Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Review: 'Harry & Snowman' wins audience award at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival

Posted By on Tue, Oct 20, 2015 at 10:37 AM

click to enlarge "Harry & Snowman"
  • "Harry & Snowman"

The fast-moving equestrian documentary "Harry & Snowman" was one of the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival’s most beloved features. Winner of the Spa City Audience Award, the film played to a packed house on October 10 in the Arlington Hotel’s central ballroom.

"Harry & Snowman" tells the story of the Dutch immigrant Harry deLeyer and the Amish plow horse he purchased for eighty dollars at a Pennsylvania auction. The transaction not only saved the horse from a one-way trip to the glue factory, but marked the beginning of a close friendship and a long-lasting professional partnership. The horse, whom Harry quickly named “Snowman,” had springs in his feet and an unflagging devotion to his owner and trainer. The duo quickly propelled their way onto the national scene for show jumping, winning a slew of local competitions in the Northeast. In 1958 they took the Triple Crown, the ultimate victory of show-jumping achievement. Snowman was past his prime by the early 1960s, but nonetheless enjoyed an illustrious retirement in Long Island while Harry continued to train horses and mentor a new generation of aspiring athletes.

Director Ron Davis tells the narrative in a straightforward and easy-to-follow fashion with the focus staying on Harry and his horse. The complexities of the deLeyer family, including the interpersonal dynamics among the eight children and the bitter divorce between Harry and his wife, remain in the background or beyond the edges of the frame.

What pulls the viewer into the documentary is the robust assemblage of archival resources. Davis and his team amassed a rich record of still and moving images that follow Harry and Snowman across magazine covers, television monitors, and movie screens at a time when the media spotlight still shined brightly on the world of equestrian athletics. The New York Herald Tribune’s Marie Lafrenz tracked the duo’s rise to prominence, Life profiled their internationally recognized accomplishments, and network television fueled the duo’s celebrity status, bringing their spectacular performances to living rooms around the country. A particularly memorable moment in the documentary is the Diamond Jubilee at Madison Square Garden, the most important contest Snowman would win. Home movie footage of the deLeyer compound provides additional insight into Snowman’s place as a beloved member of the family.

Arkansas’s vibrant horse culture made for an engaged and enthusiastic audience. Hot Springs itself hosts the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park, a major venue for thoroughbred racing. Writers and photographers from the equestrian press such as the publication Sidelines were in attendance at the screening. When the film finished, the crowd rose to its feet to applaud the movie and honor the evening’s special guest, Harry deLeyer, who later held court in the lobby outside the auditorium, chatting with show jumping enthusiasts and fans of the film.

The fact that Davis was in attendance at the documentary also added to the excitement. Arkansas Film Commissioner Christopher Crane interviewed Davis, who provided some backstory for the project and fielded questions. One audience member proudly shared that she had driven 450 miles to come to the screening. Looking around at the sea of spectators, it was clear that the programmers had chosen wisely and that Davis had delivered a quality picture. As the documentary makes its way onto broadcast and streaming services, future viewers will be able to enjoy an excellent documentary but not necessarily the fervor of this event. Watching "Harry & Snowman" in Hot Springs was certainly something special.

Joshua Glick is an Assistant Professor of English and Film Studies at Hendrix College

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