Saturday, May 26, 2012

Thunderhead--Son of Flicka

Roddy McDowall.
In the 1940s, the biggest producer of children-and-animal films was MGM--not Disney. The studio knew it had a winning formula when the 1943 adaptation of Eric Knight's children classic, Lassie Come Home, blossomed into a boxoffice hit. An added bonus was that the biggest human star in Lassie was young Roddy McDowall, who had garnered fine reviews for a supporting role in How Green Was My Valley. With no large salaries to pay and low production costs (thanks to a lot of outdoor scenes), the studio had to be cheerfully counting its profits.

A Flicka suncatcher.
While MGM launched a Lassie series built around its canine star, Twentieth Century-Fox cast the likable McDowall in My Friend Flicka (1943), another boy-and-animal movie based on a bestseller. Adapted from Mary O'Hara's novel, Flicka told the story of ten-year-old Ken McLaughlin (McDowell), who lives on a Wyoming ranch with his parents and older brother. Ken, who struggles to gain acceptance in his father's eyes, convinces his parents to let him raise a colt. He picks a spirited sorrel filly that he names Flicka (Swedish for "girl"). With mustang in her bloodline, Flicka has a wild streak that almost results in her death--but Ken nurses her back to health. He and Flicka form a strong bond and Ken's father begins to recognize his son's inner strength.

When My Friend Flicka repeated Lassie Come Home's success, Fox rushed out a Flicka sequel the following year. Thunderhead--Son of Flicka again headlined McDowall, who was becoming a dependable young star. It opens with Ken, who is now 12, learning that Flicka is pregnant. It turns out that Ken paired up Flicka with Appalachia, an expensive race horse owned by a neighbor. Fortunately, when the neighbor finds out, he doesn't file a lawsuit against the McLaughlins. In fact, he lets Ken keep the spunky white colt, which is named Goblin.

Goblin grows into a stubborn horse that tries even Ken's patience. Meanwhile, a wild mustang known as The Albino, makes off with a couple of the McLaughlin mares. That doesn't sit well with Banner, the head horse of the McLaughlin herd. A showdown looms between Banner and The Albino, but where does Goblin--whom Ken's Mom had decided to rename Thunderhead--fit into the horsey hierarchy?

Thunderhead--Son of Flicka is a pretty-looking--but sloppy--sequel, a far cry from its quality predecessor. After bringing back most of Flicka's cast, Thunderhead gives them nothing to do. Heck, even Flicka pretty much disappears from the proceedings after Goblin is born. Despite McDowall's efforts, Ken is less likable this time around--spending the family's hard-earned money on a horse racing scheme and, as mentioned earlier, using Appalachia for free. Preston Foster and Rita Johnson, as Ken's parents, are saddled with inane dialogue ("Ken, be careful"). James Bell, as a ranch hand, comes off best (though I identify him so closely with The Leopard Man that it was hard to trust his character). 

That leaves Goblin--I mean, Thunderhead--to carry the film. He certainly is a handsome stallion and, once he figures out his destiny, shows surprising maturity. In fact, despite the film's flaws, I somehow found its ultimate resolution to be oddly satisfying. That doesn't justify the 70 minutes that led up to it, but at least it's a consolation prize.

MGM finished off Mary O'Hara Flicka trilogy with 1948's Green Grass of Wyoming, which replaced the entire cast from Thunderhead. Peggy Cummins stars as the protagonist, with Charles Coburn as her grandfather and Burl Ives as Gus. Thunderhead, now head of the wild mustang herd, plays a major role in this installment, too. Charles Clarke earned an Academy Award nomination for his cinematography in Green Grass of Wyoming.

The Flicka novels have remained popular over the years. A My Friend Flicka TV series appeared in 1956 and lasted a season. Tim McGraw starred in a 2006 film, simply called Flicka, which was loosely based on O'Hara's novel.

This review is part of the Classic Movie Horseathon hosted by My Love of Old Hollywood. Click here to view the full schedule of equine film reviews.


  1. Ha ha - I loved your description of "inane parent dialogue". I've always liked Roddy McD. and it's too bad he didn't have a better script to work with here.

