This film about a California ranch family at the turn of the last century is not exactly a movie for the whole family. Its central theme of a 10-year-old boy learning about death and disappointment has moments that would disturb the 10-year-old in all of us. It is the work of John Steinbeck, who wrote the screenplay and the stories it is based on.
Less tragic than his Of Mice and Men, it still finds an under layer of darkness in the California sunshine. It introduces themes of family discord that would find full expression in his novel East of Eden, also set in California in the early years of the twentieth century.
Plot. Little Tom Tiflin (Peter Miles) is given a pony, which he is training with the help of a ranch hand, Billy Buck (Robert Mitchum). The boy’s father (Shepperd Strudwick) is an unhappy man, never having adapted to life in the country after marrying his wife Alice (Myrna Loy). The emotional distance that has grown in the marriage intensifies when her father (Louis Calhern) arrives for an extended visit.
|Peter Miles, Robert Mitchum|
Calhern with his long white hair and beard could be a double for Buffalo Bill Cody. And he has a similar past, as a man who once led wagon trains of pioneers to the West. He loves to recount those exciting days, but his son-in-law has long ago grown tired of his stories and finally says so in an outburst that the old man overhears.
There’s also distance between father and young son. The boy is enamored of Mitchum, a coolly competent cowboy, who says he’s half horse, having been fed horse milk as a baby. In Greek mythology that would make him a centaur, a creature embodying untamed nature, as well as being a teacher. Billy Buck is both.
The problem with Billy is that he’s not altogether reliable as a teacher. He casually makes promises that he can’t keep. After he’s assured the boy that it won’t rain while he’s at school, the pony lets himself out of the barn in a terrible storm and takes a fever. Mitchum says the pony will recover, but despite his efforts it slowly worsens.
|Myrna Loy, Robert Mitchum|
While the boy takes to sleeping in the stall with the pony, it escapes again and is found dead, the buzzards already feeding on it. The boy is shattered by the discovery and in a horrific scene tries to strangle one of the birds as it struggles fiercely with bloody talons.
The lessons learned are hard ones. The boy discovers he cannot trust the word of grown-ups, even the man he admires. The grandfather learns that as a man who was once a leader of men, his day in the sun is over. The boy’s father takes a leave of absence with his brother in San Jose—a kind of homecoming. But he comes to realize that he is a “stranger” to others wherever he lives.
Finally, the life of Mitchum’s mare hangs in the balance, as he believes the colt in her is turned wrong. Sharpening the knife he’s used to doctor the pony, he is ready to kill the mare to save the colt. The emotionally wrought boy steals the knife, and while Mitchum leaves the barn to retrieve it from him, the mare safely gives birth to the colt. True to his word, Mitchum gives the colt to the boy. In the last scenes, we see the adults together, all smiles, as the boy rides his new pony across the fields of the ranch.
|Myrna Loy, Shepperd Strudwick, Peter Miles|
Comments. Long a B-movie factory, Republic Pictures was the surprising producer of this feature film with an all-star cast. Shot locally in Agoura, California, and in Technicolor, it has the look and feel of Steinbeck country in central California. The effect is partly due to the rain-soaked earth underfoot in many scenes.
Myrna Loy is everybody’s lovely mother, a composed woman of private emotions, who keeps house, cooks meals, and plays classical music on the piano. Robert Mitchum, a star of cowboy movies from the war years, plays a ranch hand with the actor’s usual cool confidence.
Steinbeck’s script has many fine moments, as when Calhern’s garrulous old man laments how the drive to adventure westward has died out of people. “It was a job for men,” he tells his grandson. “Now only little boys want to hear about it.” Later, he scolds Mitchum for being unaware of a rule against sitting on another man’s bed.
|The Red Pony, 1st edition|
Some scenes play with a tug at the heart. We see the boy’s unspoken loneliness when his emotionally reserved father returns home without a warm greeting for him. The boy finally closes several feet of distance between them to tearfully throw his arms around the man. The scenes in which Mitchum uses his knife to lance a lump on the pony’s neck and then cut the throat to insert a tube in its windpipe are effectively shown with reaction shots. The camera closes in on the boy’s face as he grimaces at what he’s seeing.
The whole matter of what’s good for a child to see and not to see is also discussed. Coming to terms with suffering and death are part of the boy’s education in the film. It’s his mother who says that it’s better to see. His grandfather concurs, that the boy might as well learn now. It is the wisdom of the ranch, where the life and death of animals play a part of the getting of wisdom.
|John Steinbeck (1902-1968)|
Wrapping up. The 1930s were a painful decade, and the harsh realities of that time inform Steinbeck’s storytelling. His particular perspective of farm laborers can be found in the tragedy, Of Mice and Men (1937). He captured the impact of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl in The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Hollywood’s treatment of these two novels stopped only a little short of their grim vision of life under severe economic conditions.
The stories in The Red Pony (1937) take place in earlier times, but there is the feeling in the film that it is “better to see” than to sugarcoat bitter truths. The use of Technicolor and the picture book interiors of the ranch house may prettify the past, but the color is ironic. As a film about family life and coming of age, it’s a bit on the dark side.
Direction was by Russian-born director Lewis Milestone, who had already directed the film adaptation of Of Mice and Men in 1939. Mention should also be made of Aaron Copland’s music composed for the film. Here's the trailer:
The Red Pony is currently available at netflix and amazon and Barnes&Noble. For more of Tuesday’s Overlooked Movies and TV, click on over to Todd Mason’s blog.
Author's phot: Wikimedia Commons
Coming up: Will Levington Comfort, Trooper Tales (1899)