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'Harry & Snowman' blends a cautionary character sketch with its tale of redemption

Posted November 11

Famous jumping horse champion named Snowman owned by Harry deLeyer on Long Island October 1959. (Deseret Photo)

“HARRY & SNOWMAN” — 3 stars — Harry deLeyer, Harriet deLeyer, Andre deLeyer, Marty deLeyer, Willy deLeyer; not rated; Broadway

A few months ago, you may have caught a little documentary called "Dark Horse," about a group of working-class neighbors from a Welsh village whose bargain-basement racing horse took on the aristocracy.

If you like such stories about underdogs — or underhorses — now you have another option to see in the theaters. "Harry & Snowman" is a documentary about a Dutch horse trainer who rescued a white horse from the glue factory and turned it into one of the most decorated jumping horses of its era.

The trainer, Harry deLeyer, was born in the late 1920s, and grew up in the Netherlands before moving to Long Island shortly after World War II. During the war, Harry and his family worked to protect fugitive Jews and abandoned horses from the Nazis, and his compassionate past played an important role in his future.

Viewers meet Harry in his '80s, long after his competitive riding days are over, and a generous belly has been added to his lithe frame. Archival footage and old photographs take viewers back to the 1950s, and Harry tells viewers how he got a job training horses and riders at the elite Knox College, while interviews with former students reveal how Knox administrators were hesitant to leave the female students under the dashing hand of the blonde Dutchman.

In 1956, Harry took a trip to Pennsylvania, where at the appropriately named New Holland auction — considered a horse's last stop before the glue factory — he purchased a beleaguered white horse for $80. The horse, which he dubbed Snowman for its white coat, was mostly a salvage effort, and soon Harry sold him to a local doctor friend to honor an agreement. But after Snowman repeatedly jumped the doctor's property fences, only to return to Harry's place several miles away, it was determined that the white horse was destined for bigger things.

The story of Snowman's rise to fame plays out through a combination of old footage and new interviews, and "Harry & Snowman" takes a traditional route to tell its story. There's plenty of heartwarming, inspirational content — animal lovers, in particular, should appreciate Snowman's story, but the conflict inherent to the real-life story is minimal.

In fact, the primary conflict explored by "Harry & Snowman" has more to do with the horse's owner, whose obsession with the business often came at a cost to his wife and children, in spite of his efforts to involve them in his passion.

This darker side of the man who became known as the "Galloping Grandfather" in the 1970s lends a bitter taste to the sweetness of director Ron Davis' documentary, but it also gives it a more honest and human feel.

It's also enlightening to watch footage taken from "The Dick Cavett Show," "The Tonight Show," and "To Tell The Truth," and consider a time where show horses and their competitions were more celebrated and featured.

Like Dream Alliance in "Dark Horse," Snowman was born of poor origins, and took on the class system of his world (one of his chief competitors in a late 1950s Madison Square Garden competition had been purchased for $50,000). But aside from featuring a sweet if somewhat cautionary story, and the accented charm of its octogenarian protagonist, "Harry & Snowman" doesn't break new documentary ground.

“Harry & Snowman” is not rated, but contains no objectionable material; running time: 84 minutes.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photographer who appeared weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" from 2013 to 2016. He also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.

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