The world was first introduced to Flicka, meaning “little girl” in Swedish, through a book written by Mary O’Hara, who had been a Hollywood screenwriter during the silent film era. She married a Swede who had worked horses in the US Army Remount Service and they brought a ranch in Laramie County, in Wyoming, smack in the middle of the American Mid-West. To help make ends meet during the Great Depression of the 1930s, Mary began writing Wyoming ranch stories. My Friend Flicka was published in 1941 and became an immediate bestseller.
In 1943 it became a feature film starring Roddy McDowall playing 10-year-old Ken McLaughlin; in the same year he also played Joe, the juvenile lead in Lassie Come Home.
Country Delight, an American Saddlebred, played the main role in Flicka, while the six doubles were all Arabians. McDowall didn’t like any of them. “I had really liked Lassie,” McDowall once said, “but the horse was a nasty animal with a terrible disposition – she kept stepping on my feet – in fact all the Flickas were awful!”
Interesting to note that McDowall’s stunt double for this, and most of his other childhood film roles, was Monty Roberts, who was to become the celebrated “horse whisperer” and a friend of Queen Elizabeth’s.
The equine supervisor on this feature was Jack Lindell, formerly a trainer in a travelling circus. His assistant, Les Hilton, later became famous for educating Mister Ed, who was featured in last October’s Equestrian Life. It was Hilton who was hired to train the horses for the Flicka TV series.
The star was a 15hh purebred Arabian mare originally named Wahana. She was owned by a Mrs Patricia Eaves of Santa Fe, New Mexico, who leased her to 20th Century Fox. The chestnut’s sire, Abu Farwa, had been born in California on the Kellogg Arabian Ranch, Pomona, and his sire, Rabiyas, was regarded as one of the all-time greats in American Arabian horse breeding. Abu Farwa sired 277 purebred foals, the majority of which were chestnut and many, like Flicka, had white markings. Her dam was Mehana, who had been imported to the US from Spain.
Hilton also trained the stunt double for the series – a Quarter Horse gelding named Goldie, bought by the production company from a racetrack in Mexico where he worked as a lead pony. His markings were not quite the same as the star’s. His blaze didn’t go down as far, and the shape of the white on his fetlocks was different. He was shorter and more rugged and stubborn than the mare. According to his trainer, Goldie loved bucking off baddies, but he would get mad when he had to learn anything new.
Riding was very new to Johnny Washbrook. The kid from Toronto, cast as the series’ juvenile lead, didn’t know a horse from a hockey stick and spent every day of pre-production with Les Hilton learning the basics of horsemanship.
Now in his mid-70s, Johnny Washbrook had never intended to be an actor. Because his brother stuttered, a doctor suggested he join a student theatre group, which would allow him to concentrate on his role rather than his stutter. Wanting to emulate his older brother, Johnny started to act as well – resulting in him landing several parts at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. One day he was asked to audition at 20th Century Fox.
“They’d been scouting for kids all over Hollywood for this new TV series,” he recalls. “They wanted me to do a screen test and I got the job.” His whole family then moved out to Hollywood. “I made $600 a week in 1955 and in the second year it went up to $800.”
Unlike the somewhat precious and precocious Master McDowall, this young actor loved his equine co-star. “A great horse and so well trained. All I had to do was virtually think what I wanted her to do and she sensed it.”