67 – Pollyanna:
We have a film here that is based on one of the most notoriously sappy children’s books of all time. When I did my research and discovered that Disney adapted it, I rolled my eyes and went ‘of course.’ It was a similar reaction to the ones that critics had at the time. The book had a notorious reputation by the early 60s when it was put into production. And one critic said that in the hands of “the master of schmaltz”, it had the potential to be positively unbearable. But we really should not forget that – while plenty may condemn the man’s sentimental nature – Walt Disney was still a master storyteller. Although he did not direct or write this film, he still had a heavy involvement in it. He developed a special fondness for Pollyanna, and fell so in love with the final film that he refused to let any of the scenes be cut. At least according to word of mouth anyway. Despite low Box Office numbers, a few critics held this up as Disney’s best live action film yet. You can also thank this film for giving us child star Hayley Mills – who went on to star in the iconic The Parent Trap. So let’s get ready to play the Glad Game once again.
Pollyanna is a rather easy-reading children’s book written way back in the early 20th century. Eleanor Porter created a story about a perky and upbeat orphan girl, who finds herself in a cynical small town. With her ‘Glad Game’ and refusal to be sad about anything, Pollyanna manages to defrost an entire town like a rainbow of light straight from the Care Bears. It was an enormous success when it was released – many claiming that the Glad Game was one of the greatest things ever invented. For a time, there were even special ‘Glad Clubs’ where members would wear badges of smiling girls. Much like The Wizard of Oz, the most famous adaptation was not the first. America’s sweetheart Mary Pickford had played the title role in a silent film to great success. But the world of the 20th century was ever changing. The sinking of the Titanic and the outbreak of World War I – and the Holocaust a few decades later – were seen as a collective end to innocence. The book fell out of favour, and the public recovering from such worldwide disasters felt it belonged to a more innocent time. That didn’t stop Walt Disney from trying to revive its popularity though.
The opening credits begin with a rather eye-opening shot of a little boy’s bare bottom as he jumps into the river. I wonder if the little chap had a similar deal to the baby on that Nirvana album. The credits play over a sequence of us being introduced to the town of Harrington Falls – a picturesque and semi-pleasant little place in California-pretending-to-be-Vermont. At the train station, we meet our protagonist.
Walt Disney wanted an American girl in the lead, and searched through hundreds of different wannabe child stars. But his wife saw British actress Hayley Mills in Tiger Bay, and convinced him to fly out to London to meet her. Needless to say, this marked the first of Mills’s six-film deal with Disney – and it’s probably tied with The Parent Trap for her most remembered role. I personally couldn’t watch any other adaptation of Pollyanna, because Hayley Mills is just that good in the role. Despite a couple of issues that most child actors have, she becomes the character completely. Pollyanna is not actually an easy role to play. Mills doesn’t play her as this flawless, sweet messiah sent to cheer up the sourpusses. This Pollyanna is clearly a little odd, and she makes it clear that her Glad Game and quirky habits are just for herself. I’ll get into further detail about this later. Mills also does something nice and subtle with her acting that it took me a few watches to pick up on.
Pollyanna in the book is an American, but she’s played by a British actress. She’s clearly still meant to be American – given that her mother came from Harrington Falls. However, she’s said to have grown up in the British West Indies. And later in the film, she’s heard singing ‘Early One Morning’ – which is a British folk song. So it’s a way of implying that her father could have been British. But Mills also puts in a few subtle American pronunciations in her words. At first I thought that was just the effect of the culture shock – moving from London to California – but it’s actually a good way of telling us that Pollyanna grew up with a British and American parent.
Pollyanna has lost both her parents and now has come to live with her Aunt Polly. Polly Harrington – as in the same Harrington the town is named after. She’s picked up at the train station by Aunt Polly’s maid Nancy and the gardener. She also meets one of Aunt Polly’s friends Mrs Tarbell – whose establishing character moment is complaining about the train, and then reminding Pollyanna of how lucky she is that she didn’t end up in an orphanage. Apparently she’s supposed to be eternally grateful that her aunt did the decent thing and took her in.
