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The Red Pony

The Red Pony
1949 / Color / 1:37 full frame / 89 min. / Street Date July 22, 2003 / 14.98
Starring Myrna Loy, Robert Mitchum, Louis Calhern, Shepperd Strudwick, Peter Miles, Margaret Hamilton
Cinematography Tony Gaudio
Production Designer Nicolai Remisoff
Art Direction Victor Green
Film Editor Harry Keller
Original Music Aaron Copland
Written by John Steinbeck from his novel
Produced by Charles K. Feldman, Lewis Milestone
Directed by Lewis Milestone

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 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 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 not great.

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 - -
Sound: Good
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 23, 2003


1. There may be a few 35mm prints 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 2007 Glenn Erickson

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