Monday, March 28, 2022

Tonight's Movie: National Velvet (1944) - A Warner Archive Blu-ray Review

The Warner Archive has another Blu-ray winner with its release of the MGM classic NATIONAL VELVET (1944).

Two of the dramatic subgenres MGM specialized in were "Americana" and "Britain Made in Hollywood" classics.

Director Clarence Brown excelled in both these types of films, having previously directed THE WHITE CLIFFS OF DOVER (1944) and THE HUMAN COMEDY (1943). Mickey Rooney gave his finest screen performance in the small-town WWII film THE HUMAN COMEDY, meriting an Oscar nomination.

It was thus perfect for Brown to direct Rooney in NATIONAL VELVET, which like THE WHITE CLIFFS OF DOVER was set on the British coastline.

The screenplay by Helen Deutsch and Theodore Reeves was based on the classic book by Enid Bagnold, which I read many times growing up. Other than reducing the four sisters in the book to three in the film, as far as I recall the movie is a fairly faithful adaptation.

Rooney plays Mi Taylor, a young drifter who arrives in the village of Sewells seeking Mrs. Brown (Anne Revere), whose name was written in his late father's notebook. Mrs. Brown doesn't immediately inform Mi of her connection to his father, but suggests to her husband (Donald Crisp) that they give Mi a bed in the barn and put him to work in the family butcher shop.

Velvet (Elizabeth Taylor), the youngest of the Brown sisters (also played by Juanita Quigley and Angela Lansbury, seen above with Taylor), is a dreamy, ultra-emotional, and horse-obsessed young girl.

We eventually learn that Mi's father coached Velvet's mother to swim the English Channel...and when Velvet wins a horse in a raffle who's a remarkable jumper, it's time for the next generation, as Mi coaches Velvet on racing her horse in the Grand National.

There's a lot of buzz these days about "girl power" films featuring strong heroines, but the reality is such films go way back. In fact, in Velvet and her mother NATIONAL VELVET features not one but two female characters who courageously broke "men only" boundaries.

Anne Revere won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance as Velvet's mother, whose ultra-calm disposition is the exact opposite of her young daughter's. Velvet is given to fainting from extreme excitement, but her overly emotional affect conceals the inner strength that allows her to chop off her hair and ride her horse alongside men. MULAN, move over!

The entire cast is excellent, particularly Donald Crisp as Velvet's blustery yet very kindhearted father. Reginald Owen as the original owner of Velvet's horse is similarly uncliched; he's exasperated by the horse's destructive antics but delighted to bet on him racing in the Grand National.

Jackie "Butch" Jenkins, who played Rooney's little brother Ulysses in THE HUMAN COMEDY, plays Velvet's young brother. I find Lansbury and Quigley quite delightful as Velvet's sisters; although the film runs 123 minutes, I would have liked to see a little more of them. Quigley had been in films for a decade at this point, with the appearances in her debut movie year including the classic IMITATION OF LIFE (1934). Lansbury was 18 when this was filmed. Her mother, Moyna MacGill, had a bit part.

The cast also includes Arthur Treacher, Arthur Shields, Norma Varden, and Terry Kilburn (Tiny Tim from the 1938 version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL).

As was common for films of this era, most of the cast doesn't bother with a British accent, but it doesn't really seem to matter.

Until I sat down to watch NATIONAL VELVET I was under the impression I'd previously seen it, but chunks of it were unfamiliar, and I discovered it's not in my viewing records. Occasionally I missed listing a film I watched growing up, but in this case it happens that I've owned a record album of the 1947 Lux Radio Theater production starring Taylor, Rooney, and Crisp since I was quite young; I think I listened to it so many times that perhaps I convinced myself I'd actually watched it! The movie made for a delightful afternoon's viewing.

The Warner Archive Blu-ray, which used a 4K scan of the original Technicolor camera negatives, shows off the lush cinematography of Leonard Smith to perfection. (The seaside location shooting, incidentally, took place in the Monterey area.) Sound quality is also excellent.

The lone extra on the disc is the trailer.

NATIONAL VELVET is a lovingly crafted family film which looks superb on this Blu-ray. Recommended.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray. Warner Archive Blu-rays may be ordered from the Warner Archive Collection Amazon Store or from any online retailers where Blu-rays are sold.


Anonymous Barry Lane said...

I have jsut ordered national Velvet, but is The Human Comedy on their Blu ray agenda?

5:12 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

I'm delighted to know you've ordered NATIONAL VELVET and hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

I have not heard any rumors about THE HUMAN COMEDY coming to Blu-ray but I would dearly love to see it happen. It's a very special film I'd like more people to see. The Warner Archive HUMAN COMEDY DVD was labeled "Remastered" in the time period they were putting a red "Remastered" line at the top of the cover for some titles, so hopefully the elements they would have to work with for a Blu-ray are already pretty good. However, that's just an assumption on my part.

Best wishes,

11:07 AM  

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