NATIONAL VELVET (MGM 1945) Warner Home Video
Last year the Warner Archive has had a minor love-in with the great Elizabeth Taylor; and quite simply – who could blame them? Despite innumerable personal tragedies (and almost as many husbands) this violet-eyed zeitgeist could dazzle a room simply by entering it. She took Hollywood to task on more than one occasion and rewrote the terms of her own contracts and career. She came close to the brink of death several times, and, suffered life-long debilitating pain from a riding accident incurred while she was still a child. She amassed an obscene collection of vintage jewels, became an ardent crusader for AIDS research and took her personal life more seriously than any movie role. And yet, she remained steadfastly loyal to her nearest and dearest friends; Montgomery Clift, Roddy McDowell, Rock Hudson and Michael Jackson among them. Yes, we could go on and on about Elizabeth Taylor. But why? Ah, now therein lies the great mystery in Taylor’s popular appeal. For there have been other glamor queens with equally as colorful back stories to tell; other philanthropists whose altruism took precedent after the footlights faded, and so on and so forth. Yet, there has never been another Elizabeth Taylor. Surely, never again will we see the content of her character, depth of her compassion, scope of her sincerity, and, monumental stature in her radiant physical beauty emanating from beyond the prosceniums at our local movie houses. The era that bore an Elizabeth Taylor – and others like her – is gone; sadly too, the legend herself. Mercifully time, while unkind to the flesh, has been immeasurably a comfort to her reputation as a star of the first quality. This has only ripened with the advancing years.
I suppose it is redundant to point out that no life writ as large as Taylor’s can be perfect. But I equally suspect the public has long since cut Liz some slack; although, in her own time she was pilloried as a sexual wanton and home-wrecker. Lord knows, Elizabeth had more than her share of misfires – some, she lamentably created for herself. Yet, who among us is living that ‘perfect know-it-all life’ without incident, self-inflicted idiocy and a touch of the bizarre for which only the old adage about ‘truth’ being ‘stranger than fiction’ can suffice? And further to the point, who would be able to weather half as much as Elizabeth Taylor with even a modicum of as much fortitude, self-assured defiance, accepting nonchalance, solid introspection, a good sense of humor and, of course, class? Because, in the final analysis, Elizabeth Taylor took her lumps, but kept coming back; reputation oft bloodied, but unbowed. I would have her kind again and ‘no’ - not without the miscalculations, oversights and stumbling blocks set for her to gregariously trip over with unbridled courage.
There has always been a rather insidious notion that the people Hollywood deifies as ‘stars’ are somehow fair game for the rest of us to abuse; as open to our adulation as to our callous mockery and venom; smut hurled from the peripheries at their Teflon-coated public personas. In more recent times, the tearing down of a ‘name’ has become something of a blood sport, with gossip rags, D-listed, Enquirer-infused gristmills and celebrity death watches, the absolute purgatory for our insatiable need to know. For more than 66 years, Elizabeth Taylor remained a popular punching bag in the press. Her likeness plastered next to ‘new’ and ‘revealing’ headlines about her private life, still commanding a fee and selling fresh copy while waiting in line at the supermarket. If anything, Hollywood today, and our novice impressions of what goes on behind closed doors has become more insidious and distasteful. Yet, even by 1950, Joseph L. Mankewicz, using Bette Davis as his megaphone in All About Eve, put it thus about the public at large; “Autograph fiends! They're not people. Those little beasts that run around in packs like coyotes. They're nobody's fans. They're juvenile delinquents. They're mental defective, and nobody's audience. They never see a play or a movie even. They're never indoors long enough.”
But I digress. 2016 was a banner year for Elizabeth Taylor fans on Blu-ray with three great performances released from the Warner Archive (WAC) – the custodians of virtually all her early movie art; Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Father Of The Bride. Might we be expecting too much from WAC to favor us with several more examples of exactly why Elizabeth Taylor remains, as one Vogue reporter astutely surmised in 1966 – “the most alluring woman in the world.” The difficulty in assessing Elizabeth Taylor as an actress is that she is decidedly a movie star first and foremost; the disconnect between glamor queen and superior raw talent readily overshadowed, despite countless examples to choose from in her cinema repertoire; National Velvet, Cynthia, A Date with Judy, Butterfield 8, Lassie Come Home, and, Raintree County among the list of contenders. Personally, if I had to pick only one of these to round out WAC’s admiration and output of Taylor-made classics in high-def, the vote would be cast for her breakout performance in National Velvet.
