Sunday, March 30, 2014

Poor Little Rich Girl (1917)

Director: Maurice Tourneur                                 Writers: Frances Marion & Eleanor Gates
Producer: Adolph Zukor                                     Cinematography: Lucien N. Androit
Starring: Mary Pickford, Gladys Fairbanks, Frank Andrews and Herbert Prior

One of the common misconceptions surrounding Mary Pickford is that she primarily played juvenile roles. That myth is reinforced by her screen persona with the white dresses and long ringlets, as well as the popularity and longevity of films like Daddy-Long-Legs, Pollyanna and this film, Poor Little Rich Girl. But the fact is she made very few of these films and the rest of her work was mostly in light comedy or drama. She is also one of the most important early female figures in the history of film and of course along with Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin created United Artists in 1919 as an independent production and distribution company. At the time she was working in films she was one of the most popular movie stars in the world and with the same exalted star-status as Chaplin.

This film was made after Pickford had signed a new deal with Adolph Zukor that gave her creative control over her pictures, something that was almost unimaginable to most film actors of the day. It was based on the hit play by Eleanor Gates, which actually starred future film star Viola Dana. In the film Pickford plays a little girl whose family is wealthy and because of their concerns with finances and society her mother and father neglect her. She is foisted onto a series of servants who are expected to care for her but they see her as a spoiled brat, and her desire to have friends and play outside or go to public school are ridiculed by the servants. The first half of the film she gets into lots of trouble trying to be like other kids, bringing an organ grinder into the house, or having a mud fight with the boys from the street in the greenhouse. The second half of the film, however, soon turns serious.

On the evening when the servants are going to the theater, Pickford’s nanny decides to give her some drugs to make her sleep so that she can go out to join them. But she doesn’t believe that Pickford took her first dose and gives her another, lethal dose. After she leaves, Pickford begins hallucinating and falls down the stairs. In her drugged state she begins to mix the reality of people and voices she hears with the fantasy going on in her mind. It’s here that the film creates another world, a fantasy that recalls Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz, where the servants become the personification of their negative characteristics. The one exception is the friendly butler, Frank Andrews, who helps to guide her through the fantasy world. Meanwhile, the doctor, Herbert Prior, works furiously to save her while her parents by her bedside begin to rethink their way of life and treatment of their little girl.

The film was directed by Maurice Tourneur, a well-known French director who had made the move to Hollywood early in the century and was renowned in his time. Today, however, he is probably best known as the father of noir director Jacques Tourneur. He does exhibit a certain flair at times, the moving camera during Pickford’s hallucination being particularly good. But overall there is little to admire. The camera is mostly stationary, and the special effects, while good, are certainly nothing new. But then Pickford herself is the real draw here, exceptional in one of her few juvenile roles and her onscreen charm is obvious. Poor Little Rich Girl is not really a great film. It has some historical significance and is definitely worth viewing, but lacks a lot of the truly artistic qualities that other directors were bringing to films at the time.

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