1945 / Best Director

Film #629: National Velvet (1945)

This entry is significant for a number of reasons; firstly, as it’s the final movie that we’ll be covering from the 1940’s and also because it’s the last colour film on this leg of the blog. Furthermore, it begins a four-film look at director Clarence Brown; a man who’s work has popped before on the blog most notably his deer-based melodrama The Yearling. It’s another animal based family movie that saw him garner one of his five nominations for Best Director that being the quaint horse-racing film National Velvet; a picture that is most famous for introducing the world to Elizabeth Taylor.

Although the film would go onto be remembered for the performance given by the then twelve-year-old Taylor as the titular Velvet, at the time Brown’s movie was a starring vehicle for Mickey Rooney. Rooney, who was one of the biggest box office draws of the time, portrays Mi Taylor a drifter whose journey takes him to the small town of Sewels in Sussex. Mi arrives at the home of the Brown family as his late father had a connection to the clan’s matriarch Aramnity, although she’s hesitant to reveal just what that is. Feeling sorry for Mi, Mr. Brown takes him on as an assistant at the house and in his butcher shop in return for lodgings in their abode. Meanwhile Mi forms a bond with the Brown’s twelve-year-old daughter Velvet as she’s obsessed with horses and he has a history with the animals even though he claims to hate them now. Through a series of events, which include a rather quaint raffle scene, Velvet ends up with the horse of her dreams known as The Pie and sets out to have him compete in that year’s Grand National. The movie then follows Mi’s attempts to secure a jockey for the race whilst the Brown’s struggle with Velvet’s continued involvement in training The Pie. Throughout the course of the film I was wondering why Brown received a Best Director nomination for National Velvet however my answer came in the movie’s dying moments. When the original jockey pulls out at the last minute, Velvet decides that she’s going to partake in The Grand National herself, so she and Mi disguise the twelve-year-old girl so she looks like a grown man. The race scenes themselves were superbly choreographed and seen through Mi’s eyes as he was unable to see the fate of Velvet and The Pie until they started to race to the head of the pack. I found that Brown’s direction perfectly captured the intensity of the race and for the first time I was invested in the fate of Velvet, making the successive plot twists more intriguing. The final scenes of National Velvet concentrated on the movie’s key relationships with Mrs Brown revealing for the first time the nature of the relationship between she and Mi’s father.

It took me a couple of sittings to get through National Velvet and my feelings about the movie differed from scene to scene. My initial impressions of the movie weren’t good with the scenes between Taylor and Angela Lansbury as her sister feeling incredibly twee and not worthy of an Oscar-winning movie. Thankfully, as soon as we transitioned into the Brown home events began to pick up with the appearances of Donald Crisp and Anne Revere as the Brown parents being the primary reason for this. Revere was particularly fantastic throughout the film with her dry delivery of every line earning her a well-deserved Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Crisp and Revere’s chemistry was convincing and they complimented each other perfectly to the extent that they became the main highlight of the movie. As the film’s main draw, I felt Mickey Rooney gave a rather flat performance and felt like he was going through the motion as the former jockey whose bad experiences had given him a hatred of horses. Whilst I’ve enjoyed him in other movies, here Rooney was eclipsed by most of his co-stars including the enigmatic Taylor. In this, her breakthrough role, you could already tell that Taylor would be a star as her enthusiastic performance as Velvet made me sympathise with the characters many setbacks before her ultimate participation in The Grand National. As mentioned, The Grand National scenes were the film’s most impressive and I’m not surprised that Robert J Kern’s editing won the movie’s other Oscar whilst Leonard Smith’s cinematography earned a further nomination. These scenes had me on the edge of my seat as those behind and in front of the camera perfectly built the tension up until the winner of the race was revealed.

I’m still unsure whether Brown deserved his nomination for the movie although it was his vision that brought all the elements of The Grand National scene together. However, I did think that National Velvet was about thirty minutes too long and had it clocked in at ninety minutes it would’ve been a more engrossing watch. I personally would’ve scrapped the whole subplot involving Angela Lansbury’s character and her burgeoning relationship with a local lad. If The Southerner and National Velvet were given Best Picture nominee slots at that year’s ceremony then they would’ve replaced the brilliant Mildred Pierce and the visually inventive Anchors Aweigh. I feel neither is worthy to replace those movies and I’m personally baffled that Michael Curtiz did receive a nomination for Mildred Pierce. However, I do feel that National Velvet has stayed in the public consciousness thanks to it being a perennial family favourite and the fact that it was the movie that launched Elizabeth Taylor’s storied career.

Next up we travel to the 1930’s to check out another Clarence Brown film which earned its lead that year’s Best Actor Oscar.

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