Directed by Clarence Brown
Written by Theodore Reeves, Helen Deutsch, and Howard Dimsdale (based on the novel by Enid Bagnold)
Clarence Brown's first film of 1944, The White Cliffs of Dover, saw him returning to the familiar mode of his 1930s women's pictures, presently updated for WWII, and if it's unusually devoid of interpersonal cruelty for a women's picture from Brown (it feels more like Brown working from Mervyn LeRoy's template), it replaces that particular kind of drama with the drama of wartime sacrifice, and thus it winds up being hard and mean anyway, a Britain-set companion to his aw-shucks work of Americana that also wound up hard and mean thanks to the war, The Human Comedy. Now building on the Capra influence that had made itself obvious with 1941's Come Live With Me, along with his women's picture-honed sensitivity, to become something like the exemplar of MGM's corniest sensibilities as a studio in the 40s, Brown was ready to tackle his second film of 1944, National Velvet.
Brown is rarely-to-never included in the "Old Hollywood auteur" conversation, unfortunately, but his producer status at MGM clearly afforded him some power to shape his projects. The studio's efforts to adapt Enid Bagnold's hit horsegirl novel had languished for years until Brown got ahold of it, and however that happened, it was his first film that felt like it was made for an actual family audience, maybe even for children first and foremost; most of his filmography is dedicated to sex tragedies, and while The Human Comedy had been about children, that film still took on such an adult perspective that its narrator is the ultimate grown-up, that is, a dead man. National Velvet winds up being kind of hard and mean itself, despite being a family film, because given its producer-director of course it does—the adult perspective is not eradicated—but now it's in really subtle, textured ways that never quite threaten its main goal of being a rousing crowd-pleaser; and if you want to stretch the term slightly, I guess it is still technically a women's picture, in that it operates within while acknowledging the unfairness of pre-liberation gender roles, drawing its latent melancholy from these constraints, though it also looks way ahead, to "girl power!" stuff from, like, the 1990s. And, naturally, because it's Brown in the 40s, it stood a very good chance of being absolutely terrific.
It turns out that National Velvet is maybe a better "Britain-set companion piece to The Human Comedy" than White Cliffs had been, almost a purified continuation, getting rid of the war in favor of even more small-town vibes. The delay proved to be a real boon in this regard: I imagine the Depression somewhat inflected Bagnold's choice to set her 1935 book in the late 1920s—though Britain barely had a reprieve from suffering in the first place, and things got bleak quickly after World War I—but the film version of National Velvet, arriving nine years after the novel's publication and in the midst of World War II, turns that choice from "well, it must've happened a few years back" to "it happened in an entirely different world which we'll never know again, and which we obviously must not remember too clearly already, but gosh, it must've been nice."
So: our setting is the fictional village of Sewels on the coast of southeast England, and at the center of our story are the Browns, led by father Herbert (Donald Crisp), a butcher, and by mother Araminty (Anne Revere), though I believe we do not hear this name spoken until the very, very end in a sweetly tender moment—they typically refer to the other as "Mr. Brown" and "Mrs. Brown," and in the third person, even when they're speaking privately—and Mrs. Brown, without ever coming off domineering about it, is either accorded an unstressed equality by her face-saving husband, or is else just quietly the family's chief decisionmaker. In her day she was an extraordinary catch for Herbert, the first woman to swim the English Channel, recipient of a prize and no little glory, though the glory is now just an occasionally-referenced fond memory. Their children number four, from oldest to youngest Edwina (Angela Lansbury), Malvolia (Juanita Quigley), Velvet (Elizabeth Taylor), and Donald (Jackie Jenkins). Half of them have their stupid names for no elucidated reason, and they all have their idiosyncrasies, though the theme is that they're all obsessed with some manner of animal: Donald has his insects in bottles; "Mally" has her pet birds; "Dwina," being the eldest (and the metaphor is made pretty much explicit) has graduated to collecting the affections of boys; and most importantly for us, 14 year old Velvet loves horses. A lot.
We arrive in Sewels, however, right behind a stranger to these parts, ex-horse jockey Michael "Mi" Taylor (Mickey Rooney), who's been walking the highways of England since the passing of his father, perhaps followed the whole while by Herbet Stothart's primary theme, a jaunty, up-tempo presentation of "Greensleeves" with a whistled countersubject that feels slightly brittle, "watchful and sharp," not unlike Mi himself. He hopes that his father's nebulous friendship with a "Mrs. Herbert Brown" may afford him a place to stay, but he runs into Velvet first, and earns an invitation to dinner by engaging her in conversation about horses, particularly one of her neighbors' new horses, a rambunctious gelding (King Charles) with a penchant for leaping out of his enclosure, named "the Pie" for reasons I haven't managed to catch in either of my viewings of the film. (In the novel he's a piebald horse, and therefore "the Piebald"; in the movie, he's a chestnut.) Velvet finagles a summer job for Mi out her father—thus unwittingly putting a halt to his plans to rob them blind while they're sleeping—but he becomes crucial to Velvet's plans when she wins a raffle for the ownership of the Pie, and he puts the idea in her head, quite by accident, that he has the makings of a champion jumper and racehorse, and that he could, with training and luck, even win the Grand National Steeplechase.