In the 1940s, Louis B. Mayer assumed absolute control of MGM; for a time, its undisputed monarch and one of the highest paid personages – not only in Hollywood. Whereas MGM’s late V.P. in Charge of Production, Irving G. Thalberg had endeavored to shape the studio’s reputation in adult-themed and uber-sophisticated melodramas, time-honored literary adaptations and the occasional super colossus musical revue, Mayer’s ambitions for MGM, a kingdom unto itself, were more firmly rooted in the idyllic and romanticized childhood he never had. Only part of Mayer’s fascination in extolling the virtues of youth resided in his affinity for sentimental, bucolic stories. Indeed, Mayer considered Metro an extension of ‘his family’, seating himself at its head as the benevolent patriarch with a ‘father knows best’ approach to film-making and a firm hand administered to all who dared cross him. Some stars fell into line. Others bitterly resented his interventions. Thus, in his own time, popular opinion of Mayer widely varied from formidable showman and star-maker to despicable philistine; a brute, who ostensibly believed in God, country and the Ten Commandments…even the ones he never obeyed.
Almost immediately following Thalberg’s untimely death in 1936, Mayer set about reconfiguring Metro’s studio output to suit his own ideals. He allowed certain contracts to elapse. Hence, Garbo, Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer (three who had clawed, kicked and risen like cream to the top of their chosen calling in the late 1920’s and reigned supreme as screen queens throughout the 1930’s) – once considered indispensable – were shown the exit by 1941; politely, perhaps, but without fanfare or even a simple ‘thank you’ to mark the time they had put in and formidable monies earned for the company. In tandem, Mayer also sent his scouts across the fruited plain in pursuit of younger, more malleable talent, cheaply acquired without the headaches of knowing their own minds; dangling the carrot of stardom before their eager noses, but only if they did and behaved exactly as he commanded. At roughly this same interval, unbeknownst to anyone at MGM, an English lass had been sent abroad to escape the London blitz. The arrival of this striking violet-eyed specimen inside MGM producer, Samuel Marx’s front office was, in retrospect, the stuff from which dreams – and very long careers – are made. For months, Marx had been hounded by a travelling art gallery dealer to interview his 11yr old daughter. Marx resisted. The man persisted. And so, eventually, a brief meeting was scheduled. Marx would later recount how he had intended merely to appease Mr. Taylor without seriously considering the child. Alas, even as a girl, Elizabeth Taylor possessed a remarkable, almost hypnotic beauty. “She came in this little purple riding outfit,” Marx recalled, “Her cap was purple. Her eyes were purple. I nearly passed out when I first saw her.” Producer, Arthur Freed also had an immediate reaction to Taylor, labeling her ‘a sport’ in reference to his amateur horticulturalist’s appreciation for orchids. When one flower diverges from the others, the unique bloom is called ‘a sport’. Over the next forty years, Taylor would prove a very rare blossom; an intuitive actress, willful and distinctly knowing her own mind.
Marx and Metro wasted little time promoting their new find. After appearing to good effect in supporting roles in Lassie Come Home (1943), Jane Eyre (1943, loaned out to 2oth Century-Fox) and The White Cliffs of Dover (1944), preparations began for Elizabeth’s first starring role in one of the studio’s most ambitious projects to date: Clarence Brown’s National Velvet (1945). A girl and her horse…what could be more wholesome? Transforming Enid Bagnold’s novel into a prestige picture was the passion project of producer, Pandro S. Berman. But that ‘passion’ would slightly cool after Mayer insisted the picture belonged to Taylor, an enthusiasm Berman did not share. Yet even as a child, Taylor possessed the ability to completely captivate most any man’s heart – a power ill-served throughout her many marriages in later years. Nevertheless, it completely won over her director. “I really hated to call her an actress,” director, Clarence Brown later admitted, “She was much too natural for that.” In the meantime, Berman selected a magnificent gelding ‘King Charles’ for Elizabeth to ride. At least the four-legged star of his picture would be pedigreed: the grandson of Man o’ War. Despite being past his prime as a race horse, ‘King Charles’ proved a minor terror on the set; high-spirited and prone to biting practically everyone except Elizabeth, who cuddled and coddled him until he was as docile as a puppy. This bond between Taylor and King Charles baffled the wranglers. But when Elizabeth proudly told a visiting reporter she was doing forty jumps a day in training for National Velvet, an alarmed L.B. Mayer quickly put a stop to her excessive equestrian exercises. The last thing he needed was for his star to have an accident. Hence, during the climactic Grand National race, virtually all of Taylor’s spirited stunt work was performed by a stunt double in long shot; the racing footage skillfully intercut with close-ups of Taylor astride King Charles; the pair galloping on a treadmill with a process plate subbing in for the background. Even so, Elizabeth proved enough of a horse woman to appear in a spirited charge across the windswept fields of southern California, convincingly substituting for the white cliffs of Dover.
