Monday, 13 August 2012

Blu-ray Pickford... The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917)

Mary Pickford animation courtesy of Aggiephile
Empty hearts. Empty lives. Empty homes. Poor little rich girl.

Now then, this could be awkward… an infantile Pickford vehicle in which the 25 year old Mary plays an 11 year old girl… This is one of those films that could put you off Pickford and which has coloured her reputation for modern audiences isn’t it?

The Poor Little Rich Girl was the first film in which Pickford played a child and it was so successful that she carried on in this vein even into her mid-30s. It is a big part of the film and you do have to overcome the obvious age gap between Mary and her character… difficult in a few scenes in which she’s clearly more woman than girl.

But that’s a modern take and it’s also an adult one. The Poor Little Rich Girl is a family film and it’s a film that has to work for children first and foremost. Besides, Jenny Agutter was well into her teens in The Railway Children and, more pointedly, Judy Garland was pushing 17 when she was Dorothy in Oz… One review on IMDB asked why no one had pointed out the obvious influence of this film on The Wizard of Oz. Yet L. Frank Baum’s book was published in 1900 whilst the first of many films about the land of Oz pre-dates The Poor Little Rich Girl by several years.

All this said, The Poor Little Rich Girl works extremely well and is the more pleasurable being reproduced in spritely high definition on Milestone's new Blu-ray triple Rags to Riches Collection. There’s an excellent new score from Philip Carli (played by the Flower City Society Orchestra) along with commentary from film historian, Scott Eyman. With the intention to provide an introduction to silent film for children there’s also an opening and closing sequence in which modern day kids are shown the movie by a wise and endlessly patient grandpa… Difficult for the jaded metropolitan silent “fan” to take lying down but… if it helps then good! (My teen daughter has already been exposed to Greed… show no mercy, just lock ‘em in!).

If a cynical movie buff needed an excuse to like this film then the direction of Maurice Tourneur provides it. If this was a Russian film it’d be raved about for the lushness of the images, the superb set design (care of Ben Carré) and the seamless cutting, especially towards the end when Gwendolyn hovers between dreamland and death. It is one of the best-looking films I’ve seen from the Great War years and fully justifies the Blu-ray packaging and price.

But even the cynics have to bow down before the intelligence, verve and raw ability of Mary Pickford. She is full of naturalistic controlled emotion and convinces totally as the young lead even alongside actual children (yeah, I know...). And this could have gone so horribly wrong! Her acting, aided by clever camera work and larger than life stage props, carries the day.

The story itself is fairly simple and still carries a whack: miserable banker addicted to his failing career on Wall Street almost sacrifices all to maintain his status. His wife is equally distracted by the “social bee in her bonnet” and both ignore their daughter who is a stranger in her own home, looked after by heartless retainers who could care less.

Gwendolyn is bored and she is lonely, she needs the chance to make a mess and to be free of rules. She fights with an obnoxious brat brought over to be a playmate and delights in bringing the organ grinder in from the street and dancing withy the plumber. She even picks a mud fight with the local kids - a scene that Monsieur Tourneur had to be persuaded to leave in: it may have been his movie but Mary was already in her careerist driving seat aided and abetted by her friend the writer, Frances Marion. Tourneur himself later described La Pickford as the finest screen actress in the World.

Life grinds on for the parents but the household staff are intent on a night off. They accidentally overdose Gwendolyn with sleeping draught and she hovers on the edge of oblivion. Here the story takes its Oz-like twist as the story runs parallel between the doctor trying to save her and her dreams in which those she knows are transformed in her reverie… the snake in the grass servant becomes a snake, the two-faced woman has two faces and big ears …well, I’m sure you can guess the rest.

Tourneur directs well here with shifts in mood and lighting moving the dream along until Gwen is saved by a dancing nymph playing in idyllic sunlit fields away from the shrouded appearance of death.

And, of course, there’s no place like home, but it’s the child’s near death that convinces the parents of this truth. Her father turns his back on the deal that could save his investment career saying that “...there is enough left for the life we will lead.” Gwen gets her parents back.

The Poor Little Rich Girl is available direct from Milestone and comes in a three disc pack with The Hoodlum (an excellent film from 1919 and now in far better quality than the DVD I watched recently) a precious short from 1910, Ramona, and then Sparrows (1926) which Ernst Lubitsch described as one of the eight wonders of the world. It’s another child role for Pickford but I won’t discount the possibility that Herr Lubitsch was possibly onto something…


  1. Yeah, I think The Poor Little Rich Girl is one of Pickford's very best films, along with Sparrows and Stella Maris. Sounds like a good collection.

    1. I had my doubts but she blows you away every time! And such a well directed and photographed picture too.

  2. Mary was such a natural actress. Before I saw this film, I was very skeptical about her ability to convince me that she was a little girl. But, as they said many years later, she had me at hello.

    1. It's acting but there's something innate in her personality that makes you believe. Pure joy wins out in the end.