Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 20, 2022)
Elizabeth Taylor’s film career started with 1942’s There’s One Born Every Minute, a project shot around the time she turned 10 years old. 1944’s National Velvet acted as Taylor’s fifth movie, and it became a major critical and financial success, one that launched her toward the legendary status she would later achieve.
Set in England circa the late 1920s, 12-year-old Velvet Brown (Taylor) wins a horse in a raffle. She names him “The Pie” and struggles to tame the rambunctious equine.
Into this setting steps Mi Taylor (Mickey Rooney), a drifter who used to work as a jockey. With Mi’s help, Velvet preps Pie for the Grand National, England’s most important horse race.
As a kid in the 1970s, I knew of Velvet, though mainly due to its perpetual popularity as a novel. Not that I ever read it, as the book mainly appealed to the girls at my elementary school.
With grade school-age boys, nothing acts as a “kiss of death” for a book like the idea that it’s meant for females. As such, I neither read the text nor saw the movie back then – not that one could easily view a decades-old film back in those pre-VCR days.
At the grand old age of 54, this makes the Blu-ray of Velvet my initial exposure to the tale. Apparently my adolescent impressions of the story were accurate, as this really does come across as a tale meant mainly for young girls.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. Different audiences deserve their own movies, and I appreciate that Velvet gives the adolescent female crowd a story to enjoy.
However, as a middle-aged man, I find it more difficult to embrace Velvet. Though not without its charms, the movie seems slow and without much real drama.
The target audience won’t mind. They’ll feel enchanted with their ability to live out the fantasy that a) they’ll own their own horse, and b) that they’ll bond with said equine and get to ride him to fame and fortune.
Velvet pours on sputtering batches of melodrama, none of which seem likely to provoke much of a reaction beyond that youthful target audience. When the Pie takes ill, do we really fear that he’ll die?
Of course not, but younger viewers probably will encounter a greater sense of anxiety. In any case, Velvet glosses over these darker moments pretty quickly, so they don’t give viewers a lot of time to fret.
Most of Velvet revolves around the giddy “girl and her beloved horse” motif, with a subplot related to Mi’s redemption. The movie doesn’t dig into his character too deeply, and with the ever-chipper Rooney in the role, we never fear that he’ll do the wrong thing anyway.
Taylor proves fairly charming as our lead. Velvet provides a role that easily could turn irritating and grating, but Taylor radiates enough warmth to make her character likable.
We also find Angela Lansbury in her second movie. Then 18, Lansbury plays Velvet’s sister – and proves wholly unconvincing, as Lansbury always looked much older than her age. She portrays a schoolgirl who looks like she’s pushing 40.
On the negative side, Jackie Jenkins portrays Velvet’s six-year-old brother and plays him like an annoying cutesy kid. Actually, “cutesy” might overstate his impact, as Jenkins was a fairly homely child, but the role of Donald Brown exists just for precocious comic relief, and Jenkins makes the character too obnoxious.
I appreciate the gentle nature of National Velvet but can’t connect to the material. The movie seems too slow and too devoid of real drama to keep me occupied across its 124 minutes.