'Harry & Snowman': Provincetown Review

A touching equine underdog tale

Documaker Ron Davis traces the remarkable story of the "Cinderella Horse," saved from the meat market and steered to a celebrated show-jumping career.

Narrative films such as Seabiscuit and Secretariat have recounted the fact-based stories of horses that overcame steep odds to triumph on the racetrack. The big difference in Ron Davis' heartwarming documentary, Harry & Snowman, is that the subject is not a thoroughbred but an Amish plow horse headed for the slaughterhouse when it was rescued by Dutch immigrant Harry de Leyer. The white steed went on in less than two years to become a show-jumping triple-crown winner with its own fan club. This simple but effective retelling of the story comes as MGM is developing a dramatic feature based on Elizabeth Letts' best-selling nonfiction book, The Eighty-Dollar Champion.

Laced with captivating home movies and a wealth of archive footage from the 1950s and '60s, when horse shows were a significant event on the upper-crust social-season calendar, Davis' film is a disarming underdog story that doubles as an animal-rescue advocacy tool. If it's less rounded in its portrait of lifelong horseman de Leyer, who became known as "the galloping grandfather," it nonetheless provides a tender illustration of the bond between man and beast.

De Leyer, now 86, came with his wife to the U.S. after World War II, sponsored by North Carolina tobacco growers whose G.I. son had been shot down by Germans and was buried on the Dutch family's farm. The oldest of 12 children, Harry worked with his father at 16 in the underground resistance movement, hiding Jews in their barn and delivering them safely to the Allies. He's somewhat reticent in discussing the war, however, preferring to talk about his love of horses.

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He saved money and moved to Long Island, signing a one-year contract as a riding teacher at the tony Knox School, a boarding academy for girls where he ended up working for 22 years. In 1956, Harry drove to Pennsylvania to buy a cheap horse at auction, but a flat tire caused him to miss the event. He spotted Snowman among the unsold horses that were destined to be slaughtered for pet food and glue, and says the connection was instantaneous. He paid $80 for the gentle, 8-year-old gelding, which proved an ideal mount for novice riders and a favorite with his young family.

One of the most delightful aspects of the story is how Snowman first demonstrated his jumping skills. Harry sold the horse to a farmer, and no matter how high the fences, he kept jumping them and returning home to Harry, six miles away. At that point he repurchased him and vowed never to sell the animal again. He stuck to that decision even after the horse's stellar performance in national jumping contests attracted a $100,000 offer.

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Davis traces the remarkable success of Harry and Snowman at a series of shows, starting with local events and quickly escalating to the big time at Madison Square Garden. In addition to the excellent archival material from TV and Movietone reports, the director makes elegant use of the old-school, prose-style journalism of New York Herald Tribune horse-show reporter Marie C. Lafrenz, heard in descriptive voiceovers. The phenomenon of an ineffably calm 12-year-old plow horse beating out sleek thoroughbreds for top titles in 1958 and ’59 helps explain how Snowman's fame spread. The same applied to de Leyer, an immigrant farmer who came to America with little money or possessions, triumphing over the wealthiest competitors in a sport dominated by blue bloods.

Some of the most touching material is the footage of family beach trips, showing Snowman paddling in the water with multiple kids astride his back, or using him as a diving platform.

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The filmmaker's attempt to tell the de Leyer family story is somewhat patchier, much of it coming not from Harry but from one or two of his adult children. His daughter Harriet de Leyer makes the telling admission that she and her seven siblings were encouraged to shine in their horsemanship, but never to outshine their father. One son left home abruptly when the pressure became too much, and Harry's marriage ended when his wife blamed him for a life-threatening riding accident that left another daughter in a coma for six weeks.

It's understandable that Davis wishes to respect the privacy of his subject, who appears to be uncomfortable discussing painful personal matters, though this does make the documentary seem a touch superficial in dealing with the conflicts. There's also a slight repetitiveness when Harry keeps returning to similar points about his work ethic, his drive and his refusal to retire. He continued competing at show-jumping events well into his 50s, and in his 80s, still appears to gain satisfaction as a riding instructor to his granddaughter.

But the real heart of the film, of course, is right there in the title, and Davis delivers on that crowd-pleasing story, showing welcome restraint in his choice of music to embellish the sentiment. Harriet's emotional account of Snowman being euthanized at age 26 due to kidney failure will leave only the most hardened viewers dry-eyed.

Production companies: Docutainment Films, Imaginaut Entertainment
Director-writer: Ron Davis
Producers: Ron Davis, Nancy Knox Talcott, Clay Westervelt
Executive producers: Paul Winston Blavin, Karin Reid Offield
Director of photography: Clay Westervelt
Music: Joel Goodman, Elik Alvarez
Editor: Nancy Kennedy

No rating, 83 minutes