That's mostly it as far as plot goes—the Pie does, indeed, go on to race in the Grand National, though there are a few complications on the way—and that's an extremely straightforward plot for a film that's allowed to run 123 minutes. (Brown was permitted more indulgence in the 1940s: The Human Comedy, I believe, had been his longest film to that point, and White Cliffs longer than that, his first to exceed two hours in the final cut.) It's more deceptively straightforward, however, and those 123 minutes permit Brown to pursue his story with a gentle but deliberate pace, soaking up every possible jot of that previously-mentioned vibe. The gentleness persists up until about the climactic ten minutes which detail the Pie's contest at the Grand National, which open up the film to the cacophony of the crowds and the thunderous drumbeat of hooves.
It gets us ahead of ourselves, but it's worth mentioning it now: it's a tremendous little piece of racing cinema that Brown and editor Robert Kern put together, with an eye for speed and, more importantly, the sensation of speed. They are, of course, burdened by the technology of their day, which will naturally have a devil of a time inserting the Pie's rider into the action, and inevitably does so by way of flatly-composed rear projection shots and the fake bouncing of a mechanical horse. (Happily, it does this very sparingly.) But the rest of it is great, with some extraordinarily intelligent shot design for an event that would have been hard to "design" in the first place, constructed principally out of reverse-dollies done on the racetrack itself and boldly-sweeping lateral tracking shots from outside it, the latter of which invariably move on a single axis and fixed velocity for the entire duration of the shot, which means sometimes "leaving out" details that seem important, or not capturing the action in an overtly "composed" way—but what it loses in pristine clarity is returned tenfold in the visceral thrill of being practically thrown across the field as fast as a charging racehorse would carry you, and the frame shakes with the pounding of hooves. (On the dollies this was probably unavoidable, but I'm at least halfway-convinced Brown's juicing it with artificial assistance on the tracking shots; either way, that quaking shudder adds to the feeling of awe before the great beasts.) I don't mean to imply that the action is ever unclear, however: the faintly-repulsive magenta-and-goldenrod jockey outfit the Pie's rider wears turns out to have been a good choice after all, permitting the stand-in jockey in the long shots to remain instantly identifiable even amongst the lurid colors of the other jockeys. It's remarkable that Brown's first color film so earnestly demanded being in color; this is frankly true in many ways, but it's hard to imagine National Velvet's climax coming off nearly as well in black-and-white.
The action itself is really cool, of course, though let's briefly poke at the question raised by the whole concept, "a 1940s movie about horses jumping over tall barriers and very often failing to clear them": to comfort us, we have the frequency with which National Velvet shows up on "best sports movies ever" lists—it is, undoubtedly, the Brown movie with the single strongest legacy (hell, it even got an unbelievably shitty legacy sequel, 1978's irritatingly-titled International Velvet)—and it seems unlikely that it would continue to be so honored in the 2000s if it had killed or severely maimed its horses. (Then again, people still like the Grand National Steeplechase, which puts all its equine contenders at non-trivial risk, a concern raised by neither loving Velvet nor morbid Mi even once.) In any case, National Velvet post-dates the animal safety reforms occasioned by 1936's The Charge of the Light Brigade, which Michael Curtiz directed with such sociopathic indifference that even barbaric 30s people were outraged. National Velvet's got some spills but none look terrible, at least; best, then, to enjoy this spectacle for its undeniable thrills, on top of all of Brown's sterling (if less loudly-impressive) "riding a horse beneath old spreading oak trees across a windswept English field" pastoral imagery, and a really swell training montage structured around the change of seasons.*
So in terms of "racing films," National Velvet's got the goods, but then, that's only about ten minutes, leaving a lot of space for all the other things it's about. And while it's so soft and inchoate about some of it that I don't know if it's about-about anything besides its central thesis, when I said it was deceptively straightforward, I meant that the shockingly careful script and Brown's shepherding of the sentiment offer all sorts of smaller things to appreciate. You can pick anything here: for example, Rooney charting Mi's evolution from rake to mentor, and leaving aside a lousy "drunkard comedy" bit where the archness of the scenario finally gets the better of him, Rooney's really good at navigating the shifts between Mi's selfishness and his encroaching sense of loyalty, getting across that the former is driven by fear that the latter doesn't really exist in the world, and that he resents having to question his assumptions. (And needless to say, Rooney is good casting for a jockey.) Real-life horsegirl Taylor is extremely good too, but in a borderline-frightening visionary sense, which is precisely what Velvet calls for: she operates solely in the one register, innocent yearning belied by the almost maniacal glint in her eyes, and to the extent there's variation, sometimes she's slightly less intense. (That intensity even single-handedly fixes the film's only real weakness, which is that it doesn't spend much time showing a relationship between Velvet and her horse, but if I don't know how the horse feels, at least Velvet's devotion to him is above suspicion.)
