In the coast range mountains on the western edge of the Salinas Valley is a ranch where Tom, a lad of about ten, longs for a pony. He lives with his mom, who was born there, her dad, a talkative pioneer who misses the old West, Tom's dad Fred Tiflin, who comes from the city and after years on the ranch doesn't feel at home there, and Billy, their trusted hand, a real cowboy. While Fred has to sort out whether he wants to stay a rancher and come to terms with his son being closer to Billy than to himself, Tom gets a pony and learns directly about responsibility and loss. What lessons can each learn, and are tragedy and hard choices all that life offers? Are laughter and joy anywhere? Written by
A Modest, Worthwhile Steinbeck-Penned Tale with a Powerful Copland Score and a Grade-A Cast
The most truly American of classical composers, Aaron Copland's stirring music score is what still resonates most in this almost forgotten 1949 film, even though it boasts an impressive pedigree - a screenplay by John Steinbeck based on his own collection of short stories, direction from film veteran Lewis Milestone ("All Quiet on the Western Front", Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men"), and A-list stars in Robert Mitchum and Myrna Loy. It was the most expensive picture ever made at Republic Studios, a poverty-row operation that was kept afloat thanks to a successful string of John Wayne westerns. On the surface, the movie seems like kid-friendly fare, but it also presents some interesting psychological subtext on the family unit and a surprisingly graphic scene that triggers the story's climax.
The story focuses on a young boy named Tom Tiflin, who lives with his parents on a ranch in the Salinas Valley. His no-nonsense mother Alice was raised in the area, but his emotionally indifferent father Fred comes from San Jose and has never felt at home despite spending years on the ranch. On a long-term visit to the ranch, Alice's father is an old coot who repeats the same stories about the old West much to the consternation of Fred. Moreover, Fred's constantly conflicted state has pushed Tom closer to devoted ranch hand Billy Buck. Family tensions give way to a red pony, Fred's present to Tom. Naturally, the boy focuses his full attention on the pony, even cutting class to take care of it after it ambled outside during a heavy rainstorm. The rest of the story plays the way one would expect from a parable about personal obligations and coping with tragedy. Milestone lends a painterly quality to the proceedings, but he doesn't delve deeply into the characters' motivations. This was probably an intentional decision since the picture seems designed to be more of a Disney-type live-action film. The superficial treatment, however, leaves some aspects of the story oddly unexplained.
The resulting lapse leaves the actors to fill in the blanks. Even in a sketchily written role like Billy, Mitchum exudes his famously coiled presence in the face of a character that seems too good to be true. Stripped of her sophisticated charms, a ghostly-looking Loy lends a stoic dignity to Alice that gives just a small glimpse into the marital struggles her character is obviously facing. A year away from playing his archetypal role of Oliver Wendell Holmes in "The Magnificent Yankee", Louis Calhern brings bluster and unexpected poignancy to the grandfather. As Fred, Steinbeck look-alike Shepperd Strudwick does the best he can in a relatively thankless role. Nine-year-old Peter Miles is generally affecting as Tom, though he can't seem to get past the boy's obsession into something more moving. That is indeed the Wicked Witch of the West, Margaret Hamilton, playing a minor role as Tom's perturbed schoolteacher. As noted with Loy's appearance, the color seems sadly faded in the print housed in the 2003 DVD, and unfortunately there are no extras offered - a true shame considering the talent involved.
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