(The Poor Little Rich Girl)
Orphaned following a mill factory strike, accused of being an unfit mother and nearly widowed by the hangman’s noose, Mae Marsh ran the emotional gamut as the little Dear One of Intolerance, her most demanding role for Griffith. Alternately winsome, waiflike and old before her time, the actress gave a forceful accounting of herself and some of her close-ups, such as the hand-wringing in the famous courtroom scene, are so haunting they anticipate imagery of the hungry, oppressed masses the great Soviet directors would be capturing a decade on. Despite divided opinion on Intolerance itself Marsh’s performance was universally admired so it would have been impossible for Oscar to argue she hadn’t given the year’s best performance. Even after she joined Goldwyn, Peter Milne of Motion Picture News was still invoking “her right to be termed the best actress of the shadow stage,” and The New York Times, which found the Griffith film utterly incoherent while raving about Demille’s Joan the Woman, still felt it would have benefited had Marsh been cast as the sainted Maid of Orleans instead of Geraldine Farrar.
While additional shooting was done, the substance of Marsh’s performance in the Modern Story had actually been canned prior to the release of The Birth of a Nation. Having originally intended it as a separate film before elaborating on the concept, Griffith would eventually cave to critical consensus and wind up reissuing The Mother and the Law as a standalone feature anyhow to recoup some of his accrued costs. Ironically many film historians now believe this more emotionally direct version superior to the diluted flashes jumbled in together with Intolerance’s other narrative threads. So one can’t be quite sure which year Marsh’s performance should most rightfully be jotted in. But it’s of small matter since each time I see the film the more taken I am with Constance Talmadge in the Babylonian segment. Just as Marsh had stolen The Birth of a Nation from its nominal leading lady so Talmadge, in the words of Leonard Maltin, “gives a most appealing and contemporary performance as the sprightly Mountain Girl.” Her emergence as a star here and the ragtime flavor of her fashion forward performance helped make her one of the most popular light comedians of the Jazz Age. However 1916-17 was an even more pivotal turning point in the career of another movie queen, Mary Pickford, who gave the first of her many popular portrayals of children. So I’m selecting her Best Actress for The Poor Little Rich Girl over Marsh’s little Dear One.
Pickford’s pique at Griffith’s promotion of newcomer Marsh to the coveted starring role in his Biograph short The Sands of Dee (reward for her playing a scantily clad cave girl in Man’s Genesis after his other actresses, following Pickford’s lead, refused) had prompted her departure for Broadway where she felt acting experience was to be more reasonably rewarded. She’d returned to movies even more famous than before, but by 1916-17 Pickford’s long reign as “America’s Sweetheart” had begun to wane. Blaming studio interference for the discouraging response to her recent releases, she insisted on creative control of The Poor Little Rich Girl, entrusting the adaptation of Eleanor Gates’ popular stage play to friend and confidante Frances Marion, knowing she would be in full sympathy. The women were satisfied with the results, but when no one else at the studio seemed enthusiastic, a contrite Pickford was rushed into two films under the auspices of Cecil B. Demille. Yet despite all the dire prognostications, The Poor Little Rich Girl proved to be one of the biggest hits of her career, commencing a decade long succession of similar triumphs including Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, The Little Princess, Stella Maris, Daddy Long Legs, Pollyanna, Little Lord Fauntleroy and Sparrows among others. Pickford proved a perfect fit for the part Viola Dana had done in theater and this being the first of her many child impersonations, the gild hadn’t yet worn off the gingerbread from too many similar, sugary sentiments.
An object demonstration that money can’t buy happiness, her Gwendolyn is a ‘poor’ little rich girl despite being born with a silver spoon in her mouth because her preoccupied parents’ financial and social obligations deprive her of “—the Love she longed for.” She has toys galore but no real friends to play with, apart from the tight circle of stuffed animals she surrounds herself with and those random playmates she collects when free of supervision, such as the organ grinder and plumber. Despite her generosity of spirit, Gwen’s only permanent companions are the army of governesses, housekeepers, maids, cooks, tutors, butlers and gardeners who drill, chaperon, instruct and endlessly scold her. Starved for affection, she’s actually a pitiable figure of misfortune and in her fever-induced fantasy things are seen for what they really are. “Take you, for instance. You think you have everything. In fact, you have nothing at all,” her fancy lace dress, frills, bows and pinafore transforming to cheap gingham, just as they had in Pickford’s version of Cinderella.
Isolated as she is, her palatial home seems as cold and empty as a museum. Frequently framed in windows that form proscenium arches, Pickford’s Gwen is the prize exhibit in a display case, treasured from behind glass but too precious to be handled, just another collector’s showpiece to join the other toy curios in her dollhouse. Dragged away to her lessons, the iron bars of the elevator lift are clanged closed in her face like a prison cell, an idea evoked even more explicitly when she’s later seen in relation to a canary in its birdcage.
Gwen is confined in this ivory tower designed to keep her in and her social inferiors out and from her pedestal she gets brief, tantalizing glimpses of happy, poor children ice skating in the street below or listening to the organ grinder, until she’s robbed of even that vicarious thrill by a servant who lowers the shade, blotting out the stray rays of sunshine from her existence. Gwen’s impulsive revolt against her regimented life, the unfair rules and discipline the servants dish out, is meant to be the outburst of a toddler who just wants to play and have fun, enjoy an average, irresponsible all-American childhood.
