Monday, 12 September 2016

'National Velvet' And The Long-Lost Pre-Teen Feminist Film

As a pre-teen girl, I was horse mad. My weekly horse riding lesson was the highlight of my week; a week peppered by devouring my subscription copy of Horse & Pony magazine, reading every single pony novel I could get my hands on (Ruby Ferguson and her ‘Jill’ series - yay! all three Pullein-Thompson sisters and their squillions of pony book series - yay!), and sleeping in a bedroom wallpapered with posters of horses. So it logically followed that I also loved any film with an equine creature in it.

National Velvet (1944, Clarence Brown) and it’s successor International Velvet (1978, Bryan Forbes) were my two firm favourites. I would watch them over and over again. Taped onto VHS from TV broadcasts, I watched them until I could quote the scripts off by heart. I delighted in the stories, the successes and the fantasies of winning against all the odds.

But little did I realise that I was watching, especially with National Velvet, a surprisingly feminist children’s film. One that I suspect would be very hard to get made now. Re-watching National Velvet again at the weekend, I was struck by how unusually feminist it was and how far removed it was from what a contemporary kids’ film portrays.

National Velvet

Set in the 1920s, our 12-year-old shero Velvet Brown (played by Elizabeth Taylor, who was indulgently allowed to keep the horse after filming wrapped) is a pony mad girl. With her kind and enthusiastic nature, she is introduced as an everyday example of a good, wholesome schoolgirl. She lives in a chocolate box pretty Sussex village with her equally wholesome sisters (the eldest is played by a 19-year-old Angela Lansbury) and their naughty little brother Donald who collects bugs in a bottle stored around his neck. While her parents run the house and the family butchers’ shop in an unparalleled vision of equality. Despite an initial suggestion that Mr Brown (Donald Crisp) runs the home with a rod of fear, we quickly realise that it is Mrs Brown (an Oscar-winning performance from Anne Revere) to whom everyone capitulates.

And Mrs Brown… what a woman! Where is the film about HER life?! We learn, as mere exposition, that 20-something years previously she became the first ever woman to swim across the English Channel. An achievement that won her a cup, money and fleeting glory… but which is now largely ignored. Why? How? Yet with gentleness and intelligence, the all-seeing, deep-thinking Mrs Brown looks out for her children and husband, and gives her family a seemingly free rein to make the decisions that they think best. And, most importantly, to learn from their mistakes. Rather than be prevented from experiencing life in the first place.

Which is how headstrong pre-teen Velvet, who has won a feral horse called The Pie in a raffle, is able to enlist a 20-something drifter called Mi (Mickey Rooney) to help her train the horse up to enter the Grand National race… with the full support of her parents. Remember, this is a 12-year-old schoolgirl who rides and trains a 16-hand racehorse (for non-horse fans, 16-hands is pretty darn big), who persuades her mother to give her the £100 needed to enter the horse in the race (which turns out to be the £100 her mother won for swimming the Channel), and who - ultimately - ends up cutting her hair off and dressing as a male jockey to illicitly ride the horse herself… and WIN the Grand National. Remember, this is a 12-year-old girl who is allowed to go to Aintree with a drifter whom the family barely knows in order to achieve all this. Amazing! (It probably doesn’t need to be said that in the 1920s a 12-year-old girl would be banned from riding in the Grand National. Indeed, female jockeys of any age were prevented from racing in the Grand National until 1977 as a result of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 - and, to date, there have only been 16 female jockeys at this race at all, despite around 40 horses and riders taking part every year.)

Countering this, we are reminded that Velvet is a child every so often by the way she is chided from one of her parents to put her brace back in her mouth or to wash behind her ears. And there are frequent mentions of the fact that Velvet is prone to fainting when she becomes over excited. Which suggests she is weak, feeble and perhaps mildly hysterical - none of which is particularly helpful to a feminist narrative. It is a strange add-on to Velvet’s character that we are shown these signs of perceived weakness in her character, but perhaps this is needed to balance her out?

‘International Velvet’

The 1978 follow-on International Velvet is somewhat less strident in its feminist goals but is still interesting to comment on, not least because it shows the dramatic downward slide in how women are presented in films in the 34 years that passed between the two. In International Velvet, Velvet is now an adult woman who becomes the guardian to her orphaned teenage niece Sarah. Inexplicably still alive (since 25 is an average age for a healthy horse), Velvet’s champion horse The Pie has just sired a new foal whom Sarah falls in love with and calls Arizona Pie. A keen horsewoman herself, ambitious Sarah follows her dreams and ends up riding Arizona Pie in the Olympics… before falling head over heels in love with a man and getting married to live happily ever after. A more traditional girl-loves-horse-and-married-man ending. But still a fun film.

What now?

Being child-free, I don’t spend a lot of time watching kids’ films. But a quick Google search brings up offerings such as the cartoon My Little Pony franchise (lots of glitter and unicorns), and relatively recent re-workings of the classic novels Black Beauty and My Friend Flicka. More generally, contemporary kids’ films - particularly those aimed at girls - seem to favour Disney cartoon princesses, and any number of anthropomorphised cartoon animals that you care to mention. But… no strong-willed young girls being encouraged by their mothers to live their dreams (even if that means going off to the male-dominated Aintree with a 20-something man you barely know!).

While it doesn’t seem wise to allow a 12-year-old to go off on adventures with a much older, unknown man, the essence of National Velvet is simple - follow your heart, listen to your passion, believe in what you want and you can make it come true. For Velvet Brown, it was never about winning fame and fortune but about proving that the underdog (in this case, a horse deemed wild) can achieve as much as anybody else so long as you treat it right. For Mrs Brown, it means allowing your children the freedom to be themselves and to learn to make your own decisions from an early age. The kind of freedom that children these days don’t seem to be shown or offered. Which is a big shame.

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