‘National Velvet’: The unbridled joy of a good horse film

With “Secretariat” opening this week, I thought I would take a look at an old horse film  for this week’s column.

I had a hard time picking out a great horse film for this week’s column. There simply wasn’t any film that popped immediately into my head when I thought “horse movie.” Well, there is “Seabiscuit,” but that’s a little too recent for this column’s purposes. There didn’t seem to be a lot of old horse movies to choose from.

I turned to “National Velvet” (1944), a movie I had never heard of before. Even sitting down to watch it, I had no prior knowledge of the film’s plot or story. Sometimes it is fun to sit down and watch a movie you know nothing about. Other times, you want to turn off the TV within the first 15 minutes.

Watching “National Velvet” though, it is so easy to be wrapped up in the film’s good-natured energy and characters. We do see pleasant people in contemporary movies, but they have nothing on the characters in films of the ’30s and ’40s. The characters in “National Velvet” are so sweet, so morally upstanding, that it is hard not to root for each of them. It’s the kind of movie where, even when a character thinks about doing something morally questionable, they either reverse their course or feel bad about their choice within minutes.

The world of the film is, quite simply, the world of Old Hollywood, where writers and directors could represent the best in humanity without fear of being called corny. “National Velvet” is endlessly corny in parts, but I didn’t mind, because I was so engaged by the characters and strength of the story. The film follows the sports movie trajectory that a film like “Remember the Titans” might follow today, but this didn’t bother me because I liked the characters and wanted to see them succeed. Even though the film wound up exactly where I thought it would, I still enjoyed seeing it get there.

The film stars a very young Elizabeth Taylor (in only her fifth film role) as Velvet Brown, a young girl growing up in the English countryside in the 1920s. Velvet is obsessed with horses and goes moon-eyed every time she encounters one. Her biggest dream is to ride a gorgeous horse to greatness as a jockey.

As the film opens, Velvet encounters Mi Taylor (Mickey Rooney), a young drifter who has come to the Brown family farm looking for information about his now dead father. Velvet’s mother (Anne Revere) was once a great swimmer and Taylor’s father was her trainer. Taylor himself competed as a jockey and might make a great horse trainer, though he insists he has left all that behind him. Velvet’s father (Donald Crisp) agrees to keep Taylor on as an assistant in his butcher shop. Taylor becomes fast friends with Velvet.

One day riding along a road, the two encounter a magnificent piebald stallion running through a field. They watch as it jumps a stone fence, and Taylor is convinced the horse could compete in the Grand National competition. Velvet is immediately taken with the horse and the idea, and starts working to first acquire the horse and then train it for the competition.

The film centers mostly on the relationship between Velvet and Taylor, who has a dark secret in his past he won’t reveal. He has no home, and is intent on drifting through the world until he finds his place. With Velvet and her family, he thinks he may have found a home, though he refuses to admit it. As they train the horse together, Velvet forces him to trust his own instincts and judgement, something, we sense, he hasn’t done in a long time.

The film works mostly due to Taylor and Rooney’s performances. Taylor glows with youthful excitement in the film, creating a character so hopeful and honorable that she becomes almost saintly in the audience’s eyes. And Rooney provides a good foil; one of the pleasures of the film is watching his character’s rough exterior soften as he becomes Velvet’s greatest protector.

They are helped by precise supporting performances by Crisp, as the family’s blustering but still caring patriarch, and Revere, who won an Oscar for her work as the calm, wise mother that encourages Velvet’s ambition. They create a set of parents we would all like to have.

I wasn’t surprised by how the film played out, but, then again, it’s hard to do anything that original with a sports movie. When you know the characters are moving toward a big race at the end of the film, you have a good idea for how the climax will play out. But as I watched “National Velvet,” I was surprised by how much I cared about the film’s outcome. I liked Velvet and Taylor and hoped they would get what they wanted. It’s one of the benefits of making a movie where the characters are so upstanding. When the film was over, I felt refreshed.

Dennis O’Neil can be reached at 270-887-3237

or doneil@kentuckynewera.com.

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