The abiding pleasure of National Velvet, of course, is simply its English slice-of-life, and the nostalgia it conjures for a idea of picturesque early 20th century country living (that is, long enough ago to be missed, modern enough to not be complete savagery); and that feeling permeates practically every single frame. The use of color may be even more important in the interstitial scenes than it is in the climactic race, and the Technicolor artifice of "quiet nights by lamplight" manifests as a modest wonder. The film I always think of in comparison to National Velvet, and not solely because it was also released in 1944, is Meet Me In St. Louis, which is probably better-regarded and which, frankly, I slightly despise. To me, this is what that film was supposed to be, and even though you'd think a film explicitly about "greatness" would've gone full-tilt in the opposite direction, there it is: it's a paean to simplicity and community, using much the same techniques that St. Louis went for—the rich pictorial loveliness of an MGM production turned toward capturing the notion of "quaintness" by way of subtly vibrant color and Cedric Gibbons and company's meticulous art direction, with nobody sweating the dialect work, and all capped off by one of the most superb "sunsets" to ever conclude a motion picture.
That studio fakeness is, in fact, its strength: it's an idea of simplicity, and if it were more "real" it would necessarily be less powerful in its appeal. The difference might be that National Velvet is threaded with bigger ideas, and takes on actual complexity as a result (or the difference might be that St. Louis is just so damn boring). But Brown is slow and steady, capturing in loving detail the rhythms of life in this family, never straying too far or too long from Velvet and Mi, but happy to just take pleasure in contemplating the Browns' cozy-poor household, turning its crummy and cramped architecture into something intimate and inviting. (So intimate, anyway, that I honestly couldn't tell you where little Donald actually sleeps.) It's a warmly funny movie, too; maybe it doesn't sell it as "cute," but it even has a really, really gross shit joke near the end (and human shit, not horse shit, to be clear), which is like a bolt of lightning for its era.
But it does have that structuring sports-movie goal, and more besides. Here's where I admit that maybe I'm an idiot (it's literally the title), but the first time I watched it, National Velvet genuinely surprised me as to where it ended up; title or not, I think it's supposed to be a surprise, playing a clever trick by having Mi be the ex-jockey with a tragic background, and leaning hard into the possibility that his redemption is somehow tied to his riding the Pie in the big race. It's an old movie and I've marked this for spoilers, so you know that he doesn't—the heroine doesn't spend the climax of her own movie doing nothing, even if it helps awfully that in a 1944 film it's extremely plausible that she could have done nothing, rather than having her hair shorn off to masquerade as her own jockey. Being from 1944 gives this turn extra oomph, because there's no sense of obligation or calculation to it. Yet I wouldn't say there's no intentionality to the gender politics here: there's some interesting stuff in the corners going on foreshadowing Velvet's own performance of masculinity, which makes it even weirder for 1944 than having a shit joke.
And so Velvet rides in her race, which is where Brown's usual emotional ambivalence comes in. It's less the case for Velvet, who sought nothing but the achievement, than for us in the audience, who are invited to understand the contours of Velvet's achievement vastly better than she can. Consenting to front her daughter the entry fees to the race, her mother sits down to have a little talk with her, and if Taylor comprehends much of this on Velvet's behalf, she betrays little of Velvet's comprehension through her big eyes and beaming smile (though I adore the little detail that Velvet knew her mother had kept the prize money from her own athletic triumph, and that her mother knows very well that Velvet is trying to manipulate her with childish cunning; Revere won an Oscar and deservedly so). Anyway, Mrs. Brown tries to give her daughter the benefit of her experience, for when she swam the Channel she too did the single greatest thing she would ever do early in life, with nothing but conventionality to look forward to afterwards; and Revere's unadorned performance lets you know that she doesn't regret that, exactly, and she can contextualize it and be happy because she's a grown-up, but it's still a dull ache that's followed her ever since. Thus from this comparatively early moment, brought back home in the end, National Velvet is pervaded with this mild sense of preemptive emptiness, that win or lose (and because she's a girl, Velvet ultimately must win and lose), this is it. It's still a big high to see her beat the pack, but there's a clear-eyed maturity here; it has the courage to at least pose the question for Velvet, "what now?", and it can only hope that whatever it is, it contents her.
*As far as injuries on National Velvet go, the most unfortunate was the one sustained by its juvenile star: I cannot say if it was anyone's fault, and Taylor appears to have forgiven the horse for doing it (MGM even bought him for her), but King Charles broke his twelve year old rider's back. Sadly, many of Taylor's later-life health problems can be traced directly to the film that made her a star—probably in more ways than one, when you think of it that way.