Louie Penrose (Jackie 'Butch' Jenkins) is a strange little boy, growing up in turn-of-the-century, Baltimore, USA. Not only do dogs follow wherever Louie goes but he also believes he can talk to horses. Louie's older brother John (Peter Lawford) indulges his seemingly overactive imagination, partly because he much bigger concerns. Chiefly finding someone wealthy and willing to invest in his newfangled contraption: the radio so he can earn enough to marry his sweetheart Martha (Beverly Tyler). One day at the racetrack with the eccentric Mrs. Penrose (Spring Byington), Louie gets to talking with the race-horses and unexpectedly picks the winner. His abilities do not go unnoticed by wealthy blue blood and avid gambler Richard Pennington Roeder (Charles Ruggles) who, like John, wonders whether they could be put to lucrative use.
Jackie 'Butch' Jenkins stole a few scenes opposite Elizabeth Taylor in the similarly horse-themed National Velvet (1944) so MGM figured why not give him another day at the races with My Brother Talks to Horses. Based on a novel by Morton Thompson, the story appears to be an allegory about growing up and how love transcends language barriers, a message somewhat lost in translation to the screen and consequently rather shaky. It remains a modestly charming family film from Fred Zinnemann, back when he was a contract director at MGM rather than the celebrated auteur behind High Noon (1952) and From Here to Eternity (1953). Zinnemann, who would go on to direct Ivan Landl to one of the finest child performances of all time opposite Montgomery Clift in The Search (1948), here emboldens Jenkins to deliver a naturalistic turn imbued with pathos and sensitivity. Louie Penrose is a likable yet lonely kid who finds comfort in his friendship with animals and Jenkins sells us on the sincerity of his love for horses. Director and star re-teamed the same year for Little Mister Jim (1947). In a similar vein Peter Lawford, an actor of limited range, is at his most endearing here as the earnest hero who makes everyone swoon.
Had the film been made today a studio would probably insist on having the horses voiced by some wisecracking comedians. Wisely Zinnemann avoids such corny ideas and instead portrays Louie's power as ambiguously telepathic. All we hear when he talks to horses is the sound of a spooky Theramin. It is not quite The Sixth Sense (1999) with horses (wherein one imagines the big twist would be Louie's family were horses all along?) but Zinnemann's creative staging lends charm to an otherwise lightweight confection. A meandering story takes its own cool time realizing the premise. For the most part it is less interested in horsey antics than the humourous goings on at the eccentric Penrose household. There Ma Penrose insists her family join her in a vigorous exercise routine at the dinner table. Meanwhile upstairs lodger Mr. Puddy (O.Z. Whitehead) labours to invent an edible beer bottle. Its wry yet affectionate portrayal of genteel turn-of-the-century life has much in common with other endearing nostalgia trips from the period like Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), Life with Father (1947) and the original Cheaper By the Dozen (1950).
Unlike National Velvet the racing segments - filmed at The Preakness race held annually at the Churchill Downs track in Louisville, Kentucky - centre on the spectators not jockeys. Which somewhat distances viewers from the action. While a running gag about the characters' skepticism about health foods and new age philosophies dates the film somewhat the third act ruminates on life, death and spirituality. Hearteningly the Penrose family recognize the importance of childhood imagination when it comes to getting to grip with the big questions. Still the film is evidently more invested in Lawford's wooing of an undeniably radiant Beverly Tyler as Martha than Butch's relationship with horses.