Mrs Tarbell is also quite turned by a certain man getting off the train, going “wait until Polly hears about this”, before leaving. Pollyanna does several double takes when she sees the size of her aunt’s house. Put this from the perspective of a girl who’s wearing a dress she got in a missionary barrel: she’s in awe of a house even having more than one floor, let alone four with a huge garden – as well as maids, a cook, gardener and chauffer. She can’t quite believe that she is going to live here. Then she meets her aunt.
Aunt Polly is sort of the antagonist in this film, as much as one can be an antagonist in such a story. Aunt Polly is actually quite a layered character; she’s not just a one-dimensional sourpuss to be livened up by Pollyanna’s charm. She’s not mean, cruel or even particularly unkind. She’s quite generous to her niece. But it’s clear that she likes everything ‘just so’. For example, Nancy has a sweetheart called George than she doesn’t approve of and tries to put a stop to the romance. She’s even coaching the town’s reverend on what to use in his Sunday sermon. She’s obviously a very cold and aloof woman, and apparently doesn’t like being reminded of how rich she is.
Pollyanna is introduced to the rest of the house staff. There’s the upstairs maid Angelica, who permanently has the face of someone that’s been stung by a wasp. There’s also the cook Tilly – who appears to have emigrated to Harrington Falls from London after getting tired of cooking for Mr and Mrs Banks.
The child is shown her room, and it’s in the attic. A little insulting to give her the smallest room in such a large house. But Pollyanna is glad to have a room of her own. According to Aunt Polly at dinner, she’s given that room so there won’t be too many noises to distract everyone. Aunt Polly also seems annoyed at her niece relating snippets of her father’s wisdom. The movie never elaborates on why she dislikes the mention of Pollyanna’s father; the book suggests it’s because Aunt Polly wanted her sister to marry someone else. But I quite like to think that she in some way resents the man for marrying her sister – and thus leading to her death of malaria in the West Indies.
Aunt Polly also tells her niece that, as she’s a Harrington, she’s expected to conduct herself properly and like a lady. But she does allow Pollyanna to kiss her goodnight. This is a rather nice little bit clueing us into Aunt Polly’s character. Although her response to Pollyanna kissing her goodnight and saying she loves her is to say that her dress is hideous and she needs new ones – I see that as the first part of her attitude changing. She’s a woman who doesn’t have time for a lot of love. And she’s rarely on the receiving end of it. She’s so stunned by such a sincere gesture of affection that she doesn’t quite know how to respond. So buying Pollyanna new things is her way of trying to reciprocate. And even if the movie is set in the early 1900s, that doesn’t mean it isn’t time for…
I should probably point out that we’re twenty minutes in now, and very little has actually happened. This is what you’d call a ‘Slice of Life’ story. Emphasis is less on plot and story, and more on characters and the moments. You’re essentially spending the story getting to know someone. There may be conflict, but it’s mostly about getting to know the characters. Most of the movie is made up of Pollyanna going around the town and getting to know its residents. They run into Nancy’s sweetheart George. But since she doesn’t want Pollyanna blabbing to her aunt, the maid tries to pass him off as her cousin Fred. Pollyanna isn’t fooled however.
But when Aunt Polly wants to know why they’re home late, Pollyanna covers for Nancy. The entire town is meeting at the house, because a water pipe has busted at the local orphanage. And we find out who the man on the train is – a Dr Edmund Chilton. The looks exchanged between him and Aunt Polly tells us there’s a whole lot of history there. But we’ve got a town meeting to take care of. The Mayor feels that a new orphanage needs to be built, and he’s backed up by Edmund. Polly however insists that it just needs new plumbing, though her attitude seems more to do with the fact that her father donated the original building. It also looks like that, despite none of them agreeing with her, the townspeople won’t argue with Polly Harrington.