It’s plain through Pickford, who did so much to boost morale during her war bond drives, that the rebellious nature welling up on Gwen’s part is an unconscious effort to embrace more democratic values despite her elitist conditioning. As the local ragamuffins attest, “She’s a good little feller, even if she is rich.” Rather than remain exclusive in a manner more befitting her privileged station in life, Gwen wants to mingle with the common folk, telling her taskmaster tutors “A school-room of my own is too big and lonesome. When my birthday comes, I can ask for what I like and it’s going to be the Public School.” Cooped up all the time, Gwen has boundless energy to expend, allowing an irrepressible Pickford to impress with her high spirits. The stiffness of Gwen’s formal dance instruction gives way to spontaneous merriment and mirth at the hurdy-gurdy she orchestrates to the accompaniment of the street musicians. Proving she doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty, she’ll plunge into an epic mud fight, after the Keystone manner of custard pie throwing, leaving the carefully groomed greenhouse gardens in chaos. Similarly her “dreaded” daily constitutional in a personal coach, another ploy to keep her shut away when she’d rather walk, pales next to the pleasant stroll she takes on foot with her companions in dreamland, even if she does make the drive bearable by doodling on the frosted window pane. When she tries to take a bath without her nurse’s supervision, resulting in a broken sink faucet and sprinkling fountain of water, she might be a street urchin splashing through an open fire hydrant. Recognizing wealth as the source of her despair, Gwen throws her dresses out the window as if raining down pennies from heaven, donating them to the poor like a one woman clothing drive rather than see them go to a priggish tattletale without any imagination. Mischievous Pickford was living out the collective fantasies of all the children in the audience, getting away with the sort of naughty shenanigans they could only fantasize about.
With her infantile, foot-stomping temper tantrums, head shaking in a shimmering rainstorm of glorious golden ringlets, Gwen’s rebelling in particular against the expectations placed on little girls, that they should comport themselves like prim, proper, well brought up young darlings at all times, suppressing the inclination to romp and cavort. Pickford, who proved one of the toughest businesswomen in Hollywood despite her sugar and spice image, was well aware how looks can deceive.
This becomes evident in a highly unorthodox scene when her character is trussed up in boys’ clothes as ‘punishment,’ only to end up enjoying a taste of life as the opposite sex. Gwen finds it a liberating experience since in this Little Lord Fauntleroy getup she’s accepted as an equal. She can whistle in a rude, unladylike fashion, play in the mud, get dirty and rough house with the local gang of pintsized hooligans without anyone thinking less of her or applying limitations because of her gender. It’s only the fact that Gwen is a little girl, meaning her unruly behavior needn’t be taken seriously, that she’s able to flounce about in willful defiance. But it’s also why she’s slipped a sedative by her servants to pacify her, keeping her quiet the way well-behaved children are supposed to be, seen and not heard. In such a confusing world, full of things half-heard and half-understood without anyone to explain them to her, it’s no wonder this neglected child ends up overdosing (“Here’s the dope.”), drugged on sleeping medicine as her negligent parents toast the health of their daughter. Narcotics not being something one generally associates with the squeaky clean image of America’s Sweetheart, this might be the only time Pickford got to portray the effects of drug-induced stupor on screen. She laughs deliriously as the world starts to spin around her then, under their increasing influence proves unable to get her balance, tottering about with growing concern as the camera itself tilts in a manner meant to emulate her interior frame of mind, much as it would when Pickford was under the spell of strong drink in Daddy Long Legs. The actress makes it clear that we’re sharing her subjective state, and seeing things through Gwen’s eyes primes us to enter her fantasy world.
Directed by French auteur Maurice Tourneur, The Poor Little Rich Girl represents one of the few times Pickford worked with a truly world class director. But possessing strong creative opinions of her own, the two clashed over the concept and tone of the movie and her unscripted comic improvisations. Their differing temperaments came to a head during the mud fight scene, which Pickford felt would appeal to the children in the audience but Tourneur found too “ugly” and earthy for the more refined sort of film he had in mind.
Subsumed by the star in The Poor Little Rich Girl, his vision wouldn’t fully come through until The Blue Bird the following year. An elaboration on the stylized, starkly simplistic storybook look here, it allowed Tourneur to explore unbidden the theme of a child’s quest for happiness, and is regarded as his masterpiece. But lovely as it is to look at, without a guiding hand to rein him in the director was free to indulge his worst tendency, illustrating a still-life series of beautifully composed tableaux. Shaped more to suit the demands of a star personality, Pickford’s input ensures The Poor Little Rich Girl remains lively.
The original theatrical play ran on Broadway only a few years after the turn of the century stage adaptation of The Wizard of Oz, and when The Poor Little Rich Girl lapses into Gwen’s surreal fever dream where stray turns of phrase such as ‘Silly Ass,’ ‘Snake in the Grass’ and ‘Two-Face’ filter through her imagination as she drifts in and out of consciousness, current viewers will see clear intimations of the classic MGM musical version of twenty years later. That film’s director, Victor Fleming was active in films when The Poor Little Rich Girl was released, working on many vehicles starring Pickford’s future husband Douglas Fairbanks, so it’s likely he saw her version and remembered it when making his own children’s classic.