Little Princess* (1917)
The classic tale of a young scamp in a snooty all-girls school is given the star treatment by Mary Pickford in this movie. Pickford had made her name playing girls well below her actual age, and here she really stretches things, pretending to be a child of only 10 or 11.
As the story opens, Mary, as Sara Crewe, is still in India, hiding in an urn and spying on her father (played by Norman Kerry) as he decides to move back to Britain after years of service in the colonial forces. She is opposed to the idea, being accustomed to a privileged life of servants and a large house, but children don’t get to make those decisions for themselves. She is enrolled in the Minchin boarding school for girls, where she is very shy and uncertain at first, and this is perceived as standoff-ish, which, along with the vast wealth her father provides for her comforts, earns her the nickname of “little Princess” from the other students.
What seems like a recipe for misery is overcome by Sara’s basic decency. Her first friend is Becky (ZaSu Pitts), an orphan girl who works as a scullion at the school, who is charmed when Sara gives her a cheap-looking necklace. Sara takes other girls on a pony-cart ride (comedy is provided when the cry-baby of the group falls out of the cart repeatedly). But, her popularity really grows when she tells them the tale of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” from the “1001 Nights.”
And here the movie suddenly changes gears, as it depicts the Ali Baba story, starring Mary as the slave girl in love with Ali (W.E. Lawrence), showing her in rather racier costumes than her “child” persona would allow. Ali Baba wants to marry her, but her owner (Theodore Roberts) refuses unless he can earn enough money to buy her. He spots the thieves sneaking into their secret horde and learns the magic password of “Open Sesame.” After using part of this money to buy Mary’s freedom, he tells the cruel slave-master the password and guarantees that he will be caught and beheaded by the thieves. Mary and Ali Baba (presumably) live happily ever after and we return to the main storyline.
Now that Sara is popular with the other girls, she is permitted to use her father’s wealth to hold a large birthday party with presents and cake for everyone. During this party, Miss Minchin (Katherine Griffith) learns that Sara’s father has lost all of his money on a bad investment, died of shock, and left Sara a pauper. She rushes into the party and takes everything back, then tells Sara she will have to work for a living from now on, just like Becky. Miss Minchin shows no sympathy for the newly orphaned child, and treats her with cruelty, and the other rich girls suddenly will have nothing to do with her, blaming her for all the presents they lost.
Sara and Becky make the most of their bad situation, working together and developing a closer friendship as Sara leads them on make believe fantasies that often result in their being denied dinner for loafing. As Christmastime draws near, the girls dream of happier times, but a neighboring Indian servant, Ram Dass (George A. McDaniel) is able to see through his window that the girls are unhappy. He tells his master (Gustav von Seyffertitz) about it, and the two of them arrange to sneak across the rooftops and provide them with a sumptuous Christmas dinner. Sara and Becky at first cannot believe their eyes, but decide it must be a miracle and prepare to dig in as Ram Dass and Mr. Carrisford watch from across the roof. Then Miss Minchin breaks in and accuses them of stealing. She grabs them and abuses them, but the two men come across the roof again to stop her. In the process, they learn who Sara is. Mr. Carrisford has been looking for her for months – he is the friend whose diamond mines her father had invested in and now that the mine is paying off, he wants to take over her care. He adopts both Sara and Becky and together they have a sumptuous Christmas.
I remember “A Little Princess” as a result of repeatedly seeing the Shirley Temple version when I was a child (my sister was a fan). This version has the merit of leaving Sara’s father dead, rather than resurrecting him at the end, though I think a schmaltzy ending is pretty much expected in the source material. The story stands or falls on the audience’s ability to identify with the little girl in a boarding school, cut off from everything she has ever known and searching for fun, friendship and love under difficult circumstances. Mary Pickford is more than equal to the task. She made her career on reliving a childhood she never really got to experience (she was working to support the family on stage from a very young age), and was possibly at the peak of her ability by 1917. She is assisted by being put among very tall actors (who play the adults) and other short girls who are not obviously much younger than she is (the “children”). Tall sets with doorknobs just above her reach and other simple tricks support the illusion as well.
A major contributor to the success of this movie is her co-star, ZaSu Pitts, who is perfectly cast as the hard-pressed serving girl. During the scenes in which we are meant to believe that Mary is being denied food, it is Zasu Pitts who looks like she’s starving, and anyone would look hungry standing next to her! Pitts is totally believable in her lower-class humility and excitement at the stories Sara tells. Although this blog doesn’t spend a lot of time on screen writers, Frances Marion, the writer of this movie is also worth a mention. She and Pickford were best friends at the time, and she wrote the story to give Mary the best possible showcase for her talents.
The trickiest part of this movie, as I indicated above, was the jarring switch from Mary-as-innocent-little-girl to Mary-as-adult-slave-girl in the story within a story. I suspect audiences of the time had less problem with it, since they were used to accepting Mary Pickford as a child and saw the fantasy sequence as the innocent fantasy of that child, but for me it was harder to adjust. The costumes of the thieves are almost Keystone-esque in their mockery of Middle Eastern culture, although that’s probably appropriate for a child of 1917 as well. On the whole, this is a good movie, reasonably typical for the period, well-edited and staged, and with a more courageous use of darkness and shadows than is typical for the time. Some scenes in the darkened rooms of the school even allow shadows to fall on Pickford’s face, in an almost film-noir style. It’s certainly an opportunity to see Mary Pickford doing what made her “America’s sweetheart” in her prime.
*The title of this movie is in some dispute. Nearly every modern source I can find refers to it as “A Little Princess,” but every contemporary ad shows it as “The Little Princess.” Since articles are mostly a nuisance for indexing anyway, I have simply omitted using either.
Director: Marshall Neilan
Run Time: 1 hr
You can watch it for free: here.