Thursday, 27 March 2014

Poor Little Rich Girl (1917)

It is absolutely bizarre when one considers the facts rationally for a fully mature young woman of 24 years to play a child who turns eleven during the course of the movie. However that is exactly what Mary Pickford does in this film and you just about find yourself believing and enjoying every minute of what should be a complete farce.

Pickford had played 'young' earlier in her long career, but never this young, and she was convinced that the film would be a flop and that it would put an end to her appeal. On the contrary, it proved to be a colossal hit and so popular with audiences of the time, that she was 'forced' to continue playing much younger than her years until she was well into her thirties. Bizarre is definitely the right word.

I have seen a number of her films over the years and generally didn't really think about the illusion one way or another, but she is totally believable here. She plays the pampered yet ignored only child of distracted parents who expend rather more effort on their social life and business respectively than they do on their daughter. Instead of their attention or affection, she is relegated to a lonely life with only a raft of servants and tutors for company. From her window she can view the thrill of childhood as she watches the neighbourhood kids, but it is a world away from her own experience. She tries to emulate their joie de vivre by inviting in an organ-grinder and a visiting plumber -- Mr Pipes -- for an impromptu dance or by trying to engage in a mud fight with some of the street children. Apart from Pickford's projecting herself into the body and spirit of the girlish Gwen, the illusion is enhanced by the skill of the film's director, Maurice Tourneur, a Frenchman specialising in fantasy pictures. Although a diminutive lady (I believe she stood under five foot), she seems even smaller here by Tourneur's employment of large scale sets and props, carefully-chosen tall actors, and clever camera angles.

The movie is also one of the first to employ actual dialogue rather than just descriptive scene-setting in the title cards, deftly created by the ground-breaking female screenwriter, Frances Marion. When some of the servants overdose young Gwen with a sedative so that they can go out to the 'theayter', Tourneur provides one of cinema's most inventive and surreal dream sequences as the girl hovers between life and death, finally to mommy's and daddy's concern. Her delirious mind visualises overheard phrases so that she can actually see 'the big-eared' and 'two-faced' servants or understand what it means for her mother to have a social bee in her bonnet or for her father to be at the mercy of Wall Street bears. It is all done in so charming a manner that one forgets that one is viewing a silent movie that is approaching its hundredth birthday. Of all her many films, this one is probably the best introduction to Pickford's enduring skills.

When as a punishment for throwing all her fine dresses out of a window, Gwen is forced by her father to dress for a while as a boy -- he can recall the reverse punishment when he misbehaved as a lad (again, how bizarre!) -- she totally delights in being able to mix with a local gang. With her long curls tucked under a cap, it is amazing how reminiscent of her successor, Shirley Temple, Pickford becomes. Temple did in fact star in a movie of the same name in 1936 which was pleasant enough on its own terms, but apart from the title, the two movies have little else in common and nowhere near the same spirit of invention. 

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