Rejoice! Cinematek has restored Mary Pickford’s 1920 Pollyanna (dir. Paul Powell), an adaptation of Eleanor H. Porter’s children’s classic about an orphan girl who is devoted to “the glad game.” The game consists of always looking for something to be glad about, no matter how dire the situation. The stunning restoration from an original color print will be shown to the world on April 1st in Flagey in Brussels.The Brussels Jazz Orchestra will accompany the screening with a newly composed score by Lode Mertens.
It’s Really a Big Deal
To me, Pollyanna is a landmark in American film history. Granted, it is not likely to turn up in your regular ‘best film’ polls and it may raise concerns about your good taste if you’ll publicly admit to loving it, but it is historically significant for many reasons, so I’ll stand by it.
For one it was Mary Pickford’s first release through United Artists, the distribution company she co-founded in 1919 with Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith. The company owned no theaters and no production facilities and each star (I’m deliberately including Griffith under this banner) raised his or her budget independently. It was a hazardous endeavor, requiring chutzpah, because essentially all involved were investing private capital. Luckily, United Artists limited the risks for its producers because the company itself was not set up to make profits but merely functioned to provide distribution services at a (competitively low) cost, which meant that distribution profits flowed back to the producers. If the company was going to prove right both its critics – who had compared the stars to “lunatics”- and its rivals – the vertically integrated studios owned by the likes of Adolph Zukor – the first releases had to be strong, confident…. and bring in money.
By early 1920, Douglas Fairbanks had already released two successful films through UA, His Majesty the American (Henabery 1919) and When the Clouds Roll By(Fleming 1919), and Griffith had offered the surprise critical and commercial success Broken Blossoms. Pickford’s first UA release came a little later because she first had to complete a standing three-picture deal for First National. With Pollyanna Pickford had made a safe bet. She had acquired the rights to the Porter’s story and its Broadway adaptation by Catharine Chisholm Cushing after successfully starring in adaptations of children’s literature classics in the mid-to-late teens. It was then that she discovered she had a knack for playing young girls and that audiences (and critics) responded with enthusiasm. And Pollyanna did the job: the film earned back almost thrice its original cost and we can only assume that Pickford’s wedding (to fellow movie star and fellow UA stockholder Douglas Fairbanks) a few months after the film’s release must have been a glad affair indeed.
Second, Pollyanna was an independently produced film by a woman. We all know that Hollywood’s history represents a striking gender-imbalance with only few women (occasionally) calling the shots. Mary Pickford had an exceptional career in this respect and so Pollyanna, being her first truly independent feature with no one but herself overseeing all stages of production is remarkable. For sure, there had been female independent production before: in the early teens powerful female stars such as Marion Leonard, Florence Lawrence, and Florence Turner had all acted as their own producers. However, their companies had usually been part of a larger structure, typically a bigger studio or distribution network. Lawrence’s Victor Films was a part of Universal Film Company, Turner Films operated under the Hepworth Manufacturing Company, and Marion Leonard’s Gem Motion Picture Company, which folded before its first film was released, had been dependent on the Sales Company for distribution. The feature era had also seen female star producers (most notably Gene Gauntier, Nell Shipman, Helen Gardner, and Pickford herself), but usually the companies did not last long, were reliant on external distribution networks or operated on a relatively low scale. Pickford’s own “Mary Pickford Corporation” (founded in 1916) had been only quasi-independent: Adolph –“Daddy”- Zukor (architect of the Famous Players-Lasky and Paramount merger) had been its president and although the company gave her considerable control over her work she was still tied to (the judgment of) others.
When her contract with Zukor expired, Pickford was given a three-picture deal with unprecedented creative power and financial benefits at First National Exhibitors Circuit, which would also distribute her films. But as the contract went into effect the industry was already rapidly changing and re-structuring (there were rumors of mergers and all-male power clusters were being formed) and it was unlikely that such conditions would be offered to her again. The formation of United Artists was thus an urgent affair, designed to protect creative and financial concerns of the biggest stars. While the other established studios worked toward vertical integration (combining production, distribution and exhibition), UA stuck to distribution and left the control and profits to its entrepreneurial star-producers.
At United Artists, Pickford was her own daddy.
Third, Pollyanna both cashed in on and locked Pickford’s ability and reputation to convincingly play the part of a young girl or what was aptly termed the “beginnings of ladies” in Pickford’s own 1917 hit Rebecca Of Sunnybrook Farm (Neilan). Pickford’s popularity had skyrocketed when she first performed the role of a young girl in The Poor Little Rich Girl (Tourneur 1917). Her subsequent performances of girls or very young women (in Rebecca, Stella Maris, The Little Princess, Daddy-Long-Legs) had all been successes. To turn out yet another little girl picture as her first independent production seemed to signal that she accepted the part to be hers or rather claimed it to be so. The following years she would have to pay dearly for that claim, as it was chiefly those films in which she played young girls that would make the most money and it is for these parts that she is mostly remembered today. At any rate, Little Mary was more solid and popular a product than anything Pickford would ever produce and in Pollyanna she shows off exactly why.
