The Red Pony (1949)

LEWIS MILESTONE

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB

USA, 1949. , , .  Screenplay by , based on his novel. Cinematography by . Produced by Lewis Milestone. Music by . Production Design by . Costume Design by . Film Editing by .

This genuinely warm and heartfelt film is among the most sincere works that director Lewis Milestone ever made, an obvious attempt to cash in on the trend of family-oriented rural dramas of the forties (The Yearling, National Velvet and, though we hate to remember it, the very successful Song of the South) but one that stands as a worthy entry among them.

plays a young boy on a California ranch whose reaction to the tense marital difficulties between mother and father is to find refuge in the surrogate paternal care of ranch hand . When the boy’s father gifts him a pony, Mitchum guides the young man through the responsibilities that go alongside the fun aspects of having so beautiful and grand a pet, but the pony’s luck turns dark and it takes ill, and its recovery is integral to not only the young man’s faith in his mentor but the happiness of his parents as well.

Subtle details of human interaction carefully tiptoe around the gentle tale of boy and beast, including the frustrations of his father who longs to return to his life in San Jose, his mother who wants to maintain her discipline over her son but also wonders at the wisdom of shielding him from life’s harsh realities, and his grandfather () who is having to face the truth that his glorious past will never return.

Every frame is a work of Technicolor beauty in this charmer that jerks a few tears but also teaches a bracing message about free will and learning to accept the consequences of one’s choices (teaching your pony amazing tricks to impress people means accepting that the animal can get itself into quite a bit of trouble).

A restrained and dignified sense of joy in the film’s conclusion equals the emotionally intelligent performances: Loy is confident in her grace in every scene and brings a great deal more than just character-stock maternity to a part that doesn’t give her much on the page, while Mitchum has a sexy confidence that radiates goodness despite his spending most of his time on camera without dialogue to deliver.

The cast of youngsters, which include an eight year-old , fare just as well, with Miles never stepping into the worst cliches of child star acting, eliciting our sympathy when his young mind understandably holds his beloved friend responsible for the things that nature does without anyone’s approval.

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