National Velvet is essentially a countrified fairy-tale; appealing to children even as it remains a benchmark and gold standard bearer in family entertainment. In retrospect, it is also one of the best films in Elizabeth Taylor’s canon. Easily, it has remained her most prominent and fondly recalled work as a child star. Viewed today, Elizabeth’s performance is beyond reproach, counterbalanced by a stunning youthful vitality with seasoned introspection well beyond her years. The rest of the picture is as exquisitely cast. But the show undeniably belongs to Taylor’s magnificent idealist, Velvet Brown; a simple farm girl with big dreams and the heart of a champion to see them through. Mayer, however, was taking no chances on such an expensive movie. Hence, ‘name above the title’ billing went to Mickey Rooney – coasting on the ether of an envious decade of work. Rooney could do it all; impressions, sing, dance, play sublime comedy and serious melodrama; all with the conviction of a weathered ham. There is a fascinating chemistry – a bond of friendship, stirring between Taylor’s wholesome Velvet and Rooney’s jaded grifter, Mi Taylor; an enterprising young man, come in search of Velvet’s mother (Anne Revere) after the death of his own father. Ultimately, Mi is reformed by Velvet’s unspoken faith in him.
The other great performance in National Velvet belongs to veteran character actor, Donald Crisp as the stern, though benevolent patriarch who begins every conversation with clenched fist but ultimately finishes each merely by shaking an impatient finger. Crisp, who even as a younger man was usually cast as the fatherly sage, found steady work almost from the moment he came to America in 1908; appearing in nearly a hundred silent movies before embarking on one of Hollywood’s most prolific careers in the talkies. Indeed, Crisp’s back catalog is a rich bounty. Yet, despite his Oscar-winning performance as the taciturn father of a Welsh mining family in How Green Was My Valley (1941), the actor would remain in the background for the rest of his career. Nevertheless, at the time of his death it was unearthed that Donald Crisp was one of the richest men in Hollywood; a behind-the-scenes power broker with a ‘banker’s sobriety’ for business interests and a valued adviser to Bank of America, providing a steady pipeline of perennial reinvestment in the film-making community. Crisp’s Mr. Brown sees through Mi Taylor almost immediately. The boy is a con, unworthy of his wife’s kindnesses or daughter’s open acceptance as the elder brother she has never had. The Theodore Reeves/Helen Deutsch screenplay sets up an intriguing dynamic for Mr. Brown; his patient and abiding love for the women in his life. This trumps even his glowering and skepticism where Mi is concerned. But it never allows Mi to forget the tenuousness of these terms. Perhaps the most telling scene to illustrate this point occurs as Mi is elected, with Mrs. Brown’s blessing, to go to London and secure the registration fee to enter Velvet’s horse in the Grand National. Hocking old medals for swimming and relinquishing cherished prize money to pay for Mi’s trip, Mrs. Brown has invested considerably more in Mi Taylor than gold sovereigns. She recognizes, perhaps best of all, his young man’s struggle to do right by his commitments, even as temptation periodically presents itself as the easier route. Mr. Brown, however, remains unconvinced. “Mrs. Brown wishes you a safe journey,” Mr. Brown explains to Mi, “I will merely wish you a good time.”
