Directed By: Paul Powell
Starring: Mary Pickford, Wharton James, Katherine Griffith
Trivia: This movie was shot in and has a copyright year of 1919 but was first released in 1920
Trivia: A complete print of Pollyanna is preserved at the Mary Pickford Institute for Film Education
She was “America’s Sweetheart”, an actress who, though known for playing adolescent characters, was arguably the biggest star of her time.
Star? Hell, Mary Pickford was Hollywood royalty! The first performer to be paid $10,000 a week, Paramount Pictures also gave her full control over the movies in which she appeared, and even allotted her a percentage of the profits. When her contract expired in 1918, she decided to take her talents elsewhere, causing a frustrated Adolph Zukor (head of Paramount), who wanted to prevent her from signing with the competition, to offer Pickford a whopping $250,000 to retire from the motion picture industry.
She didn’t, and in a few years’ time, Pickford would team with then-husband Douglas Fairbanks Sr., as well as friends Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith, to form United Artists, and the first movie she’d make for this brand new independent film company was 1920’s Pollyanna. The story of an orphan girl who moves in with her miserly aunt, Pollyanna provided the actress with yet another opportunity to play a much younger character (Pickford was 27 when she made this movie, portraying a girl of only 12). And like many of her previous films, Pollyanna was a huge success, taking in over $1 million at the U.S. box office.
After the death of her missionary father (Wharton James), 12-year-old Pollyanna (Pickford) leaves her friends in the Ozark Mountains and heads to New England, where her only living relative, Aunt Polly (Katherine Griffith), resides. A wealthy but cold-hearted woman, Aunt Polly is none too happy to have Pollyanna around, and lets the poor girl know it every chance she gets. Still, despite her current situation, Pollyanna remains upbeat, spreading happiness and good cheer wherever she goes. One day, while out playing, she meets fellow orphan Jimmy Bean (Howard Ralston), who’s about the same age as she is, and invites him home with her. Though Aunt Polly flat-out refuses to adopt Jimmy, Pollyanna decides to hide him in the basement, bringing him food whenever she can.
Days later, Pollyanna has a run-in with Aunt Polly’s neighbor, John Pendleton (William Cortleigh), who, coincidentally, was once in love with the young girl’s mother (his heart broke the day she left town to marry Pollyanna’s father). In need of someone to share his life with, Mr. Pendleton eventually adopts Jimmy, but just when things seem to be at their brightest, a tragedy occurs that threatens Pollyanna’s happiness, not to mention her very life.
A melodrama with some funny scenes scattered throughout, Pollyanna is as effective today as it was in 1920, yet the most amazing thing about this movie is how Mary Pickford shines in the title role. You wouldn’t think that a 27-year-old woman could pull off playing an adolescent girl, but that’s exactly what she does. Physically, she looks the part (official stats list her height as 5 feet even, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she was actually shorter), but more than this, Miss Pickford captures the innocence as well as the exuberance of an eternally optimistic pre-teen (she’s perfectly natural in the scenes where Pollyanna is playing with other children, and her sunny disposition lights up the screen). In addition, she handles the emotional moments with the greatest of ease (the opening sequence, where Pollyanna comforts her dying father, is extremely moving), and even shows a penchant for physical comedy (when Pollyanna first arrives in New England, a rainstorm is raging, with winds powerful enough to toss her around like a rag doll).
Despite winning an Academy Award for her performance in 1929’s Coquette, Mary Pickford’s career started going south when sound made its debut (it didn’t help that she was also in her mid-30’s by then). But if Pollyanna is any indication, Miss Pickford was, indeed, the real deal, the cream of the crop in early Hollywood, and deserved every single penny the studio heads threw her way.
In fact, she was probably worth twice as much.