Saturday, April 30, 2011

THE ROCKING HORSE WINNER (1949) Dir: Anthony Pelissier

What I Remember:

Based on a story by D.H. Lawrence, I recall this movie as a kind of Twilight Zone episode, only longer, more British, and without a major plot twist. It was kind of like the “Franklin” episode of the Zone, where a slot machine takes on a personality as it calls the newly gambling addict like a siren, luring him to a plunge from a Vegas high-rise hotel window.

In the case of “The Rocking Horse Winner”, a lower income English household is in trouble, and their child hears the house itself demanding money. He gets on his Rocking Horse, and suddenly finds that riding the horse very hard causes him to predict the winners at the local track. If that ever happened to me, my family would have probably taken me out of school on the spot, installed a TV on the horse’s nose, and had Lutece cater all my meals while I rocked away all day and night. “Sleep? There’s time for sleep later, Wayne. Now get on that damn horse and tell me the Exacta winners from the 4th at Aqueduct!”

So right now you’re thinking, “Oh, that Wayne. Exaggerating again for comic effect”. Not this time, bub.
Example 1; Most people have grandparents who break their hip in a fall, and that usually is their undoing. Sadly, this was true for my wonderful Grandma Pearl. However, Pearl slipped and fell running to the cashier at Belmont after she nailed a longshot in the 2nd race.
Example 2; The other side of my family lived at the track also. There is actually a room at Monmouth Racetrack in New Jersey named after my Grandfather. When told of this honor, he responded by saying, “All the money I lost at this track- they should name the whole damn place after me!”

Anyway, my college girlfriend and I were sitting at her place relaxing with the TV on, and this movie came on Public Televison. She literally jumped up, and said, “I love this movie. We have to watch it!”. Remember, I was a film major, and I went “Oh great. Some precious British kid’s film with a ‘40’s version of Hayley Mills and a rocking horse. Just how I want to spend my night. Aren’t the White Sox on or something?”

On the inside, of course.

On the outside it was, “Sounds great, baby.” Needless to say, the movie completely shocked and surprised me, in a very positive way. This was no Disney does Darby. It’s a serious film about child abuse and neglect, and an allegory about how parents can exploit a child with talent to the child’s detriment.

After re-watching:

“Don’t send me away till after the Darby! Please Mommy, please Mommy, please!” – Paul Grahame


The Grahames are an Upper Middle Class family who are running out of money. Mrs. Grahame spends like there’s no tomorrow, and Mr. Grahame gambles at cards to try and generate enough to handle her needs. They have 3 children, the oldest of whom, Paul, is a happy young boy who strikes up a friendship with their landscaper/handyman, Bassett (John Mills). Mrs. Grahame’s brother, Oscar, is well off, and is also her trustee. He has helped them many times, but is running out of patience. Mrs. Grahame’s mantra, “we must get more money” becomes part of Paul’s unconscious, until he believes the house itself is saying it. His new Christmas present is a Rocking Horse that he rides with intensity, believing it will bring him the luck his parents don’t have. With Bassett, he begins to pick the winners at the track, and rides until the inspiration hits him. Uncle Oscar gets in on the deal, and takes his winnings to replenish his sister’s money, telling the family it’s trust disbursement. Soon the luck runs out and Paul becomes desperate, riding his rocking horse maniacally.


Wow, did I have this one wrong! The parents are not lower class, and they are totally in the dark about the boy’s special talent. They don’t even really know where the new money is coming from. It seems like they don’t care to know. They are simply ready to spend and live extravagantly without asking questions. Just now, it occurs to me that if there’s an allegory here, it’s to today’s USA. Spend, borrow, spend more. Live the high life, don’t ask questions until the collection agent shows up expecting a payback. Then the excrement hits the propeller. It’s an endorsement of the Protestant ethic, for sure.

Nobody realizes that Paul is destroying himself with his maniacal riding except maybe the nanny, who is worried initially, but later seems to lose track. The Mother is totally oblivious, then out of nowhere, gets this sixth sense that something is very wrong with Paul. It’s very hard to believe, and is a pretty huge flaw. The Father is a real nothing in this movie, he ignores the children, and is obviously a failure at providing for the family.

Is there a villain in “Rocking Horse Winner”? Maybe the horse itself, but it’s not Uncle Oscar, who despite being snarky and brusque, genuinely tries to help. It’s not Bassett, who is a lower class nice guy, with a real code of honor. The parents are products of their upbringing, spoiled, yes, but not malicious. The real enemy is greed, just like it is today in the good old U S of A.

The moral of the story? Greed kills. Money is the root of all evil. Check in on your kids once in a while.

