Elizabeth Taylor and National Velvet

By Walter Donohue | January 26, 2010
Elizabeth Taylor Elizabeth Taylor and friend in National Velvet

On the 66th anniversary of the release of National Velvet, Faber & Faber’s Walter Donohue presents an extract from How to Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood detailing how the young star literally grew into her breakthrough role.

Elizabeth Taylor and friend in National Velvet

By: Joe Blow

Elizabeth Taylor and friend in National Velvet

In How to Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood, his biography of Elizabeth Taylor, William J. Mann recounts the determination of Elizabeth's mother Sara for her to be cast in the lead role in National Velvet:

"In June 1943 Pandro Bergman took over from Mervyn LeRoy as the Velvet producer. Berman made it clear to the film's director Clarence Brown that he felt that Elizabeth was too small to play a teenage girl who passes herself off as a young man. Sara refused to be deterred by such a trivial matter as her daughter's height. With school out for the summer, the Taylor females had plenty of time on their hands to strategize. Berman was Obstacle Number One. He was an efficient filmmaker who'd begun his career at RKO, where he'd paired Ginger Rogers with Fred Astaire and turned Katharine Hepburn into a star. Arriving at MGM, he'd quickly distinguished himself with Ziegfield Girl, and in a bit of inspired casting, teamed Lana Turner with Clark Gable in Honky Tonk. This was a man who knew how to make successful movies. If Berman thought an actress was wrong for a part, she probably was.

But then there was Sara, always righter than anyone. In early July she arranged a meeting with Berman. Sitting across from his desk she calmly and carefully made her case. None of the other young girls at MGM could be as convincingly English as Elizabeth. None could ride horses as well. To prepare for the part, Elizabeth had been riding an hour and a half every morning at the studio's stables. The little actress, in a red bow and blue dress, sat there nodding and smiling.

Berman was amused by Sara's superciliousness. But he wasn't swayed. Asking Elizabeth to stand, he measured her against the wall, drawing a little pencil mark over the top of her head. Moving his hand up several inches, he told mother and daughter that Velvet Brown needed to stand at least that tall. Unless Elizabeth suddenly sprouted over the summer, he insisted, she would not be in National Velvet.

At least that's the way Sara and Elizabeth told the story. And there's likely some truth to it, because in The White Cliffs of Dover, Elizabeth does appear too small, too doll-like, to play the plucky Velvet Brown. Yet Berman was far too canny a producer to utterly dismiss out of hand the one girl on the lot who seemed to fit the bill on so many counts.

Still the Taylors took no chances. Elizabeth, almost certainly, really did embark on a campaign that summer to “grow” the required three inches or so. “There was this place Tip's,” she remembered, “where they had a thing called a Farm Breakfast – two hamburger patties, two fried eggs, a great mound of hashed brown potatoes and after that a whole bunch of dollar pancakes. I used to have two Farm Breakfasts every morning at one sitting.”

Of course, all those calories were more likely to make her grow three inches wider instead of taller, and certainly Sara was not going to be a party to that. If she encouraged Elizabeth's appetite, it was simply because she never denied her precious child any kind of instant gratification – and Elizabeth had always loved to eat.

Children often grow in spurts at Elizabeth's age, so maybe it's true that she really did grow those three inches that summer. More likely, Berman simply decided that clever costuming and lifts in Elizabeth's shoes were easier than teaching another girl to ride or put on truly English airs. There was also the fact that, after seeing a screen test of Elizabeth shot by director Fred Zinnemann, both he and Clarence Brown were convinced that “something quite magical happened between Elizabeth and the camera.”

On a day in late September, Sara was summoned to Berman's office and informed that Elizabeth had gotten the part. She burst into tears. Elizabeth clasped her hands and, in a loud voice – inspired no doubt by her mother's Christian Science – thanked God for making it happen. “This is MGM,” Berman informed the young suppliant, “not Lourdes.” "

Extract taken from How To Be A Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood by William J. Mann (Faber & Faber, 2009).

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