D.H. Lawrence’s The Rocking-Horse Winner, first published in 1925, is an intriguing short story, not least because it has elements of form and content which might not be expected from the celebrated analyst of social class and sexual and emotional intimacy.
For instance, Lawrence used several of the tropes of fairy-tale, or perhaps parable, in his narrative. He opens with, “There was a woman who was beautiful” and continues “there was a boy and two little girls”. The boy appears to have magical, or supernatural powers, which allow him to gain great financial riches, albeit not through classic devices of physical combat or exploration, but through the more prosaic 20th century practice of betting on the results of horse races. The family lives in a house which itself seems to be alive, frequently whispering to all its residents for more money. More personal details about his characters are revealed only slowly.
A story by D.H. Lawrence seems an unlikely source for a horror film, but Anthony Pelissier’s 1949 film version does bear similarities with a couple of classics from the genre of that period. First, with the Ealing Studios compendium Dead of Night, where one story features rooms in a family home which are haunted by a dead child, another where a malevolent mirror transfers the evils of its previous home to its new modern sophisticated owner, and, more peripherally, two others have sports backgrounds! Second, with Victor Fleming’s version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, where some of its rather Freudian scenes representing Hyde’s animal appetites seem to have influenced Pelissier in his depictions of Paul’s adolescent physical efforts to bring to mind the name of a money-winning horse.
Lawrence is critical of the materialism of Paul’s middle-class parents and, in general, of people living beyond their means. This couple “lived in style” but “there was never enough money”. The desire for wealth and possessions and status saturates the home – so that “the children could hear it all the time though nobody said it aloud”. The mother’s greed psychologically damages her young son who is determined to gain money (through luck, not work) in order to help his parents.
Paul makes an astonishing amount of money by predicting successfully the winners of horse races. Half-way through the story Lawrence mentions winnings of £10,000, the equivalent of half a million pounds in today’s money. Where does Paul’s success come from? Perhaps he has inherited it: his Uncle Oscar is clearly very interested in horse racing and bets frequently, his mother says hers was “a gambling family” which suggests the habit goes back at least to her own father. Paul says only that God has told him he is lucky.
So Lawrence seems to hint that Paul’s success in gambling is some kind of spiritual gift. Possibly to underline how the selfish materialism of parents like his leads them to fail to notice or understand their children’s qualities and interests and talents. Religious imagery is frequently used. When Paul’s ally, the young gardener Bassett, talks about the boy’s betting practice, he “was serious as a church…as if he were speaking of religious matters” and explains that Paul gets his betting tips “as if he had it from heaven”. When Paul dies prematurely, Uncle Oscar seems to acknowledge he has gifts from God which have been abused: “a poor devil… (who’s) best gone out of a life where he rides his rocking-horse to find a winner.”
Paul introduces the idea of money and luck to his mother “vaguely” and “timidly”, but his behaviour in putting his vision into practice is, in contrast, intense and driven and disturbing. He is described as “in agony” when trying to identify the winner of the Lincoln Handicap, presumably akin to Christ’s agony in Gethsemane. He rides his wooden rocking-horse “madly” and “wildly” and in “a frenzy”; his eyes show a “strange glare” as he slashes at it with a whip, a gesture which hints at capacity for violence and an incipient sexual energy. His mother observes the incongruity anxiously: “You’re not a very little boy any longer, you know”.
Other sexual undertones could be interpreted in a description like “his sturdy long legs straddling apart” or in Paul’s statement “I got there…where I wanted to go”. Pelissier’s film certainly follows this line, through close ups, sweeping camera, low angle shots, dark shadows, staring eyes and clashing music. In Paul’s final night-time encounter with the rocking-horse which helps him identify the winner of the Derby, his hair is damp against his forehead, his pyjama jacket is open and his chest is bare.
Pelissier characterises Uncle Oscar, as played by Ronald Squire, as pleasant and supportive but roguish, and inherently as selfish as his sister and brother-in-law. Lawrence’s minor character of Bassett is aged and expanded in the film to exploit the casting of John Mills. Mills usually played characters of integrity and he does so here, as a disabled working-class war veteran who looks after Paul’s winnings and is never tempted to steal any. However, at the end, he shares guilt and regret for Paul’s death. Paul’s mother wants Bassett to burn the banknotes which she sees as “blood money” but Bassett determines to take it to the family solicitor so that the money which “cost (a life) …might (now) be able to save a few lives”.
Although Lawrence’s narrative method is spare, he does include some period domestic details. The father’s workplace is described dismissively as “some office” (probably the character’s view of his work rather than Lawrence’s). The mother does show enterprise and initiative on occasions, such as her venture as a commercial artist. Each parent earns or has inherited some money “but not nearly enough for the social position which they had to keep up”, which is perhaps why the employment of servants has to be “discreet”, since they might have to be dismissed prematurely. The film adds some additional scenes: a debt collector visits unexpectedly so Paul’s mother has to rush off to a pawn broker in a shabby part of the nearest town to raise some money by selling her things.
The film’s closing image of the “funeral pyre” of the burning rocking horse seems to want to leave the audience with the idea that the toy has been the primary cause of the disruption in the family, rather like the haunted mirror in Dead of Night. Lawrence’s story makes clear that “the shining modern rocking-horse” is just one of “the expensive and splendid toys” which has absorbed the parents’ money and distracted them from their obligation to care properly for their children. It has been a device to ignite energy and ideas which were already building just below the surface in Paul’s personality. He is aware of the flaws in his parents’ marriage and therefore in the instability of his family life; he is reaching out to make things better and find his mother’s love through her aloof selfish materialism.
Most online analyses of Lawrence’s story seem to concentrate on the mother’s greed and its consequences for her son. Both the story and Pelissier’s film could also be seen as highly relevant to our present-day concern about the reasons for gambling and the psychological damage it can cause.