We’ll review it anyway
Jeff Arnold’s West is not really the place to review The Red Pony at all because a Western it ain’t, but still, it does have Robert Mitchum in a cowboy hat, it’s set on a ranch in California in some unspecified ‘olden times’, horses figure large, obviously, and well, why not?
It’s actually a slice of Americana, just occasionally a rather over-sugared slice but with enough darkness here and there to avoid indigestion.
Herb Yates, boss of Republic, had, well, I won’t say delusions of grandeur but he certainly dreamed of taking the studio upmarket, away from genre movies and into ‘films’. The Red Pony was thus conceived as a prestige project. It was to be shot in Technicolor with a $2m budget, it was to figure well-known leads, it would be written by John Steinbeck, no less, based on his own short stories, and it would have music by none other than Aaron Copland. Along with Orson Welles’s Macbeth, it was to show that Republic was more than just an outfit that did serials and B-Westerns.
The film stitched together several Steinbeck stories into one tale but, as I am sure you know, is essentially about a young boy, Tom (Peter Miles, nine at the time, very good in the part actually) who is given a little pony which, however, falls sick and dies.
Mitchum was happy to be loaned out by RKO to do the picture, for he was a lifelong admirer of Steinbeck. He was quite a star already, having done the likes of Story of GI Joe with William Wellman, Out of the Past with Jacques Tourneur and two excellent dark Westerns, Raoul Walsh’s Pursued and Robert Wise’s Blood on the Moon, among other impressive pictures. He plays Billy Buck, the ranch hand.
Mitchum would receive second-billing, however, to Myrna Loy. She was a seriously big star, having been a femme fatale in silent movies and then in the 1930s had a major success as Nora Charles in The Thin Man series, and she would be named Queen of the Movies (to Clark Gable’s king) by a poll of moviegoers. The Best Years of Our Lives in 1946 won Oscars and was a huge box-office hit, and Ms Loy was greatly in demand. She plays Alice, the wife of ranch owner Fred Tiflin (fourth-billed Shepperd Strudwick, “tall and aristocratic-looking with a sleepy-eyed handsomeness”, as the IMDb bio has it). Loy had actually grown up on a ranch, in Montana, but she comes across, I think anyway, as a grande dame, rather too dignified and posh to be a farmer’s wife on a slightly run-down homestead.
In fact Lee Server, in his entertaining bio of Mitchum Baby, I Don’t Care, says that Loy was impervious to Bob’s usual ribald remarks and practical jokes on the set, humor which disconcerted so many actresses. Mitchum could not break down her wall of superiority at all, and she deflated him with her poise and withering gaze, though she herself later said, “Robert Mitchum was a devil. He just about tortured me with his pranks during shooting.” So maybe she wasn’t all that imperturbable after all.
In front of the cameras Mitchum was at his restrained best, or worst, depending how you look at it. Bosley Crowther in his New York Times review said, “Robert Mitchum is strangely laconic—too much so” but laconic is putting it mildly. He positively sleepwalks through the part, as he was wont to do (though when he sparked he could be electrifying). His character is detached and almost heartless in the way that he steals the affections of Tom from his decent father and rather cruelly promises the lad more than he can deliver as far as keeping his pony alive is concerned.
The best actor on the set, by far, was Louis Calhern, looking like Buffalo Bill, as Tom’s old grandfather, an essentially sad character, an old frontiersman from the pioneer days who bores everyone with his oft-repeated yarns, and has to cope with rejection when he is finally told so. Calhern was a superb actor.
Actually, while the picture is, on the surface, a bucolic family film with children and animals, it does definitely have a darker side. The opening scene shows the audience (which must have included many infants and moms) a collection of cuddly critters, a barn owl, an adorable mongrel, a sweet little bunny rabbit, and we all think we’re in Disneyland or somewhere close to that domain, when suddenly the owl swoops on the rabbit, we hear a terrified squeak and although it’s discreetly done off-camera, we are left in no doubt that the late rabbit has become lunch. This sets the tone. Yes, there are cheery episodes of some idyllic imagined American rural life, and young Tom dreams humorously of being a circus ringmaster and Arthurian knight, but there are also moments of anguish and even despair. Tom’s parents are on the verge of separation. Billy Buck is not the omniscient and loving father-figure after all. The other children, Tom’s schoolfriends (Beau Bridges is one), are actually rather mean and nasty.
The picture was directed by Lewis Milestone, who also got a producer credit, though the executive producer was Charles K Feldman. Milestone, raised in Odessa, Ukraine, came to the US in 1914 with $6 in his pocket, started in the movies as an assistant cutter, became an editor, assistant director and writer, and as director would receive two Academy Awards, the second for what many regard as his finest work, the 1930 version of All Quiet on the Western Front. When Universal boss Carl Laemmle Jr demanded “a happy ending” to that, Milestone telephoned witheringly, “I’ve got your happy ending. We’ll let the Germans win the war”. He had already helmed a Steinbeck film, Of Mice and Men, in 1939.
Feldman would become famous in the 1950s for A Streetcar Named Desire and The Seven Year Itch but in the fall of 1942 he’d produced the quite successful Pittsburgh, a picture which reunited Marlene Dietrich, John Wayne and Randolph Scott after their success in The Spoilers earlier the same year.
The Red Pony didn’t get rave reviews. The New York Times said, “[T]he story does ramble, and its several interlaced strands are often permitted to dangle or get lost in the leisurely account. An extraneous family situation involving the youngster’s Ma and Pa, wherein the father has trouble with his ego, likewise confuses the plot. In directing the picture, Mr. Milestone has adopted a frankly casual style which further invests the proceedings with a languid quality.”
But it was popular and indeed many people still love this film.