“So Many Currents In Such a Little Puddle”: Dana Stevens and I Chat About National Velvet

A re-post, in honor of Mickey Rooney, a man whose career spanned 10 decades. He worked up until the end. R.I.P.

National Velvet

Introduction: Dana Stevens, film critic for Slate, and I had a conversation via Google Chat about National Velvet. In the middle of our planning phase for our talk, Elizabeth Taylor passed away. The coincidence was striking, certainly, not to mention the fact that in preparation for my chat with Dana, I had re-watched the film and re-read the novel by Enid Bagnold (all in the 4 or 5 days before Taylor passed).

Now that the flurry of tributes to Taylor is over (and what joy to see the wonderful writing about her out there recently, in particular Kim Morgan’s piece on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and The Self-Styled Siren’s eloquent tribute), it seems like perfect timing to put up the conversation that Dana and I had about National Velvet. A beloved movie to generations, not to mention a blockbuster and a critical success in its day, I think it definitely deserves a re-visit (especially if you haven’t seen it since you were a kid). It’s deeper than you might remember.

Sheila O’Malley: The timing of our conversation is rather interesting and coincidental. When we first talked about doing an IM chat about a movie, you referenced National Velvet right away as your “top choice.” I was excited to re-visit it, since I hadn’t seen it in years. I loved it as a girl (not to mention devouring the book), but was thrilled to take a look at it again. Then, the next week, Elizabeth Taylor passed away, which brought my memories of the movie strongly to the forefront. I have since re-watched it, and find it just as exciting and emotional as I did when I was a kid (and how often is that not the case?). I guess to get us started I would love to hear from you why this was your first choice, and what made you want to talk about it.

Dana Stevens: In your blog post memorializing Elizabeth Taylor, you mention that after you saw National Velvet as a child, you spent a week or more “living inside it.” Well, it just so happened that the week before Taylor died was one that I had spent living inside that same movie. A dear friend gave it to my five-year-old daughter for Christmas, and after it sat for months on the shelf (it can take a while to convince your kid to watch the movie you want them to), we had finally put the film on. Watching National Velvet as an adult (I only vaguely remember seeing the film as a child, but I adored Enid Bagnold’s novel with a solemn passion) was a revelation. What a movie this is: so broad in scope and yet so intimate in detail. As Velvet’s father asks the family dog near the end, “How can there be so many currents in such a little puddle?”

SOM: The details of the family life (that first scene around the dinner table, in particular) are so perfectly rendered, with all of the daughters (including a young sassy Angela Lansbury) coming to life in individual ways. The manner in which the parents (played so beautifully by Donald Crisp and Anne Revere) handle their blossoming offspring is part of why the film is so effective, I think. Yes, it’s a gripping story of a young girl who dresses up as a boy jockey and wins the Grand National, riding a horse no one believes in. The horse-race scene at the end of National Velvet still has not been topped, although many directors since then have tried. But without those intimate details of the family, and the fascinating dynamic between the parents, the film wouldn’t have its strange power. Anne Revere, playing Mrs. Brown, the woman who once swam the English Channel, brings such an interesting grave element to that character. She never says what you expect her to say. In truth, when I was a kid, the reason I loved the movie was because of Elizabeth Taylor and Mickey Rooney, and the storyline of a little girl putting on boys’ clothes and beating the competition. Frankly, that was like crack to me as a child. But now, as an adult, I really got the sense of the depth of family connection at work in the film, and how it helped create Velvet Brown’s success. Screenwriters Theodore Reeves and Helen Deutsch did a fantastic adaptation of the book, I thought.

DS: Yes—as in the (wonderful) book, the Brown family, with all of its attendant dramas, is an integral part of the story of Velvet’s victory in the Grand National (though I can attest from experience that the fantasy of winning a horse race in boy-jockey drag still acts like crack on the little-girl brain.) This isn’t a film with an A plot and a B plot—it’s densely woven and observed from the bottom up. Every relationship matters: Velvet to Mi Taylor (the drifter-turned-horse-trainer played by Rooney); the parents to one another; Velvet to her mother (and oh, Anne Revere in that role–we must discuss the attic scene, which lays me low every time); Velvet to her sisters; Mi to Mr. Brown; and of course, Velvet and Mi to the horse, and to each other through their shared love for the horse. This is a movie about so much more than a girl winning a horse race—though as you say, the racing scene is thrilling in its own right.