More positively, Pollyanna appears to have made her first friend. Nancy is quite grateful that she didn’t blow the whistle. This is an addition by Disney, as Nancy didn’t have a boyfriend in the book. The reasoning seems to be that he wanted Pollyanna to earn the friendships she makes throughout the story – which is a good idea. In return, Nancy gives Pollyanna a mirror for her room as well as a bit of gossip. Aunt Polly and Edmund were in love five years ago before he left. But they can’t dwell on this too much, since tomorrow is Sunday. And remember the coaching that the reverend got earlier?
Speaking as someone who was raised by very Catholic Irish parents and had to spend forty miserable minutes listening to a preacher whining most Sundays – I sympathise immensely with those poor people. In fairness, the reverend is a good guy. He’s just got a bad influence. It’s after the fire and brimstone sermon that Pollyanna suggests they play her ‘Glad Game’. She basically tries to find a reason to be glad about something in every situation. In this case, they can be glad the sermon is over because it means there are six whole days until they have to go to church again. Pollyanna then takes the time to wander by the orphanage – and then into my least favourite part of the movie.
Meet Jimmy Bean, the orphan. Unlike Hayley Mills, who is at least engaging as Pollyanna, this kid feels a little too forced and whimsical. He’s crucial to the story, but that doesn’t mean I have to like his segments. The two children visit the creek, where Edmund Chilton is fishing. Pollyanna asks him what happened between him and Aunt Polly, and if they used to be in love. Edmund replies in the affirmative on the second one, but doesn’t tell the first one. For some reason, they talk about Aunt Polly’s hair. Apparently she used to wear it down when she was in love.
Jimmy Bean takes Pollyanna to a spooky house, that’s apparently owned by a man who locks children in his basement. When Pollyanna meets the man – Mr Pendergast – she doubts this story very much. This scene is quite amusing because Pendergast just wants the children out of his house, but Pollyanna doesn’t seem to get it. Apparently she’s never turned out of a house. She keeps finding things to gawk at, while the poor old man just wants to be left in peace. She gets fascinated by the crystals on his lamp making a rainbow on his wall (oh to be that easily amused again). Then she finally does leave, thanking him for “showing me your house” – not quite understanding the difference between being invited and forcing your way in.
It seems this selective obliviousness runs in the family, as Aunt Polly doesn’t seem to get that Edmund Chilton came back to town to see her. Despite Edmund trying to make things romantic, Polly tries to keep it to business – namely what she needs to buy to help improve the orphanage. This is a rather interesting subplot in the story, coming in second to the Glad Game stuff. Aunt Polly does a lot of good things for the community – namely giving charity baskets to the less fortunate and donating money to various causes. But she doesn’t do it out of the goodness of her heart. She only does it out of obligation; she feels she ought to because she’s the richest woman in town. Edmund tells her off for this – and giving people “false charity” is really just a back handed way of reminding them of her superiority over them. So essentially ‘quality over quantity’; a charitable act means more coming from a place of sincerity rather than obligation.
This is underlined with the next sequence of Pollyanna and Nancy having to give out charity baskets to the less fortunate – after a very cute little bit of Pollyanna teaching Nancy to sing ‘Early One Morning’. Their last stop is the crabby old Mrs Snow and her poor put-upon daughter Millie. Mrs Snow is the “if it were Friday, she’d wish it was Tuesday” kind of crabby.
She stays in bed all day, convinced she’ll drop dead at any moment. She’s also rude and mean to everyone. But boy is she not ready for Pollyanna; the girl prompts a slight budge in the old woman by getting her to take an interest in her crystals making a rainbow on the walls. Millie and Nancy look in to see Pollyanna happily hanging them from the window to good effect. Despite Mrs Snow being as grumpy as ever, she still demands to know when Pollyanna will be back.
There’s now another town meeting, this one not in Aunt Polly’s house. Ben Tarbell – as in the husband of Aunt Polly’s beta bitch – says that a lot of townspeople fear what Aunt Polly will do to their businesses if they went against her. But more importantly, what their wives would do (as most of them belong to Polly’s charity group). By the time, Nancy and Pollyanna get there, they’ve at least decided to organise a bazaar to raise money for the new orphanage. Oh, and George is a little late to the party when Pollyanna reveals she knows exactly who he is.
