Sunday 3 February 2008

The Red Pony (1949)

Republic Studios were home to no end of low budget pictures and I know them well from their horror/sci-fi/detective films of the thirties and forties. Yet here they are with a western. They made many of these too, similarly low budget westerns with singing cowboys like Gene Autry, but this one's of a higher level. It's directed by no less a name than Lewis Milestone and starring no lesser actors than Myrna Loy, Robert Mitchum, Louis Calhern and Margaret Hamilton. While we're talking names we should also mention the source material, which is a novel by John Steinbeck and indeed Steinbeck also wrote the screenplay. From a 2008 perspective it begins hokily with overly vivid technicolor but soon settles in.

We're out west on a homestead and there's a ranchhand called Shane that the young boy of the household idolises. Actually, there's nobody here called Shane but there sure seems like there is. Robert Mitchum plays Billy Buck, a very Shane-like ranchhand who's quiet, capable and omnipresent, and young Mr Big Britches, more formally Tom Tiflin, thinks he's the best thing since sliced bread, even though there's no actual tension to work with. This is the one and only homestead in the west that doesn't have to worry about anyone or anything except those inside it. Tom's parents, Alice and Fred, played capably by Myrna Loy and Shepperd Strudwick, really aren't that important in the grand scheme of things to the pair of them. Our story revolves around the fantasies conjured up within young Tom's imagination.

Depending on how you look at it, this is either a really focused slice of period life, with all its high and low points, or there's very little here. It feels like the sort of film you could settle down and live with, and watch over and over again, getting on good terms with. The characterisations all ring very true and I'd guess that there's probably a good deal of depth that could resonate more over the years with every increase in background knowledge of the history of the era.

The nostalgia isn't just going to be to the time in which the film is set but in the previous generation also. There's a lot of interplay between three generations: the current one is Alice, Fred and Billy Buck; the coming one is Tom and his friends who get very little screen time; and there's a previous one too in the form of Louis Calhern, who I didn't recognise at all under those big whiskers. He's full of stories about travelling across the plains and fighting Indians and runs through the same old stories over and over. Fred especially doesn't want to hear another one but of course young Tom is all ears.

Outside of characterisations and interest in nostalgia, anyone who might just be looking for a story isn't going to find much at all. Tom wants a pony, Tom gets a pony, Tom loses a pony, Tom gets another pony. The plot is really nothing, it's all about what it all means to Tom and how it contributes to his coming of age. No wonder one of the recommended films at the bottom of the page on IMDb is A Christmas Story. It's the same film really, in a completely different setting, with the red pony taking the place of the BB gun.

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