SOM: In your tribute to Elizabeth Taylor, you wrote, “Taylor … often simply burned her own presence into the screen. To this day, her performances—even the bad ones—give you the distinct and at times eerie feeling that she’s right there in the room with you.” Elizabeth Taylor was such a phenom. I sometimes think there is so much baggage surrounding her adult persona that it is difficult to actually perceive how talented she was from the get-go. Velvet is not your ordinary heroine. She is passionate to the point of obsession about horses. Her mother is gentle with that aspect of Velvet (Mrs. Brown understands obsession: only an obsessive would swim the English Channel), and yet at the same time the mother has that great line at one point, “You’re all lit up …” And she says it to her daughter in a tone of worry. The mother knows that a daughter that passionate is bound to have a life punctuated by heartbreak. Things are going to hit this wee daughter hard. And yet she lets Velvet go, she lets Velvet chase her destiny.

SOM: There are some closeups of Taylor where she is, essentially, talking to herself, about all the horses she wants to have, and her dreams of the future, and Taylor holds nothing back. Her eyes glimmered naturally, but here they burn. In my estimation Elizabeth Taylor, a young talented girl, understood the essence of the character, but not only that: she understood the theme of the entire piece, and her part in it. This is what separates the pros from the amateurs. She plays it at a fever pitch, near tears half the time (not from sadness, but from an overabundance of feeling) and it is just right, exactly what the film needs. You can see Mickey Rooney, at times, taking her in, and taking in her intensity, and he, like Velvet’s mother, knows that Velvet will pay a price for feeling so deeply. The film really captures the almost nostalgic sensation that we, as adults, have looking back on our younger selves, obsessing about this or that. There is a feeling that when we grow up we should “put away childish things,” but for some of us it is not that easy. For Velvet Brown, it will be impossible. Elizabeth Taylor carries this film. Easily. As though it’s no big deal. An instant Movie Star. The performance still blows me away.

DS: The mother’s line about Velvet being “all lit up” is repeated in a later scene by Mi Taylor, in a tone of suspicion: “I don’t like the way you’re all lit up.” Her luminescence, they know, is dangerous, but also the source of her power (and alone among the other characters, the mother and Mi understand this passion.) “You’re all lit up” also, of course, makes the viewer smile with its comic understatement of the 12-year-old Elizabeth Taylor’s beauty. Those close-ups—I’m thinking of the one in the stable, when she gives the speech beginning “Every night I pray to God to give me horses,” but there are many others—must count among the great recorded moments of human beauty, along with Greek sculpture or the paintings of Rembrandt.

DS: But Taylor’s performance is so much more than that of a beautiful or even “promising” child. The promise is already fulfilled. You’re right: she grasps the story from the perspective of a mature actress, without ever seeming affected or trained. Her sheer life force is breathtaking, but so is her control of it. And Velvet already has so much of what we came to know of Elizabeth Taylor, the adult movie star, in her. This is a girl with big dreams of speed and power and yes, glory; the Pie (a huge, crazy horse that no one else can tame) is a partner worthy of her, a proto-Richard Burton. Velvet’s boldness and largeness of spirit can’t help but evoke the larger-than-life woman that the actress was already becoming.

SOM: Wonderful observations. It is apparent, from the very beginning, that this child actress needed a partner worthy of her great gift. Otherwise, she’d just blow you off the screen. I mentioned the scene on the steps of the caravan between her and Mickey Rooney in my Taylor tribute, but I’d like to revisit it, because I think it is important. Mi Taylor has ghosts, a bad fall off a horse, and a childhood running from the water-driven obsessions of his father (who trained Velvet’s mother to swim the Channel). I think he has some shame about his “cowardice,” that he can’t get up on a horse again, and Rooney plays that complexity really well. (He also does a hell of a drunk scene when he goes to London to register the horse for the Grand National. Playing drunk is so often a cliché, but he is so convincing in that scene, don’t you think?) He gives an excellent performance all around, suggesting the deep current of class-shame and anger in Mi Taylor, but also his devotion to Velvet and The Pie. This all comes to fruition in the aforementioned caravan scene:

