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Remembering Elizabeth Taylor: “National Velvet”

Remembering Elizabeth Taylor: “National Velvet” (photo)

Posted by on film writer Matt Singer is embarrassingly unfamiliar with the filmography of the late Elizabeth Taylor. This week he’s catching up with as many of her movies as he can.

At approximately 2:14 AM on March 24, an unexplained rise in pollen localized entirely in my bedroom sparked an outbreak of watery eyes while I was watching the film “National Velvet.” Though I could find no record of any kind of mass pollen migration with the National Weather Service or American Allergenic Council of America, I know it happened. It’s the only explanation for my uncontrollable tears that makes any sense. Surely it couldn’t have been the movie. Surely, I, a 30 year old man with no daughters who hates horses, wasn’t crying at “National Velvet.”

I surely was. “National Velvet” is a beautiful, charming movie and it jerked the hell out of my tears. What affected me wasn’t how sad the movie is, but how sweet and inspirational it is. Now I understand why “National Velvet” has been a cultural touchstone for decades. This isn’t just a cutesy story about a girl and a horse: it’s the empowering tale of a young woman who accomplishes her dreams; dreams, I should add, that aren’t of the “find a guy and marry him” variety. Released in 1945 and set some twenty years before, its strong feminist message is less dated today than many of the iconic girl-centric movies I grew up with in the 1980s. It features an empowering mother-daughter relationship of a kind I’m unaccustomed to seeing in movies. That’s what caught me off-guard, the shot at the end of the movie when mother and daughter embrace in silent acknowledgement of their bond and mutual love. Suddenly you’d have thought I was chopping onions in my bedroom at two in the morning.

The mother, Mrs. Brown, is played by Anne Revere; the daughter, Velvet, by Elizabeth Taylor, who became a full-fledged movie star at the age of thirteen with “National Velvet.” It is easy to see why. She has an infectious smile and a rabid enthusiasm for life. The Elizabeth Taylor I know — and the point of this ongoing exercise is I don’t know her all that well — is a lusty bombshell of a woman. So it was a bit surprising to see how Taylor built her stardom on pure, uncontaminated innocence. Velvet is so unequivocally good she’s practically a saint; the patron saint of pre-teen girls everywhere who love horses more than life itself.

Oh how Velvet loves her horse. She calls him The Pie and, truth be told, the horse playing The Pie always looks a little perturbed to be acting alongside her. Velvet doesn’t notice. She’s the one with blinders on; she loves The Pie with a passion so intense it could melt steel. Velvet acquires him in an auction. The Pie is a troublemaker and his former owner decides to rid himself of the damage and liabilities he causes by selling him for one pound to a random lucky winner in the small English village where he lives. That lucky winner, of course, turns out to be Velvet. Part of The Pie’s problem is no pen can hold him. But Velvet sees his fence jumping as a skill, and a chance to prove to the world both his merit and hers.

That’s where Mrs. Brown comes in. As we slowly learn over the course of the film, Velvet’s stern, reserved mother had a bit of a wild streak in her youth. As a 20-year-old, she swam the English Channel for no other reason than to prove she could. At the time, everyone said she was mad. When Velvet comes to her with her own mad idea — enter The Pie into the Grand National, the biggest horserace in the country — she supports her 100%. Clearly Mrs. Brown sees some of her younger self in Velvet, and also The Pie, who also has trouble finding a productive outlet for his athletic inclinations. Cue the eyeball faucets.

“National Velvet” has a terrific cast that also includes top-billed Mickey Rooney as a drifter who wanders into Velvet’s town and becomes The Pie’s trainer and Donald Crisp as Velvet’s father, a great big Tootsie Pop of a man: a hard exterior surrounding a gooey heart. Angela Lansbury also appears, almost unrecognizably, in one of her earliest roles — the first I’ve ever seen that conclusively proves she wasn’t born a middle aged mystery novelist — as one of Velvet’s sisters. The film’s stakes are never very heavy or large, though there is one scary scene where The Pie falls ill. Mostly “National Velvet” is a simple story about what’s possible for anyone, boy or girl, when they follow their dreams. But it’s never less than totally charming.

That goes for Taylor too. Velvet is so unabashedly sweet, and the film is so completely free of irony, that she borders on self-parody (released in another time period, “National Velvet” would have made great material for a “Saturday Night Live” sketch, with Belushi as Liz, of course). But there is something irresistible about Taylor in this part. An actor needs to commit to what she does, and she is fully committed. I believe she would step in front of a bullet for that damn horse. When she refuses to let Mr. Brown exploit The Pie’s newfound fame, her eyes welling with tears as she pleads to leave him home with her…

…I’m sorry, does anyone have a tissue?

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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GIFs via Giphy

Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.


IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.



IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….


IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.


IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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