#440) The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917)

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#440) The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917)

OR “There’s Something About Mary”

Directed by Maurice Tourneur

Written by Frances Marion. Based on the play by Eleanor Gates.

Class of 1991

The Plot: Gwendolyn (Mary Pickford) is the titular poor little rich girl; she has servants waiting on her day and night, yet is denied affection from her parents (Madlaine Traverse & Charles Wellesly) and rarely socializes with other children. On her 11th birthday, Gwen becomes sick, and an overdose of sleeping medicine sends her to the fantasy world of the Tell-Tale forest and the Garden of Lonely Children. Aided by fantastical characters who look a lot like people from her real life, Gwen travels this magical land to find a way to connect with her distant family. Hmmm…this sound so familiar…

Why It Matters: The NFR’s write-up is ONE SENTENCE, and not a very detailed one at that. The accompanying essay by Mary Pickford expert Eileen Whitfield gives a little more insight into the film’s production.

But Does It Really?: I went into “Poor Little Rich Girl” with somewhat high expectations after being bored to tears with Pickford’s other NFR offering: “Tess of the Storm Country”. I agree that Mary Pickford should be on this list, and overall this film is enjoyable, if a bit plodding, but I have yet to hear a compelling argument as to why this specific Mary Pickford film made the cut. She was already a star at this point in her career, and the film does not have any historical significance other than it was also successful. Perhaps it’s the name recognition that puts “Poor Little Rich Girl” at the head of the class. It’ll do for now, but surely there’s a more superior Pickford offering out there.

Everybody Gets One: Stage actor Madlaine Traverse reprises her role as Gwen’s mother from the original stage play.

Wow, That’s Dated: Organ grinders, plus punishing your child by making them cross-dress. Break those gender constructs!

Other notes

  • By 1917, Mary Pickford was Hollywood’s biggest star, and had a contract with Famous Players (now Paramount) that granted her full control over her films, as well as half the profits. “Poor Little Rich Girl” was produced by Pickford’s own production company, another perk from the new contract.
  • The stage version of “Poor Little Rich Girl” originally played Broadway in 1913 and starred Viola Dana. Ms. Dana eventually became a film star herself, and her 1917 offering “The Girl Without a Soul” is also in the NFR.
  • This was the first movie where Mary Pickford played a child, as opposed to a childish ingénue (ick). Pickford was 25 years old when she played 11-year-old Gwen, her short stature (around 5’1”) aiding in the illusion. In addition, certain set pieces were built at a slightly larger scale.
  • Director Maurice Tourneur did not get along with Mary Pickford, who (along with screenwriter Frances Marion) insisted on adding a few gags into the film. Tourneur did not appreciate the additions, stating his films were dignified, but Pickford was “the muscle” on her films, and got her way. Pickford and Tourneur did not work together after “Poor Little Rich Girl”.
  • Gwen’s banker father and socialite mother are too preoccupied to care for her? Maybe this family just needs Mary Poppins.
  • Am I missing something with Mary Pickford? She’s clearly having fun in the role, and she’s as cute as I am allowed to find a woman playing a child, but I’m missing her overall appeal. This is the biggest star of her time?
  • These domestics are really pushing a fear of bears onto Gwen. She has a bigger case of arkoudaphobia than Stephen Colbert.
  • I am enjoying Gwen’s occasional daydreams in which she literalizes everyone’s figures of speech. Very “Bobby’s World”.
  • Cinematographers Lucien Andriot and John van den Broek are having fun with the camera once Gwen starts getting drowsy.
  • The Garden of Lonely Children? Is that like the Island of Misfit Toys?
  • I know Gwen’s just trying to be polite to the Organ Grinder, but “Mr. Grinder” takes on a whole new meaning these days.
  • The fantasy scenes are definitely the movie’s highlight, but we don’t get to them until more than two thirds of the way through. They should have been the bulk of the movie, a la “Wizard of Oz”! But hey, that’s my critique of 103-year-old movie that has endured just fine without me.

Legacy

  • “The Poor Little Rich Girl” was another hit for Mary Pickford, and kicked off a string of movies in which Pickford played a child, including “Pollyanna”, “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm”, and “Little Annie Rooney”. Pickford’s career faltered after the transition to talkies, but she survived as a producer and co-founder of United Artists.
  • Director Maurice Tourneur would go on to direct another NFR entry/children’s fantasy: 1918’s “The Blue Bird”.
  • “The Poor Little Rich Girl” is one of several Mary Pickford films that were remade in the ‘30s as a Shirley Temple vehicle. The Temple version drops the “The” from the title, as well as pretty much everything else from the original plot.
  • Poor Little Rich Girl was also the nickname linked to Barbara Hutton, a wealthy socialite whose tragic personal life earned her the moniker. The title was also used for her inevitable TV movie starring Farrah Fawcett.

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