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Once again, Olive Films comes up with a great disc from the Viacom/Paramount/Republic film library. This is yet another of Republic Pictures' fine ventures into prestigious filmmaking. Perhaps in response to MGM's hit film The Yearling, the studio 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.
The story is Americana about a child's education in the aches and pains of the real world. Lonely ranch boy Tom Tiflin (Peter Miles) is eager to learn the ropes from his father's hired hand, Billy Buck (Robert Mitchum). His father Fred (Shepperd Strudwick) is dissatisfied as a rancher and feels he has no friends. Mother Alice (Myrna Loy) strives to keep emotions in line, but that's not an easy job when Grandfather (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 forty years earlier. The Tiflin family is doing reasonably well, but mother Alice must quietly suffer 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 blowhard of a 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 fantasies in The Red Pony are only in Tom's daydreams. Tom is an ordinary 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.(Spoiler)
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 it undoubtedly shocked young audiences in 1949 -- who then had to watch an anguished Tom fight a losing battle with one of the buzzards.
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 Kieslowski's The Decalogue. Tom places his Pony above everything and everybody; it's an unhealthy, perspective-warping influence.
The direction and acting in The Red Pony make simple events consistently engaging. Lewis Milestone seems a bit restrained by the requirements of the Technicolor camera, which limits the number of setups that can be done in a day. But the leisurely pace befits the subject matter. While remaining faithful to the story, Steinbeck and Milestone might have been better off had they dropped Tom's literally-visualized daydreams of being a circus horsemaster, of riding with Robert Mitchum as knights on horseback, etc.. Besides not being done very well, they're a discordant fantasy element out of keeping with the show's overall realistic tone.
The actors are submerged in roles that 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 nothing of that kind even hints at happening. In the thankless role of the unhappy father, Shepperd Strudwick could perhaps generate a bit more charisma. Compared to Mitchum's likeable ranch hand, dad is something of a drag. Just the same, this seems like a real family dealing with mundane personal issues. Nobody is 'conquering the west', as in George Stevens' epic Shane.
Aaron Copland's dynamic score at first seems too big, and intrudes on quiet moments. But it gradually 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.
Olive Film's Blu-ray of The Red Pony is a vast improvement over an Artisan DVD from ten years ago. The show was filmed in Technicolor, and the remaining Eastmancolor composite elements have serious contrast problems. The old DVD looked as if it had been transferred from a Technicolor print, which resulted in a poor image where anything darker than a light shadow turned black, and lighter parts of the frame were washed out.
This Blu-ray may have been mastered from a similar element, but with a great deal more finesse. The blacks now clog up only infrequently on the darkest scenes, and most light objects retain their detail. Faces have more texture and the show overall doesn't look like a 4th-generation dupe.
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.
A last thought. The Red Pony is great to discuss in relationship to E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, parts of which I thought so emotionally dishonest that I wouldn't take my kids to it when it was new. E.T. is basically a Lassie story, where Lassie isn't just semi-human, but a God. The little boy in Spielberg's film also loses track of his 'pet', and finds it agonizing in a soggy ditch. The unwanted message is that an immature child'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.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Red Pony Blu-ray rates:
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