#578) National Velvet (1944)

#578) National Velvet (1944)

OR “Brown Beauty”

Directed by Clarence Brown

Written by Helen Deutsch. Based on the novel by Enid Bagnold.

Class of 2003

The Plot: In the small town of Sewel in Sussex, England in the late 1920s, young Velvet Brown (Elizabeth Taylor) becomes infatuated with a gelding she nicknames Pie (King Charles). After the Brown family wins Pie in a raffle, Velvet forms a close bond with the horse, and is convinced he could win the Grand National steeplechase. With the support of her parents (Donald Crisp & Anne Revere), and former jockey Mi Taylor (Mickey Rooney), Velvet and Pie make it to the Grand National. But will this horse run the course in a tour de force? Of course, of course.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls it an “enduring family classic” and gives shoutouts to the main cast.

But Does It Really?: What a lovely surprise “National Velvet” is. Most wartime era films need an explanation or introduction for a modern audience to appreciate it, but “Velvet” holds up on its own and still strikes the appropriate chord of sincerity without crossing over into sentimental or syrupy. “Velvet” is a sweet, genuinely heartfelt movie with a timeless story and a strong lead performance from 12 year old Elizabeth Taylor. I’m glad the NFR found a place for “National Velvet”.

Everybody Gets One: Grandson of Man o’ War and first cousin of Seabiscuit, King Charles was cast as Pie at the age of 7. Allegedly, King Charles was a holy terror to everyone on set, except for Elizabeth Taylor, who bonded with her new co-star both on and off-screen (though Taylor developed lifelong back problems after being thrown off of King Charles). After filming wrapped, Taylor received King Charles as a birthday present, and took care of the horse for the rest of his life.

Title Track: Until this viewing, I assumed “National Velvet” was the name of the horse.

Seriously, Oscars?: “National Velvet” premiered in New York in December 1944, but didn’t play its Oscar-qualifying run in Los Angeles until January 1945. “Velvet” received five 1946 Oscar nominations and won two: Anne Revere for Best Supporting Actress (beating out her on-screen daughter Angela Lansbury for “Dorian Gray”), and Robert J. Kern for film editing. Among its losses: Clarence Brown lost the fourth of his eventual five unsuccessful bids for Best Director.


Other notes

  • A film adaptation of the 1935 novel “National Velvet” had been in some form of development for almost a decade. Delays were caused when the project moved from Paramount to RKO to MGM, and further delayed by World War II. An extensive search took place to find the right young actor to play Velvet, and MGM contract player Elizabeth Taylor was passed over for being too young and too short. Determined to land the role, Taylor grew three inches before production began, and won the part.
  • Also making an early film appearance is Angela Lansbury, playing Velvet’s sister Edwina, and somehow looking 19 and 40 at the same time. It’s a shame this movie does little to demonstrate what a big star Lansbury would soon become.
  • Look closely in early scenes for walk-on cameos by Howard Taylor (Elizabeth’s brother) and Moyna MacGill (Angela Lansbury’s mother).
  • The last time Liz Taylor showed up on the blog, I admitted that I was distracted by her future celebrity and couldn’t fully appreciate the performance. Thankfully, no such problems here: Liz successfully carries the whole movie on her back with her naturally endearing performance. This is a star turn in the making, and you root for Liz/Velvet all the way.
  • Most of the cast are doing a “Reverse Leslie Howard“: non-English actors making no effort to do an English accent. Even the actual Brits in this movie sound Americanized!
  • It didn’t occur to me until watching “National Velvet” just how similar the careers of Mickey Rooney and Elizabeth Taylor were. Both were MGM child stars, both had long careers where their fame ebbed and flowed, both were regular targets of the tabloids, both turned to theater and television when their movie careers waned, and both lived long enough to parody themselves on “The Simpsons”. And between the two of them, they were married 16 times to 15 different people!
  • I’m enjoying the performances from Donald Crisp and Anne Revere. Their Mr. and Mrs. Brown can be strict in their parenting, but also know when to let loose and have fun with the kids. It’s an enjoyable dynamic from two seasoned pros.
  • Well, we found Anne Revere’s Oscar clip. The scene where Mrs. Brown tells Velvet about swimming the English Channel is a heartwarming moment, and Revere delivers a powerful, yet understated monologue. I was ready to give her the Oscar then and there.
  • It wasn’t until Mi got drunk and gave away Velvet’s money that I realized just how invested I was in this movie and its characters. Damn you, Mickey!
  • I’m always on the lookout for classic movies that can be introduced to children without having to give them a context lecture or apologizing for racial insensitivities. “National Velvet”  is a strong candidate: it’s sweet natured, with a bright Technicolor palette, and a lot of scenes with the horse. All that’s left is determining if kids today can sit through a two-hour movie.
  • By virtue of appearances by Reginald Owen, Arthur Treacher and Angela Lansbury, “National Velvet” is one of the rare films with cast members from “Mary Poppins” and “Mary Poppins Returns”.
  • And now the real meat and potatoes of this movie: the climactic steeplechase. The wonderful thing about minor classics is that the endings are not common knowledge, so I was genuinely on edge as I watched the outcome of this race. Forget “Ben-Hur“, you want a heart-stopping horse race, look no further than “National Velvet”. No spoilers, but the ending is kind of a mix between the ending of “Rocky” and the opening of “Rocky II”.
  • “Would you like to go to America and act in the cinema?” A little meta, but I’ll allow it.

Legacy

  • “National Velvet” was a hit with audiences and critics (it has a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes), and made a star out of Elizabeth Taylor. Looking back on her career in her memoir, Taylor called the film “still the most exciting film I’ve ever done.”
  • Mickey Rooney would go on to play another horse trainer 35 years later in future NFR inductee “The Black Stallion“.
  • MGM would adapt “National Velvet” for a television series that ran for 2 seasons on NBC in the 1960s. Most of the episode titles sound like lost “Seinfeld” episodes: “The Raffle”, “The Barbecue”, “The Swindle”.
  • Determined to ring out every last cent from its IP, MGM made a belated sequel in 1976. “International Velvet” saw Tatum O’Neal as Velvet’s niece traveling to England and competing in the Olympics’ horse event. British actor Nanette Newman filled in for Velvet when Elizabeth Taylor turned the part down.
  • Perhaps its NFR induction was inevitable: when the Library of Congress started their film collection in 1945, “National Velvet” was one of the first films selected, in recognition of showcasing “the contemporary life and tastes and preferences of the American people”.

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