A note in his late father’s journal leads opportunistic young Mi Taylor (Mickey Rooney) along the open road to the quiet English country home of the Brown family. Though Mr. Brown (Donald Crisp) questions the young man’s integrity, Mrs. Brown (Anne Revere) gives Mi a chance to earn his keep since, unbeknownst to him, his father once trained her to swim the English channel. Her spirit burns bright in the Brown’s youngest daughter, Velvet (Elizabeth Taylor), a radiant, good-hearted girl with an all-consuming passion for horses, particularly the Pirate, or Pi for short, a spirited steed whom she wins in a raffle. Velvet has her heart set on racing the Pi in competition. Her enduring self-belief beguiles Mi away from his own doubts and insecurities and encourages him to train Velvet to race at the Grand National.
What is it about little girls and horses? National Velvet sparked an obsessive love in the hearts of millions of pony-mad young ladies that endures to this day. Movie-makers have been spinning variations on novelist Enid Bagnold’s original story ever since. One of the most beloved family movies of all time, National Velvet embodies everything MGM did best: a sincerely heart-warming story coated in lush Technicolor and topped by a radiant new star, the young Elizabeth Taylor. Fresh off her adorable debut in Lassie Come Home (1943), Taylor was third-billed after the studio’s reigning youthful star, Mickey Rooney. Rooney is excellent, but it was Taylor’s Velvet Brown whom everyone fell in love with.
Like all good animal movies, this is not really about the horse but about people, including a heroine who seems less a child than a force of nature. An ardent animal lover off-screen, Taylor makes Velvet nothing less than the irrepressible, bright eyed spirit of childhood idealism and performs her dreamy speeches (“Everyday I pray to God to give me horses”) with utmost conviction. Facing the racing challenge becomes a test of character. Velvet’s quiet self-belief enables her to overcome all obstacles, from nursing the Pi back from the brink of pneumonia, dismissing a snooty Russian jockey to take the reins herself, and inspiring Mi - himself traumatised after causing a pile-up at another racetrack - to become a better man. Not that Taylor completely dominates the movie. As her parents, Donald Crisp and the Oscar winning Anne Revere are superb, while Velvet’s sisters, avian enthusiast Malvolia (Juanita Quigley) and boy-obsessed Edwina (Angela Lansbury) are vividly drawn while kid brother Donald (Jackie 'Butch' Jenkins) provides much surreal comedy with his wacky musings.
The race itself is tautly handled by Clarence Brown, exciting and wryly humorous in the aftermath when stunned official discover Velvet is (gasp!) a girl. Aside from being MGM’s go-to guy for animal movies, e.g. The Yearling (1946), Brown was a respected filmmaker, a favourite of Greta Garbo, and ties with Robert Altman and Alfred Hitchcock as the director with the most Academy Award nominations without a win. Wisely, he does not end the film with the race but shows us the real mark of maturity lies in how Velvet copes with her sudden fame. National Velvet spawned a Sixties television series followed by the belated sequel International Velvet (1978), where director Bryan Forbes substituted Taylor with his wife Nanette Newman coaching new-child-star-on-the-block Tatum O’Neal to racing victory. There was also a made-for-TV movie in 2003, but arguably the film that truly recaptured its spirit was The Black Stallion (1979) wherein Mickey Rooney played a horse trainer not unlike an older, wiser Mi Taylor.