[18 April 2014]
Sparke (Lon McCallister) is a troubled teen orphan who’s not big on school and had brushes with the law. After the death of an aunt who’d been raising him (his mother having died in childbirth), he’s packed off to the languishing horse ranch of another aunt (Charlotte Greenwood, who vanishes halfway through the picture) and her dour husband, “Thunder” Bolt (Walter Brennan), nursing his wounded memories of past glory as a breeder and racer. They have one blind mare called Lady. Sparke loves horses and decides to stay.
To revitalize the estate and Thunder’s spirits, Sparke gets the mare pregnant by a stallion from the estate of a rival neighbor who ruined Thunder’s business 18 years ago. (This seems like a saucy develpment for Hollywood, but there was a war on.) Sparke’s behavior is underhanded and impetuous, not to mention that he’s playing hooky from school, but he gets away with it because he’s a good kid whose heart is in the right place. Then it’s off to the races, literally, in the world of harness-racing, with the aid of two unthreatening African-American stereotypes (Willie Best, George Reed) who help train the new filly. For spice, Sparke’s own mating instincts face confusion between the spoiled rich girl (June Haver) and the obviously right-for-him tomboy (Jeanne Crain) whom he takes forever to kiss.
Such is Home in Indiana, now available on demand from Fox Cinema Archives. It combines two types of Hollywood escapism popular during WWII: horses (e.g. National Velvet ) and sentimental Americana (e.g. Meet Me in St. Louis ). The original novel by Saturday Evening Post writer George Agnew Chamberlain was called The Phantom Filly. Apparently the title was changed to conform with the studio’s plans to complete an informal trilogy with previous equine hits Kentucky and Maryland. It would be remade as April Love (1957).
The charming McCallister, already 20, was somewhat typecast as a juvenile hayseed and clearly the go-to guy for movies based on Chamberlain’s stories, for he stars in the next two: The Red House and Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay!. I haven’t seen the latter, but the former happens to be a great thriller, and even though it’s very different from Home in Indiana, I notice that both films are about orphans who go to stay with distant older couples under the shadow of some long-ago tragedy. Both films also feature a character who delivers a lengthy, straight-on monologue to relive those events. For one story, that serves as the basis for horsey hokum, and for the other, an uncanny psychological melodrama.
This is one of a handful of Hollywood films produced by France’s André Daven, who found himself at Fox during the war. Versatile director Henry Hathaway, who would show strength in postwar noirs, handles this corn with taste, restraint, a good eye, and his reliable way with actors. He frames his trio of young stars attractively, often looking up at them via some clever set-up, and they have good scenes of interaction in various combinations. Hugo Friedhofer’s bucolic score is so restrained that Greenwood delivers her long, fraught monologue without any goosing. Edward Cronjager’s Oscar-nominated Technicolor photography looks watercolored and impressionistic on this less-than-perfect print, and it’s hard to say how much is purposeful and how much is simply faded; a restoration would surely do wonders.