  2. Thunderhead Son of Flicka, is one of my childhood favorite classic films.. It has some beautiful scenery and I love their farm. Roddy McDowall, gives a good performance as the teenage son, trying to make his father proud.. I try to watch it when ever it comes on TCM.

  3. I've never seen any of these three Flicka films, but enjoyed your write-up a lot, Rick! Roddy McDowall was such a dependable performer throughout his life (and career (I absolutely adore HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY). While your review isn't a ringing endorsement for the THUNDERHEAD sequel, it seems like I should try and watch the original film at some point. How does GREEN GRASS OF WYOMING stack up in relation to the first two films?

  4. I haven't seen the Flicka films, but I always enjoyed Roddy McDowall as both child and adult actor. He was sweet without being saccharine or teary (which is why I find myself gritting my teeth when watching Jackie Cooper films). What surprises me about your description of the movie is that Rita Johnson plays the mother here; she was the quintessential Other Woman in so many films!

  5. I love the scenery in the "Flicka" movies. I remember they tried to impart how precarious it could be living and working with horses. "Thunderhead - Son of Flicka" is one of the all-time great titles.

  6. I have read all 3 books by Mary O'Hara and seen the movies as well. I love horses! The reason I watched the movies is because the horses are so beautiful. Dawn is right about the nice scenery too. I've always loved Roddy and he gives fine performances in every movie he is in. I recommend My Friend Flicka which is my favorite of the 3 to anyone who loves horses and the people who love them too. Enjoyed your article, Rick. I love your Flicka suncatcher, is beautiful!

  7. Rick,
    I've not read the books but I have seen the original Flicka then the 2006 remake. (My sister's idea since she loves everything Tim McGraw. Although it was a decent film with some great equine footage.)

    I can't imagine naming a horse Goblin but it's memorable as far as horse names go.

    Thanks for including the info on the competition between MGM and Twentieth Century Fox. It's always interesting to see which studio starts a trend, then who follows with which film. As much as Lassie has it's fans I'm sure there were plenty of Flicka fans too.

    Another interesting review, Rick. Thanks so much for participating in my Horseathon.

  8. count me as another who loved Mary O'Hara's books. I loved "Flicka," but always thought of the sequel as "Dunderhead." But, you can never go totally wrong with little Roddy and a beautiful horse.

  9. Rick ~ I’m sorry I missed reading your post yesterday, but it certainly is worth the wait. I’m not a fan of westerns as a rule, but the engaging storytelling and the glorious location shooting of films about animals and children always impressed me as a kid. I also can not think of another child actor who was as endearing and engaging as Roddy McDowall. However, I have never seen any of the Flicka films, despite my father sharing his love for the stories over the years. I think, based on your review, the first and the last title might make the perfect double-feature for a night of films about horses.

  10. Rick, I noticed that you began May with the endearing Mr. Ed and are finishing the month with Thunderhead. The horses, scenery, and Roddy are all interesting to watch despite the weak story. I never cared for the name Goblin and was glad when the beautiful horse was renamed Thunderhead. This was a fun blog to read and I especially enjoyed everyone's comments.

  11. I had never heard of this trilogy before! I'll try to check it, the first movie at least :) Thanks for your reviews :)

  12. I can remember catching a bit of this movie on TV years ago, before I was acquainted with any of Mary O'Hara's books. I've read My Friend Flicka, but haven't been able to get up the nerve to finish out the trilogy yet. :) I thought the film version of Flicka was a pretty but much-watered-down adaptation of the book—unlike most of you, I felt Roddy McDowell was miscast as Ken—but the scenery in the early roundup scenes was beautiful!

  13. I've never read the books and don't remember seeing any of the movies though I probably did on early television. But I still liked your post, Rick. It's always a pleasure for me to read about movies that feature an actor I've always admired and truly liked, Roddy McDowall.

  14. I've only seen the original film (and the TV series) but I have to admit...this doesn't sound appealing. I was going to crack wise about McDowell's horse getting the milk for free but you kind of beat me to it, so I'll be good.

    Oh, and the answer to the Stooge question is "Shemp!"

  15. I remember seeing this movie as a kid, and then it was on TCM just a little while ago. I think the racing premise held my interest, but you're right, on seeing it more recently, it's pretty weak compared to the first movie in the series. I didn't know there was a third! Might have to go check that out...