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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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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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