National Velvet is also an important stepping stone in Angela Lansbury’s fledgling movie career; herein slightly miscast as the boy-crazy Edwina; eldest of the Brown girls. But the movie’s anchor is undeniably, Anne Revere’s all-seeing/all-knowing, occasionally brusque matriarch; her careworn humanity the perfect counterbalance to Elizabeth Taylor’s euphoric enthusiasm. Throughout the forties, Revere was a much sought-after actress; a free agent toggling her talents between Fox and MGM; her career unceremoniously cut short by an allegation of being a communist sympathizer. In National Velvet, Revere is perhaps at her finest as the sacrificing matriarch who, long ago, set aside personal ambitions as a channel swimmer to be a wife and mother. “Things come suitable to the time,” Mrs. Brown tells her daughter, “I too believe that everyone should have the chance at a breathtaking piece of folly at least once. Your dream has come early. But remember, Velvet, it’ll have to last you all the rest of your life.”
Our story begins with precocious Velvet Brown (Taylor) whose love of horses precedes her attention span for a regular education. Velvet lives idyllically in a small English village with her pragmatic mother (Ann Revere), stern but loveable father (Donald Crisp) and three siblings; love-struck, Edwina (Angela Lansbury), pert Malvonia (Juanita Quigley) and youngest, Donald (Jackie Jenkins), whose macabre fascination with insects, illnesses and death remains an oddity quaintly tolerated by the entire family. Into this close-knit brood arrives the wanderer, Mi Taylor (Mickey Rooney); a traveling con given the Brown’s address by his late father. Mrs. Brown immediately recognizes Mi’s father as the man who once taught her to swim the English Channel. She keeps this kernel of knowledge to herself, however. At least for the time being, Mi Taylor needs a family to call his own. But Mi’s first attempts to ingratiate himself are met with immediate misgivings by Mr. Brown. Nevertheless, Mi is given a room adjacent the stable and, at Mrs. Brown’s behest, is entrusted as an apprentice in the family-owned butcher shop. Early on Mi, learning of Mrs. Brown’s secret hiding place for the family’s finances, contemplates making off with the money in the dead of night. Mercifully, an attack of conscience prevents him from acting upon the impulse.
Meanwhile, local farmer, Ede (Reginald Owen) has had quite enough of his incorrigible stallion, the Pi. He decides to hold a lottery for the animal – a contest that inadvertently makes Velvet the recipient of the horse. The Pi becomes sick with colic, but is nursed back to health by Mi and Velvet, the two establishing a poignant bond of friendship in the process. Velvet confides in her mother a passion to race the Pi in the Grand National – an impossible dream since women are not permitted into the competition. But Mrs. Brown understands a thing or two about a woman’s perceived ‘place’ in this life; also, about the hypnotic sway of daydreams that can take hold of the imagination, heart and mind until the dreamer is fairly aching to burst. Mrs. Brown retreats to the upstairs attic, returning with the medals she earned as a swimmer and 100 gold sovereigns; prize money she has been saving. These will now be used to hire a jockey to ride the Pi in the Grand National; also, to pay for the horse and rider’s entry fee. Mrs. Brown implores Mi to go to London and register the horse. Believing his wife has made a terrible error in judgment, Mr. Brown merely wishes Mi a ‘good time’ in the big city. He does not expect they shall ever see the lad around these parts again. Mrs. Brown is more circumspect in her critique. “What’s the meaning of goodness if there isn’t a little badness to overcome,” she suggests to her husband. Besides, Velvet believes in Mi.
Both women’s faith is rewarded when Mi returns, not only with the registration papers, and a scheduled meeting to engage a professional jockey, I. Taski (Eugene Loring) to ride the Pi, but also with money to spare, much to Mr. Brown’s astonishment. On the day before the Grand National, Mi and Velvet meet Taski at the racing camp. Unfortunately, Taski proves an arrogant prig – self-appointed and not terribly interested in winning so much as merely to collect the fee for his services. Disheartened, Mi and Velvet return to the Pi’s stall to prepare for their return home. They have come a long way for nothing. Mi is overcome by a moment of lost ambition. Perhaps he could ride the Pi onto victory. Alas, Velvet has other ideas: to masquerade as the prepubescent jockey herself. Mi is vehemently opposed to the notion at first. It’s too dangerous for one, and not at all what they agreed upon at the start. “Do you think a race like this is won on luck?” Mi stubbornly declares. “No,” Velvet admits, “By knowing I can win and telling the Pi so!” Mi suddenly realizes the Grand National has always been Velvet’s dream – not his. He agrees to the disguise, lopping off her hair with a pair of scissors. “I want it all quickly…” Velvet admits, “I don't want God to stop and think and wonder if I'm getting more than my share.”
