Reel Toronto: The Black Stallion




Reel Toronto: The Black Stallion

Toronto’s extensive work on the silver screen reveals that, while we have the chameleonic ability to look like anywhere from New York City to Moscow, the disguise doesn’t always hold up to scrutiny. Reel Toronto revels in digging up and displaying the films that attempt to mask, hide, or—in rare cases—proudly display our city.
Is The Black Stallion the best movie ever filmed in Toronto? Lord knows the vast majority of the films we’ve profiled in this column have been stinkers, noble failures, or guilty pleasures. Sure, Chicago won Best Picture at the Oscars, but you probably didn’t even remember that until we said it.
Here, on the other hand, is precisely the kind of family movie they just don’t make anymore. It’s “slow” by today’s standards, containing a key wordless scene that makes the opening of There Will Be Blood look like a Tarantino exercise in verbosity by comparison. It’s stunningly shot by Caleb Deschanel (yes, father of Zooey) and contains an Oscar-nominated performance by Mickey Rooney.
It’s a nice note upon which to start Reel Toronto’s new year.

The first act, where the horse and boy get to know each other, was filmed in Sardinia. But before shooting that they came to Toronto for the scenes in which The Black and Alec come home, ostensibly to Queens, New York.
That took place in July 1977, making this the oldest film we’ve profiled and making it less than easy to pin down some locations.
There’s only a couple of scenes where you really see Toronto. This one, where the horse gets loose and runs around the city, is pretty obvious, since there’s a Red Rocket going by, albeit on a street dolled up to look like 1946. It turns out the horse is coming down Kenilworth Avenue before heading east on Queen Street.
Who knows what this grocery store was back in the ’70s, but these days it’s the landmark, Licks..
Then there are other shots of Queen Street, but they go by too fast to pick out any details…
And it was tricky to locate the house where Alec and his mom but thanks to a commenter we can identify it as this handsome house, near St. Clair Avenue and Mt. Pleasant.
Here’s a long shot, down their lovely street….
…and some old Toronto street signs going by far too fast to read. It turns out this actually on Playter Crescent, where it intersects with Bayfield.

Anyway, Alec tries to follow the horse along these rail tracks, running under the Bathurst Street Bridge. Those factories are today being replaced by condo towers.
Eventually he totally loses the horse, curling up on this windowsill, in the fog. A red brick windowsill. With green wood behind it. Hmmm…
The camera pulls back as a helpful man who’s seen the horse emerges from the fog in (ta da!) the Distillery District. You can see the silhouette of the grey Stone Distillery in the background there. At this point, we’d know it in our sleep.
Eventually, he finds the horse safe and sound up on a farm where Mickey Rooney lives. It’s probably not around anymore, but you never know. We found an old article that mentioned it’s about forty miles from downtown, on land slated to become part of a new international airport. After chuckling about the continued non-existence of Pickering Airport, and it looks like was out in Claremont, at the 8th Concession and Sideline 34.

The third act is all about the horse learning to race, so you need racetracks! Here The Black gets his first tryout on a real track, at Woodbine. It’s getting dark, sure, but take our word for it.
The big finale, on the other hand, was shot at Fort Erie.
Amusing trivia: The summer of ’77 was notoriously brutal. Rain during the Woodbine shoot created two-foot-deep mud and on some of the days when they shot at Fort Erie the temperatures hit forty-six degrees.
Don’t be fooled by the passable Canadian television series that eventually followed, The Black Stallion is one of the select few Toronto-shot films that is remotely worthy of legitimate consideration as a classic. It has a pretty good pedigree too. The director, Carol Ballard, was pals with Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, the former of whom produced The Black Stallion and the latter of whom hired Ballard to direct some second unit shots for a flick of his called Star Wars. That basically means that if you see some Tatooine shots with R2 or Tusken Raiders that don’t involve the principal actors, there’s a good chance he directed them.
Ballard went on to direct a couple of other well-received Canadian films: Never Cry Wolf and Fly Away Home. (Somewhat oddly, The Black Stallion book is by Walter Farley, while Never Cry Wolf was penned by Farley Mowat. What are the odds?)
The screenplay is by Melissa Mathison, who went on to marry (and eventually divorce) Harrison Ford and to write another little family film called E.T. Not bad.

CORRECTION: January 13, 2011, 9:54 AM Thanks to several readers, we’ve learned of several errors we made in location identifications in this post. Corrected, above: Kenilworth Avenue (not Delaware); Queen Street (not College); and Lick’s (not Mitzi’s).
UPDATE: APRIL 7, 2014: Thanks to readers for giving us detail on two mystery locations, the farm and the street the Black is running down. Both have been updated in the article.