Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Velvet Evolution--"National Velvet" in the Eyes of the Beholder

"Edwina, Malvolia and Meredith were all exactly alike, like golden greyhounds. Their golden hair was sleek, their fine faces like antelopes, their shoulders still and steady like Zulu women carrying water, and their bodies beneath the shoulders rippled when they moved. They were seventeen, sixteen, and fifteen. Velvet was fourteen. Velvet had short pale hair, large, protruding teeth, a sweet smile, and a mouthful of metal."

That's how author Enid Bagnold introduces Velvet, the main character in her novel National  Velvet. Velvet was also scrawny and prone to vomiting whenever she got nervous.

So of course Elizabeth Taylor would be the first person you'd think of to play her in a movie.

I never was able to figure that one out, back when I was a horse-mad girl. I knew Taylor was regarded as a great beauty, and that even as a kid in the 1944 film she was cute as a bug. But that's just the thing. Velvet was a scarecrow.

A wonderful, beautiful character--as are all the people in National Velvet, which is not really a "kiddy" horse tale but rather a story about the complexity of family relationships, about hopes and dreams, about regrets and longings--but still, she is an odd, awkward girl quite different from her lovely sisters.

It made me cross that they turned her into a dreamy, pretty girl in the film (though I do like the film a lot, including Taylor's performance, on its own).

The original 1944 review in The New York Times describes how "little Elizabeth Taylor...plays the role of the horse-loving girl" with a "face alive with youthful spirit, her voice has the softness of sweet song and her whole manner in this picture is one of refreshing grace."

It also was vexing to see what the short, strong black- and white-spotted horse, The Pie, turned into. In the book, Velvet calls him "the piebald" and dubs him The Pie. In the movie, he's played by a rangy chestnut Thoroughbred called Pie, short for Pirate.

Horse girls generally insist on fidelity to the book when it comes to horsy particulars, so I was ready to write to the Lord High Mayor of Hollywood about this pressing matter.

It would be a long time before I'd learn that directors don't want spotted horses in movies because it's difficult to swap in other horses to play their roles. It's well nigh imposible to find exact matches, and though it's easy enough to touch up a star on a forehead, painting an entire animal is not.

As I was rereading National Velvet (which, incidentally, features one of the most excellently portrayed younger brothers in the history of literature) and noticing just how very much Bagnold did not write this book solely for children (it features a slaughterhouse, a suicide, blood, and plenty of exclamations of "hell"), I found myself lost in the rabbit hole of the Internet looking up different editions of National Velvet to see how Pie and Velvet were portrayed. It was pretty amusing. Check it out below if you feel a similar need to procrastinate.

For starters, here is the gold standard, my childhood copy: The Pie is a piebald. Velvet is simply a jockey.  The first edition of National Velvet featuring illustrations by renowned equine artist Paul Brown was published in 1949. It's a vast improvement on the cover of the 1935 first British edition of the story, which is pink with black writing and nothing else. The pink and black, to the publisher's credit, wasn't chosen because pink is a "girl color."  They are the colors Velvet chooses for her racing silks, and her conspirator, Mi, flat-out tells her she and The Pie will look horrible.

Here's the first U.S. edition of the book. Dramatic red and black, and sculptural
pose of The Pie and Velvet. Velvet doesn't quite look fourteen years old,
but the image captures her drive and The Pie's willingness.

Here's a 1960s British paperback version of the story featuring the sketches from the original,
which were done by Bagnold's daughter, the inspiration for the story.

A 1961 edition of National Velvet in classic "Little Golden Book" format. Velvet's gotten very
Western U.S. in appearance, and The Pie has morphed into a bay, thus resembling neither his piebald
book self or his chestnut movie self. Pretty, though.

