Cast & Crew
Over breakfast one morning at his wife Alice's family ranch in California's Salinas Valley, Fred Tiflin informs ranch hand Billy Buck that he is going with him to an upcoming auction to ensure that he stays sober and on time. Fred, a former schoolteacher, then complains to Alice that their young son Tom is spending too much time on ranch business and not enough on his studies. Tom, meanwhile, asks Billy, a horse expert, if he can borrow the newspaper clipping about a race that Billy's mare Rosie recently won, as his schoolmates do not believe him. On his way to school, the impressionable Tom, who daydreams about knights in armor and circuses, shows the clipping and Rosie's blue ribbon to his friends and hints that Billy may give him the colt that Rosie is carrying. Later, Alice's father, a former wagon train leader who loves to reminisce about the "westerin'" years, returns from a hunting trip. Fred and Billy then return from the auction, and after dinner that night, Fred presents Tom with a red pony he bought while away. Thrilled by his new responsibility, Tom names the horse Gabilan and gratefully accepts a show saddle from Billy. Although Billy warns Tom that Gabilan will not be strong enough to hold his weight for some time, Tom persuades Billy to help him begin training the young pony right away. Unaware that Billy is instructing Tom, Fred, who has a respectful but distant relationship with his son, offers to help him with Gabilan and is hurt when he realizes that Tom has turned to Billy. Fred then rails against his self-centered father-in-law for telling his wagon train stories over and over, and a chagrined Grandfather apologizes. Ashamed by his outburst, Fred suggests that he and Alice leave immediately for the upcoming homecoming celebrations in his home town of San Jose, but Alice, who knows that Fred feels out of place at the ranch, suggests that he go alone to "think things through." Some time later, Tom brags to Billy about how much he has taught Gabilan and shows him how the pony can open the stable door with his mouth, a trick that gives Billy cause for concern. One morning, after a wet night, Tom makes Billy promise to put Gabilan away if it begins to rain again and heads off for school. A few hours later, the rain starts, and, as promised, Billy puts Gabilan into his stable. As soon as Billy goes back inside, however, Gabilan opens the stable door and wanders into the yard. Tom, meanwhile, is unable to concentrate in school out of worry for Gabilan and races home. To his dismay, he finds Gabilan standing in the heavy rain and accuses Billy of breaking his promise. Denying Tom's charge, Billy examines Gabilan and determines that he has contracted a case of "the strangles," a disease in which an overproduction of mucus blocks the horse's windpipe, leading to suffocation. Having been wired by a concerned Alice, Fred finally returns from San Jose, but tells Alice that he is considering taking a permanent position in the city. Soon after, Billy is forced to lance a lump that has developed on Gabilan's neck and consults with Grandfather and Alice about cutting a hole in Gabilan's windpipe to allow air into the pony's lungs. The normally confident Billy then reveals to Alice and Grandfather his distress that Tom still does not believe that he put the pony in the stable during the storm. Later, Tom is traumatized to see Billy cut the hole in Gabilan's windpipe. When Gabilan's end appears imminent, the adults gather at the breakfast table and decide not to try to shield Tom from the reality of death. Before dawn the next morning, Tom, who has been sleeping in the pony's stable, awakens with a start and, seeing Gabilan gone, rushes outside. Frantically following the pony's hoofprints, he finds the spot where Gabilan chose to die during the night. When Tom sees a flock of vultures gnawing on Gabilan's corpse, he is thrown into an hysterical rage. Tom fights with one of the birds and is about to kill it when he is stopped by his father and Billy. Despite Billy's attempts to console Tom, the boy remains disconsolate, even when Billy promises him Rosie's colt. Later, in the middle of night, Billy awakens and searches for Rosie, certain that she is about to deliver. He confides to Grandfather that he has had a dream that the colt has become caught in the breech position in Rosie's womb. Determined to deliver it for Tom's sake, Billy sharpens his knife, ready to sacrifice his beloved Rosie to ensure her unborn's safety. Having eavesdropped on Billy and Grandfather's conversation, Tom, who has since come to terms with Gabilan's death, sneaks into Billy's room and steals the knife. Fred, meanwhile, also wakes up, and informs Alice that he now knows that he has been a stranger to everyone but is ready to make the ranch his home. Billy then catches Tom with his knife and grabs it from him, but Tom follows him to the stable and screams for him to stop. When they all reach the stable door, however, they are surprised and delighted to see a healthy colt struggling to stand at its mother's feet.
