Monday, September 19, 2011
Guest Blogger: Paul Cogley
National Velvet (1944)
Reviewed by Paul Cogley
It is said that MGM sat on the rights to the bestseller National Velvet for years with no plans for a film because no one could think of anyone to fill the role of Velvet Brown, the English country girl whose passion for horse riding brings her beloved horse Pie to compete in the Grand National Sweepstakes. But then along came Elizabeth Taylor—raised in London, experienced horse rider—who was fresh from an impressive debut in Lassie, Come Home (1943). Thus the Technicolor film project got the go-ahead and the first starring role of the popular movie star was made.
At every stage of her movie career, the camera loved to showcase Taylor’s face. In National Velvet her face sparkles with youthful innocence and enchantment. The character of Velvet Brown—improbable dreamer fortified by self-assurance—was a natural fit for the young Taylor. For this story to work, she had to be convincing as the pivotally inspiring figure to the other important character, the vagabond Mi, played by a post-adolescent Mickey Rooney. In the story, it will take both Velvet’s passion and Mi’s knowledge to get the Pie ready for competition.
At the time, Rooney—who had been put on the stage before he was two—was a seasoned professional. Only 5’2”tall and in the bloom of young manhood, Rooney was perfectly cast to play the role of the former jockey Mi with the personal demons to contend with if he was to discover what was missing in his life.
After Velvet and Mi meet, it is through the gentle manipulations of Velvet’s mother that Mi is allowed to sleep in the Browns’ barn and take a spell off from his vagabonding ways. Velvet’s mother describes Mi’s inner conflicts when she says “What's the meaning of goodness if there isn't a little badness to overcome?” Later in the film, Rooney does an exceptionally fine acting job in a scene where his character has had too much to drink and is tempted to betray Velvet’s trust.
Velvet’s mother is also complex having been the first woman to swim the English Channel when she was a young woman. Played by Anne Revere (who won Best Supporting Actress Academy Award) she is now a middle-aged country woman whose insights help her twelve-year-old daughter and this vagabond youth to dare to dream big. “I believe that everyone should have a chance at a breathtaking piece of folly once in his life,” she says, turning the pages of her scrapbook.
And then there is the performance of the horse. Through the combined masterful editing by Robert Kern (who won the Oscar for editing) and Clarence Brown’s direction, the scenes with Pie are excitingly portrayed. We come to know the horse to be young and skittish, talented but also nervous and inexperienced. We see Pie get frightened by obstacles, make mistakes and bolt. But as the story proceeds, Velvet and Mi keep Pie moving forward, coaxing and training him for that one day he will be in the Grand National Sweepstakes. National Velvet is simply one great, classic family movie.