‘Kentucky’ (1938)

[23 May 2014]

By Michael Barrett

Kentucky follows two plotlines. In one, the beautiful daughter (Loretta Young) of one proud family is secretly courted by the son (Richard Greene) of a rival family without telling her his real identity. In the other arc, the son helps the daughter train a horse called Bluegrass that will run in the Kentucky Derby and restore glory to her family’s declining fortunes. If that doesn’t tell you how this picture turns out, perhaps you’ve never seen a movie before.

There’s a third, symbolic plotline. The feud between the families dates back to the film’s prologue in the Civil War, when a tragedy occurred over one family’s sympathy for the Confederate cause and the other’s commitment to the Union. It’s the proud Confederate family that’s fallen into decline while the other family thrived, so the romantic union between the third generation must signal the death (literal and/or metaphorical) of the memories of those who remember the era of 75 years before. This rapprochement between the legacies of North and South must occur, it so happens, just as most of America expects imminent war in Europe, although nobody mentions it. The bitter past is fiercely embodied by Walter Brennan doing his old coot act and winning an Oscar for it, and the movie implies that there may be no place for him in the modern world.

Both in the Civil War sequence and the modern era, the white families are surrounded by black servants presented in a more or less patronizing light. One standout character (George Reed) is a sly old reprobate who, though living 50 years on one farm, feels no spurious “loyalty” and is happy to play both families against the middle for his own benefit, even accusing those who fired him for stealing of being disloyal; he’s a comic stereotype, but something interesting is going on with him as he “plays” the white folks and puts cash in his pocket. Maybe it’s only that Reed is such a good actor, we’re more interested when he’s on screen than the bland romantic leads. Also worth noticing is the always fierce-looking Madame Sul-Te-Wan, who debuted in The Birth of a Nation, and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson is unmistakable in his brief bit.

Lamar Trotti and John Taintor Foote wrote the script based on a novel by the latter, who wrote lots of horse stories; the following year, he’d script The Great Dan Patch and The Story of Seabiscuit. Director David Butler specialized in light entertainment, and this effort makes a smooth, lean canter to the finish line. Fox Cinema Archives has issued this once popular hit on demand. The Technicolor photography on this print seems possibly faded in comparison to how it might look with an expensive restoration, but otherwise it looks very good.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/181500-kentucky/