Daddy-Long-Legs (Marshall Neilan, 1919)

This posting is my entry for the Mary Pickford blogathon which KC is organising over the next three days  at her blog Classic Movies. Please do visit and look at the other entries – there are some great contributions lined up. I do discuss the whole plot of Daddy-Long-Legs in this piece, so if you don’t know the story’s ending you may want to see the film first.

 Mary Pickford is well-known for playing children convincingly in many of her films. She does so very effectively in Daddy-Long- Legs, a box office smash based on Jean Webster’s classic American coming-of-age novel, where she starts off as a 12-year-old waif in an orphanage – and ends as an assured young woman in her 20s. The film has been beautifully restored, with colour tints for most of the scenes, varying from blue to gold and red, depending on the mood and time of day. It was released some years back on DVD by Image Entertainment in region 1, but unfortunately the DVD is now deleted and extremely expensive secondhand, with copies going for around  $50! However, I was able to watch the restored print in the UK via Lovefilm (similar to Netflix) streaming. I believe it is also currently available to watch at Youtube, though without the music by Maria Newman which adds a lot of atmosphere to the official release.

I’d read Jean Webster’s novel as a child but didn’t really remember it, so I’ve just quickly reread it – and enjoyed it very much. She has a witty and charming way of writing (she was Mark Twain’s great-niece and has a similarly dry style at times), and her digressions, into discussions of various classic writers and her heroine’s forthright opinions on all kinds of topics, are often the most fascinating part of the book.  It’s the story of a young girl, foundling Jerusha “Judy” Abbot, who has grown up in an orphanage and been kept on as an unpaid assistant. But she is then sent to college, thanks to a mystery benefactor, one of the institution’s trustees – who asks that she writes him a letter once a month telling of her life and studies. She nicknames him “Daddy-Long-Legs’ because, although she has never seen him to speak to, she did once catch a brief glimpse of his long legs. During her studies, she is befriended by and gradually falls in love with Jervis Pendleton, the uncle of one of her room-mates… but what is his secret?

Mary Pickford was just 27 when Daddy-Long-Legs was released, but she makes a convincing child in the first half of the movie. I’ve read that this was partly achieved by filming her against outsized sets to make her seem smaller, but she also does a great deal by the way she moves, with a childlike speed and exuberance. In the second half of the film, where she is playing a college girl and aspiring writer, she starts to move more slowly and with smaller, naturalistic gestures, which give the feeling of her character’s greater maturity.

The film was directed by Marshall Neilan, who was a top director in the silent era and worked with Pickford on several movies. (There is an interesting article about Daddy-Long-Legs at film director Peter Bogdanovich’s blog, looking at Neilan’s work and tracing how his frequent blend of drama and humour within a single scene was an important influence on Howard Hawks.) Pickford produced the film and a TCM article says that by some accounts she stepped in to direct some scenes herself, on occasions when Neilan was sidelined by his drink problem.

At times in its early scenes the movie feels almost like a book, with frequent interruptions from wordy intertitles, in an artistic script and with illustrations. The opening compares children to flowers, cutting in between a cosseted hothouse flower and a wild flower growing up on a wasteland – which are then compared to a spoilt rich girl, Angelina (Fay Lemport) and poor heroine Judy. Angelina/Angie, daughter of a rich trustee, isn’t in the novel, but her character helps to point up everything that Judy hasn’t got.

In the book, the orphanage childhood is described briefly in the first few pages, with most of the novel devoted to Judy’s college days – although she often refers back to her childhood. However, when Webster adapted her novel to become a play on Broadway in 1914, she had to add more material about the orphanage to fill the whole first act. Ruth Chatterton, later a pre-Code film star, played Judy on Broadway and production shots of her  look very similar to stills of Pickford in the early scenes of the movie.  In the film, the orphanage section grows still more, to fill around half of the 85-minute running length.

Please, Sir, I want some less: Mary Pickford has had enough of prunes

In the book the orphanage is mainly dull and uninspiring, a place where the orphans are lectured about duty rather than being inspired by love. However, in the film, the John Weir orphanage becomes a far more sinister place, a Dickensian institution where the children are ill-treated and half-starved, with prunes served up at every meal. Pathos and slapstick are mixed in the early scenes in a rather Chaplinesque way, with scenes like one where Judy and a fellow-orphan are thrown out into the grounds for refusing to eat yet another helping of prunes. A passer-by throws a barrel of cider over the fence, which they drink, quickly becoming drunk (there is some great experimental camerawork from Charles Rosher, showing the buildings about them reeling around). In the ensuing mayhem, a dog also gets drunk and staggers around on its hind legs, while a cruel orphanage assistant lands in the well. I have to wonder if some footage has been lost here, as we never learn whether the assistant gets out of the well again!

