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MGM purchased the rights to National Velvet in 1939, and Elizabeth Taylor knew she had to play the lead in her favorite book.
Director Clarence Brown said, “What impressed me most with regard to Elizabeth was her absolute conviction that the picture would be made and would provide a vehicle for her eventual stardom.”
And she was right. The film was a hit for MGM and earned two Academy Award nominations. Years later, Taylor consider this film and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as her best performances.
1. Taylor wooed the director.
Taylor worked with Director Clarence Brown in The White Cliffs of Dover. Afterward, Taylor kept in touch with the director by sending a Valentine’s Day card and a handmade birthday card with a poem. The director, of course, knew she wanted the lead in the next film he was doing, National Velvet. The studio wasn’t convinced that Taylor was right for the part at first, however, and at one point, Katharine Hepburn was considered for the lead.
2. Lansbury influenced Taylor.
Angela Lansbury played Taylor’s older sister in National Velvet. While the two of them weren’t close on the set, Elizabeth would sometimes visit Lansbury in her dressing room and watch her get ready. Coming from a theater background, Lansbury applied her own makeup, rather than use a makeup artist, which allowed her to have control over her appearance. “[In] later years I heard [Taylor], too, started doing her own makeup for the screen. It pleased me to think I might have served her as a positive influence,” Lansbury said.
3. Taylor’s brother makes an appearance.
Elizabeth Taylor’s mother, Sara, was an especially influential person in her professional career and helped her pursue parts, including National Velvet. Sara also wanted her son, Howard, to act, but he sabotaged his screen test at MGM by shaving his head. Nevertheless, Howard does have a cameo in National Velvet as one of the schoolboys.
4. Taylor got the horse.
Elizabeth Taylor began riding when she was three in England and enjoyed spending her time with horses. She was especially fond of her co-star, a horse named King Charles. After she continually asked for the horse, Producer Pandro Berman convinced Louis Mayer to let her have it. Berman said, “She was the happiest kid I saw.” Years later, now an established star, Taylor joked with Berman that was still paying for the horse’s upkeep.
5. Spencer Tracy was almost cast.
Tracy was considered for the part of Taylor’s father, Mr. Brown. When negotiations fell through, Donald Crisp took the part. However, Tracy went on to play Taylor’s father years later in Father of the Bride and Father’s Little Dividend. Speaking about him, Taylor said, "He could play anything, any role and he just drew you in."