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Film Friday: "National Velvet" (1944)

To celebrate Mickey Rooney's 95th birthday, this week on "Film Friday" I bring you one of his best-remembered films, wherein he gave one of the most endearing performances of his career. Incidentally, this is also the film that made Elizabeth Taylor a star. 

Original release poster
Directed by Clarence Brown, National Velvet (1944) tells the story of Velvet Brown (Elizabeth Taylor), a 12-year-old girl living in a small 1920s English town with her parents (Donald Crisp and Anne Revere) and her three siblings, Edwina (Angela Lansbury), Malvolia (Juanita Quigley) and Donald (Jackie Jenkins). While walking home from school one day, Velvet meets a mysterious young drifter named Mi Taylor (Mickey Rooney), who has come to town in search of the Brown family after finding Mrs. Brown name and address in one of his deceased father's notebooks. As Velvet is talking to Mi, she sees a rambunctious horse being chased by its owner, Mr. Ede (Reginald Owen), and immediately falls in love with the animal, which she dubs "The Pie" and dreams of owning.

Velvet invites Mi to dine with her family and Mrs. Brown gives no indication of ever meeting his father. However, she insists Mi spend the night in a room in their stable and later convinces Mr. Brown to give him a full-time job as a delivery boy at his butcher shop. That night, Velvet asks her mother if she knew Mi's father and learns that he had trained Mrs. Brown for a Channel swim, the first woman to do so. The next day, Velvet accompanies Mi on a delivery in order to pass by Mr. Ede's farm to catch a glimpse of The Pie. As they witness the gelding make a spectacular jump, Mi, a former jockey, tells Velvet that The Pie has what it takes to win the Grand National Steeplechase. The Pie's subsequent rampage through the village leads Mr. Ede to offer the horse up in a raffle and Velvet eventually wins him. After charming her parents into letting her enter The Pie into the Grand National, Velvet manages to persuade Mi to train the horse by promising him one-half of any of their winnings. Months later, the pair arrives in London for the contest and suddenly find themselves with no jockey. Velvet then tries to convince Mi to ride The Pie, but he tearfully refuses, explaining that during a race in Manchester, he caused a collision that resulted in the death of another jockey. Just as Mi realizes he must face his fears, Velvet decides to impersonate a boy and ride The Pie in the Grand National herself. Can she do it?

Mi Taylor: Great? Do you think that greatness just hatches like Mally's canaries? Someday you'll learn that greatness is only the seizing of opportunity clutching with your bare hands 'til the knuckles show white.

Born into a military family in 1899, English author Enid Bagnold published her first book in 1917, an account of her experiences as an Army nurse during World War I entitled A Diary Without Dates. After she married Sir Roderick Jones in 1920, the couple established residence at North End House in Rottingdean, where they raised four children, the eldest of which growing up with a special fascination for horses. By the age of nine, her daughter Laurian was already an accomplished horse rider and her ambition was "to own a livery stable and to walk about in riding breeches with her hands in pockets." Trained by Bernard McHardy, a former steeplechase jockey with "an air of mystery," Laurian entered the Sussex gymkhana scene in the early 1930s, winning several cups and rosettes "from Devonshire to Richmond."

In the summer of 1934, inspired by Laurian's obsession with horses and her triumphs at the local fairs, Bagnold began writing about the "female-equine relationship," featuring "the race itself as the dramatic climax." Determined that everything in this story be accurate, Bagnold checked regularly with McHardy, in addition to making a careful study of the Jockey Club Rules and going to the Liverpool Autumn Meeting at Aintree. With simple line illustrations made by Laurian, then thirteen, National Velvet was published in early 1935 and won immediate acclaim, both in England and the United States. Although Bagnold always maintained that the book was "for grown-ups not children," National Velvet quickly became a young adult classic, one which has never been out of print.

Elizabeth Taylor and Mickey Rooney
After National Velvet was selected as Book of the Month in America in May 1935, several Hollywood studios showed interest in acquiring the rights to the story. Pandro S. Berman, then a producer at RKO, thought it would be perfect for Katharine Hepburn, but his offer was bested  by Paramount, who wanted John Gilbert's daughter, Leatrice, for the lead. When casting difficulties arose in 1937, Paramount sold the property to MGM and plans were made to shoot the film in England, with Leslie Ruth Howard, Leslie Howard's daughter, and Spencer Tracy as possible stars. The outbreak of war in Europe, however, forced the studio to shelve the project, until Berman, now working for MGM, revived it in 1941.

National Velvet was Elizabeth Taylor's favorite novel as a child, so when she learned that MGM was planning to adapt it to the big screen, she set out to make the starring role hers. The little heroine of Bagnold's story was a spirited one and perfectly suited the 11-year-old Taylor. Born in England, she had the right accent to play Velvet convincingly and shared the character's inexplicable affinity for horses, having learned to ride at the age of three. Her ambitious mother, Sara, convinced the impressionable Taylor that she was indeed Velvet Brown and suddenly she "was transformed into the young English girl. She turned her bedroom into a horsey boudoir of briddles, saddles, and statues of horses, and began calling herself Velvet." Despire Taylor's fierce enthusiasm and riding skills, Berman was reluctant to give her the part, deeming her "pretty enough, but just too small." 

Elizabeth Taylor and King Charles
Determined to win the coveted role at all costs, Taylor embarked on a strict program to "grow into the part." Legend has it that every day from October to December 1943, she "ate two 'Farm Breakfasts' consisting of four hamburger patties, four fried eggs, two mounds of hash browns and a stack of dollar pancakes with maple syrup. For lunch, she had steaks and salads. She swam a lot and exercised twice daily." By early 1944, she had grown three inches and Berman finally awarded her the role. "I ate a lot, slept a lot and left the rest to God. I knew if it was right for me to be Velvet, God would make me grown, and He did," Taylor later said.

