Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Red Pony (1949)


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)

17 comments:

  1. I remember reading the book but I am not sure I ever saw the movie.

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    1. Given my memory for movies, I can't confidently say whether I've seen something before. Anyway, I really liked it this time.

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  2. I haven't seen the movie. I read the book many years ago and liked it. Not Steinbeck's best, but soundly in the middle.

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    1. I don't believe I saw it either before now.

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  3. In high school we were told to write a book report on The Grapes of Wrath, and I think I was in the same position as the boy in The Red Pony - not understanding the situation, but go ahead with it anyway. Too early an introduction with life and death and society in general.

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    1. With the Internet, kids don't even have to read the book these days. Just google on the title, copy and paste.

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  4. There is an amazing story about John Steinbeck and the original novella I can't confirm. He apparently lost the manuscript of the Red Pony, searched desperately for it, and finally sat down and rewrote it all from memory. Later, the lost manuscript was found behind the couch. When the two versions were compared, only six words were different.

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    1. That's a hard one to believe, Richard, but not impossible. The other lost MS story I know is Lampedusa's THE LEOPARD, which was not misplaced but destroyed by a maid.

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    2. I read it long ago in a Steinbeck biography, if my recollection is any good,and have spent an absurd amount of time trying to verify it. Maybe it's nonsense, but my motto is never to let the truth get in the way of a good story.

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    3. That's good enough for me, too.

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  5. I really liked this movie. And you did a great job reviewing it.

    There was a TV adaptation of the story that was aired in 1971. It starred Henry Fonda and Maureen O'Hara as the parents and Ben Johnson as the hired hand. Jack Elam was the grandfather.

    I remember that since Fonda was the father the story was changed around to give that character a larger role and the ranch hand a smaller one.

    I haven't seen it since it was first shown, but I do remember thinking that it was a pretty good movie.

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    1. What a great line-up for the TV movie. I need to find that one.

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  6. What an interesting post. I read the book ages ago and saw the movie but thought they were both so sad. Then again, I wonder how much our surroundings determine our writing. Steinbeck lived in such a dark time. Even the name - The Depression. Thanks for the wonderful insight into the movie.

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    1. Thanks, Patricia. I am curious to look back at the book now. I'm wondering if the upbeat ending of the movie is not a touch of Hollywood.

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  7. A wonderful review, Ron. I watched this during the final months of TCM in India though I didn't know Steinbeck had anything to do with it. Missed it entirely. I haven't read the book and will bear that in mind as Steinbeck is one of my favourite authors—loved OF MICE AND MEN and CANARY ROW.

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  8. The 1949 film of The Red Pony (and the 1973 TV movie) both soften up the original Steinbeck stories -- the mare who gives birth to the colt at the end does not survive in the book. (Sorry if that's a spoiler to anyone.)

    In the 1973 TV movie (available on DVD by the way), the character of the hired hand Billy Buck (played by Robert Mitchum in the 1949 movie) has been entirely eliminated (not just shortened), in order to put more focus on the relationship between the boy and his father, who now combines the characters of the father and Billy from the book. Ben Johnson does not play the hired hand since this character has been eliminated; he plays a neighbor and friend of the father's named Jess Taylor, who is in the book. The role is somewhat expanded in the 1973 TV movie from the book.

    Both versions of The Red Pony are very fine and well worth seeking out, though someday I'd like to see a third one that keeps the original ending.

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    1. Thanks for this informative addendum to the review. Without looking at Steinbeck, I had guessed that the mare dies. The movie ending is too pat.

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