PCA Retro Review: National Velvet (1944)

Mickey Rooney and Donald Crisp get head billing on the poster for "National Velvet" but third billed Elizabeth Taylor would prove to be the film's star

National Velvet (1944) – Based on the novel by Enid Bagnold, director Clarence Brown’s melodrama National Velvet tenderly brings the love that young girls has for horses to the screen.  However, it will forever be remembered as Elizabeth Taylor’s first starring role.  With a great cast of Hollywood character actors and future stars, most notably Mickey Rooney in one of his first young adult roles, National Velvet remains to be a family favorite that captures the audience’s attention and pulls on the heartstrings.

"National Velvet" brings the dreams that little girls have about horses to the screen. At the end of filming, Elizabeth Taylor was not only a bankable Hollywood star, but she got to keep the horse too

National Velvet revolves around the eccentric Brown family – Mr. Brown (Donald Crisp), a village butcher; Mrs. Brown (Anne Revere), his wise wife and bookkeeper; boy crazy oldest daughter Edwina (Angela Lansbury); bookish canary obsessed middle daughter Malvolia (Juanita Quigley); bug catching neurotic baby brother Donald (Jackie Jenkins) and horse crazy youngest daughter Velvet (Elizabeth Taylor).  On one fateful afternoon, at the beginning of summer vacation, Velvet fatefully meets two figures that will play prominent part in her life – a mysterious young drifter named Mi Taylor (Mickey Rooney) and a spirited stallion that Velvet names Pi.  Taylor has come to town looking for Mrs. Brown after finding her name in one of his deceased father’s notebooks and is searching for a hand out or a scrap of food.  Through Mrs. Brown’s subtle requests, Mi is given a room in the stable and a job in Mr. Brown’s butcher shop.  During a delivery in which Velvet accompanies Mi in order to see Pi again, the pair see the horse leap a wall leading Mi, who seems to know far more about horses that he is putting on, to believe that Pi has what it takes to win the England’s revered Grand National horse race.  When the Brown family acquires Pi soon after, Velvet manages to charm her parents into helping her enter Pi into the Grand National and Mi, who claims that he hates horses despite his broad knowledge of the animals and the Grand National in general, to help her train Pi for the race.  Yet, once the pair travels to London, a series of mishaps happens that not only bring out the secrets that Mi is keeping from the Brown family, but Velvet must disguise herself as a boy and ride Pi in the Grand National herself.  Can a young girl, a drifter and an unknown horse win the greatest horse race of all time?  This one doesn’t necessarily end the way you’d think.

Thankfully Mickey Rooney is able to mute the over the top performance by Elizabeth Taylor. However, Taylor still manages to steal every scene, setting the course for her eventaul reign as a Hollywood diva

Twelve at the time that she made National Velvet, the film would prove to be the first starring vehicle for future screen diva Elizabeth Taylor who had had her breakout a year earlier in Lassie Come Home.  Originally planned to be a vehicle for Gene Tierney, Tierney had to drop out of the production due to her contract with a Broadway show, leaving the door open for Taylor to step in.  However, while Elizabeth Taylor would manage to win over audiences with her charisma, charm and beauty she completely overacts in the role of Velvet Brown.  Velvet Brown becomes a caricature for young girls who love horses, and her over exaggerations in her dreamy delivery makes the character seem scarily obsessive to the point of almost becoming a zealot.  Thank goodness for the subtle mature performance of Mickey Rooney.  Rooney gives possibly the best performance of his life in a rare early dramatic role and is able to mute the scenes enough to bring Elizabeth Taylor’s performance back down to Earth.  Rooney becomes the saving factor of the film, and Elizabeth Taylor comes off looking better next to him.  However, Elizabeth Taylor manages to steal each and every scene with her natural charisma and charm.  It would be that same charisma and charm that would make her into a Hollywood icon and future sex symbol.  There is just something that emulates from Elizabeth Taylor’s violet eyes that captures the hearts of the audience.

The strong loving relationship between the Brown parents, played by Donald Crisp and Anne Revere, would become one of the most endearing qualities of "National velvet." Revere would win an Oscar for her role as Mrs. Brown

But what is really the most charming factor of the film is the perfect chemistry between the Brown family.  It is so rare in a film of any era that a family of eccentric characters not only all love each other, but work so well together on the screen that they manage to enchant the audience.  A teenaged Angela Lansbury is radiantly beautiful as oldest daughter Edwina, yet natural and wholesome enough not to fall into the cheesecake factor that is typical of Hollywood during that era.  Juanita Quigley in the role of mousy middle daughter Malvolia has some of the funniest lines and doesn’t get nearly enough screen time.  Popular child actor Jackie Jenkins isn’t a good child actor, but his character proves to just be simply weird with his catchphrase “I was sick all night” and his obsession with catching bugs.  But the most special relationship is the tenderness between Mr. and Mrs. Brown.  Donald Crisp and Anne Revere are able to radiate an intense adult love between one another, which is still so rarely achieved on screen today.  Anne Revere won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in National Velvet, and is simply spell bounding as the wise matriarch of the family, who subtly guides her family through all their decisions without becoming an overbearing force. 

Of course, the appeal of National Velvet to horse lovers and race enthusiasts is natural.  Yet, while Pi is in most of the scenes and the focus is on the Grand National, the film never really becomes about the girl and the horse as much as the girl’s love for the horse.  It remains to be a melodrama about the human characters that makes up Velvet Brown’s life.  Incidentally, after the filming of National Velvet, Elizabeth Taylor was actually allowed to keep the horse.

By being set in England in the 1920’s, National Velvet actually manages to not date itself, making it an easily accessible film for families to watch together today.  Youngsters that have little experience with classic films are easily able to transport themselves into the world of Velvet Brown, Mi Taylor and the Pi.  Not one of Elizabeth Taylor’s best performances, National Velvet is beloved by audiences, and Velvet Brown becomes one of Elizabeth Taylor’s most endearing characters.  National Velvet perfectly embodies the love and fascination that little girls have with horses, and will continue to enchant that niche audience today.

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