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FILM : Young Liz Rides High in 'Velvet'

August 27, 1992|MARK CHALON SMITH | Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lance writer who regularly writes about film for The Times Orange County Edition

Think of Elizabeth Taylor for a moment. Which role comes to mind? The dewy lover in "A Place in the Sun" or the boozing harridan in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Maybe the edgy Maggie in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" or the stuck-up Nile queen in that epic stinker "Cleopatra"?

Some might even point to "National Velvet," the 1944 picture that gave the adolescent Liz her first starring role as Velvet Brown, the 12-year-old who improbably wins England's Grand National Steeplechase atop a horse named "The Pi." This sentimental fantasy, a perennial favorite of kids--especially those who spend their free time at riding stables--closes out Golden West College's family film series Friday night.

The Clarence Brown-directed movie continued a trend begun by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1939 with "The Wizard of Oz." Studio chiefs, realizing family entertainment was profitable, put together a gang of youthful actors that included Mickey Rooney, Roddy McDowall and Margaret O'Brien in films such as "My Friend Flicka," "Lassie Come Home" and "The Human Comedy."

In "National Velvet," Rooney, a veteran of the Andy Hardy movies, was teamed with Taylor as something approaching her equestrian Svengali. He plays Mi Taylor, a teen-age jockey with a terrible secret who meets Taylor's Velvet almost by chance shortly after his arrival in the seaside village of Sewels, England. Never mind that "National Velvet" was shot on an MGM lot; cinematographer Leonard Smith gives the movie the appropriate damp Tudor atmosphere.

After discovering a shared love of horses--there's a sort of euphoria between them when they first admire "The Pi" together--Velvet and Mi begin their quest. Miraculously, they acquire the wild and rascally thoroughbred in a raffle, and dreams of a Steeplechase victory are dancing in their heads. It's a pretty arduous journey, complete with personal revelations, melodramatic suspense, a grand finale and all the Hollywood hokum MGM could get away with.

Taylor is fairly amazing, though, especially considering her youth. Even when she's gushing, it's with such purity; there's a cleansing innocence, despite the overacting. Rooney, as usual, gets pretty darn emotional himself, and not as successfully as Taylor.

Actually, everybody in "National Velvet" takes emotional pitch to a surreal high, but at least they're consistent with Brown's frothy direction. Anne Revere and Donald Crisp play Velvet's mom and dad, and Angela Lansbury, Juanita Quigley and Jackie (Butch) Jenkins play her sisters and brother.

What: "National Velvet."

When: Friday, Aug. 28. Amphitheater opens at 7 p.m., show starts around 8.

Where: The Golden West College amphitheater, 15744 Golden West St., Huntington Beach.

Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (405) Freeway to Golden West Street and head south.

Wherewithal: $1.50 and $2.

Where to Call: (714) 891-3991.

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