Friday, October 6, 2023

“National Velvet”: A Girl and Her Horse

 Let’s face it: National Velvet is a fairy tale. But who doesn’t like fairy tales, on occasion, especially when they feature a beautiful young girl who positively glows with health and high spirits? I came to National Velvet (1944) after reading Matthew Kennedy’s upcoming tribute to his favorite movie star. When asked to write a blurb for the book jacket of his On Elizabeth Taylor: An Opinionated Guide (coming out this spring from Oxford University Press), I felt I was fairly knowledgeable about the life and career of La Liz. (After all, I’d endured such dreck as The Sandpiper, while also cheering impressive Taylor projects like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.) But Matt, who’s seen absolutely everything Taylor has filmed, aroused in me the determination to revisit some of her films and check out others for the very first time. That’s how I came to watch the twelve-year-old Elizabeth in an ersatz but tremendously lovable story that, judging by the credits, was supposed to be showcasing Hollywood veteran Mickey Rooney.

 National Velvet began life as a children’s novel by British author Enid Bagnold, about a young girl and a plucky horse who together win the grueling steeplechase known as the Grand National. British filming locations would have been appropriate, but this was 1944, and the world was still at war—though in desperate need of inspirational entertainment. That’s why the film contains a mix of  English and American actors (like the British Donald Crisp and the American Anne Revere as Taylor’s stern but loving parents). It’s also why the family’s seaside working class village is played by California’s Pebble Beach. There’s no mistaking Mickey Rooney, in the role of a young drifter who sets the plot in motion, for a down-at-the-heels British lad. But the teenaged British-born Angela Lansbury played Taylor’s eldest sister here, in the same year she broke into movies with the much more sinister Gaslight.

 Matt Kennedy’s study emphasizes how important National Velvet was in terms of the very young Taylor finding her place in the world. Already a movie veteran, featured in such Hollywood fare as 1943’s Lassie Come Home, she discovered when playing Velvet Brown the opportunity to choose her own path. As she was to say, “Riding a horse gave me a sense of freedom and abandon, because I was so controlled by my parents and the studio. When I was on a horse we could do what we wanted. Riding a horse was my way of getting away from people telling me what to do and when to do it and how to do it." So it was entirely fitting that at the end of production she was given “her” horse, King Charles, as a parting gift. And she remained an animal lover for the rest of her days.

 Matt also focuses welcome attention on the supportive relationship of young Velvet and her mother. Though both of Velvet’s parents seem formal and a bit stuffy—they primly address one another as Mr. and Mrs. Brown—there’s another side to Anne Revere’s portrayal. Once a champion herself, she balances hard-nosed practicality with a deep appreciation for “a breathtaking piece of folly,” like entering the untrained horse called The Pie in a serious, competitive race. Unlike so many self-centered movie moms, Mrs. Brown has her daughter’s best interests at heart . . . and trusts her to do the right thing. It’s a lovely performance, and one that deservingly led to a Supporting Actress Oscar. We should all be so lucky to have moms like her.

 Speaking of which, it’s my own mother’s birthday today. Happy birthday, Estelle Gray, wherever you are!


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