SOM: The two characters sit on the steps at night, and Mi opens up to her about his past, and she sits on a step above him, listening intently. The entire scene (and it’s a long one) plays out in one take. The scene is a complex one for both characters. They have to start out one way and through a series of revelations and emotional outbursts end up another way. Taylor is more than “game” in this scene. It is her way of listening to Mi Taylor that helps him share his fears and shame, and she supports him without judging him. Watch her face as she listens to him. Listening is the key to good acting, and so often in film—where it’s just a series of dueling close-ups—we lose that sense of actual listening in real-time. The caravan step scene is my favorite in the film for its quiet sense of two young people who care about each other actually—actually, because it’s done in one take! —listening to each other. There are a lot of lines to memorize, a lot of “beats” they have to hit. But the scene flows. Elizabeth Taylor, even with her almost otherworldly beauty, was not just a “closeup” actress. She knew how to play a scene.

DS: You just made me rewatch the caravan scene, and yes, it’s a one-take tour de force (on the part of the director, Clarence Brown, as well as the leads.) Velvet asks Mi why he doesn’t ride anymore, and when he resists telling her, she pulls back—no, you don’t need to go there—and it’s this delicacy that enables him to break through and tell his story. And when she throws herself on him, saying “There’s greatness in you, Mi,” (the same thing her mother said earlier about Mi’s father, who trained her for the Channel swim), it’s such a powerful moment—the climax, really, of the Mi Taylor story, which is one of my favorite threads in the film. That earlier drunk scene you mention, in which Mi, in his cups, is tempted to steal the money Velvet has entrusted him with for the horse’s entrance fee, ends with the hazy realization—beautifully played by Rooney—that, in Mi’s words, “she trusts me.” Proving himself worthy of Velvet’s trust, and the family’s, changes Mi profoundly over the course of the movie, and this point is never explicitly stated; it just flows from Rooney’s performance. And as long as we’re talking about acting and listening: watch the scene just preceding the caravan one, in which, as they talk to the Latvian jockey who disrespects both Velvet and her horse, a cold hatred slowly steals over Taylor’s face. Before she speaks a word, you just know that that jockey will never be allowed to set foot near the Pie.

SOM: In the book, Mi Taylor watches Velvet gallop off across a field on top of the Pie, and Bagnold writes, “There are men who like to make something of women.” A really complex line, if you think of it as being part of a children’s book. Mrs. Brown was “made something of” by her trainer, who believed in her when she was ready to give up. And Mi Taylor is his father’s son. He looks at Velvet and sees a gritty determination that he either lacks, or that has been held in cautious submission due to his circumstances. I love that he backs her up, despite the fact that there is a part of him that wants to flee. Rooney is so great in the part.

SOM: And back to the “men who like to make something of women” thought: This brings us to Anne Revere, who gives a tremendous performance as Mrs. Brown. The scene in the attic where she gives Velvet the gold pieces that she won swimming the Channel – gold pieces that she has hidden away in a trunk for a moment such as this – is a slam-dunk in all respects: the dialogue, the setting, the adaptation of the scene from the book (nearly word for word at times), and the acting: the powerful current flowing back and forth between mother and daughter. There is also the slightly subversive fact that Mrs. Brown has hidden the coins from her husband (who seems to be, by all accounts, a very nice man.) But there are some things that cannot be shared, or should not be shared, in a marriage. Those gold pieces are hers to do with what she likes. She did not add them to the common pot to be spent on meat or curtains or milk. She hid them away, and now it is time to pass them on. It’s a quite powerful representation of female autonomy. In the book, Bagnold writes:

[Mrs. Brown] valued and appraised each daughter, she knew what each daughter could do. She was glad too that her daughters were not boys because she could not understand the courage of men, but only the courage of women.”

