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'Hollywood Hoofbeats' Chronicles The Horses That Captured Moviegoers' Hearts


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. In the days when westerns were big box office and TV attractions, cowboys and their horses often shared equal billing. Champion, wonder horse of the West, was Gene Autry's mount. John Wayne rode Duke, his devil horse, and, of course, there was Roy Rogers and Trigger billed as the smartest horse in the movies.

Our guest Petrine Day Mitchum has written a book about horses in movies and television called, "Hollywood Hoofbeats." She says some horses were specially trained stunt horses, others bonded with actors who rode with them for years. And many, she says, developed an actor's affection for the camera, coming to life when the director said action. Petrine Day Mitchum is a former Hollywood story editor and script analyst who's also worked as a photojournalist and essayist, and she's the daughter of Robert Mitchum. She spoke to FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. She said that back in the silent era, some horses were the box office attraction.

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Petrine Day Mitchum, welcome to FRESH AIR. Fascinating stories in here about horses in Hollywood. Let's talk about one of the big stars of the silent era, a horse named Rex. You would see Rex's name on a marquee?


DAVIES: What made him special? I mean, he could perform well - I mean, seemed to take training well. Was there something about his look, something in his eyes? I mean, what makes...

MITCHUM: Yes, absolutely. There was a wildness to him that, you know, many people who worked with him described, and he just had this incredible presence, really. He had star power (laughter). He had a gorgeous conformation, a beautiful arched neck, very, very pretty face, but he just had a wildness about him that never left. And he was not that easy to work with on the set. Sometimes he would run off, and he was sort of a diva. But he was worth it because he was such a box office attraction. Hank Potts who was a movie horse handler at the time said that he had an unusual and arresting gleam in his eye like the unattainable stare of an eagle. So he really did have a charisma that was very unusual.

DAVIES: There's a famous trainer named Yakima Canutt - do I have that - the name right?

MITCHUM: Yakima Canutt. Yakima was more of a stuntman than a trainer...


MITCHUM: ...He's quite a famous stuntman and horseman. And, yes, he had to work with Rex, and Rex actually attacked him.

DAVIES: You tell a story of where they were on the set. They were taking repeated take after take of a particular scene. And...


DAVIES: ...Canutt warned Rex is getting a little edgy here. What happened?

MITCHUM: Yes. Yakima Canutt co-starred with Rex in a movie called "The Devil Horse," in which Rex was playing - guess what? - the devil horse. And in one scene, Rex had to run to Canutt's character during an Indian battle, and that's the kind of liberty work that he excelled at, running from point A to point B completely at liberty, just watching the trainer off-camera give him a cue. And he had done it many, many times and was getting tired as horses do. And Canutt told the director, you know, I don't think we should press him for another take, but the director wanted another take.

And Rex just completely snapped and charged at Canutt with his teeth bared and really went after him, and he bit him, got him on the neck and knocked him to the ground, reared up and was striking at Canutt. And Canutt managed to roll away, and he kicked Rex on the nose. And Rex just kept coming after him even when the trainer, Swede Lindell, tried to call him off. And Canutt finally just was able to roll over a bank and escape and run away, so he was not completely tame. I've seen the film, and it is pretty frightening.

DAVIES: As you researched these horses and their trainers and what they were like on movie sets, do you - were horses aware of when the camera was on? Did they behave differently in rehearsal than they did when it was a real take?

MITCHUM: I've heard many stories of horses that absolutely came alive when they saw the little red camera light blinking. And jumping ahead in time, Jimmy Stewart's mountain, 17-westerns Pie was one of those horses who Stewart said he just felt him come alive underneath him the minute the camera started rolling. So, yes, the answer is some horses actually - they know when they're on camera.

DAVIES: It's interesting that you mention that pair. I don't know that people think of James Stewart as necessarily a Western star, but he did a lot of westerns. And this horse named Pie was his horse in 17 films, right?

MITCHUM: Yes, James Stewart rode this horse called Pie in 17 westerns, and he tried very, very hard to buy him from his owner, a woman named Stevie Meyers. And she wouldn't sell him, but she did let Stewart ride him in 17 films. And they just became so attuned to each other that in one film, "The Far Country," Stewart had developed such a rapport with him that he was able to get the horse to do something at liberty all by himself when the trainer was not around. They were on this location. The trainer wasn't on the set. And the horse needed to walk from one end of a street to another with no ropes on him or anything, and Stewart just went up to him, he said he whispered in his ear and told him what he needed him to do. And the horse did it. And everyone on the set was absolutely amazed, and Stewart just said, that was Pie. That's what he did. So he absolutely had an incredible bond with the horse.

DAVIES: Let's talk about one of the most famous cowboy and horse pairs, Roy Rogers and Trigger. How did they get together?

