The Great Dan Patch

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Director: Joseph M. Newman
Writer: John Taintor Foote
Lyrics: John Taintor Foote

  • Visalia Abbe — Dan Patch (the horse)
  • Everett Brown — stablehand
  • Charlotte Greenwood — Aunt Netty
  • John Hoyt — Ben Lathrop
  • Henry Hull — Dan Palmer
  • Arthur Hunnicutt — Chet Williams
  • Harry Lauter — Bud Ransome
  • Clarence Muse — Voodoo
  • Dennis O'Keefe — David Palmer
  • Gail Russell — Cissy Lathrop
  • Ruth Warrick — Ruth Treadwell

W.R. Frank Productions: 1949

94 minutes July 2010


The Great Dan Patch is a fairly lightweight movie, based on history but not very closely. The setting is the training years around 1900 of the great racehorse Dan Patch, who became a world-famous pacer in the heyday of the harness-racing era. The film's plot is built upon his training and the day-to-day workings of farm and racing stable, with the addition of a romance and the story of two families, respectively the early owners and the trainers of Dan Patch.

The film is set in rural Indiana and has some interesting background on raising horses for racing. Do not mistake it for a documentary about Dan Patch: think of it as a fictional introduction, a romantic tale to whet your interest.

Joe Newman's direction and the cast do a good job with the material available, conveying some of the excitement and humdrum of horses and racing. The weakest contributor here is Dennis O'Keefe, whose portrayal seems rather bland for the solidity and decisiveness that the plot demands of him. John Hoyt as the horse trainer, and especially Gail Russell as the trainer's daughter, convey the true love of fine horses which is the film's essential message, beyond Dan Patch's own early days.

So The Great Dan Patch is enjoyable if your expectations are moderate: some of Dan Patch's story, not entirely historical; some rural life and stable doings; a human romance with typical difficulties. Gail Russell does most of the heavy lifting in all these areas, and does it well.

This style of racing, little-seen now, is an ancient tradition. Harness-racing resembles more the charioteer or charioteer-plus-warrior of Homer's Iliad, of ancient Egyptian and Roman times, than later cavalry or astride-racing which the inventions of saddle and stirrup made truly practical. Bareback knee-grippers such as American Indians maneuvered quickly and easily but did not have a seat sufficiently stable for the heavier military armament.

Dan Patch is one of the few real and famous animals whose name lingers in public awareness after his time: he is mentioned, for instance, in the musical The Music Man. Dan Patch's history is worth knowing, one of the popular icons of his era.


© 2010 Robert Wilfred Franson

Dan Patch Historical Society

R. W. Franson's review of
Crazy Good:
The True Story of Dan Patch,
the Most Famous Horse in America
by Charles Leerhsen

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