Tag Archives: Sentimentality

Poor Little Rich Girl (1917)

poorlittlerichgirlI’ve been continuing my quest to see more Mary Pickford films. The second film I’ve seen is Poor Little Rich Girl, the first film where she played a child (as opposed to an adolescent) throughout the entire story. It was extremely profitable when it was released in 1917 and established the persona that Mary Pickford would be best remembered for (though she played adults far more than she ever played children).

Daddy Long Legs made me think of Charles Dickens; Poor Little Rich Girl brought to mind Mary Poppins, without the nanny, or perhaps Frances Hodgson Burnett. Gwendolyn (Mary Pickford) is a child of ten, nearly eleven, who lives in a large house with her wealthy parents who never have any time for her. Her father (Charles Wellesley) is too busy making money on Wall Street and her mother (Madlaine Traverse) is too busy in society. Instead, Gwendolyn is left to the care of unsympathetic servants. Her governess (Marcia Harris) would not be out of place as Miss Minchin in The Little Princess or perhaps Mrs. Medlock in The Secret Garden. Meanwhile, the housemaid, Jane (Gladys Fairbanks), clearly sees Gwendolyn as just a nuisance who makes her life more difficult.

There is not exactly a story in this film. Gwendolyn tries to get her parents attention and is lonely. The friendly plumber (Frank McGlynn) and the organ grinder are kind to her, but the servants soon put a stop to that. Gwendolyn’s mother has a friend over with a daughter, who is a stuck-up brat, inevitably sparking a fight with Gwendolyn causing the other girl to sit on her ice cream and then tosses all her clothes out the window rather than let her wear any of them

For punishment, her father comes up with the idea of putting her in boy’s clothes (his mother, he says, put him in his sister’s dress when he had misbehaved). This backfires, however, when Gwendolyn quickly gets over her grief  and sees possibilities in her attire, managing to get into a mud fight with some local boys. But still her parents ignore her, especially when her father’s financial standing is threatened and he considers suicide. It takes a careless moment by Jane, who gives Gwendolyn too much sleeping medicine, which nearly kills her, to finally get her parents’ attention.

Gwendolyn with the plumber and the organ grinder

Gwendolyn with the plumber and the organ grinder

The dream sequence that Gwendolyn has while she hovers between life and death is rather interesting and striking. She incorporates everything she’s heard – that her governess is a snake in the grass, that her mother has a social bee in her bonnet, that Jane is two-faced – things she does not understand and converts it to visuals in her dream. Thus we literally see Jane with two-faces and the governess as a snake in the grass and so on. It’s like a storybook, but also a journey as she struggles to make sense of everything around her and make it back to life. Even the plumber comes along, as does the friendly doctor who saves her life. He acts as a kind of mentor throughout the process.

I grew up watching Mary Martin play Peter Pan, so the idea of a grown woman (Mary Pickford was twenty-five at the time of Poor Little Rich Girl) was not too foreign to me. There is a definite theatrical tradition dating back where grown women play children. Perhaps because they can command a greater emotional range as actors than what children can always provide? Greater charisma? But Mary Pickford sells it with 100% conviction. They cast actors who were fairly tall to make her look even shorter than she was (she was around 5 ft. tall). I’m not sure if they made the sets any larger than normal, though. She doesn’t truly look like a child, but that never seems to matter too much.

Is it a sentimental film? Asbolutely! But I rather enjoyed it. It is a very middle-class film. I mean not only because it was popular among the middle class, but though Gwendolyn’s parents are rich, I would hazard a guess that they are social climbers, they’re working their way up society. Hence his burning need to make money and her social bee in the bonnet and the complacently snide comments of society in regard to their efforts. Even the servants act as if they are too good to serve these people. It is actually only the working class people who are kind and have some fun in life.

Gwendolyn, her mother and father and the governess

Gwendolyn, her father and mother and the governess

The film was directed by Maurice Tourneur, who I’ve read is known for making dignified and gorgeous films with sometimes slow or negligible plots. He and Mary Pickford clashed over Poor Little Rich Girl, with Pickford and her friend and screenwriter, Frances Marion, adding in bits of lively comedy, such as the mud fight, which ultimately seem very true to Mary Pickford’s persona. She always had spirit, not vulnerable, but indomitable. She would always fight back and keep on.

