Casting is destiny, so pairing Myrna Loy with Robert Mitchum in John Steinbeck’s fine self-adaptation purports an unspoken romantic connection that shadows this boy-and-his-pony story. It proves a good thing, adding a note of prairie rue to the sub-text of Lewis Milestone’s handsome, slightly static film. Shepperd Strudwick, as the husband with one foot back in the city, plays reluctant outsider, even to his own son who’s drawn to Mitchum’s natural authority as the ranch-hand with all the answers. Hence, Dad’s gift of the pony which, this being Steinbeck country, leads to tough-love/life-and-death family lessons. Loy’s restraint as Mom, burying herself in chores, is a coping mechanism; her old dad (Lewis Calhern) gets by on his frontier memories, boring everyone with tales of ‘Westering.’ (And it helped Calhern in the real world with an offer to take over the role of Buffalo Bill in ANNIE GET YOUR GUN/’50 when Frank Morgan died.) Milestone also does nicely with the non-pro school pals of Peter Miles, the day-dreaming son. Miles himself has a few awkward line readings, but his look of constant expectation makes up for a lot. So does the look of the film in general. Tony Gaudio, the great Warners D.P., on his final credit, gives the production the supra-realism of a Norman Rockwell magazine cover come to life. (Excellent color & picture quality on the 'Olive' DVD.) Quite a change from our current fashion for no-holds-barred grubbiness. And it pays off excitingly in a climactic fight between the boy & a deadly turkey vulture, bringing out the silent film montage theorist in Milestone, a fast-edit bit of violence Hitchcock may have remembered when making PSYCHO/’60 and THE BIRDS/’63. Finally, there’s composer Aaron Copland, on his third film with Milestone, tying it all together with his great original score. (Said to be his personal favorite, it’s well served by Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony on an RCA disc of Copland film music.)
DOUBLE-BILL: Mitchum did a near practice run for this in RACHEL AND THE STRANGER/’48 with William Holden, Loretta Young . . . and his guitar. The man had a real set of pipes on him. For another boy-and-his-horse pic, it’s tough to beat WHITE MANE/’53, a five-reel masterpiece from Albert Lamorisse of RED BALLOON fame.