Andrew Garfield, Mahershala Ali, Ruth Negga, and five others received their first-ever acting nominations for 2017. While these actors are new to the Academy Awards, you may recognize them from their earlier work.
Horse Shy was one of a series of eight silent short comedies which starred Edward Everett Horton, released during the 1927-28 season. Today, Horton is remembered mainly for his amusing character turns in Hollywood classics of the '30s and '40s, including Trouble in Paradise, Lost Horizon, Arsenic and Old Lace, and many more. EEH worked in films right up until his death in 1970, and also appeared in a number of popular TV series, including "Batman" and "F-Troop." Movie buffs and TV viewers of the post-war era invariably recognize his warm voice and idiosyncratic phrasing (you'd never guess the guy grew up in Brooklyn!), used to splendid effect as narrator of Jay Ward's "Fractured Fairy Tales" cartoons. Given the strong identification we have with Horton's voice, it's something of a surprise to learn that he had a substantial career in silent movies. He appeared in quite a few of them, as it turns out, usually in lead roles. It must be added that he always played comic leads, for even in his youth, Mr. Horton was no matinée idol. But he could rely on his expressive face, and was already playing flustered, fussy characters in his earliest screen appearances, like a 1920s version of Clifton Webb or Don Knotts.
This series of silent shorts which showcased Horton was produced by comedian Harold Lloyd, under the auspices of his company, Hollywood Productions. Thus, a lot of personnel familiar from Lloyd's films also turn up in the Horton series, not only in front of the camera (such as actors Gus Leonard, William Gillespie, Wallace Howe, etc.) but also behind it (director J. A. Howe, writer Thomas Crizer, etc.). In any case, the EEH comedies were slickly produced, professional jobs. Horton acquits himself quite well, and thereby joins the ranks of performers with now-familiar voices who were surprisingly successful in silent pictures, alongside Ronald Colman, the Barrymores, W. C. Fields, and, of course, Laurel & Hardy.
Horse Shy tells the story of Eddie Hamilton (i.e. Horton), a man terrified of horses who nonetheless participates in a fox hunt on the grounds of an estate owned by a Colonel Calhoun. It's not entirely clear how Eddie got involved in this event in the first place, but once he meets the colonel's pretty daughter, Jane, who is impressed by good horsemanship, he is determined to put aside his neurotic fears and ride to the hounds with the rest of the sporting gents. But his rival for Jane's affections, a nasty man named Gillroy, is determined to sabotage Eddie's chances, and nearly succeeds. Ultimately, Eddie overcomes all obstacles -- although, in the end, he doesn't quite catch the fox.
That's the gist of it, but we're not here for the plot, we're here for the gags, and happily Horse Shy provides some solid laughs along the way. In his first scene we find that Eddie has difficulty simply dressing himself in a traditional riding habit: the high boots, jodhpurs, etc. Later, he and the leading lady meet cute when he pulls up in his auto and finds Jane on the side of the road, having fallen off her horse. Which, of course, only reinforces Eddie's deeply held conviction that horses are dangerous. He gives her a lift, but is horrified when her horse reappears and follows his car. (There's a funny shot of the horse trotting along behind, as seen in the side mirror of Eddie's car, that anticipates a similar shot in Jurassic Park by some sixty-five years; only this is a sweet-natured horse, not a Tyrannosaurus Rex.) But the most memorable gag of all comes during the climactic fox hunt. Thanks to Gillroy's scheming, Eddie winds up riding a wild horse named Keno. He panics, of course, but hangs on for dear life. When Eddie hits a low-lying branch, a bird's nest lands on him. The mama bird isn't happy about it, and lets him know how she feels. This bit is beautifully filmed and edited, and could be neatly excerpted in one of those Great Moments from Silent Comedy compilations.
All in all, Horse Shy is a cute comedy which offers us a rare look at one of the screen's most lovable players, early in his movie career. Edward Everett Horton needed talkies for his persona to develop fully, but if this short is anything to go by, even without the use of his famous voice he could deftly earn laughs as a distinctive character comedian on the strength of pantomime alone.
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