Friday, January 27, 2017

National Velvet (1944)

Director: Clarence Brown


A very young Elizabeth Taylor begins to generate her mark on Hollywood with her first starring role in the Technicolor feature National Velvet. This marked the beginning of MGM’s grooming process for its newest little starlet on her way to becoming one of Hollywood’s most well-known figures. In this beautiful motion picture Taylor is teamed with a cast of accomplished and renowned actors, and despite her name not being the top billing, her performance and the film’s commercial success would help thrust her name up in notoriety as one of MGM’s stars.

National Velvet is a sports drama about a humble, young girl who acquires a feisty hoarse and trains it to compete in England’s Grand National steeplechase. The story begins when Mi Taylor (Mickey Rooney), a young drifter, finds work and board with the Brown Family after discovering Mrs. Brown’s (Anne Revere) name with the last effects of his late father, but for unknown reasons, which leads to questions about how just this relationship was. The Browns’ youngest daughter, Velvet (Elizabeth Taylor), is a horse-crazy girl who falls in love with a physically gift, but rather wild horse she calls “The Pie,” short for the owner’s name for the horse, “Pirate.” Through a raffle Velvet wins ownership of the horse and with the aid of Mi trains it to compete for the Grand Nationals, a lost cause in the eyes of Mi for such a poor family, despite seeing great gifts in the horse.

Taylor dressed as a jockey, with aid of Rooney.
Velvet’s passion and determination for her horse finds herself, with great help from Mi, funding to enter The Pie into the Grand Nationals. Complication with finding a jockey to ride the still somewhat wild horse reveals Mi’s background as a former jockey with a tragic past that haunts him. Ever determine, Velvet secretly jockey’s The Pie and surprisingly wins the race, only to be discovered as a girl, a strictly forbidden rule that disqualifies The Pie from victory. This news makes Velvet an international sensation, but she decides to keep herself and The Pie’s life humble. The conclusion reveals Mi’s father’s proud past as coach to Mrs. Brown when she was a famed swimmer in her youth, which delights Mi and Elizabeth and justifying Mi family heritage.

The motion picture is a wonderfully colorful piece of cinema that delighted audiences of its day, but in many respects would struggle to win over contemporary viewers with its slow and sometime uninteresting story. It does not make up as your typical sports motion picture where a team or individual effort is celebrated, but rather in the realm of equestrian competition this movie a relationship between pet and owner, as well as a coming of age story for the youthful Elizabeth Taylor character.

Shot on the sunny green hills of Southern California to stand in for the lush vegetation of Great Britain this Clarence Brown directed feature sparkles with the delightful use of Technicolor that makes the world at times seem more vibrant than what real life provides. Clarence Brown was a long time director from the days of silent features and his specialty was in directing films that centered on female stories. With National Velvet the story centers on the tale of young girl, making Brown a wonderful choice for director for this story of a young girl that learns more of the world and its unjustly ugly truths, and her power to achieve anything she is puts her soul into.

Elizabeth Taylor was far from being a star at this time, only twelve years of age and her best known work was as a supporting character in Lassie, Come Home. In fact the likes of Shirley Temple, Gene Tierney, and Susanna Foster, were all considered well before young Taylor. The role of Velvet was originally meant for a girl in her late teens, and Taylor was considered too small and boyish when she was first considered by producers.  A healthy growth spurt shortly, a plenty of time for horse-riding lesson before casting aided in the decision for young Taylor to be cast in her first starring role.

Taylor would be given the horse from production as a gift.
Mickey Rooney would be given top billing, but the entire picture hinged on how Tayler performs and makes us believe in her passion for her horse. Her innocence and charm has the exuberance that helped to make her one of MGM’s great child stars of that period, and eventually one of the greatest stars in Hollywood history. After production the producers of the picture would gift Elizabeth Taylor the horse that portrayed The Pie to the great delight of the young MGM star fresh from signing a seven year contract with the large Hollywood studio.

Mickey Rooney’s role as Mi Taylor allowed for the then 23 year-old to slowly make a transition from juvenile star of the popular Andy Hardy pictures to possibly more mature roles. His small frame would make is a bit difficult for Rooney, but here in National Velvet, it played well for a role a young drifter, perhaps in his teens with a chip on his shoulder, but still a glimmer in his eye. This picture helped to open that door for Rooney to new, more adult possibilities beyond the rambunctious boy next door characters of his past.

Anne Revere won an Oscar for her supporting role.
Donald Crisp, Anne Revere, and Angela Lansbury lend themselves to the legitimacy of the picture as their supporting roles of Velvet’s family. Donald Crisp, the respected veteran of the silver screen dating back to the days of D.W. Griffith, provides the Brown family with the patriarch that is ever stern, with a secretly soft heart that makes his role ever charming. Anne Revere coming off a year when she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for The Song of Bernadette, was one of the finest matriarchal actresses of the time. In this very busy productive time in her career she would finally acquire that elusive Oscar she missed out on the previous year for her role as the ever loving mother and guiding figure to the young Velvet. Angela Lansbury at eighteen years-old had already earned the title of Academy Award nominee with her previous work in 1943’s Gaslight. Here in National Velvet Lansbury’s talents sadly feel underutilized, but as a teenage British actress in Hollywood it would seem obvious she was cast as the eldest daughter of this British family.

National Velvet did remarkably well becoming a major commercial success for MGM in 1944, earning just under $5 million, perhaps aided with the draw of it being a Technicolor feature. This adaption of Enid Bagnold’s 1935 novel would prove to be a strong film for young girls, leaving us with a lasting family friendly picture of a bygone era that has left its mark in the minds of young viewers in the decades since. Contemporary audiences would perhaps have trouble being caught up in a this slow moving picture about a girl and a hoarse, but the film remains highly praised through the years by critics and cinema historians alike, even earning preservation on the National Film Registry in 2003.

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