Wednesday, June 28, 2017

FILMBAY 2000 Greatest Films of All-Time (1888-2016) by Year - 0161 - POOR LITTLE RICH GIRL, THE (Maurice Tourneur, 1917, USA, 65m, BW)



(Maurice Tourneur, 1917, USA, 65m, BW)


POOR LITTLE RICH GIRL, THE (Maurice Tourneur, 1917, USA, 65m, BW)

Cast: Marcia Harris, Charles Craig, Herbert Prior, Maxine Hicks, Emile La Croix, Frank Andrews, George Gernon, Gladys Fairbanks, Frank McGlynn Sr., Charles Wellesley, Madlaine Traverse, Mary Pickford
Director: Maurice Tourneur
Writer: Frances Marion
Rating: NR
Running Time: 65 min.


Gwendolyn is an 11-year-old girl who is left by her rich and busy parents to the care of unsympathetic domestic workers at the family's mansion. Her mother is only interested in her social life and her father has serious financial problem and is even contemplating suicide. When she manages to have some good time with an organ-grinder or a plumber, or have a mud-fight with street boys, she is rapidly brought back on the right track. One day she becomes sick because the maid has given her an extra dose of sleeping medicine to be able to go out. She then becomes delirious and starts seeing an imaginary world inspired by people and things around her; the Garden of Lonely Children in the Tell-Tale forest. Her conditions worsens and Death tries to lure her to eternal rest. But Life also appears to her and finally wins.


Mary Pickford had been an international star for about 5 years when she made The Poor Little Rich Girl in 1917. This marked the first time that Mary played an actual child as opposed to a teenaged girl or young woman. Pickford was 24 playing a 10/11 year old. This movie was a huge success and audiences couldn’t get enough of Mary as a precocious youngster, she would be typecast as such for the rest of her career and even today is best remembered as the little girl with the golden curls.

Poor Little Rich Girl of the title is ten-year-old Gwen (Mary Pickford — Heart o’ the Hills, Little Annie Rooney), the neglected daughter of a businessman father (Charles Wellesley — The Lost World) and socialite mother (Madlaine Traverse — The Penalty). The three of them live in a big, rambling mansion in which Gwen spends much of her time playing alone. The attitude towards Gwen of the small army of servants and tutors employed by her parents is one of impatient, strained tolerance and yet they seem to go out of their way to ensure she has no contact with any of the neighbourhood children (Ironically, the opulent mansion in which Gwen lives appears to be surrounded by tough urchins who play with impunity). Despite the staff’s treatment of her, and the boredom of attending a classroom in which she is the only pupil, Gwen’s irrepressible spirit remains undimmed, and her parents finally come to realise just how much they love their daughter when her life hangs in the balance after a negligent maid gives her an overdose of a potent sleeping draught.

It’s not until The Poor Little Rich Girl is more than half over that we learn that its’ title character is closing in on her eleventh birthday. Although Pickford was adept at capturing the expressions and postures of a child, she seemed incapable of distinguishing between the way in which the movements and mannerisms of a five-year-old differ from those of an eleven-year-old, and until that revelation of her impending eleventh birthday it’s virtually impossible to gauge just what age Gwen is supposed to be. And there’s something… odd… about a 24-year-old woman playing the part of a 10-year-old girl. Undoubtedly, this could merely be a consequence of the times in which we live, but when viewed today the insidious suspicion that at least part of the popularity of Pickford’s woman-child act was down to its pandering to the less savoury appetites of a small section of the male audience is unavoidable.

The episodic structure of The Poor Little Rich Girl means that the relatively short running time feels longer than it is, and it isn’t helped by some truly cringe-worthy intertitles. “Daddy, don’t you have time to love me?” asks the plaintive Gwen at the knee of her stockbroker father as he struggles to survive the fall-out from the Stock Market crash. When her mother promises to try and spare a little time for her tomorrow, Gwen enquires just as plaintively “Why do my tomorrows never come?” It’s a technique brazenly designed to manipulate the emotions of an audience we like to think of as less sophisticated as our own generation, and this seesawing between broad humour — mud fights with the local kids, a disastrous attempt to befriend the snooty daughter of one of her mother’s society friends — and pathos feels more than a little forced.

The non-existent plot finally acquires some focus in a final act which sees the movie take an altogether unexpected direction. It’s not that we can’t foresee that the life of little Gwen has to be placed in peril of some kind in order to slap her parents out of their selfish lifestyles, it’s just the bizarre manner in which Frances Marion’s screenplay chooses to do so. While doped up by the overdose of a sleeping draught, Gwen experiences a lengthy dream in which her fevered imagination translates the metaphors she has heard used by the adults around her in the real world into literal interpretations. 

The illusion of Pickford as a child is enhanced by the use of oversized props and the hiring of tall actors in the adult roles. But it is Mary’s ability as an actress that sells it. You will forget she is an adult so perfectly does she embody the physical mannerisms and innocent facial expressions of childhood. The direction by Maurice Tourneur is quite good from a story by the prolific screenwriter Frances Marion. The action includes Mary getting into a mud fight with some local urchins as well as a humorous disagreement with the daughter of one of her mother’s society friends. It is interesting to note that all the other children in the movie are played by actual children yet Mary never stands out from them. The highlight comes when Mary is under sedation. This section of the movie is surreal and full of imaginative visuals.


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