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The Red Pony
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The Red Pony

Formed as a union of half a dozen poverty-row film studios, Republic Pictures in its early years didn't carry much prestige itself. That changed in the late 1940s, when the studio made a concerted effort to propel itself to more respectable ranks by producing "serious" dramas with renowned filmmakers - such as Orson Welles' Macbeth (1948), Frank Borzage's Moonrise (1948), and Lewis Milestone's The Red Pony (1949). The latter title may not be as well remembered as the others, but in fact The Red Pony was the most expensive picture to date for Republic, as well as its longest-to-shoot (81 days).

Even with Lewis Milestone producing and directing, and Robert Mitchum and Myrna Loy starring, the most prestigious names involved here were John Steinbeck and Aaron Copland, both of whom worked on very few movies in their careers. To see both their names on the same picture was even more unusual; it only happened once before, on Of Mice and Men (1939), though that film was merely based on Steinbeck's novel and did not employ him as screenwriter.

For The Red Pony, Steinbeck actually adapted his own work to the screen. Perhaps he was especially interested in doing so because the screenplay was based not on a single novel but on several of his short stories; blending them into one complete tale must have been an intriguing challenge and an appealing chance to create something wholly original. As one might expect from Steinbeck (not to mention Copland), the movie is a slice of Americana, an atmospheric and elegiac account of a young boy (Peter Miles) living on a California ranch with his parents (Myrna Loy and Shepperd Strudwick). As the parents develop marital difficulties, the boy becomes increasingly attached to a kindly ranch hand (Robert Mitchum) and to a pony he has received as a gift, ultimately learning tough lessons about life and loss.

Steinbeck's work on The Red Pony script lasted for many years before filming even began. The first Steinbeck screenplay to actually reach theaters was the 1941 feature-length docudrama The Forgotten Village. When Steinbeck wrote that picture, however, he had already started working with Milestone on The Red Pony. Milestone had been intrigued by a 1937 book of three Steinbeck short stories and had gotten the author to start turning elements of those stories - plus a fourth - into a single screenplay. The two men discussed the project on and off over the course of the next several years as each worked on other films. Steinbeck even received two Oscar® nominations for Best Original Story in that time period, for Lifeboat (1944) and A Medal for Benny (1945). The four short stories, meanwhile, were re-published as a single book called The Red Pony in 1945, and in 1947 Republic Pictures came aboard and filming finally began. Though shooting ended in August 1947, the finished picture was not released until March 1949.

Aaron Copland's wistful and haunting score was one of just six the famed composer wrote for American feature films. Remarkably, he was Oscar®-nominated for four of them: Of Mice and Men, Our Town (1940), The North Star (1943) and The Heiress (1949). He won for The Heiress. Two of the others, incidentally, were also directed by Milestone: Of Mice and Men and The North Star.

Robert Mitchum jumped at the chance to be loaned out to Republic for this picture. Steinbeck was a big draw, as was the opportunity to work in Technicolor for the first time. As for Myrna Loy, she plays against type here, and film historian Lawrence Quirk has wondered "why [she] took this role, merely a ranch housewife and mother who is very much on the periphery of this bucolic mood piece."

In her memoir, written with James Kotsilibas-Davis, Loy answered that question. "The ranch mother in The Red Pony," she wrote, "was as close as I've come to playing a woman like my pioneer grandmothers. Although it was an independent production released by Republic, a so-called 'poverty-row' studio, the creative lineup was irresistible... Also, it was my first picture in perfected Technicolor.

"It wasn't a great part for me, despite the interesting aspect of the woman being stronger than her husband, because the story is really about the little boy and the horse. Milly, as Milestone was called, wanted the mother depicted from the boy's point of view, so I played her with an austere, quiet strength. Several critics, missing the point, wondered what had happened to Nora Charles."

Loy particularly enjoyed working with Mitchum, whom she recalled pulled pranks on the set all the time. He teased her mercilessly but when the time came to shoot a scene, he was all business. When the film wrapped, he even asked her to autograph a photo for him.

Loy also recalled being introduced to John Steinbeck in a New York restaurant some time after the movie was completed. He "seemed preoccupied" and barely said a word to her. He was evidently just nervous, however, for as soon as he left, a waiter delivered a note that said: "Miss Loy, I am glad you were in The Red Pony. You were the Ruth Tiflin I visualized. John Steinbeck."

Look for seven-year-old Beau Bridges appearing in his third movie.

Producer: Lewis Milestone
Director: Lewis Milestone
Screenplay: John Steinbeck (novel and screenplay)
Cinematography: Tony Gaudio
Art Direction: Victor Greene
Music: Aaron Copland
Film Editing: Harry Keller
Cast: Myrna Loy (Alice Tiflin), Robert Mitchum (Billy Buck), Louis Calhern (grandfather), Shepperd Strudwick (Mr. Fred Tiflin), Peter Miles (Tom 'Mr. Big Britches' Tiflin), Margaret Hamilton (teacher), Patty King (Jinx Ingals), Jackie Jackson (Jackie), Beau Bridges (Beau).
BW-89m. Closed captioning.

by Jeremy Arnold

SOURCES:
AFI Catalogue of Feature Films
James Kotsilibas-Davis and Myrna Loy, Myrna Loy: Seeing and Becoming
Lawrence J. Quirk, The Films of Myrna Loy
Lee Server, Robert Mitchum: Baby, I Don't Care
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