SUMMARY OF NATIONAL VELVET
Velvet Brown is your average young girl. She lives in a small English village with her parents, older sisters and younger brother. But Velvet has one trait that sets her apart -she is horse crazy! Not only does she pretend that she owns her own equine, but she cares even more for the noble beasts than she does people.
Velvet’s life is first upended by the arrival of Mi Taylor, a suspicious young man with possible ties to her mother. Because Mi seems to share her appreciation for horses, she convinces both Mi and her family that he should stay. Though Mi is drawn to the freedom of the open road, he reluctantly agrees for Velvet’s sake.
Velvet’s life is completely changed when she wins a high spirited horse no one else wants in the village lottery. But this is no ordinary horse to the young Velvet. She sees something special in the Pie. Suddenly, it becomes her mission to see him win the honor and glory she thinks he deserves. When Velvet learns of Mi’s familiarity with horse racing, she sweetly coerces him into a pact to train Pie for the world’s most prestigious race, The Grand National. But the odds are small and the stakes are high and no one believes the Pie can win. No one but his young dreamy owner.
National Velvet was only Elizabeth Taylor’s third credited film appearance and her first in a starring role. And boy, did she make the most of it.
When most people remember the great Elizabeth Taylor, they think of her later films, her beauty, her public triumphs and scandals, her love for jewelry, her AIDS activism, or even perhaps her popular perfumes. But before she became one of the most famous people in the world, she was just another child actress, one who had already had a film contract terminated and was by no means assured success.
Originally, an eighteen year old Gene Tierney was slated for the role of Velvet Brown, but when scheduling issues precluded her participation, the younger Elizabeth Taylor worked hard to win the part.
Taylor’s performance as Velvet Brown is the first glimpse of the young girl who would become a big star. She is winsome and warm, her violet eyes shining with grand dreams and her steel backbone camouflaged by girlish charm. Taylor’s own special bond with the horse playing the Pie is seamlessly incorporated into Velvet’s love for her horse. In fact, the film mimics the relationship between Taylor and King Charles (the Pie) in the scenes where only Velvet can tame the high-tempered Pie.
Before Elizabeth Taylor’s turn as Velvet Brown, few would have predicted her future in film. But afterward, few would be surprised by her rise to stardom as an accomplished actress.
Of course, her performance is enhanced by a splendid cast of supporting actors including Donald Crisp and Anne Revere as her parents, a very young Angela Landsbury in only her second onscreen role as Velvet’s sister Edwina, and Reginald Owen and Norma Varden (who I remember from The Sound of Music).
I love Velvet’s relationships and interactions with her family, particularly her parents. Her father acts as the practical one in the family, trying to rein in his families dreams and keep them towing the line. Yet somehow he always manages to give away the fact that he has a soft heart, even though he has a loud mouth. It is Velvet’s interactions with her mother (Anne Revere) which encourage and fuel her dreams. Her mother also appears to be practical even dour, but she also recognizes the value of “folly”. She is a fount of wisdom and calm for her whole family.
Aside from Velvet’s relationship with the Pie, it is really her interaction with the seemingly shifty Mi Taylor which is the sweetest for me. Mi has lost everything, including his ability to trust others and to take risks. Initially, he seeks out the Brown family because of Mrs. Brown’s possible connection to his father. Then he decides to rob them and run. But Velvet’s innocent faith in him begins to change him. In fact, Mi is really the human counterpart of the Pie. Each of them are wary, rebellious and somewhat fearful. And each of them are slowly tamed and gentled by the love, care and trust of a young girl with a dream too big for herself.
Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of Mi Taylor is nuanced, sensitive, masterful and full of a beautiful pathos. Of course, at this time he had already transitioned himself from child to adult actor successfully and was a film veteran. He and Taylor play wonderfully off each other in National Velvet.
I have seen many of Elizabeth Taylor’s films, some of them also personal favorites. But I cherish watching her in National Velvet. It’s a joy to see her pre-fame, with no hint yet of the stories and perceptions and notoriety attached to her name. In a studio system which chewed up and spit out child actors, her portrayal of this iconic character helped ensure further roles which kept her from becoming just another has-been cautionary tale.
This Elizabeth Taylor is simply a young girl in love with a horse, in love with acting, without artifice and full of hope and joy. Before the fame, before the husbands, before the wealth, I like to think that National Velvet gives us a glimpse at the real Elizabeth Taylor.
I have been honored to participate in The Elizabeth Taylor Blogathon hosted by Crystal over at The Good Old Days of Hollywood. Please stop by and read other entries of this talented actress.