In 1917 cameras did not move much at all, which I didn’t initially notice because the film never looks static. There is a lot of cross cutting between scenes, between characters, people coming in and out of the set, unique shots (such as through a keyhole) that it never feels like we are just watching a play that has been filmed.

Before Poor Little Rich Girl was released, Mary Pickford and Frances Marion screened the film for the studio heads…who absolutely hated it and thought it would be an embarrassing disaster. Unable to prevent it from being released, however, Poor Little Rich Girl turned instead into a massive hit. From then on, audiences never seemed to love Mary Pickford so well as when she played children.


Posted by on February 8, 2016 in Movies


Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)

downloadGoodbye, Mr. Chips isn’t precisely a Christmas film, but since I read and reviewed the book recently and since it does feature a Christmas scene and the entire film glows with warmth and kindness, it seems appropriate to review it during the holidays.

James Hilton’s novella Goodbye, Mr. Chips really made an impression on me with its intermix of sentiment, chivalry, tragedy and ordinariness. It’s a touching story and I had read that the film was equally touching. And accounting for the usual differences between the printed word and visual cinema, I was impressed at how close the movie was to the novella, not so much in events, but in tone.

Robert Donat plays Mr. Chipping from the time when he first comes to Brookfield Public School as a young man in 1870 to when he dies in 1933, having given his whole life to Brookfield, lived through every war from the Boer War to WWI and seen three monarchs, from Queen Victoria to King Edward VII to King George V. But in the midst of it all, Brookfield remains essentially the same. The boy’s clothes change, the topic of conversation changes, but the boys retain their essential character. Child actor Terry Kilburn even plays four generations of Colleys, who all attend Brookfield and interact with Chipping in some way or other (one of the Colley boys grows up to be played by John Mills).

Blink and you’ll actually miss Donat playing his own age. For most of the film he’s in make-up and makes a very creditable middle-aged and elderly man. When he first comes to Brookfield, he is full of ambition and trepidation, but he’s not comfortable interacting with the boys, or really anyone. He’s shy and becomes established in his character as a bit of a dry stick in the mud.

Mr. Chipping introduces his wife to some of the boys - all she has to do is smile and they are lost

Mr. Chipping introduces his wife to some of the boys – all she has to do is smile and they are lost

But after being passed over as head of one of the boy’s dormitories, he is resigned to his fate as a partial outsider who doesn’t quite belong. His friend and fellow teacher, Max Staeffel (Paul Henreid) coaxes him into taking a walking tour of Europe. Completely unexpectedly, he meets and falls in love with Katherine Ellis (Greer Garson), a young woman on a biking holiday with her friend. He is captivated and she charmed by his innate chivalry and kindness….and a lurking sense of humor that he doesn’t often show.

Greer Garson absolutely sparkles in her American screen debut, which comes in the middle of the film and doesn’t last long, but she still makes a big impression. No wonder it launched her as a star. Her warmth, her energy; she is the perfect actress to play the woman who changes Chipping’s life by drawing him out and helping him to show the man he really is inside.

Most movies are not particularly good at portraying shy people sympathetically, but Goodbye, Mr. Chips is somewhat unique in putting a shy man at the center of the story. Mr. Chipping is shy, not reserved, and Katherine sees that. She makes a comment to her friend that she always felt sorry for shy people, because they must be lonely. Shy people often start with the assumption that people don’t really want to talk to them or are not interested in them, and it can cause them to feel isolated as a result. But Katherine changes everything by loving him, Mr. Chipping, as he is. By learning that he can be loved, he learns he can give it to other people, though without changing his fundamental nature. But it all happens because Katherine takes the time to see the real man beneath the surface and to bring it out.

One of my favorite scenes is when Chipping brings his wife to Brookfield to meet his fellow teachers. When they hear he is married, they assume she must be a sad sack of a woman and are completely bowled over when Chipping enters with Greer Garson. All she has to do is smile and they are falling all over themselves to be solicitous. Chipping’s shy pride in her and her own pride in him and his profession makes the scene entirely adorable and sweet and one can’t help but smile along.

chips_2207209b1Robert Donat beat out Clarke Gable for the Oscar for Best Actor, and now that I can finally make a comparison I can see why he won. Donat exhibits the full range of emotions, from love to loss, to understanding, sorrow, sympathy, humor, embarrassment, shyness. He is never anything less than compelling and he really brings out the internal goodness of the man, whilst not stinting on his eccentricities, but not making him a caricature, either.