MITCHUM: Well, Roy Rogers was looking for a horse to be his movie horse, and he went to the Hudkin Brothers Stables. The Hudkin Brothers were an outfit that supplied movie horses to many of the studios, mainly Warner Bros. And Roy got on that horse, and he said, I got on the horse that was to become Trigger and rode him down the street and back and never looked at the rest of them. I said this is it. This is the color I want. He feels like the horse I want, and he's got a good rein on him. So I took Trigger, and I started my first picture. And they really became the most iconic pair, Trigger, being a gorgeous golden palomino horse with a white mane and tail, very, very flashy. And he was trained by a gentleman named Glenn Randall, who is considered to be one of the finest movie horse trainers in the business. And one of the things that Glenn Randall taught his horses - the ones that had the physical ability to do it - was to do a beautiful rear, standing up on the hind legs almost vertically and that Trigger could do just beautifully. So that was one of his trademarks, but he also had a number of tricks on him.

DAVIES: Does a particular stunt or trick come to mind?

MITCHUM: Yes, there was a film where Rogers and Trigger were jumping over a series of 50-gallon drums that were rolling off the back of a truck. And it was a completely unrehearsed scene, and Trigger just did it all perfectly in one take. He just was a great horse in terms of being confident. He and Roy had confidence in each other, which was so important, and just - and took this crazy stunt in stride. I mean, it's really quite astonishing, I would imagine, for a horse to see a bunch of barrels running straight at him and then just to have the presence of mind to just jump them and not flinch and not try and shy away from them. So it was a really spectacular scene.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Petrine Day Mitchum. Her new book is "Hollywood Hoofbeats." We'll continue our conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR and if you're just joining us, we're speaking with Petrine Day Mitchum. She has a new book with Audrey Pavia about Hollywood horses. It's called "Hollywood Hoofbeats."

You see horses fall a lot in film. And I gather that there were ways that this was done years ago that was kind of harmful to horses. Explain that for us.

MITCHUM: In the early days of filmmaking, falling horses were often trip-wired. And that means that they had wires attached to the front of their feet. And those wires were run up under their girth and attached either to a stationary pole or, in some cases, the rider would actually hold the wires and pull the horse's legs out from under him at a gallop. This was really an incredibly brutal, inhumane way of doing it.

Broncho Billy Anderson, the very first cowboy actor, employed this method. He didn't know anything about horses. You know, he didn't have any sentimental feelings towards them. He just wanted to get his movies made. Another way of tripping horses was to dig holes in the ground, and they would just gallop into the holes. And the most egregious and famous example of that is in "Charge Of The Light Brigade," Cecil B. DeMille's film.

DAVIES: That film was particularly tough on a lot of horses, right?

MITCHUM: Yes. That film - that 1936 movie "Charge Of The Light Brigade" is just stunning in the amount of carnage of horses and injuries to stunt riders as well. Errol Flynn, the star of the film, was really unaware of what was going to happen to all these horses when the charge began. And he was completely sickened to see horses go down. And, you know, they shot it over and over again, so there were - just - it was appalling.

Interestingly enough, as a sidebar, there was one trained falling horse in the film. But that's one out of many. Anyway, Flynn was so outraged and so despondent about this that he actually went public and talked about the misuse of horses. And this was the beginning of the American Humane Association's oversight of animal actors in film, which endures to today, which is a wonderful, wonderful thing. And when you go see a film and you see their little imprint and the no-animals-were-harmed-in-the-making-of-this-film, you'd better believe that no animals were harmed in the making of the film. So we have Mr. Flynn to thank for that wonderful advocacy for equine actors.

DAVIES: And in that film, "The Charge Of The Light Brigade," were horses actually killed?

MITCHUM: Yes, they were. If they weren't killed on the spot, their legs were broken so badly they had to be destroyed.

DAVIES: So what was the more humane way of making a horse fall?

MITCHUM: Well, the humane way of making a horse fall is actually centuries old. It's an old battlefield technique of teaching a horse to fall so that - I mean, it's not for a very good reason on the battlefield - so that you can fall a horse and use him as a shield.

But as it has evolved as really an art in the film business, it's a process by where the horse is trained very, very slowly, starting at a standstill. The trainer will pick up the horse's - one of the horse's front legs, maybe tie it up and slowly push him over - always onto soft ground - very, very carefully done so that the horse lands on his shoulder and he's not hurt. And once the horse is confident doing that - that he's not going to get hurt - then they'll start doing it at a walk and then at a trot and then finally, at a gallop.

This can take months to teach a horse, and not every horse is going to go for it. I mean, it's a very strange thing to do. But some horses just trust their trainer enough and have the athletic ability to do it. And from what I heard from talking to stunt men who trained their own falling horses, which is usually the case, they had horses who actually came to love it and anticipate it and were real star athletes.

DAVIES: Yeah. So you have the horse galloping along, and there's an appointed spot, which - where the ground is softer and there's a bit of padding - and then they give the horse the signal, and the horse rolls in a way that's safe.

