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.
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!
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.
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.