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  • U
  • Drama, Family
  • 1944
  • 120 mins

National Velvet

National Velvet

Synopsis

Fresh-faced pair Elizabeth Taylor and Mickey Rooney take on the world of professional horse racing in this family favourite

About

Best known these days as an XXL high camp icon and close pal to Michael Jackson, it can be quite a shock to see Liz Taylor as she was back in 1944 at the tender age of 12. Here, Liz's portrayal of an adolescent horse fetishist is sufficiently convincing to offer a possible explanation for the long string of failed marriages that lay ahead.

While big sister Edwina ('Murder She Wrote' star Angela Lansbury) is just getting into boys, young Velvet Brown (Taylor) is firmly besotted with all things equine, so much so that we're treated to several scenes of Velvet sitting about in pyjamas, yanking at lengths of string tied about her feet in a disturbing act of air-jockeying.

None of this deters flat-capped Mickey Rooney, strolling into town as a smooth talking rogue sporting the truncated name of 'Mi'. This pint-sized Han Solo soon wheedles his way into the Brown household and is all set to rob the family's savings until a more lucrative opportunity appears in the form of disobedient horse The Pie (most characters use the definite article when referring to the star nag). Mi immediately recognises the race-winning potential of the untamed beast, while the wide-eyed Velvet merely sees "an enchanted horse- with invisible wings!"

Dodging a one-way trip to the glue factory, The Pie is soon receiving intense training in preparation for his professional début in what must be one of cinema's earliest Rocky-style montages, this one chiefly involving dissolve shots of a horse trotting in a circle around an impatient Mickey Rooney.

As the film's title suggests, the story builds to Velvet and The Pie entering the Grand National. To achieve this, Velvet gets a severe haircut and is passed off as a Latvian boy speaking no English, emerging in pink and yellow racing silks to resemble a cross-dressing Battenberg cake.

Sadly, all this makes the film sound a great deal more compact than it actually is. The two hour running time boasts a great deal of padding and dead-end sub plots which illustrate quite how leisurely movies - particularly expensive, colour ones - could be in an age before they had TV to compete against.

Velvet has another sister, Malvolia (Quigley) contributing nothing at all, plus a young, wonky-eyed brother, Donald (Jenkins) who wastes valuable reels of celluloid squawking on about a bottle of insects he keeps about his neck and, in one bizarre and pointless scene, his insistence that he saw a horse die in a previous life.

That the Brown parents (Crisp and Revere) seem so glacially detached (even when on their own, they refer to one another as Mr and Mrs Brown), doesn't help make Velvet's lengthy battle to see her dreams come true particularly exciting or rewarding for modern audiences.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Angela Lansbury, Elizabeth Taylor, Juanita Quigley, Donald Crisp, Reginald Owen, Anne Revere, Jackie 'Butch' Jenkins, Mickey Rooney
  • Director: Clarence Brown
  • Screen Writer: Theodore Reeves, Helen Deutsch
  • Producer: Pandro S Berman
  • Photographer: Leonard Smith
  • Composer: Herbert Stothart

In a nutshell

Gorgeous photography and a great musical score win through in a film hampered by its hopelessly slow pacing. Given the characters' bizarre names, it's a pity this wasn't called 'Me, Mi & The Pie'.

by Jim Hall

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