To wit, there’s a great scene early on, where the mother puts her children to bed, and she remarks to the father that it was so easy, and she has no idea why Nanny complains about how hard it is all the time. Meanwhile, we cut upstairs to the previously placid bedrooms, now with mayhem breaking out. She has NO CLUE about her own children, because she is obviously so self-involved.

On a side note, there is an awful scene which I had no memory of, and it might have been cut from the version I saw. Trust me, if I’d seen it, I would have remembered it. Mrs. Grahame, faced with the prospect of having a bill collector stay in her home unless she produces 40£ to pay him off, goes to a ghetto neighborhood to sell some of her expensive clothes to a tailor. The tailor, a Mr. Tsaldouris, is obviously Jewish, despite the name. He has a Central European accent, acts and looks the part with coke bottle glasses, carrying a dog around in his dank tailor shop. And he’s a tailor. After they “hondel” (bargain) they settle on a price that gets her to the amount she needs, only if she throws in the expensive bag that she is carrying the clothes in. When he pays her, he asks, “Aren’t you going to count it?” She replies, “No, Mr. Tsaldouris, I trust you”. In that one sentence, she puts him down so thoroughly, and elevates herself. It is classic Brit Anti-Semitism. Only four years after the war. It made me almost as sick as Watto, that huge nosed flying Jew-bug in The Phantom Menace episode of Star Wars, who sells Annakin’s mother into the slave trade, explaining that “Business is business”, with a buggy shrug.

Fuck you, Lucas. You haven’t made a decent movie since “The Empire Strikes Back”. Man, that felt good.


I had never heard of Anthony Pelissier, and with good reason. Nothing else that shows up on IMDB is well known. Mr. Pelissier both directed and did the screenplay adaptation of “Rocking Horse Winner”. The screenplay has its moments, and I’m sure Mr. Lawrence supplied much of them. The Direction is ambitious, and often succeeds. There are great Noir-ish lighting stunts, and the horse itself looks exceptionally demonic at times.

Probably my favorite moments are;
1) The first time we see Paul on the horse, it cuts from the children cowering in the corner watching him, to Paul’s POV while riding. The camera tracks in and out very fast on a fuzzy, filtered vision of the mother and Nanny. You can see that he is in another world, and that the reality of his room is like a separate dimension. It’s very effective.
2) When Mrs. Grahame finally gets the mental idea that something is terribly wrong, and she rushes home to find Paul on the horse, she opens the door, and there is a remarkable shot of her head in the lower right corner of the screen, while the rest of the box is filled with the giant shadow of Paul on the rocking horse. Yes, I am sure Mr. Pelissier was familiar with the works of Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock.

Music is used very dramatically throughout the film, and the score by William Alwyn is powerful, indeed. Mr. Alwyn also wrote for the great wartime documentary “Fires Were Started”, and Carol Reed’s two lesser-known masterpieces “Odd Man Out” and “Fallen Idol”. This is interesting, since Pelissier’s ex-wife remarried Reed! The score is typical, but much of the tension in the movie is provided by its presence in scenes that otherwise would seem quite mundane.


John Mills, who played Bassett, also produced the film, and he is very convincing in the role as the slightly dim but good-hearted handyman. Paul is played by John Howard Davies, a child actor who had two other quite meaty roles as Oliver Twist and Tom Brown in “Tom Brown’s Schooldays”. Davies had a short career as a young actor, but a very long one as a TV director, including helming many episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and more importantly, directing the greatest sitcom of ALL TIME, “Fawlty Towers”. When I read that little factoid, I decided not to trash him for being way over the top in “The Rocking Horse Winner”. Actually, he is only slightly over the top. The kid who plays Phillipe in “Fallen Idol” (Bobby Henrey) does a better job, but frankly that film is far superior to this one.

Ronald Squire as Uncle Oscar does a decent job of delivering his sarcastic dialogue, but he looks decades older than his sister. In fact, IMDB research revealed that he was indeed 30 years senior to co-star Valerie Hobson, who played Hester Grahame. Hobson had had two very big roles to her credit at the point this film was made; as the adult Estella in “Great Expectations”, and Edith D’Ascoyne in “Kind Hearts and Coronets”. Her performance in this film is fairly shallow, even at the end when she is transformed, the character lacks depth and personality. We take for granted how terrific British actors are, so when they are a bit substandard it really can undermine a film.


This was not the film I remembered both in substance AND in quality. There are some fine moments in imagery and sound, but the poor acting and shallow characters take away from the power of the film. We’ve seen this kind of story many times in Twilight Zone, so the novelty of it, which must have been quite compelling in 1949, has little to no effect on us now. In any case, if I had been on the fence about “The Rocking Horse Winner”, that little trip to the London shtetl pushed me off of it.

1st Look-★★★1/2 2nd Look-★★

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