Stablemates is the kind of MGM movie that just had to be considered corny even when it hit theaters in 1938. Essentially a remake of the far-superior 1931 film The Champ, Wallace Beery once again stars as a bumbling drunk who deserves the respect of no one but still inspires a young boy.
In The Champ, the boy was much younger and played by Jackie Cooper. In Stablemates, that boy is played by Mickey Rooney, who stars as Michael (but often called Mickey in the movie), a stableboy who dreams of turning his horse Lady-Q into a winner. Beery stars as Tom Terry, a disgraced former veterinarian Mickey meets. When Mickey learns that Tom can fix Lady-Q’s tumor, he begs Tom to stay around and begins idolizing Tom like a father hen ever had. They even have an informal adoption ceremony! Meanwhile, the law is on Tom’s trail and Mickey will do what he can to stop them from arresting Tom.
While the theme of The Champ is buried in Stablemates‘ DNA – even the trailer advertises it as some long-awaited follow-up to The Champ – it doesn’t even come close to its predecessor’s greatness. While The Champ is a realistic drama, Stablemates is a saccharine family movie that predicts lesser Disney movies. Director Sam Wood, who did make so many other great movies, struggles to leave a mark. It’s kind of hard when the only way Rooney knows how to show emotion (at least in this case) is to break out the waterworks. Beery, who is at the tail-end of his career here, is left to do little more than say “Aw shucks” before giving in to Rooney.
If there’s one bizarre element to this film, it’s Margaret Hamilton’s completely out-of-left-field role as Ms. Flanders, a woman whose barn the two guys try to sleep in one night. Hamilton, who might be preparing to play the Wicked Witch of the West here, shoots off one-liners like wildfire. I’ll never forget the line “I’ve got a shotgun and a canary. It’s all the company I need.” She gives the film’s second half some much-needed life.
Stablemates is enjoyable in the way that some other little-known classic Hollywood movies are today. Clearly, this movie has no real artistic ambitions beyond entertaining an audience for 89 minutes. The message here is that father-son bonds can come from anywhere and there really isn’t much beyond that. Mickey Rooney fans will enjoy it, especially if you’re on a quest to see all of his horse movies (he sure did make a lot of horse movies, didn’t he?).
Warner Archive released Stablemates on Made-On-Demand DVD earlier this summer. The disc only includes a trailer.
Thanks to Warner Archive for providing this disc to review!