Judy (Mary Pickford) entertaining the orphans

Later on Judy entertains the younger orphans with some hilarious mime sequences, including one where it appears as if someone is grabbing her from behind a door. Pickford’s comic flair certainly comes across here, and I wondered if these scenes might have influenced the early sections of William Wyler’s The Good Fairy (1935), where  orphanage girl Margaret Sullavan also performs for the younger children. However, there is also poignant melodrama worked in, piling up to a heartbreaking climax when Judy steals a doll from Angelina  to comfort a dying toddler, and is then punished for her action – her hand deliberately burnt on a stove as the matron warns her she will land up in hellfire.

After the slapstick, angry humour and heartbreak of the first half of the film, the second half is quieter and rather less powerful, as Judy goes to college and becomes a young lady. There aren’t many scenes of actual study, with more of the focus going on to a love triangle, as Judy is wooed by her friend’s brother, Jimmie McBride, played by director Marshall Neilan, and also by her anonymous benefactor, Jervis, played by handsome silent film actor Mahlon Hamilton.

Mahlon Hamilton, who plays Jervis

There is obviously something disturbing about Judy being romanced by someone who has a secret hold over her, as Jervis does, and the fact that Judy addresses her letters to him as “Daddy” adds to the suggestion of something illicit. However, Hamilton manages to create sympathy for Jervis despite his character’s manipulative behaviour by looking pale and tortured, and making it clear that he is painfully aware of the age gap between himself and Judy. Hamilton was in fact only 12 years older than Pickford (in the novel the age gap is 14 years), but he looks older than he is, and as if he really is old enough to be her father.  Judy initially turns Jervis down when he proposes because she feels she is unsuited to his grand family – and in the book she is also determined to earn her own living. And, just like Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre, he has to suffer illness and come near to death before the heroine he has both used and educated is at last able to come to him as an equal.

Daddy-Long-Legs has been filmed several times, including a 1931 talkie with Janet Gaynor and Warner Baxter, as well as a 1955 musical partly set in France, starring Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron,  and a 1934 version entitled Curly Top starring Shirley Temple – in that version the story had to be changed to feature two heroines, a young orphan and her older sister. There have also been adaptations in more recent years, including a stage musical, Korean and Indian films and anime TV versions, showing the continued appeal of  the story. I hope to write about the Gaynor and Baxter film here soon and look at how it compares with the Pickford film.


27 thoughts on “Daddy-Long-Legs (Marshall Neilan, 1919)

  1. Fascinating review – I really want to see this silent film now. Clever caption “Please sir, I want some less”!


    • Thank you – it’s definitely a film worth seeing. I couldn’t resist that joke when I thought of it, and I do think that whole section of the movie feels very Dickensian, with some very black humour worked in.


  2. I’ve always been a big fan of the Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron version of Daddy Long Legs, but Mary Pickford’s silent version sounds good too. I hope I get a chance to see it soon.


    • I love the Astaire and Caron version too – they are very different, though, as the Pickford version has the focus more on the orphanage. Thanks very much for commenting, Dawn, and hope you get to see the silent version.


  3. Pickford had such an innocent face which most likely contibutes to her being able to get away with being taken for a child. Have not seen this film, in fact, I have not seen any version of the story including the Fred A. version which is probably the one most accessible. Thanks Judy for shedding some light on this film!


    • Pickford does make a surprisingly convincing child considering she was in her mid-20s – I agree her face helps though I think she also does a lot with the way she moves. Both Astaire and Caron are great in the musical version and I would say that one is definitely worth seeing too. Thanks, John!


  4. Marshall Neilan is one of the most interesting characters I’ve learned about as I’ve researched Mary for this blogathon. Despite his drinking, he clearly played an important role in Mary’s success. I’d definitely like to learn more about him. I’m really fond of Daddy-Long-Legs because it’s one of the first Pickford films I saw where I realized how funny she could be. I think this is one of her most lively and entertaining performances. Loved the review. Thanks for participating in the blogathon!


    • I’d like to know more about Neilan, too, and to see more of his movies – the piece about him by Peter Bogdanovich which I linked to in my review has me intrigued. Must agree that Pickford is very funny in this film – “lively and entertaining” is a perfect description. Thanks for commenting, KC, and thanks very much for organising the blogathon!


  5. Daddy Long Legs was probably the first Mary Pickford movie I ever watched. I saw it on my laptop computer and even in a format like that, I still managed to get Mary Pickford’s charm and got instantly hooked on her personality. The film is definitely a standout especially with that scene where they stare wildly at a drunk dog walking on two legs.


    • I agree the film is a standout and that dog is amazing – clearly a very talented animal, managing to walk on two legs and act drunk at the same time. Thanks very much for commenting, Melissa.


  6. I watched this movie yesterday and laughed a lot with the two orphans being drunk. You made a good point: did the assistant get ou of the well? I didn’t think about her after she fell there.
    I’ll watch the version with Fred and Leslie tomorrow. Maybe it’ll be a little weird, since they were 31 years apart. I hope to watch the Janet Gaynor version if I find it, too. The review is awesome.
    I’m also in the blogathon, witha review of Sparrows.


