National Velvet

Directed By: Clarence Brown

Starring: Mickey Rooney, Donald Crisp, Elizabeth Taylor, Anne Revere, Angela Lansbury, Reginald Owen, and Terry Kilburn

When you hear the word "racing" these days, you're more likely to think of the thrilling car chases in the enormous Fast and Furious franchise rather than the thoroughbred racing films which dominated the genre for the first half of the twentieth century.  Some of those films focused on the politics behind racing, such as the 1939 Long Shot, and others, like the later Let It Ride, follow the people who chance their luck on favourable betting odds.  There is one particular film, however, which stands head, shoulders and withers above any other movie of its time - and in fact any racing movie since - and all because it's about a girl's love for her horse.  The film?  National Velvet.  I'm not the only one to love this MGM classic: in 2003 it was chosen by the Library of Congress to be preserved in the National Film Registry on account of it being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".  Based on the book by Enid Bangold, the film catapulted the then 12 year-old Elizabeth Taylor into stardom.  Mickey Rooney, as the reluctant trainer, scored top billing but, as any racehorse lover will tell you, the real star of the film is the spirited gelding himself: the Pie.

The movie begins with Rooney's drifter Mi, armed only with his deceased father's address book and the backpack containing his Habseligkeiten, strolling along the picturesque coast of Sussex in search of "Mrs. Herbert Brown".  Before he can locate this stranger he is coincidentally discovered on the road by Mrs. Brown's youngest daughter, Violet, and there the two of them first set eyes on Pirate.  So-called for his tempestuous nature, the chestnut Pirate charges onto the screen and captivates his spectators.  Mrs. Brown later arranges an apprenticeship in her husband's shop for Mi and, despite his ambivalence towards horses becoming ever more apparent, he soon finds himself enrolled in Violet's plan to enter Pirate, or "the Pie", into the Grand National, the British steeplechasing equivalent of the Kentucky Derby betting favourite.

With the excitement of training for horse racing live before you, there is time to fully explore Mi's racing background, which has given him the encyclopedic mind of a dedicated racing website such as  The Browns are charming, engaging parents, giving support and sagacity in equal measure, and Velvet's siblings (which include a dewey-eyed Angela Lansbury, more famous now for her turns in Murder, She Wrote and Beauty and the Beast) provide light relief from the difficulties of preparing a horse for such an arduous race.

Racing enthusiasts will see many facets of the industry through this film, from jockey regulation through to betting in the days before sites like existed to tell you how to judge a winner.  Even if you're not so keen on racing, this film is as much about finding your identity, chasing your dreams and confronting your fears as it is a young girl's heartbeat-skipping love for her Pie and is a testament to what the qualities of trust and dedication can motivate you to accomplish.

Filmed long before the advent of high definition and contemporary technologies, the film remains bright and vivid, with gorgeous, saturated Technicolor and a rousing, optimistic score to match.  Despite the Grand National being a distinctly British occasion, commentators remark that entrants come from around the world, and you can bet America was as well represented in the race as it was in the cast, resulting in that familiar transatlantic sound of early films which somehow seems to make them even more lovely and comforting and full of rich sentiment.

I won't reveal the horseracing results or any of the twists along the way. If you're not familiar with this family-friendly and feel-good movie then you should find a copy and let your heart melt. This is the perfect film for the rainy day when horse lovers can't get out in the field and, even if you're not the horsey type, and you're concerned about suffering through an equine movie for the sake of your pony-loving child, don't worry: you're going to fall in love too.