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"There's something behind her eyes that you can't quite fathom -- something Greta Garbo had," director Clarence Brown said of Elizabeth Taylor, the 12-year-old star of his family classic National Velvet (1944). "I really hate to call her an actress. She's much too natural for that."
Despite Brown's eventual enthusiasm for his budding star, he had agreed with the early assessment of producer Pandro S. Berman and studio head Louis B. Mayer when National Velvet was being cast in late autumn of 1943 that Elizabeth was then too small, too short and too immature for the role of Velvet Brown. The heroine of the much-loved Enid Bagnold novel, who adores an unruly stallion and rides him to victory in England's Grand National, had to be tall and robust enough to pose as a male jockey, yet sufficiently developed to suggest that she is on the cusp of womanhood. As Lucille Ryman Carroll, then head of MGM's talent department, reportedly told then-11-year-old Elizabeth, "The part calls for a girl who is just beginning to blossom and she needs little bosoms, and you are -- well, like a little boy."
But no one at the studio realized the depth of the Taylor determination. Little Elizabeth, whose appearances in MGM films had been limited to bits in Lassie Come Home (1943) and The White Cliffs of Dover (1944), had fallen in love with the character of Velvet and embarked on a program to "grow into the role." Legend has it that between October and December of 1943 she added three inches to her height through a diet high in protein and carbohydrates and an exercise regimen that included swimming, horseback riding and hanging from a bar to stretch her spine. Also, as Elizabeth proudly announced to Carroll upon her return to the studio around Christmastime, "I now have boobs!"
Born in England, Taylor had the right accent, and certainly the fervor, to play Velvet convincingly. Under Brown's patient guidance, she gave a performance of great spirit and charm that set her on the path to international superstardom. National Velvet won a total of five Academy Award nominations, including one for Brown as Best Director; and two Oscars -- for Anne Revere as Best Supporting Actress as Velvet's understanding mother and Robert Kern for Film Editing. (Kern's work in the climactic race is still considered a classic of editing.) After the winners had been announced, an Academy spokesman said that Taylor had narrowly missed winning a special Oscar for best juvenile performance -- an award that went instead to Peggy Ann Garner for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1944).
Producer: Pandro S. Berman
Director: Clarence Brown
Screenplay: Helen Deutsch, Theodore Reeves, from novel by Enid Bagnold
Cinematography: Leonard Smith
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Urie McCleary
Original Music: Herbert Stothart
Editing: Robert J. Kern
Costume Supervision: Irene
Principal Cast: Mickey Rooney (Mi Taylor), Donald Crisp (Mr. Brown), Elizabeth Taylor (Velvet Brown), Anne Revere (Mrs. Brown), Angela Lansbury (Edwina Brown), Jackie "Butch" Jenkins (Donald Brown), Juanita Quigley (Malvolia Brown).
C-124m. Closed captioning. Descriptive Video.
by Roger Fristoe