He may have been typecast and he was definitely too young for most of the roles he was offered but when it came right down to it, nobody played an old man better than Walter Brennan.
A character actor before there ever was such a term, although he played old men nearly his entire career, there was never anything caricature-based or disingenuous about Brennan's portrayals (whether he was cantankerous, charming or a curmudgeon) and he never played the exact same man twice.
In 1938, Brennan was only 44 years old when he portrayed a character roughly double his age in a performance that would garner him an Academy Award and help inspire the Walter Brennan "type" he was sought to inhabit again and again.
Yet Brennan’s ferociously lively and powerful turn in Kentucky is so good that even though he was a mere supporting player, his presence loomed large over not only the main romantic star-crossed lovers plotline at its core but Brennan also dominated scenes in which he didn’t even appear.
The best of his early state-name horse pictures including Home in Indiana and Maryland, White Fang and Calamity Jane filmmaker David Butler’s winning drama has been brought back to digital life thanks to a lush DVD transfer as part of Fox Cinema Archives’ latest wave of manufactured-on-demand classic films.
Released this past spring, Fox’s debut of Kentucky (which was based on John Taintor Foote’s story The Look of Eagles) as part of the Archive series was well-timed to coincide not only with the recent Oscars telecast but also the Kentucky Derby.
A compelling work that grabs you from its remarkable period prologue, the film revolves around a Romeo and Juliet or – to use a more American reference – Hatfield and McCoy style feud between two Kentucky families that began when being on opposite sides of the Civil War resulted in Goodwin blood being spilled by a member of the Dillon family.
Seventy-five years after he saw his father gunned down during a disagreement over letting Union soldiers take their champion thoroughbred horses, Brennan’s Peter Goodwin has vowed never to have anything to do with the Dillons.
But when the youngest member of the Dillon tree (played by Richard Greene) falls for Loretta Young’s beautiful Goodwin lass from afar, he vows to put aside the bad blood between them in order to follow his heart.
Yet when history repeats itself in the form of more deadly betrayal, gossip and lies, the feud is forced back onto the front burner as the Kentucky Derby draws nearer, predictably pitting the two families against each other.
While it’s hard to watch the cringe-inducing, degrading way that African-American actors were used in the movie as essentially cartoonish buffoons, if you’re able to look past it and keep the film’s time period in mind (given our contemporary era of political correctness that was nonexistent in 1938), then you’ll appreciate the rest of the picture as a richly made, thoroughly engrossing piece of pre-WWII entertainment.
A beautifully lensed Technicolor horse epic from cinematographers Ernest Palmer and Ray Rennahan, this Daryl F. Zanuck production may show its age with regard to the aforementioned racial insensitivities and a few clunky edits that don’t flow smoothly by waiting a long while to follow up on gaps in logic.
Nonetheless, it’s buoyed by its convincing cast and the timeless tale of lovers whose romance thrives despite which side of the horsetrack they’re from.
Likewise, Kentucky’s strongest asset is in the always timeless Walter Brennan who, despite mastering the art of defying time on and offscreen always made us think of his age as an afterthought when contrasted with the larger-than-life personalities of the characters he embodied throughout his enviable career, starting with his Oscar wining turn as a Kentucky horseman.
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