National Velvet (1944)

national velvet 1

“Everyone should have a chance at a breathtaking piece of folly, once in his life.” ~ Anne Revere as Mrs. Brown

There’s been many a boxing and a ball sport movie and so it seems only fair that there be room for at least one more Technicolor horse drama, especially one with the breathtaking and gloriously unbridled energy of National Velvet.

It showcases the lofty aspirations riding on the back of a horse and carrying the effervescent hopes of a young girl. I’m certain we could use more movies like this — ones done with this amount of candor and geared toward a broad audience — namely the entire family.

True, Clarence Brown is a director mostly lost to time and perhaps understandably so. This isn’t so much of a technical marvel as it is a story that wraps up its audience with some amount of vigor.

Nor was it a film shot abroad in some exotic location. But that is hardly a criticism, mind you. This was Hollywood’s rendition of the British Isles created in Pebble Beach, California much in the same category of other such period classics like How Green Was My Valley (1941) and Lassie Come Home (1943) — the most obvious point of connection being the always admirable Donald Crisp.

Featured front and center is Elizabeth Taylor in the days when she hadn’t yet been propelled to iconic sex symbol status and still remained the sweet precocious little girl who made the screen sparkle with her adorableness.

Here she is as Velvet Brown. Other girls, namely her big sister (Angela Lansbury) are boy struck but Velvet can best be described as horse struck. She dreams about them in her sleep, thinks about them in her waking hours, and must stop the moment she sees one of her favorite thoroughbreds in the fields on the road home to her town of Sewells.

From the first time she sees “The Pie” in all his majesty, she’s absolutely enchanted by him. It was a love story meant to be. Stirred up by her mother’s own past forays in sport, Velvet begins to entertain thoughts of entering her beloved horse in the Grand Nationals which she believes he is capable of winning with the right training and a rider who knows him.

With the guidance of Mi (Mickey Rooney), a young nomad hired on by the family, they get the horse trained up for competition. But of course, the only one who truly can ride “The Pie” and believes he cannot put a foot wrong is Velvet herself.

Perhaps it’s not as epic as a Ben Hur chariot race or a pod race but there’s still somehow such investment in Velvet and her horse and we feel the same urgency that’s coursing through Mi as he’s watching the race. It’s an infectious moment that catches us up in its swelling emotions to the very last leg.

Far more important than the outcome of the race, however, is how Velvet remains true what she deems to be right. She never lets her pure love of horses — or this particular horse — be muddied by any amount of press or potential fame that might come out of the partnership. Because she’s not seeking any of that. Her intentions are very sincere. She’s doing it all for the sheer joy of getting to gallop across country with her best friend. That’s reward enough for her.

It’s true that Velvet’s parents prove to constantly upend our typical expectations and there’s a pleasure in finding out more about their true character bit by bit. They are folks of hardy stock who are plain but not without their unostentatious charm that comes from being bred in a world of hard work and no doubt Christian charity.

Anne Revere gives one of the most enjoyable performances of her career, start to finish, imbued with an impeccably dry wit that also comes with being a mother who loves her family dearly and aspires for them to have hopes and dreams to carry them through life. You get a sense that she desires they might be decent people who never weary of doing the right thing. There’s a sublime nuance to her turn that would be lacking from the film’s frames otherwise. She is the moral heartbeat and the counterbalance to every other character.

Fiction also mirrored reality in that Elizabeth Taylor truly became the tenderhearted horse whisperer as one of the few people who could actually handle and ride her horse. There’s no sense of parlor tricks and if it’s possible to say this, there’s almost a visible chemistry between her and her steed. They seem meant to be together. Fittingly, on her 13th birthday after the filming was done she was bequeathed her four-legged friend and they remained together for his entire lifetime.

The only rather odd performance or casting choice might seem to be Mickey Rooney who was still a major star in 1944 but sometimes his role doesn’t feel the most authentic. It feels like he’s playing at his part. Meanwhile, Taylor continually bowls us over with every drop of cheerfulness she has in her being.

Maybe I am unfairly prejudiced against Mickey Rooney but he always seemed more like a personality than a true actor. Here as Mi he more or less looks like a tragic story waiting to happen but now thanks to a girl and a horse, he’s getting his shot at redemption. Thankfully for us, this is not wholly his story but more so the story of the horse and its girl.

It’s a wonderfully forward-thinking message for its day that a young girl with ambition can succeed in a man’s world even on the racetrack. Fantasy or not this is a story that uplifts with sheer climactic euphoria.

To all the future teachers, doctors, lawyers, explorers, scientists, and jockeys, this film gives its message loud and clear. Dare to dream. You can’t worry about what others might say. Just go out and pursue whatever it is with all the passion you can muster. No matter the outcome, there will be little to regret.

4/5 Stars

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