Poor Little Rich Girl (1917)
One of Mary Pickford’s most successful features at the time, this was directed by Maurice Tourneur – or, perhaps, co-directed by him, given the power Mary wielded on the set – and written by her friend Frances Marion. It’s probably not her most accessible movie today, for reasons I’ll discuss below, but it’s a valuable insight into what made her a superstar for her era.
The movie starts out by introducing its title character, 10-year-old Gwendolyn, played by Pickford (I’ll address that later, just accept it for now). It is immediately established that she is “rich” in wealth, but “poor” in love. Her parents neglect her and leave her with unsympathetic and strict servants in charge. The scene is set for us with highly stylized intertitles that show a small girl in an enormous room, with toys but no companions. Then Gwen comes skipping onto the scene, only to be confronted by two stern-looking butlers. She sees some children skating outside the window and smiles happily, but a servant comes over to slam it down. She begs her mother (Madlaine Traverse) to give her a minute, but her mother is rushing off somewhere and says maybe they can talk to-morrow. Gwen asks, “Why is it that my to-morrows never come?”
The rest of her day is similarly depressing. She is tutored by a group of prune-faced scholars in a large classroom all by herself. She is forced to go for a drive with one of the servants when she’d rather take a walk. When she amuses herself by blowing on the glass and drawing a face, the servant admonishes her. It never seems to occur to anyone that she needs other children or play time. Finally, left alone for a minute, she looks out onto the street and sees an organ grinder playing for some street children. One of the kids tells the grinder that she’s the “poor little rich girl” but she’s a “good fella,” so he goes into the house to play for her. The plumber (Frank McGlynn) overhears the music and joins in, playing on a length of pipe as if it were an instrument. But then the servants come in to intervene, and then her mother finds out and everyone scampers out of the room afraid.
Gwen tells her mother she’s lonely and her mother’s friend suggests that she can bring her own daughter over the next day. She’s very happy at the prospect of a playmate, but the daughter (Maxine Elliott Hicks) turns out to be snobbish and rude. Gwen doesn’t put up with her and soon she’s in trouble for fighting and staining the girl’s clothing with cake. Her mother threatens to give one of Gwen’s dresses to the other little girl as a punishment, but Gwen runs up to her room and throws all of her clothes out the window to prevent her from getting them. The street urchins eagerly run up and snatch them.
Her father (Charles Wellesley) suggests punishing her by making her dress as a boy, the opposite of what his father did when he was naughty. Gwen seems suitably chastised at first, but when some of the street kids come into the house looking for a ball they knocked through a window, she pretends to be a boy and gets into a mud fight in the garden. The gardener comes out and sprays them all with a hose, surprised to discover that the worst hoodlum is little Gwen herself!
The next day (or at least the next scene) is Gwen’s 11th birthday. She wants to bathe herself now that she’s grown up, but the servant won’t let her. So, she locks herself in the bathroom and starts to clean her face with a hand towel. She can’t reach something (maybe soap) in the medicine cabinet, so she climbs up on the sink, which immediately collapses. Now water is spraying all over the bathroom. She tries to stop it by putting towels on the exposed pipes, but this just makes it spray more wildly. Then she gets into the spirit of it and frolics in the water, spraying the maid when she tries to peek through the keyhole.
We learn that Gwen’s father is concerned about his finances. Apparently, he’s losing money on Wall Street, so he tells Gwen that there are “bears” threatening him, which she fantasizes are real bears. Meanwhile, her mother has invited “society” women over to celebrate Gwen’s birthday, but Gwen is sent to bed early. The servants want to go out to the “theayter” so they decide to give her a sleeping draught. But, they wind up overdosing her and she staggers out to collapse in the hallway. The plumber (here to fix the sink) finds her there and alerts the household that she’s been poisoned.
At this point, a sequence begins which intercuts scenes of Gwen’s real peril with scenes of her child’s fever dreams. In the real world, the doctor who delivered her (Herbert Prior) and her parents hover over her bed and say things like, “I fear her little journey is almost over.” In the dream world, she sees all of the people in her life transformed into representations of what they really are, often based on things she has heard grown-ups say. For example, the butler who is nice to her was called a “silly ass,” and he shows up in a donkey suit. The mean servant is a “snake in the grass,” and other servants are “Big Ears” and “Old Two-Face.” These scenes get increasingly dark as the real Gwen comes closer to death. Then she sees a fairy dancing in a brightly-lit garden, and she goes to join her. Soon, she is recovered. Her parents reform, and decide to spend more time with her, and her father gives up most of his fortune to live a more normal life.
I’m going to admit something: I find it creepy for a 25-year-old woman to play a 10-11-year-old girl, especially when she sits on a middle-aged man’s lap and says, “Please, Daddy, don’t you have a little time to love me?” At various times, Mary pulls up her dress or gets her clothes wet, and at least once she’s in her undergarments. She doesn’t actually remove any clothing when she goes to “bathe,” but there’s anticipation there as well. It all kind of makes me wonder if her husband, Douglas Fairbanks, was into little girls. I get it, though. Audiences of 1917 didn’t react the way I do. They sublimated any sexuality and perceived Mary just as “sweet,” and I’ll admit that most of the time I can put away that feeling and accept her, even with my modern perspectives, and that is a testament to her tremendous acting talent.
According to the commentary on the disk I saw, Maurice Tourneur was not thrilled about this movie, especially the scenes in which Gwen is naughty. He apparently told Mary that “French children would never behave this way” and she responded that it wasn’t a movie about a French child, but an American one. At any rate, movies like “The Sprinkler Sprinkled” and the Bout-de-Zan films suggest that not all French film makers were so particular. Mary got her way, but apparently Tourneur nearly got his when a test screening in front of middle-aged male movie moguls reacted poorly. The movie was shelved for a while, and Mary thought she had failed, but when it was released, public audiences proved the studio heads completely wrong.
The review in Moving Picture World confirms its popular appeal, and also makes much of the freedoms taken with the stage play by Marion and Pickford. Most notable is a difference in attitude toward class. Apparently the original Gwen “was a somewhat top-lofty little miss who seemed born to the purple and never forgot her station in life.” Pickford’s Gwen gets along with street kids and working class grown-ups, but not at all with other rich people. This “popularization” of Gwen surely increased her appeal among movie audiences, who wouldn’t have identified with the hardships of a snob, but were eager to see that the rich weren’t necessarily happier than, or superior to, everyone else.
The greatest success of the film for me is its final sequence. First of all, this is where Tourneur’s great lighting work comes to the fore, and the fantasy sequence is excellently shot. He actually had two cinematographers on this movie, both Frenchmen who had worked for him before, and they do a great job. Moreover, he, or someone, showed that they had learned effective editing technique, because the cross-cutting between fantasy and reality keeps the audience in effective suspense about the outcome. Finally, Pickford’s acting is key to this sequence as well, because this is the point at which the audience comes to realize how invested they have become in her character. Up until now it’s been fun and games, even if we feel a bit sorry for Gwen in her lonely and constrained existence, but now the stakes are raised and we see (or at least I did) how much we care. This is truly effective storytelling on a number of levels.
Director: Maurice Tourneur
Camera: Lucien Andriot and John van der Broek
Starring: Mary Pickford, Madlaine Traverse, Charles Wellesley, Gladys Fairbanks, Frank McGlynn, Herbert Prior, Maxine Elliott Hicks
Run Time: 1 hr, 5 Min
You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).