I’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.
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.
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.