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In February 1937, social and technological forces were converging in the US. The new machine of fame stood waiting. All it needed was the subject ? at that singular hour, Seabiscuit, the Cinderella horse, flew over the line.

india Updated: Oct 10, 2003 21:59 IST

Director: Gary Ross
Cast: Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, Gary Stevens

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 social forces. The first was a burgeoning industry of escapism. America was desperate to lose itself in anything that offered affirmation. With the re-legalization of wagering, no sport was growing faster than Thoroughbred racing.

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 1930's came the advent of factory-built console, tabletop, and automobile radio sets, available for as little as $5.

Thanks to President Roosevelt's Rural Electrification Administration, begun in 1936, electricity came to the quarter of the population that lived on farmlands. Rural families typically made the radio their second electric purchase, after the clothes iron.

By 1935, when Seabiscuit began racing, two-thirds of the nation's 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 nation's most heavily attended sport, became one of the premier radio events of the year.

In February 1937, all of these new social and technological forces were converging. The modern age of celebrity was dawning. The new machine of fame 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.

Production: Gary Barber
Cinematography: John Schwartzman
Editor: William Goldenberg
Music: Randy Newman

First Published: Oct 10, 2003 10:12 IST