzies, imitating trained seals. This movie was made during Prohibition, so of course we see lots of debauched rich people quaffing cocktails.
Thornton can afford any woman who comes with a price tag, but for some reason he sets his sights on demure Patricia Winthrop ... played by Dorothy Phillips, who is (shall we say) not the most gorgeous woman in the history of Hollywood. (Nor the most talented actress, either.) Patricia's father Caleb was a grand old country squire, but his money has run out. The family's only remaining asset is Kentucky Boy, a thoroughbred racehorse. Caleb Winthrop has reluctantly used Kentucky Boy as collateral against notes on his home ... now, Thornton has bought the notes, as part of his scheme to nab Dorothy. Insert moustache-twirling here.
The film's leading man is bland Theodore von Eltz as Robert Selby, who is of course in love with the patrician Patricia. When Thornton calls in the notes, he has the sheriff seize Kentucky Boy. Sheldon Lewis gives a good performance as Robert's wiseguy buddy, a Mercutio to Robert's Romeo. The two cronies steal the horse out from under the nose of a deputy bailiff, by a method that's extremely implausible in a silent movie and which wouldn't be remotely credible in a movie with a soundtrack.
SLIGHT SPOILERS COMING. This is where the film starts getting weird. When you need to hide a horse, where do you put him where nobody will think of looking for him? Upstairs in a private house, of course! I would have found the improbabilities in this movie much funnier if the director or the script had properly prepared for them in the opening sequences.
Needless to say, the Winthrops can pay off their debts if Kentucky Boy wins the big race. Needless to say, Darrell Thornton tries to prevent this. Needless to say, Robert gets the horse into the race ... just in time? Actually, no: Robert gets the horse into the starting gate after all the other horses have already left. From this point, the climactic race descends into crude slapstick which -- in real life -- would provoke a flurry of steward's inquiries, but which go over perfectly happily here. It doesn't help matters that Kentucky Boy is obviously played by at least two different horses: one in the racing scenes, one in the hide-a-horse sequences.
Neither Lou Tellegen nor Theodore von Eltz gives a credible performance here, but Dorothy Phillips's thespian abilities make both of them look a right couple of Barrymores. Far and away the best performance here is given by character actor George Fawcett as the old patriarch. Sheldon Lewis is good too, but his performance seems to belong in an entirely different film. I'll give 'The Sporting Chance' a sporting chance and rate it 6 out of 10: much of this film is inept, and most of it is implausible, but I laughed several times anyway ... so, on that level, I'll call this movie a success.
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