Friday Flicks: ‘The Great Dan Patch (1949)’

This week, HN film critic Amanda Ronan reviews a dramatic treatment of the life and times of the great turn-of-the-century pacer Dan Patch. From Amanda:

The Great Dan Patch (1949), stars Dennis O’Keefe and Gail Russel.  The movie begins with Davy, a chemist currently living in Chicago, arriving home to get married to Ruth, a girl who is a “mite stuck up.”  Davy takes Zelica, a new mare recently acquired by his father, around the track before saying hello to his betrothed.  Training against him is the local tomboy/stable girl/trainer’s daughter, Cissy.

It’s obvious that the beguiling Cissy’s good looks and knowledge of horses intrigues our Davy.

Unfortunately, Ruth shoves her way into the barn and interrupts their conversation.  She complains about Davy’s love for horses, the smell of the stable, and just about everything else the moment we meet her.

Ruth:  “Darling, couldn’t we go outside?”

Davy:  “Why, girl, this is perfume!  Horses, leather, liniment… I could shut my eyes and know I was in a racing stable.”

Ruth:  “I’m afraid I prefer fresh air.”

I think we all agree Ruth isn’t the girl for Davy.  Hmmm?  She gets even more annoying when the wedding plans begin.  Apparently, “people who count don’t get married quietly.”  Ruth also is not pleased that Davy has taken a new job in Indianapolis, a far cry from the Chicago she had been dreaming about.

Fast forwarding a bit, Ruth and Davy are now married and having a fight about going to see Zelica in her first race.  Davy goes to the race regardless, only to witness a tragedy.  Zelica is hooked up to a “regulation bike” accidentally.  In the first corner, the mare puts her leg through the spokes ending her race career forever.

Such is the way with injured mares, Zelica becomes a broodmare for the infamous stud, Joe Patchen, and the great Dan Patch is born.  Three years later, Dan Patch begins his training.  In just three weeks time Dan showed a “two-four clip.”  Sadly, Davy’s father, Daniel, falls sick and dies.  His last words a plea to see Dan Patch at his window and for his son never to fail Dan Patch.

Davy builds his own track and hires Ben and Cissy to train exclusively for him.  Ruth is not at all pleased with the time and expense needed for Davy’s little horse hobby.  Dan Patch, however, proves he’s worth the cost effortlessly sailing through his first race with an easy victory.

The good luck continues and the following year Ben enters him in the Grand Circuit.  Again Dan Patch seems undefeatable.  Davy drives him in an exhibition mile, breaking his sire’s record with a time of 1:59:45.

Davy gets bad news just after the record-breaking run.  He’s lost his contract with the Sulfur Company and no longer has a salary.  Ruth insists he sell the farm and all the horses instantly.  On presumably his last visit to the farm, the sparks between Davy and Cissy fly.  Literally, the barn starts to burn down!

Will they save the horses from the fire?  Will Davy be forced to sell the remnants of the farm?  Will Davy and Cissy finally come to terms with their unrequited love?  Will Dan Patch become the greatest pacer that ever lived?  You’ll just have to watch and see!

This movie is very, very old.  It’s black and white, the sound crackles and the acting is very theatrical.  Yet, I still liked it.  The horse scenes looked authentic and there is a character named VooDoo that serenades us with accordion style blues music.  And I’m telling you, the ending is dramatic!  As dramatic as a film from 1949 can be, anyway.  I’ll warn you, though, if you’re afraid to see a satin chair abused… do not watch!

Dan Patch was a fascinating horse that I had never heard of.  Born in 1896, he became the top pacer of his day, beating world record speeds at least 14 times.  He was the fastest mile by harness, with an official time of 1:55:15 and an unofficial time of 1:55.  He was an instant celebrity with endorsements including toys, cigars, washing machines and automobiles.  Dan Patch died in 1916.  His unofficial record of 1:55 held strong for 54 years, when Adios Butler finally clocked in at 1:54:3.  As far as I can tell most of the movie’s drama; i.e. the troubled marriage, the chemist turned horse trainer, the rebellious trainer’s daughter was untrue.  But hey, Hollywood has to have some fun, right?

I give The Great Dan Patch 2 ½ Golden Horseshoes.

This movie is available free via the Internet Archive:

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