National Velvet (1944)

Originally I was planning on reviewing this movie like I’ve reviewed horse movies in the past – basically, pointing out all the absurd plot points and inaccurate horse information. But, this is actually a good movie, and I just can’t.

I first saw this movie as a kid, and I loved it then. I loved the story line, the horses, the characters, and the humor sprinkled in. I watched it again for this post, and it’s still a great movie. I can’t even really fault the horse elements, although it’s pretty unlikely that a horse that couldn’t be managed by adults is suddenly tame for a teenage girl, with no scenes explaining how. But the transition is done so smoothly that it’s not even noticeable.

The Plot

The story takes place in the 1920’s, an age when people still used horses for work purposes. Velvet Brown, our main characeter, is obsessed with horses. All Velvet wants is a horse of her own to love and ride. The Brown’s have a horse already, but she pulls their butcher delivery cart and is not suitable for  ambitious young Velvet. 

One of her neighbors acquires a horse, but the horse is such a rogue that he can’t be handled, and keeps breaking out of his field (wow this sounds familiar). He jumps over a stone wall in front of Velvet and her new horse trainer friend, Mi Taylor, and they are amazed at his jumping ability. (Back in those days, people made friends with people they found on the side of the road.)

While they are marveling at his skill, “The Pie” runs rampant in the village, destroying all sorts of things like begonias and planters. The owner decides to hold a raffle to get rid of the horse. 

Velvet Brown wins the horse, and she’s thrilled with her new mount. As mentioned, suddenly the horse is just fine, able to be ridden everywhere and kept contained, so he just needed a teenage girl to tame him. Those teenage girls are good at bonding with their horses!

Based on The Pie’s amazing jump before, Velvet decides she wants to train him to go to The Grand National, “The Greatest Horse Race in the World.” She convinces Mi to train her and The Pie. 

They train for what seems to be a year, and eventually take The Pie to The Grand National. Velvet ends up not liking the jockey they hired, and decides to ride the race herself. 

It’s a predictable ending, with a slight twist when they discover she’s a girl, but overall it is a fun and entertaining movie. The characters have lots of clever quips, and there’s even some sweet moments with Velvet and her mother. 

National Velvet is available for streaming from Amazon and probably other places (I don’t have Netflix or Hulu. I know, this is a shocking revelation that changes everything you think of me).

The Book

Like many great stories, it’s based on a book! I have started to read it, and honestly, it’s a little bit of a tough read. It was written in 1935, took place in the 1920’s, and the language and style reflect that. The character’s speech is often written in British dialect, and since I am neither British nor from 1920, I have trouble understand what they are saying. 

Basically, this is not a relaxing, flowing read. It’s jarring to read, and then try to figure out what I just read.

And this is a book intended for children. Boy, do I feel stupid.

I’ll keep on… from the synopsis I read, it sounds like there are some slight differences that would be interesting to read, like Velvet takes Pie to a gymkhana, and there’s something about her getting multiple horses? I must find out. 

Otherwise, from what I’ve read, the movie is pretty faithful to the book.

The Grand National

The story centers around The Grand National, which Mi calls, “The Greatest Horse Race in the World.” It is a real race, and the jumps they describe in the movie are real. 

The Grand National was designed as a cross-country steeplechase for its first running in 1839. In the begining, the course started on one edge of the racetrack and then went out into open countryside, jumping flagged jumps, before returning to the track.

Today’s version of the course is the same as the moveie’s. Becher’s Brook and the Canal Turn, both jumps referenced in the movie, are present.

The Grand National’s website provides an interesting look at all the jumps on course. Becher’s Brook is explained, so we can make sense of why it was so impressive when The Pie jumped it freely in the movie. 

Although the fence looks innocuous from the take-off side, the steep drop on the landing side, together with a left-hand turn on landing, combine to make this the most thrilling and famous fence in the horse racing world. The fence actually measures well over 6 ft on the landing side. A drop of between 5 and 10 in from takeoff lies on the other side. Horses are not expecting the ground the disappear under them on landing. Riders need to sit back and use their body weight to act as ballast to keep the horses stable

Grand National

The Grand National’s website is one of the most comprehensive I’ve come across, so definitely check it out for all sorts of fascinating information on the history, the jumps, and the strategies.  

King Charles

The horse playing The Pie was a seven year old thoroughbred gelding named King Charles. The details on him seem a bit murky. I’ve seen quite a few claims that he is the grandson of Man O’War, but I have found no solid proof to back this up. The All Breed Pedigree lists a thoroughbred born in 1925, but Man O’War is not there. 

In fact, I can’t really find solid first hand proof of anything, but this seems to be the general accepted history of the horse.

  • He belonged to a society woman and was trained as a show jumper.
  • He was kept at the Rivera Country Club in West Los Angeles California prior to the movie.
  • Elizabeth Taylor rode him prior to the movie, and suggested him for the movie.
  • He was aggressive to his handlers except for Elizabeth Taylor. They had a special bond.

There doesn’t seem to be any question about what happened to him after the movie, though. The movie studio bought him and gave him to Elizabeth Taylor for her 13th birthday, and he lived out his life with her. 

International Velvet

I have not seen the sequel, but one day I will. It’s about Velvet’s niece who comes to England and ends up riding on the British Olympic team with a foal sired by The Pie. It sounds interesting, but there’s something that doesn’t make sense – The Pie is a gelding. He cannot sire any foals. 

I’ll have to pretend I don’t know that in order to watch the movie. I’m sure it’s going to be great when I watch it!

Conclusion

This is a pretty good movie, about a really neat, really hard race. I’m sure most of us saw it as children, but if you didn’t, you should! It’s obviously a very old movie, but I think it holds up really well. Leaving out that it would probably be very unlikely a horse’s first race would be the Grand National, it actually seems more realistic than most of the horse movies made today. 

Although I do kind of like the LOL factor of some of the other movies

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