Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Perhaps in response to the hit film
The Yearling, Republic Pictures took a
chance on this boy-meets-animal story created by top name talent. The
renowned Lewis Milestone directed from a screenplay by John Steinbeck, with a new score by Aaron
Copland. The result is an honest melodrama with only a few missteps, that uses stars Myrna Loy and Robert
Mitchum as character actors. The tale of young Tom and his prize pony is less glitzy, but just as
effective, as MGM's film. I doubt that it was recommended as a movie for small children, though, as
it has a strong scene that might traumatize them, especially in 1949.
Lonely Tom Tiflin (Peter Miles) is eager to learn ranching from his father's hired
hand, Billy Buck (Robert Mitchum). His father Fred is dissatisfied as a rancher and feels
he had no friends. Mother Alice strives to keep emotions in line, but that's not an easy job when
(Louis Calhern) is a major annoyance at the dinner table. Fred gives Tom a fine red pony, and Tom
dedicates himself to it. But even the pony is a divisive influence, as Fred is jealous of Billy
Buck's tutelage of the boy, and Billy Buck bridles when Tom questions his competence.
John Steinbeck's Salinas Valley is a busy place; this story seemingly takes place over a hill from
the farm of Of Mice and Men, perhaps 40 years before. The Tiflin family is doing reasonably
well, but mother Alice suffers quietly at the disharmony in the house. Her husband is unhappy, and
she has little
choice but to wait him out. Dependable Billy Buck takes care of most of the major work and tutors young
Tom in barnyard skills, but Alice's vain father won't stop talking about the good old pioneer days,
until Fred loses his patience.
The big note of happiness is Tom's new pony, a beauty that he curries and combs in anticipation of
Thanksgiving, when he'll be able to ride it. It's a source of pride and status with his friends,
but Tom really isn't ready for the responsibility. He makes unreasonable demands of Billy Buck,
exacting promises for things nobody can predict.
The Yearling is about a dreamy nature-boy learning hard lessons as he grows out of his
childhood. His stylized adventures in an idealized forest verge on fantasy. The Red Pony
stays firmly rooted in the real, and Tom is an ordinary day-dreaming kid seeking self-importance.
His pony is pretty, but it isn't presented as any wonderment of nature; it's just an object on which
Tom has projected all of his immature hopes. The trouble that unfolds is nobody's fault, a fact that Tom
can't accept. When his dream pony's life is endangered, Tom loses perspective, freaks out, and blames
those who love him.
Both stories depict the death of a boy's pet, but The Red Pony is both more direct and
literal about it. The already ill animal wanders out into a rainstorm while Tom sleeps, and when
Tom finds it the next morning, it's already dead in a gulch, with vultures feeding on it. The sight
is sheer horror, and undoubtedly shocked young audiences in 1949 - who then had to watch an
anguished Tom fight a losing battle with one of the buzzards. 2
Steinbeck's story is a little lesson in life, about putting all of one's hopes on one pony, so to
speak. Or maybe it's a tale of misplaced priorities, as in the first episode of
The Decalogue. Tom places his Pony above
everything and everybody; it's an unhealthy, perspective-warping influence.
The Red Pony makes simple events consistently engaging. The father has his own problem, a
feeling of alienation from his role as a rancher. It is resolved with a minimum of dramatic upheaval,
but is affecting just the same.
The direction and acting are excellent. The actors are submerged in roles which require
them to withhold big displays of emotion. In addition to the surprise of the animal violence, 1949
audiences probably expected a touch of romance to develop between the two stars, but that never
even hints at happening. While remaining faithful to his own story,
Steinbeck should have dropped Tom's literally-visualized daydreams of being a circus horsemaster,
and riding with Robert Mitchum as knights on horseback, etc.. Besides not being done very well,
they're a confusing, fanciful element out of keeping with the overall realistic tone of the show.
Aaron Copland's dynamic score at first seems too big, and intrudes on quiet moments. But
it sneaks up on us, and by the time the big scenes hit, it's right in sync with our emotions.
The Red Pony is a quality drama about family life, that deserved greater success.
Artisan's DVD of The Red Pony is another no-frills budget disc of a notable but forgotten
gem. The transfer is an excellent example of the problems studios have with Technicolor films.
Because they are so dense, it's not a good idea to use an original Technicolor release print for
a film-to-tape transfer. With a good level set for the lighter areas of the frame, the dark
parts 'clog up', and detail is lost.
In The Red Pony, dark corners of the barn disappear into one contrasty black. In a print,
someone with black hair or a black hat would stand out against the dark background, but here, they're
just one mass of blackness, and the picture loses its original vibrancy. There are new technologies
to get around this by recompositing the original Technicolor matrices on film or in the digital
realm, but it's a prohibitively expensive treatment that 'minor' Technicolor pictures aren't
likely to merit. 1
The Red Pony on DVD is perfectly intact, with slightly pale colors, but the contrast scheme
is off because of the Technicolor origins of the movie. The transfer would appear to be from an
Eastmancolor composite, with the same contrast problems built-in. Hence the film looks good, but
Aaron Copland's vibrant score, still available in classical music sections, is well-represented on
the disc's clear mono track. Indicative of the film's prestige at the time is the fact that top
assistant director Robert Aldrich is on the crew; he always got his choice of projects and ended up
assisting many top directors, even Charlie Chaplin. One of the pesky neighbor kids, Beau, is
played by little Beau Bridges.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Red Pony rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Good - -
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 23, 2003
1. There may be a few
in existence of the public-domain movie Gorgo, which was shot by Freddy Young and is stunning
in Technicolor. But it may never be seen again in a quality presentation; the cheap video transfers
look terrible, with the dark Gorgo invisible against the dark sky backgrounds except for his glowing
red eyes. It's hoped that Turner still has a file print that could be screened at The American
Cinematheque, or something.
2. The Red Pony is great to discuss in relationship to E.T.:
The Extraterrestrial, which I thought so emotionally dishonest, I wouldn't take my kids to it
when it was new. It's basically a Lassie story, where Lassie isn't just semi-human, but a God.
The little boy in E.T. also loses track of his 'pet', and finds it agonizing
in a soggy ditch. The message is that an immature boy's feelings are more important than
anything, even reality. E.T. teaches us a lie: that what's in our hearts will change reality,
as opposed to help us see the best in reality. The Red Pony isn't for impresssionable
kids, but at least its lesson isn't offensively false.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2003 Glenn Erickson
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