Sunday, December 14, 2014

'National Velvet' Holds Up After 70 Years

"Some day you'll learn that greatness is only the seizing of opportunity — clutching with your bare hands 'til the knuckles show white."

Mi Taylor (Mickey Rooney)

Mickey Rooney (who died last spring) got top billing in "National Velvet," which premiered 70 years ago today.

But Elizabeth Taylor is the one who really made it the children's classic it became.

Before I saw it, I assumed from the title that the movie was about a horse named National Velvet — but that was not the way it was. Velvet was the name of Taylor's character, and the National part came from the Grand National steeplechase for which she trained the horse (who was known as "The Pie," short for "The Pirate," a name he acquired from a previous owner).

Rooney was in his 20s and a veteran of dozens of movies when "National Velvet" hit the theaters. Taylor, who was 12 years old, had been in only four, and two were uncredited (her most recent credited appearance had been in the first of the Lassie movies, "Lassie Come Home").

Even more of a newcomer was 19–year–old Angela Lansbury, who made her movie debut in "Gaslight" seven months earlier. Lansbury's role was small, like the roles of the other members of the family (including Anne Revere and Donald Crisp, who starred as the parents). They were mostly there as filler; by and large, it was a two–person show.

As attractive as Lansbury was as a young woman, I have often heard it said that Taylor was a great beauty even as a girl. The term woman–child seems like an exaggeration for most, but it might be appropriate for Taylor — for it almost seems as if she went from being an infant to being a woman overnight — with nothing in between.

I once saw a clip of an interview with a producer who was in the business in the 1930s and 1940s. He said Taylor was more beautiful at the age of 7 than most women ever are at any age.

Mr. Hallam (Arthur Shields): So you're to win the gelding, are you, Velvet?

Velvet: Oh, of course, I'm to win.

Mr. Hallam: There are ways of arranging it, aren't there? And your father's a clever man ...

Velvet: Oh, I didn't bother him, Mr. Hallam. I just arranged it with God.

Some people would argue about that, I guess, but there is no disputing the fact that Taylor was a very beautiful woman — and stunning as a girl.

And she played a resourceful character.

Rooney's character believed himself to be a coward because he wouldn't ride horses — he was a jockey at one time, but he caused an accident that led to the death of another jockey.

Anyway, for reasons that are best left to individual viewers to discover, the horse had no jockey the night before the Grand National, and Rooney tried to muster up enough courage to ride him — but Taylor decided she wanted to ride. She told Rooney to cut her hair so she would look more like a boy.

And he did.

I've seen a few horse racing sequences in the movies — some were good, some were not.

I was disappointed in the racing sequence in "Seabiscuit." I was more impressed with the sequences in "Secretariat," but, as in real life, the 1973 Belmont lacked suspense.

The sequence in "National Velvet" holds up well, even 70 years later, but if I was going to compare it to anything, I wouldn't compare it to another racing sequence. I would compare it to the fight scenes in the original "Rocky."

Both movies were mentioned in the American Film Institute's list of the top 100 inspiring movies. ("Rocky" was #4; "National Velvet" was #24.) "Seabiscuit" was on that list, but, inexplicably, "Secretariat" was not.

It's a heart–pounding, pulse–racing experience, all the more impressive because it was done with the limitations of 1940s technology.

While her screen time was limited, Revere won Best Supporting Actress, one of two Oscars won by "National Velvet" — Robert Kern's editing was the other.