Friday, May 7, 2010

Reeling Backward: "National Velvet" (1944)

My biggest complaint about family films is that they usually aren't for the entire family. They're generally pitched at a child's level of comprehension, and adults find the movie predictable or silly. "Tooth Fairy" is a recent example.

"National Velvet" is a perfect example of a film that anyone of any age can enjoy. It's full of joy and youthful enthusiasm and boundless optimism. It's about a humble girl who has a dream, and perseveres in pursuing it, believing firmly when all the naysayers dismiss her, and who wins all the glory in the end.

How can a story about a girl named Velvet Brown who rides her horse in the Grand National race be compelling, when we know she's going to win? Mostly, with strong supporting characters, expertly played.

In 1944, Mickey Rooney was one of the biggest movie stars in the world, despite standing not much above five feet tall. He plays Mi Taylor, a ne'er-do-well former jockey who stumbles across the Brown family in a tiny English hamlet. His deceased father had Mrs. Brown's name in a memo book, but Mi doesn't know why. He traipses the land doing a bandy-legged jig, whistling a rakish tune and not a care in the world.

He intends to use his dad's connection to rob the Browns blind, and in fact finds where Mrs. Brown hides her savings in a coffee tin. But after hearing Velvet's unabashed, innocent belief in him, he relents and replaces the money before anyone was the wiser. Velvet convinces Mr. Brown to hire him in his shop.

Mrs. Brown is played by Anne Revere, who won an Oscar for her role. Wise and serene, she once was famous herself for becoming the first woman to swim the Channel. But while proud of her accomplishment, she recognizes it's in her past, and belongs there, fondly remembered but not obsessed over.

Mr. Brown (Donald Crisp) is the town butcher, constantly harping on the price of everything without recognizing its value. He sees Velvet's goal of entering her horse in the Grand Nationals as sheer folly, good money after bad. But he's smart enough to know that Mrs. Brown is smarter than he, and listens to her admonishments that everyone should have the right to pursue folly once in their life.

I really adored the relationship between the Browns, everything down to the fact that they address each other as "Mrs. Brown" and "Mr. Brown." I don't think they ever share anything more demonstrative than a pat on the arm, but their love for each other practically radiates off the screen. As someone who's soon to become a parent himself, I took special note of how they behave a certain way when the children are around, and the tone of their conversation changes when they're alone.

A teenage Angela Lansbury has a juicy little role as Velvet's older sister, who's something of the town tart. It's something to behold her as a young sexpot.

Oh yes, the girl and her horse.

It was Elizabeth Taylor's breakout role, all of 12 when she made the film. Still a cute kid and not the great beauty she would become, Taylor just seems to glow whenever Velvet is talking about horses. The family owns only an old nag they use for delivering meat, but a chance to drive the cart is still sheer heaven for her.

Then one day she meets The Pie, and it's love at first sight.

In the tradition of films of this sort, The Pie is a wild creature whose rebellious nature immediately quiets down once the one who loves him climbs on his back. Velvet wins him in a raffle when his owner grows tired of The Pie constantly leaping his pen, wreaking havoc. Mi spends months teaching Velvet how to jump The Pie over every hedge in the countryside in preparation for the daunting leaps at the Grand Nationals.

They're supposed to find a jockey, but of course the audience knows Velvet is destined to ride The Pie in the race herself. Mi cuts her hair and claims she's a Latvian youngster who speaks no English. Dressed in her bright purple-and-yellow jockey livery -- the film's colors really pop off the screen -- she looks so dainty and fragile.

The race is quite thrilling as staged by director Clarence Brown. Steeplechase is a hard sport to watch, since the threat of serious injury, or even death to riders and steeds is quite real. Amazingly, Taylor -- who was an accomplished young rider -- performed most of her stunts herself.

With its mix of a gutsy pint-sized heroine, an array of engaging supporting performances and the invigorating racing itself, "National Velvet" is everything a family film should be.

4 stars out of four

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