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In all honesty, I've never been a very big fan of animal movies. They so often have moments of pathos, and I'm simply too tender-hearted to handle watching animals in distress! But as a Fred MacMurray fan I've been wanting to catch up with his film SMOKY, and the Horseathon provided a great reason to do so.
SMOKY does have some sad scenes which were tough for me to watch, but on the plus side it's a very nicely made film, distinguished by beautiful Technicolor filming in Wyoming. In addition to MacMurray, the movie features a young Anne Baxter and introduces "The Singing Troubadour," Burl Ives, in his first film. I wasn't wild about the story, but I appreciated the movie's many positive aspects.
MacMurray plays Clint Barkley, a wanderer who hires on as a hand at a horse ranch owned by Julie Richards (Baxter). Clint has a troubled background related in some way to Frank Denton (Bruce Cabot), who shows up at the ranch looking for a job.
He may have a mysterious past, but Clint's got a great way with horses, and he falls in love with a wild horse he names Smoky. Clint trains Smoky and they have a mutual affection for one another; Smoky even aids Clint when he's injured. And then Smoky disappears, and an anguished Clint searches the country, determined to find him.
SMOKY has great atmosphere, thanks to the combination of the lovely Wyoming scenery and Ives' music, which accompanies lazy Sundays in the bunkhouse and evenings on the range. MacMurray is excellent in a touching performance, though I think his character has more of a relationship with Smoky than he does with Julie! Although it's obvious that a stunt double does the most difficult riding scenes, MacMurray is nonetheless quite believable as a man who knows his way around horses.
In one of the stranger sequences in SMOKY, Julie narrates the horse's early history, telling Clint things it doesn't seem Julie could know about the animal. It's almost as though Julie turns into an omniscient narrator, rather than speaking from her personal knowledge; it seemed as though what Julie was saying must have been based on passages from the book on which the film was based. Baxter does a nice job in a fairly limited role as the spunky young ranch owner. She was 22 or 23 when she made this film, and would soon thereafter win the Supporting Actress Oscar for THE RAZOR'S EDGE (1946), released just a few months after SMOKY.
A couple years later Ives was also very effective in the Dick Powell "Western noir" STATION WEST (1948). Ives appeared in several films between 1946 and 1950, the other titles being GREEN GRASS OF WYOMING (1948), Disney's SO DEAR TO MY HEART (1948), and the Audie Murphy film SIERRA (1950). He was then off the screen for five years before returning in EAST OF EDEN (1955); he went on to win the Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for the memorable Western THE BIG COUNTRY (1958). Ives' place in pop culture history was cemented when he narrated the TV classic RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER (1964), singing the unforgettable "Holly Jolly Christmas."
SMOKY was directed by Louis King and photographed by Charles G. Clarke. It was based on a novel by Will James. The running time is 87 minutes.
This movie is not available on DVD or VHS. It has been shown on Fox Movie Channel, and if I remember correctly it also turned up on Turner Classic Movies a few months ago.
As a postscript, my dogs rarely pay attention to the television, but SMOKY absolutely transfixed my dog Luke, who seemed very aware there was another animal on the screen. When a mountain lion appeared on camera, Luke jumped! I got quite a kick out of watching Luke's interest in the whinnying horse on the screen. This movie is recommended for dogs as well as those who love horse movies!