The Red Pony
d. Lewis Milestone / 1949 / USA / 89 mins
Realistically, The Red Pony should have been an all-time classic. It’s based on a fondly-remembered (and still widely taught) collection of stories by John Steinbeck, it had a cast led by Robert Mitchum and Myrna Loy, a stirring score produced by Aaron Copland on the back of his most productive decade, and was shot in Technicolor by dual-Oscar winner Lewis Milestone. Having been in development for close to a decade, Milestone and Steinbeck took their project to Poverty Row studio Republic Pictures, who were attempting to break away from their reputation for Westerns and B-movies and into the long-flagging prestige picture business previously dominated by MGM and Selznick.
In fact, Republic strived to increase their standing with a trio of films in the late 1940s. The company’s ill-fated involvement in Orson Welles’ rendition of Macbeth (1948) was perhaps the only true prestige effort, but it was widely considered to have been mishandled at the time, both by Welles and by Republic during their tentative exhibition strategy. Prestige perhaps by name, rather than nature, neither of the other two titles really stepped away from Republic’s generic roots, with Frank Borzage’s high-minded but pulpy Southern noir, Moonrise (1948), meeting with mixed results, whilst The Red Pony itself seemed shackled by Republic’s strong connection with westerns.
Indeed, The Red Pony became something of a white elephant for Republic: their most expensive shoot ever was completed in August 1947, but the film was shelved for a further eighteen months. Even so, given the relative failures of Macbeth and Moonrise, Republic were understandably keen to see The Red Pony succeed.
Critically, at least, it seemed to struggle. Bosley Crowther, writing in the New York Times, regarded its translation of Steinbeck’s prose as having been ‘sought with considerable sincerity but indifferent dramatic success’, later adding that ‘unfortunately, the story does ramble, and its several interlaced strands are often permitted to dangle or get lost in the leisurely account’. Back in Hollywood, Variety were similarly unimpressed, with the film’s ’emotional complexities’ regarded as ‘slack-paced and sketchily drawn’, adding that whilst the actors in minor roles were compelled to ‘go through some pretty tedious bits of business, script and direction are undoubtedly more at fault than their thesbing efforts’.
The Republic accountants, at least, might have been slightly more comfortable with the dual decision to shoot on location with the expensive Technicolor process, with Crowther praising ‘the beauty and favor of all outdoors, which appears to particular advantage in the Technicolor used.’ Indeed, Republic’s desire to use The Red Pony to raise its worth amongst filmgoers around the world did seem to gain some qualified success, particularly amongst the more amiable critics in the fly-over states (as well as critics overseas, including Australia, where The Sunday Herald considered it to be ‘a good contender in Republic’s current bid to lift itself out of the B-grade studio class’).
Today, The Red Pony just feels flat, sentimental and a little trite, coming across as little more than another of the ‘boy and his horse’ junior westerns so beloved of the B-studios in the days immediately before television. In fact, despite the involvement of Mitchum, Loy, Copland, Milestone and Steinbeck, the general lack of acclaim which has been afforded The Red Pony in the intervening years is perhaps an indication that Republic were never really destined to outgrow their Poverty Row status.
The original trailer for The Red Pony (from TCM.com):
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