Following up on the success of the Dogathon a few months back, our friend Page over at My Love of Old Hollywood has set aside these few days, May 25-28, as days to blog about our favorite film horses–in the 2012 Horseathon. There is certainly no shortage of horse movies in Hollywood. From Trigger to Black Beauty, from cowboy movies to war movies, horses are some of the most prominently featured animals onscreen, likely due to their versatility of use and their prevalence in many aspects of our lives. Pick a movie at random, and there is a good chance there is a horse in it somewhere.
But there is a difference between a horse making an appearance in a movie, and a “horse movie.” That is, there are certain films that feature the horse as a central character, and the horse drives the story forward, films like Black Beauty and My Friend Flicka that exalt the horse and treat him as a noble creature deserving of respect and admiration. Perhaps the gentlest and most sincere dedication to the place horses have in so many lives–and definitely the movie with the most stellar cast–is the lovely National Velvet (1944). Central to the film’s story is Velvet’s relationship to her horse, The Pie, one that was mirrored in real life by Elizabeth Taylor’s bond with the horse that played The Pie.
At this point in her career, Elizabeth Taylor was still a rising child starlet. Her appearance in Lassie Come Home the previous year had given her a good bit of screen time, and she had a prominent (though uncredited) scene of about 10 minutes in the Orson Welles version of Jane Eyre. But to audiences at the time of National Velvet, Elizabeth Taylor was simply a face that might look vaguely familiar, though she was already developing a name for herself on the MGM lot as a child star with a great deal of potential, and also, offscreen, as a quirky girl who seemed to always have animals around her. Elizabeth Taylor’s pet chipmunk, Nibbles, became almost as big a star on the MGM lot as his owner. Various stars who had been under contract at MGM recall Nibbles in interviews, and how young Elizabeth would not be seen without him. In 1946, while she was making The Courage of Lassie , Elizabeth found that Nibbles had been cast in a bit part in the film. Nibbles’ scene was ultimately cut, prompting Elizabeth to remark “He was too good. It didn’t look real.”
Other than her love for Nibbles, Elizabeth was known for her love of horses. As a toddler in England, she was so drawn to horses that she was given a small pony to keep as a pet, and recalled that the happiest moments of her life were when she was riding her horse. She always had animals throughout her life, and it was this obvious love of animals that drew the producers to cast this relative newcomer as the horse-smitten Velvet Brown in their upcoming production of National Velvet.
The Pie was a 7-year-old thoroughbred named King Charles, a descendant of famed racehorse Man O War. He was owned by a society woman at the Rivera Country Club in Los Angeles who had trained him as a show jumper, and she offered to let Elizabeth Taylor ride him while at the country club. Elizabeth immediately fell in love with the horse, and he was acquired by MGM for $800 to star in National Velvet with her. She undertook a rigorous training routine to prepare for the movie, and rode King Charles for 90 minutes every day while also feeding and bonding with him at the Rivera Country Club for the rest of the day.
From the beginning, King Charles was a difficult horse to get along with. He wouldn’t listen to commands, and he regularly bit crew members, once seriously injuring a trainer who was trying to make him play dead for a scene. The only person he would listen to was Elizabeth. The two had developed a special bond, which is very evident in the final film.
After filming wrapped, on the occasion of Elizabeth’s 13th birthday, she found that she had received King Charles as a gift. She and the horse stayed together until King Charles died, and remained wonderful and loyal companions to one another for as long as he lived.
Thank you to My Love of Old Hollywood for sponsoring this Horseathon!