Fourth, Frances Marion, one of Hollywood’s longest lasting, most prolific, versatile and successful scenario writers scripted Pollyanna. Throughout her career she would consistently write for the biggest studios and the biggest stars. Marion had been responsible for several of Pickford’s earlier successes, such as The Little Princess(Neilan, 1917) and M’Liss (Neilan, 1918) and was the obvious choice to write this film even though she was contracted to start writing for William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies. Their close friendship (Pickford was the witness at Frances’s wedding to future cowboy star Fred Thomson and the pairs honeymooned together) ensured a working relationship that was built on trust, understanding and a constant pursuit of excellence. Marion could masterfully alternate scenes of motivated and carefully built-up pathos with scenes of comic or dramatic action, a structure which matched Pickford’s own dramaturgical ideal of packaging each movie with equal parts tears and laughter. Like Pickford’s, Marion’s long career was exceptional in an industry that would increasingly marginalize female voices.
Finally, a fifth reason for Pollyanna’s historical importance is that the film became, for better or for worse, something of a standard for the morally uplifting and wholesome picture. In the years after Pollyanna’s release, the film industry would be hampered by a series of scandals – the crime de passion that killed William Desmond Taylor and incriminated Mabel Normand and cute little Mary Miles Minter, the Fatty and Virginia Rappe rape scandal, Wally Reid’s overdose… The film industry responded to the public indignation regarding these scandals with a devotion to “cleaner pictures” but the cry for “more Pollyannas” frightened film makers as industry-imposed rules of conduct would increasingly limit the creativity, originality and audacity of Hollywood pictures. Both Frances Marion and Pickford herself, would retrospectively mock Pollyanna and express their abhorrence in developing, writing, and/or playing the character. Yet, as Kevin Brownlow rightly suspects, this disdain emerged several years after its release when the “glad” philosophy had become increasingly at odds with post-War sensibilities and overall changing aesthetic tastes. (One could argue that Pollyanna had in fact been something of a public apologia from Pickford: her attempt to make up for divorcing her husband Owen Moore the previous year and paving the way for her impending marriage. The film showed her at her sweetest and most innocent, beyond moral prosecution.)
Naturally, Pollyanna is a worthwhile film for other reasons as well.
It shows Mary Pickford at the Height of her Powers
If you wonder what made Mary Pickford so attractive to her millions of fans, you’ll find in Pollyanna several examples of her charm and screen presence, of her Pre-Raphaelite beauty, of her comic timing, of her convincing (not awkward or icky) portrayal of young girl (playing 13 when she herself was 32), of her devotion and sincerity towards her art, and of her absolute and total control and confidence as a star and producer. Also, if you wonder what makes Pickford so “annoying” or “strange” for modern viewers you’ll probably find an answer in Pollyanna as well.
It’s the perfect mix of tears and laughter
Emotions occasionally run high in Pollyanna. The picture opens on a very mushy inter-title– “this is really not a story, it’s a rainbow”- which brings us to the opening scene where we encounter a tearful Pickford at her dying father’s side. The scene comes too early for spectators to share in the tears, but it certainly manages to show off Pickford’s exceptional beauty and her ability to express heartfelt emotions. The following scenes however don’t dwell on the orphan’s misfortune and instead present funny business from Pickford and a gang of unkempt children who are helping Pollyanna pack, as she is to go and live with her dyspeptic aunt Polly. (Polly is introduced to us at naptime when she is being pestered by two miniature demons poking a trident in her tummy.) There is more comedy to follow: upon her arrival in Beldingsville Pickford gets knocked over by heavy wind and rains, she accidentally ruins her aunt’s knitting and causes havoc in her onesie. So, while there is definitely some pathos, there is also a lot of genuinely funny comedy too.
What may hamper the film’s contemporary reception however is the “glad game” itself. Its forceful optimism may feel hopelessly outdated and annoy modern viewers. (Didn’t Mimi Leder’s more recent Pay it Forward (2000) tank for exactly these reasons?) But actually, Pollyanna was met with mixed responses from the start. Audiences loved it, but critics expressed their admiration and objections with equal force. In a post-war era where honesty and the acceptance of the hard facts of life were treasured qualities, Pollyanna was criticized for being an outrageous fantasy, a “big fat lie,” “gilded bunkum,” and “the most immoral story.” (Rather startlingly, D.W. Griffith, Pickford’s UA-partner and quite the old-fashioned moralist himself uttered the latter two comments!)
