The mission of the NFPF is to save and make accessible “orphan films.” These are movies unprotected by commercial interests, including documentaries, silent films, newsreels, home movies, avant-garde works, industrial films, and independent productions. “Orphan Film Spotlight” is a new regular feature of our blog and will highlight orphans preserved through our grant programs that are viewable online. Our inaugural selection has an unusual premise and unforgettable title: Blackie the Wonder Horse Swims the Golden Gate.
The story behind the film begins and ends at Roberts-at-the-Beach, a San Francisco restaurant owned by Richard “Shorty” Roberts. One day Shorty was arguing with Bill Kyne, owner of the famed Bay Meadows Racetrack, about whether horses could swim. Shorty claimed Blackie, his 12 year old gelding, could swim across the Golden Gate. Kyne bet $1,000 that he couldn’t.
On October 1, 1938, Blackie and his entourage entered the waters off Marin County. Shorty’s brother led the way in a rowboat, offering sugar as bait. Blackie swam with gusto, towing Shorty (who couldn’t swim) with his tail. It took 23 minutes and 15 seconds for Blackie to swim 7/8ths of a mile to San Francisco’s Crissy Field (outdistancing the human swimmers accompanying him). On shore were angry SPCA officials; they were pacified after seeing Shorty in worse shape than his horse, who was eager to swim back.
Bill Kyne was a good loser and hosted a party at Roberts-at-the-Beach, with Blackie as the guest of honor. He also seems to have commissioned the film of Blackie’s exploits, made in imitation of a newsreel, with titles, a narrator, and (amateurish) Foley sound. Likely shown in local theatres, it stealthily promoted Kyne and Shorty’s businesses. Blackie’s swim was further memorialized on dinner plates, matchbooks and postcards sold at Roberts-at-the-Beach.
For Depression-era audiences, Blackie’s exploits called to mind celebrity racehorses like Seabiscuit, who won the Bay Meadows Handicap the same year. His owner C.S. Howard frequented Shorty’s restaurant alongside Mayors “Sunny Jim” Rolph and Angelo Rossi, columnist Herb Caen, and Bing Crosby, whose racehorse was famously bested by Seabiscuit that year too. Roberts-at-the-Beach was one of several flamboyant popular attractions of San Francisco’s ocean-side “Outside Lands,” including Sutro Baths and Playland at the Beach. All of these institutions—which provided diversions to thousands during the Depression—are now gone, but Blackie continues swimming online.
Blackie the Wonder Horse Swims the Golden Gate was preserved from a 16mm reduction negative by the San Francisco Media Archive, “a nonprofit institution dedicated to acquiring, preserving and making available film and related media materials to historians, researchers, imagemakers and the general public.” It houses a collection of approximately 25,000 films, videotapes, and digital media. Its founder and director, Stephen Parr, hosts weekly film screenings on-site through Oddball Films. The preservation was funded through an NFPF Partnership Grant, with laboratory services donated by Colorlab.