MITCHUM: Yes. And you can tell a trained fall when you're watching a film by looking for the horse's head - looking at the horse's head. And as the horse is galloping along, the trainer will pull the horse's head, usually to the left, and he will fall on the opposite shoulder. So he's taking the weight off of the outside by pulling the horse's head to the inside and then cueing him to fall over onto the other side. And of course, the stunt man is wearing a saddle that has rubber stirrups on that side so when the horse is falling, he's not falling on anything hard. And of course, the rider has to get his leg out of the way, if possible. So it's a very, very carefully orchestrated - almost dance move, if you will.

DAVIES: Horses did funny things, too, right? I mean, are - do you have some favorite, I don't know, examples of horses being funny in the movies?

MITCHUM: Oh, absolutely. Well, certainly, going to television, there's Mister Ed...


MITCHUM: ...With his clever talking.

MITCHUM: But in film, I would say one of the funniest horses was a horse called Dice, who was a black-and-white pinto horse. And he made some movies in the 1940s. They made a series of Dagwood and Blondie movies. And Dice appeared in a Dagwood and Blondie movie called "It's A Great Life" in which Dagwood is sent to buy a house and instead he buys a horse by mistake. Now he has to hide the horse, and it's just this whole silly setup.

And Dice is fabulous. He does things like he hides behind a sofa. And he walks into Dagwood's office building and takes the elevator upstairs and just performs a number of really clever tricks. And he just had a very - a very sort of cute look to him. He was a black-and-white pinto, and he was just kind of a - really, a natural clown. He also appeared with Gregory Peck in "Duel In The Sun" where he has a very flashy little cameo scene where he does some tricks to impress Jennifer Jones - picking up a hat and whinnying and counting and making faces, so he was quite the comedian.

DAVIES: A lot of movie stars, particularly in Westerns, you know, rode with the same horse for years and really developed, really, a close, affectionate relationship that extended after the horse retired. You want to just, I don't know, pick one or two and tell us about those emotional bonds?

MITCHUM: Well, one of the best examples I can think of is James Stewart and his wonderful mount Pie who he rode in 17 westerns. And when Pie passed away, Stewart had him buried in a secret grave in the San Fernando Valley. He would never tell anyone where he was. But he just - he wanted to make sure that the horse was buried and, you know, not sent off to be slaughtered or anything like that. So he made sure that he had a dignified death and had a good resting place.

William S. Hart, the very first movie cowboy - he had his horse Fritz buried on his ranch out in Newhall, Calif., which is now wonderful museum. And he just absolutely loved his horses and, you know, treated them like members of his family. So, yeah, those are two good examples.

DAVIES: As you researched this subject, was there something that really surprised you?

MITCHUM: One of the most surprising things for me to learn was that stunt horses really love doing their work. You know, you would think it would be hard on them and that they might sort of sour after time. But the really good ones apparently really loved to do it. Whether it was falling or jumping through candy glass or doing some other outrageous behavior, they really seemed to take pride in their work and loved their work and that they lived really long times despite the fact that what they were doing was dangerous and difficult.

DAVIES: Well, Petrine Day Mitchum, thanks so much for speaking with us.

MITCHUM: Thank you, Dave. It's so wonderful to speak to you. I'm really thrilled to have been part of FRESH AIR.

GROSS: Petrine Day Mitchum is the author of "Hollywood Hoofbeats." She spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies, who is also WHYY's senior reporter. Here's Jimmy Stewart telling the story we heard about earlier when he was working with the horse Pie on the 1954 Western "The Far Country."


JIMMY STEWART: It was almost a human thing between us. I think we liked each other. And I got so - I really talked to this horse. I know he understood. (LAUGHTER)

I know. I know one night - boy, I'm coming into a town, and I have a little bell on the horn of the saddle. And this sort of identifies me. And the bad guys are in the saloon. They're going to get me. And they hear the bell, and they say here he comes. Now, what Pie had to do - the camera goes on Pie's legs and then cut to the bad guys and goes on as Pie's walking. And then it goes up and there's nobody on Pie, and he's walking.

And they say - now, how long is it going to take you to get Pie to walk? And it was 3 o'clock at night, and there were lights and everything. How long is it going to get you - take you to get Pie to walk down this long street all by himself? And I said, well, I'll talk to him.


STEWART: And I went back and I really - I said, Pie...


STEWART: Now, this is tough because you're horse.


STEWART: But you have to walk straight down there, and I'm not going to be on you, you see. But you have to walk right straight down and clear to the other end of the set. And the fellow says - how long is it going to take? You're going to talk all night?


STEWART: I said no. I think he'll do it. So they - it was a dolly shot. you know. So they rolled the cameras, and Pie did it the first time. It was amazing, amazing.


STEWART: I loved him. I loved the horse.

GROSS: That was Jimmy Stewart. Coming up, a poem by our classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz that's been set to music. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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