A series of coloring books based on a TV version of National Velvet were produced in the 1960s. What up with the hunt attire, Velvet? Women traditionally (and the English equestrian world is nothing if not traditional) wear black or navy coats. Red is reserved for Master of Foxhounds and other hunt assistants. Though that has surely changed as more women moved into those ranks. Still, Velvet in the 1940s-1960s...well, wait a sec. Who am I to quibble over the coat color worn by a girl who went undercover as a male jockey riding in and winning the Grand National steeplechase? Oy. Never mind. But I am a bit worried about her coming off the horse in this image.  And she needs a hair net.
A 1962 picture book based on the early-60s NBC TV program loosely based on National Velvet.
When I say "loosely," I mean that book-Velvet who lived in a poor household in an English
village that was attached to a slaughterhouse run by her father and owned a rakish
piebald gelding turned into a girl living in the United States living on a sprawling
dairy farm who owned a Thoroughbred stallion.  Because life is like that.

Another 1960s version of the story. Velvet has morphed into a stylish, slender young woman
wearing an outfit I associate with all those story series about girls in British boarding
schools. The Pie happens to be black, but the highlighting could be construed as  spots,
I guess. However, they appear to be living in a far northern land where the
aurora borealis is particularly active.

1960s-era edition. Interestingly, the interior contains the beautiful Paul Brown illustrations,
but the cover features a perky, sunny, healthy Velvet with a Black-Beauty-esque version of
The Pie. I suppose the GQ gentleman trotting up with the saddle is supposed to be Mi,
former jockey turned slaughterhouse assistant who lives in a rotting stall next to the
Browns' carthorse. I don't know who the dapper fellow by the fence could possibly be.

This one is a 1961 picture-book version of the story. The Pie is at least a piebald,
but with that LL Bean version of Mi and a scrubbed-up version of Velvet's
little brother sitting a mere two feet away from the jumping horse, The Pie
must be a very, very tiny horse indeed. Velvet is also playing once
again at being Master of Foxhounds.

A 1968 paperback version of the story. Velvet appears to be swept along on some
sort of wave of ecstasy as she gazes at a glorious future with her Breck hair
blowing in the wind. Bit disturbing, those fangs, though. Is there a vampire
version of National Velvet in our future? The Pie will become The Twi (short for Twilight)? 

A 1991 paperback, with Velvet sporting freshly blow-dried locks and a Western-style shirt.
Clearly the famous braces and mouthpiece that plagued her in the book have paid off in a
nice, straight smile.  The wild-eyed Pie has transformed into his literary ancestor
Black Beauty, a calm and gentle steed who would barely bite a carrot, let alone his dear rider.

I think one of Velvet's glowing, golden-haired sisters kicked her out of this cover and took
over her spot. Black Beauty once again stands in for The Pie. He also appears to have shrunk.
Have you ever cuddled up next to a horse in this way? A horse's head is, like, nearly
as long as your torso. Maybe she is kneeling and The Pie is a mini.

This is a 2012 edition published in the UK. The horse, of course, is completely unlike
The Pie in every way, but he is exactly the kind of horse my horse-mad friends
and I drew all the time, with elegant legs and flying tail, so as an illustration I love it.
It's not at all Grand-National-realistic but never mind.
A 1999 edition. The Pie is a piebald, hooray! Velvet's still rather
too glam in a waifish way, but at least the burning intensity is there
instead of just dreaminess.

OK. I swore I was going to stop, stop, stop. Because you can find a glabillion versions of
National Velvet online. But then I saw this one. Dear God. Once again one of Velvet's
sisters has shoved her aside, and the horses appear to be running in terror from
this giant head that has suddenly materialized on their horizon.

By far the loveliest cover, in my humble opinion. It's the 1985 golden-anniversary edition,
beautifully illustrated by Ted Lewin. This amazing illustrator grew up in a household that
kept many pets, including a lion. I love the angle of The Pie jumping over the rock wall
mentioned in the book. Velvet is dressed as she was in the story, too--in her
day-to-day garb. She and her sisters were so poor that they had to take turns
wearing a coat when they went to a horse show.