    • Glad to hear you enjoyed this film too, Le – it would be interesting to find out the answer about the well! You’re right that there was a big age gap for the Astaire/Caron version but I love them both so didn’t really mind all that much… hope to watch it again soon and compare them, as well as the Janet Gaynor one. Thanks very much for the kind comments on my review – I will be over to read yours.


  7. I would love to see the beautifully restored version -I saw this many years ago and the copy was not very good. Nevertheless, a film could be in tatters an Mary’s brilliance would shine through. A very lovey post!


    • Thank you! I hope you do get to see the restored version; the colour tints are lovely. Agree about the brilliance of Pickford’s performance.


  8. Judy,
    You certainly chose one of Mary’s better early silents here to review. I’m a big fan of hers though. When I first started watching her films long ago, I was admittedly a bit annoyed, put off that she kept playing children at her age. It just seemed ridiculous to me but given the time I can see the appeal for audiences, wanting an escape, to remember happier times. Children certainly bring out the best in us! Of course the more I became a fan of her early films I didn’t mind it as much.

    I had totally forgotten about the prunes but I had to laugh here since my great grandmother loved prunes and every time we came to visit we would beg for them, usually forgetting that when we got home we would have a stomach ache etc for a couple of days thereafter!

    You’ve certainly done a lot of research for this article and i truly enjoyed your honest review. This film I’m so glad got it’s well deserved restoration and I do hope many more silents will in due time.


    • Must confess I haven’t seen many of her films as yet, Page – I thought she made quite a convincing child in this one, though, and will be interested to see more of her work in this vein. I’ve never been a fan of prunes, must admit. Thanks very much for the kind comments on my review and I agree it would be good to see more silents properly restored.


  9. A magnificent essay, and a real blessing for the Mary Pickford blogothon. Judy, my apologies for not getting to this review and the blogothon, which is a lamentable case of forgetfulness. Pickford, America’s ‘sweetheart’ remains one of silent cinema’s icons and her performance in this film (as in LITTLE LORD FAUNTLEROY, SPARROWS and MY BEST GIRL) will always be seen as among her most unforgettable work. The film does in some ways bring to mind the later THE KID by Chaplin, and Charles Rosher photographed Murnau’s SUNRISE, one of the greatest of all films and a work of exceeding visual distinction. With the several re-makes that followed it, this original version is still seen as the best, and a testament to Pickford’s artistry and teh harrowing scenes in the orphanage.

    Beautful artistic and historical framing Judy. I’ll be sure to check out the blogothon tomorrow.


    • Thanks very much, Sam, and definitely no need for apologies; it is kind of you to comment and I appreciate all your support. I haven’t seen very much Pickford as yet and need to check out the other titles you mention here. Interesting comparison with ‘The Kid’ – the cranking up of emotion mixed with black humour in the orphanage scenes does have a similar feeling to it. And yes, Charles Rosher was wonderful!


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  12. I’ve not seen this version but have seen the 1955 Daddy-Long-Legs ,which partly stayed with me. Do you know the latter one? I’d be interested in a comment on how they differ. Just now I’m watching the re-make of _Mildred Pierce_ (2011, Kate Winslett, HBO) which while very moving is less subversive than the Joan Crawford where the central female is angry, smoldering from the get-go, no ideal mother (as Winslett is). Is Hamliton a great dancer? Astaire was and the movie was about that :), I enjoyed reading your blog, Judy.


    • Ellen, thank you. :) Yes, I have seen and really like the Astaire/Caron version of ‘Daddy-Long-Legs’ – I have been meaning to write another piece looking at the changes which it and the other film versions make to the story, but haven’t had time so far. Hopefully I will still manage to do that, but, anyway, I think the main difference is that the Astaire version puts a lot more of the spotlight on the character of Jervis. It also mainly focuses on Judy’s college life rather than on the orphanage, which is only really seen in one memorable scene. There is no dancing and music in the earlier versions; the story was turned into a musical for Astaire and Caron.

      I haven’t seen the new ‘Mildred Pierce’ yet (it was shown on a TV station that I don’t have access to in the UK) but hope to do so soon, as I do like the Joan Crawford film very much and will be interested to compare the two versions. Thanks again!


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  15. Thank you Judy for this discussion. My great aunt, Fay Lemport played the nasty, spoiled rich girl in this movie. It is so wonderful to see my grandmother’s sister on film. I think she was pretty darn good. Last year, at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the featured film was a restored version of Huckleberry Finn. It was thought to be lost, but another copy was found in Denmark. They brought it back. It is a beauty. I am still trying to see if copies will be available. She was also in a movie called “Heart of Youth”. It is gone. I am learning a lot about the silent movie genre now. Daddy Long Legs is a great example of how wonderful Pickford was and is.


    • Thank you for commenting, Celeste – it must be great to see your great-aunt in this film and I do agree she was good in it. It must also have been excitingto see that restored version of ‘Huckleberry Finn’ – it is so good that films thought to be lost are still turning up, though sadly many are lost forever. I’m also trying to learn more about silent movies and have loads I need to watch. Thanks again!


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