"There must be more money! There must be more money!" The house echoes with this obsessive refrain, as the stylish and spoiled Hester (Valerie Hobson) spends far more freely than her husband's income can support. And though the recriminations among the adults take place behind closed doors, their young son Paul (John Howard Davies) is subtly aware that all is not well in his family. When Paul makes a connection between the handyman's hobby of betting on horse races, and his own uncanny ability to predict winners by riding his toy rocking horse, Paul thinks he's found a way to make his mother happy again. If only things were as simple as that...
The Rocking Horse Winner was a movie that grew on me subtly after watching it. One of the most notable aspects of the film is how watchable it is: the pacing, particularly of the first half of the story, is extremely well-handled. The film's deft presentation of key scenes and its handling of the passage of time allows us to quickly we see what sort of people they are and what sort of problems they have... and how those problems are worsening.
The film cuts frequently between scenes involving the adults Hester, her husband, and her brother Oscar, and Paul, their young son, giving us a clear picture of the dichotomy of the household: on the one hand, the innocent, good-hearted child who wants his mother to be happy, and on the other, the blindly materialistic and selfish mother. Written like that, it sounds almost like a caricature, but it's not. While the character of Hester, the mother, does take her spendthrift ways to an extreme, it's an extreme that's all too common in real life. The film sets her up very clearly as being short-sighted to the point of absurdity, with her insistence that she can't live within her means and that "the money simply has to come from somewhere." At the same time, though, some viewers may feel the sting of the film cutting close to the bone: how many people live paycheck-to-paycheck, echoing the haunting refrain of The Rocking Horse Winner, "we must have more money," even while being unwilling to cut back on frivolous expenses?
I've always been of the opinion that, on the whole, short stories are much better suited to film adaptation than novels, and The Rocking Horse Winner is another piece of evidence in support of my theory. Based on a short story by D.H. Lawrence (the author of Lady Chatterley's Lover, among many other novels), the film is able to take the characters and events of the original story and develop them to a greater depth and realism. Lawrence's story is minimalistic, almost surreal, with little dialogue or character interaction; the film translates the material onto the screen in a way that plays on the strengths of that medium. Since we no longer have Lawrence's narrative voice, we get a greater development of the characters: the mother, the ineffectual father, and the uncle are all given enough space to make their mark on the unfolding events of the story.
Probably the greatest addition in the filmed adaptation is the deepening of the character of Bassett, the handyman who befriends Paul. He essentially acts as a foil to the self-absorbed parents and the friendly but superficial uncle; we can see, in his warm relationship to Paul, exactly what's lacking in the superficially luxurious but emotionally sterile world of Paul's own family.
The black-and-white print of The Rocking Horse Winner appears to have been fairly conscientiously cleaned up for the DVD release. There are still some print flaws appearing in the image, and a few instances of the light level wavering for a moment, but other than those signs of its age, the 1950 film looks good. There's essentially no noise or edge enhancement, so the image is sharp and clean; contrast is handled well, with excellent detail and shading in the picture.
The 1.33:1 aspect ratio of the DVD transfer is the film's original theatrical aspect ratio.
The mono soundtrack is not as good as I would have hoped for, even for an older movie. Dialogue is clear, without any background noise, but a definite harshness creeps into the sound whenever the volume rises. The music is nothing to write home about, either; it's very heavy-handed and tends to have a louder role in the soundtrack than it ought to. It's not enough to make me reach for the volume control on the remote, but it's enough to pull me out of the world of the story and make me conscious of the soundtrack as a separate and slightly distracting element of the film.
This DVD is an English teacher's dream disc... especially if he or she teaches D.H. Lawrence's work. Rather than providing the typical "behind the scenes" information (which is probably hard to get on a 1950s film in any case), the DVD offers an in-depth comparative look at different versions of Lawrence's short story.
The special features on the DVD include a 20-minute short film of the story in "Pixelvision," a kind of child's camera, by Michael Almereyda, a radio broadcast of a reading of the story by John Shea, and several excerpts from an opera version of the story.
What I liked best of the special features was that the DVD insert is actually a 24-page booklet that includes the full text of the original short story, making for very interesting reading either before or after viewing the film. The booklet also includes the libretto for the excerpts of the opera presented on the DVD.
The Rocking Horse Winner is no fairy tale, though it involves an apparently magical element, the rocking horse that Paul uses to predict the winners of races. It's what you might call magical realism: a story that incorporates fantastic elements without being a fantasy. The Rocking Horse Winner is not a story about a magical toy, but rather a highly original tale of a life destroyed by selfishness and materialism spiraling out of control. It's recommended.