Red Pony, The (1949)

“You can’t know life unless you know death; it’s all part of one thing.”

Synopsis:
When a teacher-turned-rancher (Shepperd Strudwick) gives his son Tom (Peter Miles) a red pony named Gabilan, Tom turns to their ranch hand (Robert Mitchum) for support and advice. Meanwhile, Strudwick’s wife’s (Myrna Loy) garrulous father (Louis Calhern) won’t stop talking about his exploits on the Oregon Trail, leading Strudwick to leave their home for awhile as further drama unfolds with Gabilan.

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Review:
John Steinbeck wrote the screenplay for this adaptation of his own episodic novella, produced by Republic Pictures Studio and featuring a vivid soundtrack by Aaron Copland. The Technicolor cinematography (by Tony Gaudio) is superb, and the story nicely ambles through an unconventional tale of a boy and his beloved animal — akin to, but less sentimental than, The Yearling (1946). Steinbeck fills his screenplay with unexpected characters and twists; we never really understand what makes Strudwick tick the way he does, but the point is that his son’s development and coming of age will continue regardless, assisted by the other influential men in his household. Ultimately, this is a story about a young boy learning to make some sort of peace with the challenges of life, which range from schoolmates teasing him to accepting the limits of human intervention in animals’ well-being.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Peter Miles as Tom
  • Louis Calhern as Grandfather
  • Atmospheric Technicolor cinematography

  • Aaron Copland’s score

Must See?
Yes, as a fine adaptation.

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One Response to “Red Pony, The (1949)”

  1. First viewing. Agreed – a once-must, as a fine adaptation, and as a prime example of solid classic filmmaking. As per my post in ‘The ’40s-’50s in Film’ (fb):

    “…Mine?”

    ‘The Red Pony’ (1949; film link in comments): Since I just finished reading Steinbeck’s book, I jumped right into this film version – a refreshingly faithful adaptation (but perhaps that’s no surprise since Steinbeck handled it himself). The original novella consists of four inter-related stories concerned with a ranch family in California. The film eliminates the least-important story #2, wisely beefs up the central character of story #4 and reworks certain specifics of story #3, to make them less terrorizing. And that’s fine – because some of the specifics of story #1 are already violent enough… and they are shown on-screen as such. (That sequence – which comes near the film’s end – is a marvel of editing and bird-handling, but it could still easily have made audiences in 1949 squeamish. I also wouldn’t be surprised if Hitchcock watched the scene when preparing ‘The Birds’.)

    There’s terrific camerawork by Tony Gaudio (who filmed a number of Bette Davis classics, including ‘The Letter’) and a fine score by Aaron Copland. Director Lewis Milestone had directed the film of ‘Of Mice and Men’ ten years earlier – and here seems particularly sensitive to Steinbeck’s intent and tone, and to the specific rhythms of these characters: to me, they felt sharply similar to the ones I met in the book. Therefore, expect very restrained. earnest performances by Myrna Loy. Robert Mitchum, Shepperd Strudwick and Louis Calhern. (Margaret Hamilton appears briefly as a no-nonsense – of course – schoolmarm, and you’ll spot a 7-year-old Beau Bridges.) You’ll also witness a thankfully natural performance given by young Peter Miles – who did not go on to a significant film career but became a novelist; one of his books was the basis for Robert Altman’s psycho-sexual ‘That Cold Day in the Park’ (!).

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