With screen appearances limited to bit parts in films like Lassie Come Home (1943) and The White Cliffs of Dover (1944), National Velvet gave Taylor her first lesson on how excrutiating moviemaking could be. Although she was already an accomplished rider, she had to get up every morning before school to practice on a temperamental horse named King Charles, who would be The Pie in the film. During a jumping session with Sonny Baker, an Australian polo player, King Charles threw Taylor to the ground and the accident resulted in a spinal injury that aggravated her preexistent scoliosis. Back pain would plague her for the rest of the her life, but for the present she gathered all her strength and "got back in the saddle," performing much of her own riding in the film. The role of Velvet Brown also required Taylor to wear orthodontic braces, which were custom-designed especially for her. Two of her baby teeth were pulled and two temporary teeth inserted in the raw sockets so that the appliance would fit properly.

Taylor and Brown rehearsing a scene
Mervyn LeRoy was originally hired to direct National Velvet, but his duties were turned over to Clarence Brown after he renewed his contract with MGM in November 1943. Brown started his career as director Maurice Tourneur's assistant, before being recognized as a talent in his own right when he saved Rudolph Valentino's fading career with The Eagle (1925), produced for Universal Pictures. Moving to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1927, he quickly became the studio's leading glamour director in the late 1920s and 1930s, working mostly with Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford. 

Brown had just directed Taylor in The White Cliffs of Dover and became quite paternal toward the young star during the making of National Velvet. Brown and Taylor got along splendidly, but her overbearing mother would often irritate the director. Mrs. Taylor, a seasoned stage actress who used to perform under the name of Sara Sothern, had the habit of attending the shooting of her daughter's scenes and direct her with pre-arranged hand signals from off camera, so as to convey the degree of feeling she thought Elizabeth should be showing. Thankfully, Sara's presence didn't interfere with Brown's instructions and the director "brought out an endearing, high-spirited performance from Elizabeth that showed all the charm of a girl frantic to please her mother (played to perfection onscreen by Anne Revere) and driven to achieve big dreams. Both aspects of the characterization were a mirror into Elizabeth's own world."

There's something behind her eyes you can't quite fanthom something Greta Garbo had. I really hate to call her an actress. She's much too natural for that.
(Clarence Brown about Elizabeth Taylor)

Jackie Jenkins, Mickey Rooney and Clarence Brown
National Velvet also marked a reunion between Brown and Mickey Rooney, whom the director had previously guided in Ah, Wilderness (1935) and in the critically acclaimed drama The Human Comedy (1943), for which the actor his second Academy Award nomination. At 24, the dynamic Rooney was at the peak of his career as co-star of a series of lively musicals with Judy Garland and as the leading player of the lucrative Hardy family films, produced by MGM from 1937 to 1946. Known as "a larger-than-life personality," Rooney was generous in sharing the spotlight with the inexperienced Elizabeth Taylor and the two became good friends during the making of National Velvet. Utterly impressed by her talents, Rooney remembered Taylor as a "'marvelous' young professional who required only one or two takes when the cameras were rolling." The 7-year-old Jackie Jenkins was no stranger to Brown either, having made his screen debut in The Human Comedy as Rooney's younger brother. One of MGM's most popular child stars during the early 1940s, Jenkins was voted the second-most promising "star of tomorrow" in a 1946 exhibitors' poll conducted by the magazine Motion Picture Herald, a title that came two years before the release of his final film, Big City (1948).

National Velvet opened at Radio City Music Hall in New York in December 1944 and was immediate critical and commercial hit. The finicky Bosley Crowther of The New York Times enthusiastically approved of the film, calling it "fresh and delightful [...] by far the most touching story of youngsters and of animals since Lassie was coming home." He praised National Velvet further by saying that "Mr. Brown has also drawn some excellent performances from his cast, especially from little Elizabeth Taylor [...] her face is alive with youthful spirit, her voice has the softness of sweet song and her whole manner in this picture is one of refreshing grace [...] Mickey Rooney is also affecting, though somewhat less airily so [...] Anne Revere and Donald Crisp are splendid [...] and a large cast of other performers creates a genial county air most winningly."

Elizabeth Taylor and King Charles

At the 18th Academy Awards ceremony in 1945, Anne Revere won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and Robert J. Kern was presented with the statuette for Best Film Editing. The film also earned nominations for Best Director, Best Cinematography (Color) and Best Art Direction (Color). Shortly after all the winners were announced, an Academy spokesman claimed that Elizabeth Taylor had come very close to receiving a special Oscar for Outstanding Juvenile Performance, but that honor was given instead to Peggy Ann Garner for her critically acclaimed performance in Elia Kazan's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945). Nevertheless, MGM realized the huge potential of their child actress and soon signed Taylor to a long-term contract, offering her King Charles as a present for her thirteenth birthday. 

Seventy-one years after its release, National Velvet remains one of the greatest family films ever made, one that continues to enchant young audiences all over the world. 


____________________________
SOURCES:
Elizabeth Taylor: A Shining Legacy on Film by Cindy De La Hoz (2012) | Elizabeth Taylor: The Last Star by Kitty Kelley (1981) | Elizabeth Taylor: The Lady, the Lover, the Legend 1932-2011 by David Bret (2011) | Elizabeth: The Life of Elizabeth Taylor by Alexander Walker (1997) | Enid Bagnold: A Life by Anne Sebba (2013) | TCMDb (Articles) | TCMDb (Notes) | The New York Times contemporary review by Bosley Crowther

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