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?
Continuing my efforts to watch as many William Wellman pre-Codes as possible, I’ve now seen Lilly Turner a couple of times. This movie sadly isn’t available on DVD as yet – I believe it sometimes turns up on TCM in the US, though, and is well worth looking out for. It strikes me there are easily enough early Wellman movies for a second Forbidden Hollywood collection focusing on him, though it’s more likely the lesser-known titles will turn up as Warner Archive releases.
This was the second time Ruth Chatterton had starred in a Wellman film (the first was Frisco Jenny the previous year. Once again she plays a woman who is forced to be tough by circumstances, but who still clings to a few battered ideals. This time, her character, Lilly, is a woman working in a succession of travelling carnivals. Wellman clearly enjoys creating the sleazy, down-at-heel circus atmosphere. The whole film feels varied and lively and, packing a lot of plot, dialogue, melodrama and black humour into just 65 minutes, moves at a breathless speed. (As with Wellman’s So Big!, it was originally longer and some footage was cut before release – Walter Brennan was among the actors whose scenes were deleted.) George Brent gets top billing opposite Chatterton, but he only comes into the film fairly late on – and to my mind Frank McHugh really has the main male role, as the heroine’s second husband. Robert Barrat is also superb as a tormented strongman, with a heavy German accent he was breaking in for Heroes For Sale.
For a director with a macho reputation, William Wellman made a lot of movies featuring strong female characters. Admittedly, it wasn’t always his choice to make these films – for instance, I have read that Wings was originally supposed to be an all, or mainly, male film before the studio told him to cast Clara Bow, who ended up getting top billing. According to the TCM account of the making of Frisco Jenny, Warner producer Darryl Zanuck ordered Wellman to make this movie and also cast Ruth Chatterton in the lead – originally Wellman was none too thrilled at this and the director and star weren’t even on speaking terms.
However, just as Wellman worked so well with Bow in Wings, the same thing happened with Chatterton, and in the end they got on very well and went on to work together again. Frisco Jenny is one of the six early Wellman films included in the great Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume Three box set, and I found it very enjoyable to watch – at times rather like a female version of the male gangster films of the era, as Jenny wears a succession of flamboyant outfits and rises to the top of the Barbary Coast underworld.