Friday, December 5, 2008

The Rocking Horse Winner (1950)

I will start with the fact that I really did not like this film. It is based off a D.H. Lawrence short story, which I read ages ago, and wasn't super thrilled with the story. Given that, it is not a shock that I didn't quite enjoy the movie. Even though I didn't enjoy the movie, it was still interesting for certain parts, so we will touch on those points and then I will try to erase this one from memory.

Brilliant shot of Valerie Hobson with the shadow of her son trying to predict a winner

The story is about a young boy named Paul (John Howard Davies) whose family is in a financial crisis, despite being upper class, due to his mother's voracious appetite for money. His mother, Hester (Valerie Hobson), constantly spends on whatever she thinks she wants and isn't even remotely remorseful. She bluntly tells her husband that he simply must make more money despite the fact that he obviously has a well paying job as is. The story takes a strange turn when the children are given a rocking horse as a Christmas present. Paul senses his mother's unhappiness and understands that money is the only thing she really wants. Through his desire to make his mother happy, he discovers that if he rides this rocking horse long enough and hard enough, he comes up with the name of the winner of the local horse race. He confides this to their servant Bassett (John Mills) and soon the two are placing bets and making money off of Paul's revelations. The question becomes how long Paul can keep the secret and keep up the stressful pace required to have the winning horse names revealed to him.

The theme of consumer greed is very timely considering today's rampant desire to live beyond our means using credit that we can't pay back. I have a hard time understanding how such a beautiful woman with a loving family couldn't be happy with what she already had. At one point when faced with the obvious conclusion that they are in serious trouble she says, "We will scrimp and save and do all the ghastly things you say we must do." Exactly when did saving money become a ghastly chore?

The main reason I think this film really didn't work was the young boy. He was 10 or 11 when he did this film and I think it was too complex a role for him to handle. When he is in a conversational scene, he is fine, but the heavier scenes of him with his rocking horse consist of him widening his eyes in some poor display of the power the horse has over him. I just don't think he had the chops for the role so it didn't work for me.

The other problem is that this is a rather well known short story with a rather well known subtext. This is supposed to be an oedipal story about Paul's desire to become the bread winner to take the place of his father and "please" his mother. The scenes of him on the rocking horse are supposed to be of a sexual nature. In the movie, they ever so slightly hint at this and perhaps it is something that should be read and not seen. Watching the young boy on the horse, with the thought of what it should be in the back of my mind, completely creeped me out. Plus, they took several steps trying to sexualize the scenes of him including having him walk around with his pajama shirt wide open and riding the rocking horse with a crop. It is hard to explain if you haven't seen it, and perhaps I was over-reacting, but it just didn't feel quite right.

Having gone over what didn't work, I should mention a few things that did. I really enjoyed Valerie Hobson's performance as the selfish mother. She was incredibly beautiful in this, which I thought was odd since I didn't feel that way about her in "Great Expectations". The arc of her character is done well and despite her being the cause of the troubles, you feel sorry for her before the end of the movie.

I also really enjoyed John Mills performance as Bassett. So far, I haven't disliked anything that he has been in. I may have to seek out more of his movies to watch.

Lastly, my favorite scene is very short, but worth mentioning. Paul is being drawn up the stairs to the rocking horse and he pauses and looks out the window. The sky seems to be turning grey and threatening and the clouds form the shape of the heads of horses. I am impressed they pulled this off in 1950. It is kinda creepy and really perfect for setting the tone of the next scene.

Unless you are a huge fan of D.H. Lawrence or like mild horror movies, I have to regretfully suggest that you give this movie a pass. The interest factor of the odd story doesn't outweigh the pain/discomfort factor.

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