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Jockey Jackie; jokey horseplay

8/10
Author: F Gwynplaine MacIntyre from Minffordd, North Wales
8 June 2010

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"Johnny Get Your Hair Cut" (what, no comma?) was originally an Appalachian folk tune, popular with fiddle players. Child actor Jackie Coogan had achieved film stardom wearing a mixing-bowl haircut that seemed cute when he was a toddler. By 1927, Coogan was approaching his teens, and the hairstyle was no longer attractive on him. At one point in this movie, a great deal of fuss is made when Coogan's character gets his locks shorn, with several other characters as spectators ... but the haircut is irrelevant to this movie's plot, and is clearly a publicity stunt bolstered by this movie's irrelevant title. (I hope Coogan saved some of that hair they cut off him in this movie: he would need it a few decades later when he played Uncle Fester.)

Throughout this movie, there are entirely too many close-ups of young star Coogan, as if the director expects to impress us with all of Coogan's emotional responses. More likely the producer ordered those close-ups to please Coogan's fans. Apart from these close-ups, under-rated director Archie Mayo shows a sure hand with this cast and the script.

Once all the hair is swept away, and Jackie emerges with a short back and sides, this is actually a good movie ... and Coogan gives an excellent performance. He portrays Johnny O'Day, a spunky orphan (is there any other kind?), who shows up looking for work at a stable where Jiggs Bradley trains horses for wealthy breeder Ryan. Bradley won't hire Johnny, and sends him packing ... but on his way out, Johnny saves Ryan's little daughter from drowning. (The daughter is played by a child actress with much less talent and presence than Coogan's.) Ryan offers Johnny some money for un-drowning his daughter, but honest orphan Johnny turns it down: he just wants a job.

What is it with movies featuring racehorse owners who are the fathers of kids who get drowned? We had one in 'Seabiscuit', and one here too, except this time the kid gets rescued.

Johnny ends up working as water-boy for Pop Slocum, a much more downmarket trainer whose horse is cried Daybreak. The latter is owned by Ryan, but Daybreak is trained by Slocum rather than the more prestigious trainer Bradley because he has a bad tendon. (The horse, not the trainer.) Slocum, Johnny and rider Bobby train Daybreak until he's a genuine contender for an upcoming race against Whip Evans, a nasty rival jockey who hates to lose. (Probably because he's played by an actor too large to be a jockey.) Just before the race, Johnny overhears Slocum ordering Bobby to pull his mount so that Evans will win. The race is fixed!

Johnny pleads with Ryan to let him replace Bobby as Daybreak's jockey. At this point, I expected a very obvious plot twist: namely, that Ryan is in on the fix too, and he wants Daybreak to lose. I was sure of it when Ryan ignores Johnny's pleas. But it turns out I was wrong: solely in gratitude for saving his daughter, Ryan ultimately relents, and he tells Johnny to put on the silks and saddle up.

SPOILERS COMING. There's an exciting climactic race, although the excitement is diluted by technical flaws: it's obvious that some of the horseracing sequences are stock footage, and Jackie Coogan is unconvincingly stunt-doubled by a larger rider. In the home stretch, Whip Evans assaults Johnny with his riding crop, injuring him. Johnny spurs his mount, and rides Daybreak across the finish line in first place ... but then he falls off. When this happened to Liz Taylor in 'National Velvet', she lost the race on a technicality during the steward's inquiry. I expected something similar to happen here to Jackie Coogan too. I was wrong again. He won!

Any movie that plausibly derails my plot expectations *twice* deserves my respect. 'Johnny Get Your Hair Cut' has an excellent script, good acting and (mostly) excellent photography and editing. But the mood is seriously undercut by some jokey title cards that aren't as funny as they think they are, and which attempt to inject comedy when it isn't needed. For instance, the character Pop Slocum is introduced with a card explaining that he knows 'just how many miles a horse should get on a gallon of oats'. Ha bloody ha. Despite those awful titles and some tech flaws in this movie, I'll rate 'Johnny Get Your Hair Cut' a solid 8 out of 10.

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