Welcome to week three of my blog spotlight on badass women in cinema. It isn’t often a movie has two strong and compelling female characters, especially in the decade of the 40s. But National Velvet is such a movie. It’s a film that has a special place in my heart. I saw it for the first time when I was a horse crazy teen. The fact that there was a movie with a girl who was more interested in pursuing her dreams of being a great rider than chasing boys struck a chord with me then. It hasn’t lost any magic since that first viewing. But what sets National Velvet apart is that its protagonist is supported in her journey by, in my opinion, the greatest mom in movie history.
The plot of National Velvet is not that complicated. Velvet Brown (Elizabeth Taylor) wins a troublemaking horse named the Pie in a raffle. With the help of Mi Taylor (Mickey Rooney), who she ends up bringing home after running into by happenstance in the country one day, Velvet chases her dream of competing in the Grand National steeplechase. Velvet and her family are not wealthy. They own a butcher shop run by her father (Donald Crisp) and are of modest means. Velvet’s father is skeptical of the whole notion. But Velvet’s mother (Anne Revere) believes everyone should take a chance at their dreams.
Velvet and her mother are badasses because of their unwillingness to let society’s perception of women as the weaker sex get in the way of their dreams. What’s particularly fascinating about the mom character, is that she has a back story worthy of its own movie. We learn that she was the first woman to swim the English Channel. And, in a great plot twist, her swimming coach was Mi Taylor’s father. When Velvet goes to her mother and tells her that she thinks the Pie can win the Grand National, mom is instantly supportive. Even when Mi tells her how hard the training is going to be and that it what all be folly for nothing, she tells him, “what’s ever been wrong with folly?” Mrs. Brown then takes Velvet to the attic where she presents her with her prize money for swimming the English channel to use as her entry money for the race.
National Velvet is great for so many reasons. One of them is that it gives equal screen time to Velvet and her mother. So may family relationships in movies today are dysfunctional to the point of being melodramatic. Not so in this movie. The bond between Velvet and her mother is beautifully written and acted. It’s worth noting that Anne Revere won an Oscar for her supporting performance.
Velvet is a badass because she does something unprecedented: being the first woman to ride in and win (until her gender is discovered and she’s disqualified) the Grand National. No matter what people tell her she can’t do, she does. It’s also great that even in the end, when she gets all the media attention for her feat, she doesn’t let it go to her head. She remembers the sage advice that her mom gave her. The Grand National was gong to have to last her all her life, and she would have to move on after it was over. Elizabeth Taylor played flashier roles in her adult life. But National Velvet remains her favorite film of mine.
Velvet’s mother is a badass not only for her athletic achievement of swimming the English channel. She’s a badass because she’s not the typical housewife that let’s the husband make all the decisions. She stick’s up for Velvet and her dream, as well as for Mi when Mr. Brown isn’t onboard with him staying with them and working to earn his keep instead of wandering the roads. But Mrs. Brown is never overbearing. She challenges her husband when necessary, but never feels pushy. The relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Brown is a true equal partnership, a rarity in movies, especially at that time. Mrs. Brown is the glue that holds the family together. It’s a great performance by Revere.
National Velvet was a big part of my youth along with The Black Stallion. I love it as much for its fascinating female leads as the excitement of the climactic race. It’s simply one of my favorite films ever.