Clarence Brown’s National Velvet is a heartwarming story of family love, loyalty, and faith and is capped by an earnest and touching performance by the young Elizabeth Taylor in her star-making role.
The Production: 4.5/5
Clarence Brown’s National Velvet is a heartwarming story of family love, loyalty, and faith and capped by an earnest and touching performance by the young Elizabeth Taylor in her star-making role. It’s a long film but one whose time passes by effortlessly due to a clutch of memorable character performances (one of which earned an Oscar), an openly sincere striving for excellence by the title character, and by Technicolor so lush and appealing that one could almost eat it with a spoon.
When young Velvet Brown (Elizabeth Taylor) comes into possession of a headstrong gelding who had been giving its previous owner (Reginald Owen) fits, her love of the horse and her faith in its inherent goodness leads her to begin having grandiose dreams for her horse named Pie (short for “Pirate” which the previous owner had thought the horse to be). Former jockey now handyman/horse trainer Mi Taylor (Mickey Rooney) tries to quash Velvet’s dreams of entering Pie in the Grand National Steeplechase, but Velvet, her parents (Anne Revere, Donald Crisp), and later the entire village get behind her efforts to let the horse achieve great things by undergoing an extensive year-long training exhibition attempting to get Pie ready for England’s toughest almost five-mile race.
Theodore Reeves and Helen Deutsch’s screenplay, based on the novel by Enid Bagnold, throws a major spotlight on the Brown family dynamics: a warm, no nonsense mother and a firm father who always takes heed to his wife’s common sense, and four wildly different children: lovestruck Edwina (Angela Lansbury), taciturn Malvolia (Juanita Quigley), mischievous Donald (Jackie “Butch” Jenkins), and dreamy Velvet who lives her life for horses. While Mickey Rooney takes top billing and certainly has a handful of scenes to show his dramatic chops (including fighting his intense desire to rob the family and head off for parts unknown), the movie’s focus most certainly belongs to Elizabeth Taylor and her almost spiritual relationship with the horse. Director Clarence Brown spends considerable screen time showing the intense training getting the Pie ready for all of the course hazards he’ll be facing at the Grand National, and those sequences are quite thrilling as the beautiful horse excels in surmounting almost all obstacles. There’s a lull in the action, however, when the Pie falls ill, but Brown’s sterling direction keeps things tension-filled and never allows the film’s forward momentum to drag. The race itself is so crowded with entries that it’s difficult to keep the Pie’s progress clear for the viewer until the field thins out during the final stretch of the race, but Brown keeps things lively by inserting Rooney’s undersized Mi Taylor desperately trying to get race reports from uppity Arthur Treacher’s snobbish spectator.
Elizabeth Taylor’s earnestness and free spiritedness make her an endearing Velvet Brown with eyes sparkling and that dreamy faraway look that draws in every viewer watching this for either the first or the fiftieth time. Mickey Rooney is more centered and grounded here than was his wont, perhaps more settled knowing he was headed for enlistment in the Army at the completion of this picture. Anne Revere earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her sagely wise and wonderful mother knowing when to push her children and when to let things be, and Donald Crisp is equally effective as the more confused father who always means well but doesn’t always follow through on his initial instincts. Angela Lansbury’s Edwina and Juanita Quigley’s Malvolia rather fade into the background as the movie progresses though Jackie Jenkins’ ornery Donald is placed sporadically front and center by director Brown to tone down the film’s intrinsic sweetness and sentimentality. Other notable character cameos are Reginald Owens’ feisty neighbor, Norma Varden’s kindly schoolteacher, Eugene Loring’s unenthusiastic jockey Taski, and Dennis Hoey’s underhanded Greenford trying his best to swindle Rooney’s Mi out of his gold sovereigns. Look quickly and you’ll see Angela Lansbury’s mother Moyna MacGill placing a wager on a horse at the start of the race.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1 is faithfully reproduced in 1080p resolution using the AVC codec. The image is spotlessly clean (a giant leap from previous tape and disc releases which were dirty and soft) and mostly very sharp except in close-ups where soft focus has been clearly utilized. The Technicolor finally looks as it should with bold hues that are never oversaturated but which make for picture perfect viewing. Unlike previous transfers, there are no problems with color alignment either. The movie has been divided into 33 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix is typical for its era and solidly reproduced on this disc. Dialogue, Herbert Stothart’s tender background score, and the myriad sound effects have all been blended seamlessly into a whole, and there are no age-related anomalies like hiss, pops, crackle, or flutter to mar the listening experience.
Special Features: 1/5
Theatrical Trailer (2:42, HD)
Warner Archive’s newest release of National Velvet on Blu-ray finally gives us a beautiful version of this family classic that it has long deserved. While one might have wished that such a landmark film would have rated some bonus features worthy of its stature and reputation, the film itself finally looks and sounds wonderful. Highly recommended!
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