Movie: National Velvet (1944)

Confession time.  While watching most of the movies I write about here, I am also watching (and taking notes on) the movies I will write about later.  Rarely do I watch something that completely disrupts this process.

So I was stunned by how my attention was completely locked for just over two hours on a kid’s movie from the 1940’s about a girl who falls in love with a horse, eventually racing it in the Grand National.  Although I have defended children’s films before, I was worried that liking one about a girl and her pretty horsie was the first step on a path that leads to buying a Trapper Keeper with a Lisa Frank unicorn on it.

That girl is played by Elizabeth Taylor when she was only twelve years old.  She delivers a stunning performance for anybody of any age but, damn, it is jaw-dropping how good she was at such an early age.  Her timing, phrasing and mannerisms are perfect.  At no point did I feel she hit a false note.  Taylor is somehow convincing as a child while possessing a maturity that makes her seem like the adult she would become, only miniaturized.

Those who play the other members of her family also turn in solid performances, though they are always careful not to upstage the star.  These all feel like real people and I just enjoyed watching them interact with each other.  Little things such as each of them secretly feeding the dog under the table.  I don’t understand how their interaction could feel so genuine in a movie that is largely, and obviously, set-bound.

Anne Revere is the matriarch, a master of intuition and insinuation.  Her character has an interesting past that will serve as inspiration for Taylor.  She also has the lion’s share of the best quips such as a line about whether to do the wrong thing for the right reasons or the right things for the wrong reasons.

Angela Lansbury plays the eldest sister, somehow looking about twice as old as the eighteen years she was at the time.  Really, did Lansbury ever not look older than her years?  She isn’t given much to do here except be boy crazy, which is kind of funny as it looks like she could possibly be waiting for the arrival of her first grandchild.  But she does get a nice scene where she’s painting the toenails of the only boy in the family.

That role is played by Jackie Jenkins, as the youngest of the family.  With an ever-present bottle of insects around his neck, he provides some great moments of comic relief.  He is even part of a surprising gross-out gag at the end where he shows a tooth he swallowed but now wears on a necklace.  The immediate smile, and slowly dawn appall, of the person shown the necklace is priceless.

At the start of the movie, a vagabond played by Mickey Rooney walks down the country lane and into their lives.  While I have seen Rooney deliver some solid performances in a few films, I normally approach his films with apprehension as I find he usually has a hammy approach and is too desperate to please the audience.  But this is one of his best performances, and he dials it back considerably as a cynical, would-be thief who ends up training Taylor for the race.

As for the race itself, the footage is exhilarating and literally gasp-inducing.  It’s a wonder no jockeys or horses were killed, not to mention camera operators.  Taylor even broke her back falling off her horse in one scene and had lingering issues for the rest of her life because of it. 

That fall was planned and part of the plot.  Still, it surprised me she was injured to that extent, as she had a natural rapport with the horse that not even its handlers had.  A relative of legendary horses Seabiscuit and Man’o’war, The Pie (short for “Pirate”) was given to Taylor when production wrapped.

National Velvet is one of the most pleasant surprises I have had in a while.  I believe that, as this isn’t the kind of movie I would normally watch, my recommendation for this one is even stronger than most of my other recommendations.

Dir: Clarence Brown

Starring Elizabeth Taylor, Mickey Rooney, Anne Revere

Watched on blu-ray