Saturday, May 6, 2023

Derby Day ( 1952 )

May is known in the sporting world as Derby season and taking place this evening is one of the most popular derby races in America, the 149th Kentucky Derby. If you are like most classic film fans, you will probably be enjoying a good horse-racing film tonight to tie in with the Derby. It may be The Story of Seabiscuit, Riding High or National Velvet ( check out our post Horse Racing Films of the 1940s and 1950s for other titles )....but if you want a treat that is slightly different than your usual Hollywood fare, look no further, for we have a title for you: Derby Day ( 1952 ).

Derby Day is a marvelous British ensemble drama starring Anna Neagle and Michael Wilding and a host of popular British actors from the era. The story focuses on four different groups of people, all of whom are attending the famous Derby Day race at Epson Downs. Unlike some ensemble pieces that keep all of the stories separate, Derby Day has the different groups interact with one another at the race, which is rather nice to see. 

First, there is Google Withers who is in a right good pickle. She was carrying on an affair with her lodger ( John McCallum ) when her husband returned from work early and caught them together. McCallum gives him a kick and the poor bloke takes a nasty tumble backwards down the stairs. They quickly hide his body and then McCallum heads to Epsom Downs to contact a man whom he knows can "fix it" so that he can escape from England before the police catch him. 

Michael Wilding is attending the race to make some sketches for a newspaper, but he really has another reason for wanting to go. The taxi he is traveling in happens to break down on the road there and he is kindly offered a lift by Lady Forbes and her brother-in-law ( Anna Neagle and Edwin Styles ). They eventually find that their lives are intertwined more than they had realized. 

Peter Graves plays Gerald Berkeley, a hammy film star, who is attending the race because he was "won" in raffle. The old woman who won a Day-with-a-Film-Star sprained her ankle and so her young and pretty French maid, Suzanne Cloutier, is taking her place....much to the delight of Mr. Berkeley. 

Lastly, Gordon Harker and Gladys Henson play a taxi-cab driver and his wife who have talked about attending Derby Day in person for the past 40 years but never had an opportunity until today. 

Each of these characters is well-developed and their happenings at the race are highly entertaining. It could have been written in such a way that Anna Neagle and Michael Wilding's characters took center stage and the other stories were not as enjoyable, but instead, they are equally engrossing. Every three or four minutes the focus changes between the characters so you never tire of any of the couple's dramas.

Derby Day was the last of six films that Neagle and Wilding were paired in, a pair that critic Godfrey Winn deemed "the greatest in British films". All of their pictures were produced and directed by Neagle's husband Herbert Wilcox, who also had his own highly successful Herbert Wilcox Productions company. 

Most horse-racing films give you a look at the jockeys, horses, and all of the drama behind the scenes, but Derby Day doesn't cover any of that. It is unique because it is all about the people, the atmosphere of the Derby Day race at Epsom, and the general feeling of excitement of attending a race like that in person. 

So if you are not attending the 149th Kentucky Derby this evening and want to savor the excitement of a day at the races ( even one spent looking at the tele ), then give Derby Day a try. It is available via streaming online or on DVD from Network Distributing. 

Note: In the U.S., Derby Day was released under the title Four Against Fate.

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