The movie is definitely more nostalgic than the novella, which is more strongly colored by the events of WWI. But coming out as it did in 1939, when another war was looming, the film focuses more on looking back on another age, before WWI, a more humane and gentle age, before it was shattered by gas warfare and the machines of war. Mr. Chipping represents that age and although he sees a lot of tragedy, he also lives a full life, living his principles, not spectacularly, but in small things, giving his entire life for others simply by living.


Posted by on December 21, 2015 in Movies


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Revisiting Casablanca

casa7Yesterday, I had a small family party and we watched Casablanca, partially because my cousin had not seen it before and wanted to (he said he liked it). The last time I saw Casablanca was before I developed my slightly obsessive enthusiasm for classic movies, so I was hoping to be able to see a familiar classic with new eyes. I don’t know if I quite did, but here are the four things that I took away this time.

1) There’s a lot of music in Casablanca. All movies have music, but it’s particularly noticeable and pointed. Max Steiner (he wrote the score for Gone With the Wind and King Kong), weaves in “La Marseillaise” and “Die Wacht am Rhein” throughout the entire movie score. “La Marseillaise” is the French National anthem and stands in for freedom. “Die Wacht am Rhein” is used to represent the Nazis (it’s a song about the fatherland and fighting in the Rhineland – specifically against the French). They are a call to arms and a drawing of the battle lines.

Juxtaposed with this martial music are the romantic songs that Dooley Wilson sings, especially “As Time Goes By.” Since that is the song that we really remember from the movie, the underlying message is that love will last forever and transcends war and hatred and evil. This point is made more clear when we see repeated scenes of Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) falling in love in Paris (to the music of “As Time Goes By”) interspersed with scenes of the Nazis invading France to martial anthems. Rick and Ilsa may not get to be together at the end of the film, but there will always be other people who will fall in love, especially when the war is over and tyranny is defeated. “The world will always welcome lovers, as time goes by.”

still-of-ingrid-bergman,-humphrey-bogart,-claude-rains-and-paul-henreid-in-casablanca-(1942)-large-picture2) I have a theory that it takes one to know one. Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains) may be a flagrantly, cheerfully corrupt official, but his clear understanding and sympathy with Rick makes me suspect that at heart, he is just as much a sentimentalist as Rick. I like to imagine that he had a romantic and quixotic past before he came to Casablanca. He’s just had more years to grow entrenched in his cynicism than Rick. At least, that’s my theory. Because at the end, he proves just as sentimental as Rick. For him to throw up everything and join the Free French is quite a step for a man who “blows with the wind.”

3) At the end of the movie, to convince Ilsa to get on the plane and leave with her husband, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), Rick tells Ilsa that she must go because Victor needs her, that she is the only thing that keeps him going through all his trials, and that she would later regret having left him.

Captain Renault then comments that Rick was spinning  a fairy tale and that Ilsa knew that the things Rick said were not true (she probably wouldn’t regret staying with Rick and Laszlo is far too dedicated to his work to quit even if his wife did leave him). So why did she stay with her husband? Because Rick needed to fight and he couldn’t do that if they ran way together. Love must be sacrificed for duty, which both she and Rick recognized. It’s all a matter of timing, as Ilsa notes when they are in France, when she says they picked a terrible time to fall in love.

Annex - Bogart, Humphrey (Casablanca)_11In the original screenplay, Rick and Ilsa were going to leave together. However, when America entered the war, the studio realized that it would be impossibly irresponsible and selfish to have two people run away together as if there were not a cataclysmic war raging across the world. So the ending was changed.

4) Although Casablanca is not the movie that turned Humphrey Bogart into a leading man (High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon did that), it is the movie that cemented his reputation both as a star and as a romantic lead. And I think Casablanca summarizes his appeal as a romantic lead. He looks like a gangster, he talks like a gangster, but as Captain Renault perceptively notes in Casablanca, beneath the cynical shell there is a sentimental man. He may look like a tough guy and talk like one, but you can instinctively feel that inside he is an idealist who has been disappointed, but can’t quite shake the idealism. He has a sensitive soul and intelligent mind. It just took the studios a while to figure it out because he does not look like a conventional leading man.


Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: