The movie is, let’s be real, kind of hamstrung by the fact that it’s based on a true story. Oh, the real person on whose life it’s based said it didn’t bear much resemblance to the truth, and one supposes she’d know, but still—if her life doesn’t follow a traditional narrative structure, well, whose does? The problem, aside from having to invent a certain amount of conflict in the middle, is that there’s honestly not an ending. We just . . . stop. I’m not sure where I was expecting the movie to go after that last moment, but it didn’t.
Sonora Webster (Gabrielle Anwar) lives in rural Georgia. Her parents died of “the fever,” probably influenza. She and her younger sister, Arnette (Nancy Moore Atchison), live with their mother’s sister, Helen (Lisa Norman). For reasons, Aunt Helen decides Sonora is a burden and needs to go to the state orphanage. Instead, Sonora runs away and answers an ad she saw looking for diving girls. Specifically, Doctor W. F. Carver (Cliff Robertson) is looking for pretty girls to mount horses on the top of a forty-food tower and ride the horse as it plummets into the tank beneath.
Only Doc doesn’t want to hire her. She convinces him to let her be a stablehand. Doc’s son, Al (Michael Schoeffling), wins a skittish horse in a poker game and agrees to train him with Sonora; once she’s able to ride him, obviously Doc will let her dive. Which kind of works. Doc and Al have a fight, and Al leaves, promising to write, but Doc pockets all of Al’s letters. One day, while Doc is out, Al returns home, having persuaded an Atlantic City promoter to hire Doc’s show. However, on her first jump, Sonora takes a bad fall and ends up blind.
Yes, I was familiar with this movie when it came out, but I didn’t watch it. Not because the ASPCA wanted us to boycott—one horse was mildly injured, and the ASPCA was pretty clear that jumping horses off towers is a stupid and dangerous idea. But jumping horses off towers is a stupid and dangerous idea. Al tells Sonora early in the movie that riders are injured and horses aren’t, but so what? Even if that were guaranteed to be one hundred percent true one hundred percent of the time, I still spent the entire movie thinking of the line from Tangled about “your dream stinks.”
It’s honestly hard for me to get beyond that. She’s pursuing a stupid dream that could quite easily get her killed. Is there literally nothing else she wants to do? We’re supposed to look down on Marie (Kathleen York) for her dream of being an actress, I think, but at least that’s a real dream that people have. Clifford Henderson (Dylan Kussman) could be a great engineer, but instead he comes up with his own weird death-defying stunt—he’s that guy who rides a motorcycle around the inside of a giant metal ball. At least the weird jokes in Tangled are played for laughs, you know?
Also, the cast on this. Cliff Robertson, who was hand-selected by JFK to portray him in PT 109 and was also the screen’s first Uncle Ben Parker. Gabrielle Anwar tangoed with Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman and was Fiona on Burn Notice. Michael Schoeffling quit acting to sell furniture after this and is best known as Molly Ringwald’s love interest from Sixteen Candles. Dylan Kussman’s got that big Dark Universe franchise going for him. Strangest of all, Kathleen York is an Oscar nominee—for Best Original Song. She was in Crash, the “ending racism” one, and wrote and sang “Into the Deep” for it. She lost to “It’s Hard Out There For a Pimp” and should’ve lost to Dolly Parton for “Travelin’ Thru” just on principle. It’s not a great cast—just a weird one.
The whole movie is basically “not great, just weird.” The original plan had been to make a documentary short, and that would’ve been a better idea. Honestly, you could do an interesting documentary feature on the idea of the death-defying stunts of the Depression. They were weirdly fashionable, and the sociology makes sense, but that doesn’t mean I want to watch a feature about one of the people who managed to survive the fad. At least not one whose life aside from the stunts was so ordinary.