Universal Pictures


In the winter of 1937, America was in the seventh year of the most catastrophic decade in its history. The economy had come crashing down, and millions upon millions of people had been torn loose from their jobs, their savings, their homes.

A nation that drew its audacity from the quintessentially American belief that success is open to anyone willing to work for it was disillusioned by seemingly intractable poverty. The most brash of peoples was seized by despair, fatalism and fear.

The sweeping devastation was giving rise to powerful new socialforces. Thefirst was a burgeoning industry of escapism. America was desperate to lose itself in anything that offered affirmation. The nations corner theaters hosted 85 million people a week for 25-cent viewings of an endless array of cheery musicals and screwball comedies.

On the radio, the idealized world of One Mans Family and the just and reassuring tales of The Lone Ranger were runaway hits. Downtrodden Americans gravitated strongly toward the Horatio Alger protagonist, the lowly bred Everyman who rises from anonymity and hopelessness. They lookedfor him in spectator sports, which were enjoying explosive growth. With the re-legalization of wagering, no sport was growingfaster than Thoroughbred racing.

Necessity spurred technological innovations that offered the public unprecedented access to its heroes. People accustomed to reading comparatively dry rehashes of events were now enthralled by vivid scenes rolling across the new Movietone newsreels.

A public that had grown up with news illustrations and hazy photo layouts was now treated to breathtaking action shots facilitated by vastly improved photographic equipment. These images were now rapidly available thanks to wirephoto services, which had debuted in Life in the month that Pollard, Howard and Smith formed their partnership.

But it was the radio that had the greatest impact. In the 1920s the cost of a radio had been prohibitive--$120 or more--and all that bought was a box of unassembled parts. In unelectrified rural areas, radios ran on pricey, short-lived batteries. But with the 1930s came the advent of factory-built console, tabletop, and automobile radio sets, available for as little as $5. Thanks to President Roosevelts Rural Electrification Administration, begun in 1936, electricity came to the quarter of the population that lived on farmlands. Ruralfamilies typically made the radio their second electric purchase, affer the clothes iron.

By 1935, when Seabiscuit began racing, two-thirds of the nations homes had a radio. At the pinnacle of his career, that figure had jumped to 90 percent, plus eight million sets in cars. Enabling virtually all citizens to experience noteworthy events simultaneously and in entertaining form, radio created a vast common culture in America, arguably the first true mass culture the world had ever seen. Racing, a sport whose sustained dramatic action was ideally suited to narration, became a staple of the airwave. The Santa Anita Handicap, with its giant purse and world-class athletes, competing in what was rapidly becoming the nations most heavily attended sport, became one to the premier radio events of the year.

In February 1937, all of these new social and technologicalforces were converging. The modern age of celebrity was dawning. The new machine offame stood waiting. All it needed was the subject himself At that singular hour, Seabiscuit, the Cinderella horse, flew over the line in the Santa Anita Handicap. Something clicked: Here he was.




Seabiscuit - The Lost Documentary
Buy New: $13.04

Seabiscuit (Widescreen Edition)
Buy New: $16.38

Seabiscuit (2-Disc Collector's Set)
Buy New: $44.98

Seabiscuit (PBS American Experience)
Buy New: $17.98

Seabiscuit (Full Screen Edition)
Buy New: $17.38