Little Brown Jug
Wee Willie Davis
Victor B. Appel
Charles K. Feldman
John Mccarthy Jr.
The Red Pony
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
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
The Red Pony
The 81-day shooting schedule was at the time the longest and costliest for Republic Pictures.
The novel is actually made up of four short stories: "The Gift," "The Great Mountain," "The Leader of the People" and "The Promise." Each was published separately in magazines between 1933 and 1937.
The film's opening title card reads: "Charles K. Feldman presents Myrna Loy and Robert Mitchum in John Steinbeck's The Red Pony." The title card is preceded by shots of ranch life at dawn and a shot in which "Billy" is seen exiting the ranch house and glancing at a copy of The Red Pony lying at the foot of the front steps. The camera focuses on the book's cover, which then becomes the title card. Included in the film are two partially animated sequences depicting "Tom's" daydreams.
Steinbeck's novel is actually made up of four short stories, "The Gift," "The Great Mountain," "The Leader of the People" and "The Promise." Each story was published separately in journals between 1933 and 1937. Three of the stories, "The Gift," "The Great Mountain" and "The Promise," were published as a collected work in 1937. When director Lewis Milestone and Steinbeck began their collaboration on The Red Pony in 1941, they incorporated elements from the fourth story, "The Leader of the People," into the screenplay. The four stories were not compiled under the title The Red Pony until 1945.
Although other films featuring screenplays by Steinbeck were released prior to The Red Pony, The Red Pony was actually his first film assignment. A November 4, 1946 Los Angeles Times news item indicates that producer/director Lewis Milestone initially became interested in adapting Steinbeck's story in 1939, around the same time that he was adapting the author's Of Mice and Men for the screen. According to a October 29, 1940 Hollywood Reporter news item, Milestone was considering Lon Chaney, Jr. for a principal role in The Red Pony. In late January 1941, Hollywood Reporter announced that Twentieth Century-Fox was planning to produce the film. According to a November 12, 1941 Variety news item, RKO Radio Pictures was also scheduled to produce the film, but Steinbeck chose to withdraw the production from that studio. The same item notes that Steinbeck wanted Burgess Meredith, who along with Chaney had appeared in Of Mice and Men, for the "lead part." On September 11, 1944, Hollywood Reporter announced that Milestone was planning to make the film in association with Samuel Bronston, but that collaboration never came to fruition. In early 1947, Hollywood Reporter reported that Milestone, who was under contract to Enterprise Productions at the time, would be loaned out for the picture, because Enterprise could not "get a Technicolor commitment" for the film.
After Republic agreed to distribute the picture, Robert Mitchum was borrowed from RKO and David O. Selznick's production company Vanguard, as both companies controlled his contract. The picture was shot on location on a ranch in Agoura, CA, and its eighty-one day shooting schedule was the longest and costliest in Republic's history to that time, according to news items. The copyright records note that the name of the pony in the film, "Gabilan," was taken from the Gabilan Mountains, located near California's Salinas Valley, where the film was set. The picture was well-received by critics, many of whom praised in particular the scene in which Tom fights with a vulture. On March 21, 1973, the NBC network broadcast a second version of Steinbeck's story, directed by Robert Totten and starring Henry Fonda, Maureen O'Hara, Ben Johnson and Clint Howard. That version was later released theatrically.