The Greatest Mother in Movie History

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April 11 2014 7:23 PM

Horse Sense

What I learned about being a mother from National Velvet’s Araminty Brown.

140411_MOV_NationalVelvet
National Velvet.

Still via Warner Bros

The new book Mom in the Movies, a glossy coffee-table companion published by Turner Classic Movies, pairs a nostalgic text by Time magazine critic Richard Corliss with over 100 photographs and film stills, in both black and white and color, of mothers throughout film history. Corliss organizes the book into themed chapters: “Malevolent Moms,” “Mammies and Nannies,” “The Martyr Mothers of Pre-Code”—and there are intermittent short essays by movie-star mothers and their famous offspring, including both Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher (whose differing versions of Fisher’s upbringing—one rosily idealized, one tart-tongued and blunt—read like a sequel to Fisher’s autobiographical novel Postcards From the Edge.)

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

I hadn’t necessarily planned to write anything on Mom in the Movies. Though it’s a delight to page through (and would make a fun Mother’s Day gift for that special cinephile progenitor in your life), this isn’t the kind of book that invites or requires extended analysis. (One note to TCM, though: Next time you put out a reference book containing hundreds of images, titles, and proper names, please include an index! Thanks. I love you. Never go off the air.)

But paging through the section of the book titled “A Gallery of Golden Age Moms,” one entry caught my eye: It was the brief page and a half Corliss devotes to Anne Revere, the statuesque and stern-faced actress who won an Oscar for playing Elizabeth Taylor’s mother (and Mickey Rooney’s employer and mother surrogate) in the beloved 1944 horse-racing drama National Velvet. Revere’s character, the formidable butcher’s wife and former English Channel swimmer Araminty Brown, has to rank among my top few movie mothers: She’s an indelible and mysterious figure who, no matter how many times I watch National Velvet (and now that my daughter loves the movie too, I must be moving toward at least a dozen total lifetime viewings), always has new depths to reveal.

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In Enid Bagnold’s 1935 novel National Velvet, Araminty Brown (referred to throughout the book as “Mrs. Brown”) cuts a very different, though equally imposing, figure: She’s a muscle-bound, monosyllabic woman “embedded in fat, her keen, hooded eyes hardly lifting the rolls above them,” who communicates mainly in cryptic grunts. Though her fierce devotion to her four children is clear on every page, this Mrs. Brown opens up to Velvet in only one scene, as her youngest daughter swabs iodine on a wound caused by the stays of her tightly bound steel corset. “Lot o’ nonsense talked about growing up,” she tells the nervous, horse-mad 14-year-old. “Don’t you dread nothing, Velvet. … Things come suitable to the time.”

That last bit of wisdom is picked up by the notably rangier and more philosophical Mrs. Brown of the movie version of National Velvet. “There’s a right time for everything,” Araminty assures her daughter, explaining why she hasn’t yet revealed the full story of her past to Mi Taylor (Mickey Rooney), the son of the man who, many years ago, coached her through that grueling Channel swim. Mrs. Brown’s long-past athletic achievement hovers like a ghost—a benevolent one—over the film. It’s her deep gratitude to Mi’s recently deceased father that convinces her to take the vagrant lad in as a butcher’s shop assistant, and it’s her long-saved-up prize winnings, a bag of gold sovereign coins, that will pay for Velvet’s eventual entry fee to the Grand National.

National Velvet tells, in some sense, the story of the supplanting of the mother’s moment in the sun by her daughter’s: Velvet’s training with Mi for the big race is a generational echo of her mother’s long-ago apprenticeship with his father. But Araminty’s passing of the torch has none of the martyrly self-sacrifice of, say, Lana Turner’s ceding her lover to her spoiled, oblivious daughter in Imitation of Life. Rather, there’s a Buddhist equanimity to Mrs. Brown’s restrained but evident joy at helping her dangerously “lit-up” daughter realize the dream her mother calls “a breathtaking piece of folly”: capturing the Grand National title with a rough country horse she won in a raffle. The wise, practical Araminty and the perpetually daydreaming Velvet share a common belief in the nobility of folly, as well as a thirst for glory for its own sake (or in Velvet’s case, for her horse’s), a non-egocentric drive to work and succeed and excel.

Though it’s often cited on lists of the greatest sports movies, or horse movies, or movies for children—all citations this magnificent film deserves—National Velvet is perhaps dearest to me for its lovingly detailed and precise portrait of this very particular mother-daughter relationship, and for the intertwined performances of the dry, laconic Revere and the tremulously radiant Taylor (who was already, at age 12, a sophisticated and sensitive actress). In a just-try-not-to-cry scene at the center of the movie, Mrs. Brown takes Velvet up to the attic to fetch the entry money for the race. They go through a scrapbook of old photos of that long-ago Channel swim—the first time in many years, one senses, that the no-nonsense Araminty has allowed herself to linger over these memories. “There was greatness in him,” she says of her late trainer, Dan Taylor, in a soft voice that makes you wonder, not for the first time in the film, if there might have been anything romantic between the young swimmer and her coach (devoted as Araminty now seems to her irascible butcher husband, played with befuddled charm by Donald Crisp). The way Revere plays the character, with seemingly infinite reserves of quiet strength and wry humor, it’s impossible not to invent such imaginary backstories for Mrs. Brown, a fact Velvet herself acknowledges in the attic scene: “Often I just sit and wonder about you, mother. I wonder what you’re thinking. You don’t think like the rest of us, Mother”—and here Taylor touches the back of her shiny black pageboy—“you think back here.”

Maybe this is what I love so much about Anne Revere’s performance as Mrs. Brown: that sense she projects of having a rich but invisible inner life, a complicated past that mattered to her and shaped her before becoming a mother, and which she looks back on without regret or nostalgia. Revere, who died in 1990 at the age of 87, seemingly possessed that kind of strength of character too. A direct descendant of the Revolutionary war hero Paul Revere, she became a patriot of a different kind by refusing to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee about the supposed Communist affiliations of her colleagues and subsequently spent 20 years on the blacklist, unable to get work in Hollywood (time she used wisely by going on the stage, where she won a Best Actress Tony for Lillian Hellman’s Toys in the Attic). The real-life Revere never had children, though she was married to the same man, theater director Samuel Rosen, for 49 years. She played many a patient, forbearing mother during her years on-screen, including that of John Garfield’s hotheaded boxer in Body and Soul and Montgomery Clift’s anguished social climber in A Place in the Sun. But when I’m floundering through the day-to-day trials of mothering, with its constant pendulum swings between pragmatism and the affirmation of folly, it’s Araminty Brown’s Zen wisdom in the attic I try to draw on: “Win or lose, it’s all the same. It’s how you take it that counts, and knowing when to let go, when to go on to the next thing … All in proper order at the proper time.”

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