Classic film National Velvet (1944), tells the story of horse-obsessed Velvet Brown (played by a 12-year old Elizabeth Taylor) winning the Grand National on an "untamable" horse with the help of drifter Mi Taylor (played by Mickey Rooney). Based on a novel by Enid Bagnold, the film received positive reviews and earned actress Anne Revere, who played Velvet's mother, an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. More recently, National Velvet was chosen for preservation by the United States National Film Registry in 2003.
Beyond the accolades and awards for being a well-made film, National Velvet is often cited as a great feminist movie for its depictions of the wise and supportive mother and for young Velvet following her dream to compete in the all-male Grand National.
But is this film about a girl overcoming sexism with the help of her exceptional horse and family still relevant nearly 70 years later? Do its depictions of Velvet Brown have anything to offer today's girls and women?
Despite the overwhelming lack of racial diversity, I would argue that National Velvet's representation of dreams and determination, of a young woman embarking alone in the world to succeed in a grueling and dangerous competition against adult men remains significant.
Set in the quiet late-twenties English countryside, the film presents Velvet gleefully galloping home from school. She is very much a dreamer. And while this doesn't do much to dispel Freud's theory on girls and horses, Velvet declares that she is in love with horses.
After meeting her on the road, Mi Taylor accompanies Velvet home for dinner. (We later learn that his deceased father trained Velvet's mother to swim the English Channel. Of course.) The family dynamic is an interesting one. At first it appears as though Mr. Brown is the stern head of household, but it is quickly revealed that he and Mrs. Brown have a relatively egalitarian relationship running their business and household together. In fact, Mrs. Brown takes on a greater role in her support of Velvet's dream both emotionally and financially than he does.
Although we still see traditional gender roles of the time in the mother's references to Velvet's dream as folly, the film shows a strong woman encouraging her daughter not to see her body as a sex object or one entrenched in housework, but one that is free to exist and compete in the world.
The relationship between girl and horse is one of dreams realized. From the start, Velvet is in love and recognizes something extraordinary in the unwanted horse who she won in a raffle. Only she can cultivate his natural talent with the help of Mi—a former horseman. Velvet often anthropomorphizes the horse—not uncommon in these narratives—sure that he is a champion at heart, made for glory.
Velvet begins a strenuous training schedule with her horse Pirate (Pie for short) staying committed through the falls, the exhaustion, and the sweat. Before long, she sets off for the Grand National championship with Mi and the Pie. No one questions a young girl embarking on the trip without her parents—she is free to move from the home and out into the world. Velvet dresses as a man to enter the competition when their rider falls through, professing that the Pie will be an "enchanted horse" if she rides him. She is sure that he will give everything for her.
The scenes of the race itself are brutal, with horses crashing to the ground after failed jumps, but Velvet and the Pie are at one sailing over them. For all their training and determination, though, Velvet faints and falls from the horse just after crossing the finish line first, disqualifying them and outing Velvet as a girl. This inspires astonished announcers and headlines to declare that "a girl wins the Grand National!"
Clearly, had Velvet's family not been financially comfortable, had her mother not saved her earnings from swimming the English Channel, keeping the girl's dream horse would have been an impossibility—just as horse ownership is for many young women. Even with this class issue, the depiction of a girl actually getting what she wants--something other than a romantic relationship--and works toward still seems significant.
Velvet leaves her family and home to compete, moving seamlessly between the public and private spheres. This image of a young woman embarking on such a trek remains a powerful one when so often in contemporary media we see women as passive, submissive, and unsure in the world. Velvet is not decorative; she is a young woman actively pursuing her dreams with the support of her family.
National Velvet photo by Everett Collection / Rex Features.