In fact, more than just honesty it was a “terrible honesty” and a willful confrontation with the “horrors of life” that was idealized at the time of the film’s release, as Ann Douglas has suggested in her 1995 study of the era. Pollyanna’s optimism and sentimental make-belief echoed the Victorian ideals of the previous century, not those of post-War society. An example of the ambivalence critics experienced when confronted with this nostalgic yarn was well put by Frederick James Smith, editor of Photoplay:
The calm, critical side of our brain tells us that it is a sugar-coated view of life as it isn’t and never was, but the dream-side of us stirs – awakens.
Variety had this to say:
“It is perfect technically, ably directed, charmingly acted, touches and stirs the heart, brightens the eyes with tears and is full of that amazing optimism so typically American and yet so utterly ridiculous.”
The brain said no, and yet the heart was touched and stirred. The film and our “appropriate” response to it, was and remains to be hard to pin down. In 1920, it clashed with an impending Jazz Age morality and changing literary and aesthetic tastes, but as a temporal refuge in a confusing post-sacred, post-war cultural climate it still had some drawing power and raison d’être. (See Lea Jacobs’ The Decline of Sentiment for a thorough analysis of the period.) For modern viewers the glad game philosophy may seem impossibly naïve and intellectually suspect, but as strict fantasy (which it had been from the start) it is a pleasant, nostalgic, indulgent exercise.
Happiness is Hard Work
But we can look at Pollyanna another way. Instead of obsessively focusing on Pollyanna’s hokum and condemning her for it, we could take Pollyanna’s attitude not as foolish or naïve but as “a subversive alternative to maturity” as Jerry Griswold has suggested. In refusing to grow up and “face the facts,” Pollyanna not only stubbornly denies biological inevitability and social expectations but also snubs the cultural vogue of unpleasant reality checks. Moreover, her “innocent” glad game veils a calculating modus operandi for it is Pollyanna who always gets everybody to see things her way and not the other way around. Griswold goes as far as calling her a “cunning trickster” and a “master of reverse psychology,” because her refusal to take misfortunes and punishments for what they are, make them powerless over her. The optimism that was (and is) an incentive for derision becomes clever and rebellious in Griswold’s reasoning. And we’ve got to admire her determination and work ethos. Richard Griffith and Arthur Mayer observed:
“In spite of her creed, The Glad Girl knew it was no cinch to make optimism come out right. Nothing could have been more in tune with an era which combined limitless optimism with a belief that ‘git up and git’ was necessary to make optimism come true.”
Pollyanna, like Alexander Payne’s marvelous Tracy “Cupcake?” Flick gets exactly what she wants through a stubborn belief in herself and her willingness to “git up and git”. And whether we like it or not, she comes out victorious in the end.
Also, Pollyanna is About Something Else Entirely
On the surface, Pollyanna is a film about a little girl and her game of unbridled optimism. Yet, released in early 1920, not too long after the War’s end, it can also be interpreted as Pickford’s final, slightly veiled patriotic film. During the War years, she had made two overtly patriotic pictures, The Little American (DeMille, 1917) and Johanna Enlists (Taylor 1918) as well as the propaganda film 100 Percent American. Additionally, she had been a prominent fundraiser for the War effort and had godmothered troops. According to literary scholars Ann Douglas and Jerry Griswold, the post-war era saw the growing popularity of therapeutic war novels or memoirs as well as the remarkable continued interest in stories about health (or the lack thereof), convalescence and self-help ethics. Clearly, such stories of convalescence took on an additional and urgent significance with the return of shell-shocked or injured soldiers from European fronts. Pollyanna is surely not about the war in any direct sense, but itis a story of convalescence, a story that forcefully appeals to everyone to recover from past troubles, traumas or ailments. “The war is over,” we can read between the lines, “time to get happy again!”
The idea of recovery after severe trauma is played out literally to the fullest dramatic and affective effects when Pollyanna is injured in a car accident. After Pollyanna heroically saves a toddler from being run over, the car hits her instead. (The scene was recorded in reverse to make it look like Pickford performed a very dangerous stunt.) As a result from the accident Pollyanna is paralyzed and her doctor fears she will never walk again. Her inability to walk is of course a metaphor for her spiritual crisis and therefore regular medical science is unable to save her. Only after Pollyanna’s faith is restored and she can muster optimism anew despite all adversity she finds the inner strength to learn to walk again. Should we feel so inclined we can read Pollyanna’s message of self-reliance, faith and recovery as a productive strategy – or therapy – for dealing with the War’s aftermath.
Also the restoration is stunning
After watching Cinematek’s restoration, I was struck anew by the subtlety of the performances from both Pickford and her co-stars (the children deserve special credit), thrilled by the oft-times mischievous and sometimes Chaplinesque (by lack of a better description) humor in both the action and inter-titles, and I was moved by both Charles Rosher’s pictorial photography and the overall beauty of the production. It’s a beautiful film and an important work from a woman who, in pre-digital times, was once the World’s Sweetheart. For all its moral flaws and sugary sentimentalism, I am quite confident audiences will be glad to see it again.