The next day, despite seemingly insurmountable odds, Velvet Brown rides the Pi onto victory in England’s most distinguished race. Regrettably, she is thrown from her mount and knocked unconscious after crossing the finish line – resulting in a physical examination to ascertain the severity of her fall. But this inadvertently reveals her sex and thus disqualifies her from the race. Despite this loss, Velvet returns home a triumphant local celebrity and a national heroine. The Browns are inundated with offers for Velvet and the Pi to appear as a novelty act in various traveling shows and exhibitions. And although Mr. Brown is ecstatic at the prospect of his daughter exploiting her newfound fame, Velvet has wisely taken her mother’s philosophy to heart: ‘things have come suitable to the time’. Her dream has been fulfilled. Time to get on with the pragmatic business of simply living. Velvet thus and very quietly declines to make a spectacle of the Pi. Meanwhile, Mi has decided the time has come to move on. He packs his kit and heads for the open road. Mrs. Brown confides the truth about Mi’s father to Velvet, encouraging her to go after him and share it. The story concludes with Velvet mounting the Pi, riding out to the horizon to share this news with him.
There have been other ‘girl and horse’ stories, but National Velvet towers above the rest as a rhapsodic visual stylization with thoroughly resplendent performances. Cedric Gibbons and Urie McCleary’s art direction is a deft amalgam of ole world authenticity and newfangled Hollywood magic. The many long shots in the movie are a skillful combination of full-size, free-standing sets built on the MGM back lot and a stunning array of matte paintings created to expand off into the distant horizons. Filtered through the richness of 3-strip vintage Technicolor, these painterly evocations perfectly capture the agrarian appeal of a bygone England. Married to Edwin B. Willis’ set decoration, Leonard Smith’s lush cinematography and Herbert Stothart’s richly satisfying score, National Velvet does everything but call out England’s glorious age. Yet, the movie is much more than a quaintly evocative and romanticized snapshot. It is imbued with the very best moralizing of American ideals L.B. Mayer so valiantly treasured to preserve on celluloid. Superficially, the picture’s appeal clings to that sweet escapism gleaned in the very best tradition of ancient Hollywood. Yet, on a more heartfelt level, National Velvet triumphs as a very rare ‘sport’ indeed, presenting us with a highly fictionalized moment in time when life had a more meaningful cadence and purpose. And with Elizabeth Taylor at its helm, it remains the picture that effectively made her a star.
Those who frequent this blog will recognize this as a re-post. While I intend not to rest entirely on my laurels, I also do not envision a time when I will willingly set aside my passion for legitimate classics on Blu-ray. National Velvet deserves a Blu-ray release from the Warner Archive – period. It is high time more national treasures like National Velvet received their due in hi-def ahead of some of the ‘B’ and ‘C’ grade fodder I’ve seen WAC pump out in 2017 ahead of the long list of luminaries given short shrift thus far. Warner Home Video’s reissued DVD under their ‘family entertainment’ banner is derived from the tired old MGM/UA Home Video release of 1997 release using the same digital files created for the even more ancient 1994 MGM/UA LaserDisc! Bottom line: what we have here is a transfer in desperate need of an upgrade. While colors are generally rich and vibrant, thanks to a photo-chemical restoration done long ago, the image has not been progressively remastered herein. Worse, we get disturbing halos created by an infrequent misalignment of the original 3-strip Technicolor records. Contrast is fairly solid but age-related artifacts are present and, at times, distracting. Pixelization and shimmering of fine details is also a problem. Again: very rough around the edges and hugely disappointing for a movie as beloved as this. The audio is mono but adequate. Regrettably, NO extras. How can it be we are preparing to bid 2017 a fond farewell and still no National Velvet on Blu-ray?!? I put the question plainly to the Warner Archive. Come on folks! This one is a contender for sure! Everything about this classic cries out for a full-blown digital restoration and new 1080p hi-def release. National Velvet comes very highly recommended for its content. But the existing transfer is less than stellar.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)