Her other daughters are not natural competitors, but Velvet obviously is. When Mrs. Brown gives her the gold coins, in order to register the horse in the Grand National, she is making clear that she sees Velvet, out of all of her daughters, as her true heir. It’s an incredible moment. The scene in the attic could have been so full of awful schmacting if you think about it.

DS: I just looked ‘schmacting’ up and couldn’t find it. Is it a Yiddish term?

SOM: Ha! Maybe it’s just a term actors use? It’s a critique of sentimental overblown acting. So instead of “acting” you say “schmacting”, sort of a mix of “schmaltz” and “acting”. That attic scene, as written, is full of traps for schmacting. Clarence Brown avoids the traps, and so do the actors. It ends up being one of the most moving mother-daughter scenes I have ever seen.

DS: After seeing this film probably five times in the past two weeks, I have yet to watch that attic scene without crying. Anne Revere’s calm, focused, almost monastic presence–she reminds me at times of the contemporary actress Jennifer Ehle, who always seems to be possessed of some secret wisdom—and Taylor’s vibrant, childlike openness create, as you say, a kind of electric current between mother and daughter, two athletes and dreamers who in this moment understand each other in a way that transcends time. The mother’s long-ago victory as a swimmer, which in some way, it’s implied, is the source of her strength as a mother and wife, has its final culmination in the moment she pours the prize money into her daughter’s lap. The money has been waiting all these years just for this. And Taylor’s face as she realizes what she’s just received—“It’s your prize money for swimming the Channel!”–is alight with gratitude and love. Yes, this scene could have been the purest schmaltz; instead it’s that rarest of things, a depiction of motherly love that isn’t idealized and sentimental, and that’s integral to both character and story. Anne Revere won an Oscar for this role, but that gold statue seems as incommensurate to her performance as the bag of gold coins is to Mrs. Brown’s long-ago feat of endurance.

DS: Remember I mentioned that a good friend of mine gave this film to my daughter for Christmas? In a note to me, she said that the mother/daughter relationship in the film was one of the most powerful she’d ever seen. I agree—and have already imagined watching this with my daughter in seven years, when she’s Velvet’s age and dangerously lit up about some folly or other. I know National Velvet–the book and the movie both–is a text I’ll revisit throughout my life.

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5 Responses to “So Many Currents In Such a Little Puddle”: Dana Stevens and I Chat About National Velvet

  1. george says:

    “It’s deeper than you might remember.”

    Sheila and Dana,

    Read this yesterday and comment today only because of the fathoms traveled and danger of decompression sickness.

    A marvelous revelation of a movie which I seem to have seen less than half of when I saw it as a youngster. Now I’m going to see the rest. Thank you both.

    And I love Ms. Stevens “the most fleshly of all actresses” – not only the “fleshly”, but the use of “actress” – it is precisely apposite to Elizabeth Taylor’s gifts and talent.

  2. sheila says:

    George – Oh, I love that term too – “fleshly” is such a perfect way to describe Taylor!

    So glad you liked our chat and that it might inspire you to revisit it – it’s one of those things that either gets the “kids movie” label or the “only for girls” label which does it a huge disservice – would love to hear your thoughts after you see it again!!

  3. Dana says:

    Just came back and saw these nice comments on “fleshly” — thanks to you both!

    George, if you do revisit National Velvet please come back and tell us how it struck you. If we convince one person to re-see it we shall not have IM’d in vain.

  4. Sean Condon says:

    Beautiful conversation. I just saw the film a few days ago for the first time and both it and this piece have reduced me to being wet-eyed. Great observation about Taylor’s performance being at an emotional pitch that had her near tears throughout. Couldn’t agree more. So many wonderful elements to it, and you guys covered most (the one-take caravan scene, the attic scene, Rooney, the nuanced, complex characters played by Revere and Crisp), but I want to add a mention for some of the outstanding external photography, the rich Technicolor tones, and the wonderful turn by the little boy who played Velvet’s younger brother, Jackie Jenkins. Thanks for this!

    • sheila says:

      Sean – thanks for your comment! Yes, the photography is amazing, the colors, the scenery – and the filming of that horse-race is still “the one to beat”. I’ve seen the movie so many times and it is still thrilling.

      Thanks again!