Jimmy Bean, the demon child of whimsy, has to tag along when Pollyanna visits Mr Pendergast. The old man is pleased to get visitors, but does his best to hide it. Much geeking out over the prisms and rainbows ensues. Pollyanna also suggests that Mr Pendergast make a stall at the bazaar and sell them. She then takes a trip over to Mrs Snow’s house – where Grandma No-Goodie-Shoes is picking out the lining for her coffin.
Pollyanna tries not to think about this incredibly awkward revelation, and starts telling Mrs Snow the origin of the Glad Game. She had always wanted a doll when she was younger, but her family could never afford one. Her father sent a letter asking for them to send one in the missionary barrels. But they goofed and sent a pair of crutches instead – and since Star Wars hadn’t been invented yet, she couldn’t use them as light sabers. Her father suggested the Glad Game to make her feel better – in this case being glad because they didn’t need to use the crutches. The man selling the coffin lining (probably to ensure he actually makes a sale) scoffs at this and insults the game.
Pollyanna snaps. She actually goes ballistic. It’s the only time in the movie she really gets angry – yelling at Mrs Snow for how selfish she’s being. Sitting alone in her house all day thinking of nothing but dying, when she should be out living instead. This is quite a poignant scene, and not just because an angry Hayley Mills is unnerving on many levels. There is good reason to suggest that Pollyanna’s sunny disposition is a bit of an act. It doesn’t happen in the film, but the book has a part where she prays at her father’s grave and says how hard it is to be glad all the time. There are plenty of hints that she holds onto the Glad Game because it’s all she has left.
I mean, she’s lost both her parents, she grew up poor and never even had any toys. And she’s stuck with an aunt who couldn’t give a damn about actually caring for her. So Pollyanna is less annoyingly one-dimensional and more well-rounded, and actually a very positive role model. She accepts the hardships of life, but chooses to find a reason to be glad and go on. It seems she’s finally gotten through to Mrs Snow – as the old woman begins work on a patchwork quilt for the bazaar.
Pollyanna’s afternoon doesn’t get much better when she gets back home. Aunt Polly has heard all the news about the bazaar from Mrs Tarbell’s gossiping lips – and she forbids her niece from helping out. But Tilly and Angelica overhear this and, enraged, they set about making cakes for the bazaar – using ingredients from Polly’s own kitchen no less. Back in town, the sentiment towards the bazaar is mixed. The newspaper is afraid to run an ad for it, and the business owners are afraid to show support. Edmund Chilton goes over to see Aunt Polly to talk this over. Naturally, this turns into a bit of a row – and Edmund leaves with “you can give anything but love.”
Although Aunt Polly remains composed in front of the servants, the second she’s alone in her room, she actually breaks. The first time in the movie, we see the dignified proper lady let loose some genuine emotion. She unties her hair and sobs into the mirror. Such a thing sounds a little melodramatic, but in context it’s quite powerful. It’s a big reminder of the woman she used to be, that Edmund fell in love with. But she’s no longer that woman. She has no idea what happened to her, or how she’s become this way. The hair is something that Edmund in particular loved about her. And it seems for a moment that Aunt Polly letting it down is her vain attempt to try and return to the woman that Edmund loved.
It looks like the bazaar is off unless they can find someone to stand up to Aunt Polly. She has her hand in almost every business in town – except the church. No one could own the church. Too bad Reverend Ford refuses to get involved and take sides. Sometime later, Pollyanna pays him a visit to drop off notes from Aunt Polly. He’s having a little trouble coming up with a sermon, so Pollyanna is all too happy to lend her two cents. Her father of course was a minister – and he often had trouble connecting with his congregation. But one day he heard a famous quote, which Pollyanna now has inscribed on a locket.
Rev. Ford: “When you look for the bad in mankind expecting to find it, you surely will. Abraham Lincoln.”
Pollyanna: “He was the president.”
Rev. Ford: “I know. But I’ve never heard that before.”
Well, unfortunately you wouldn’t. Abraham Lincoln never actually said that. Roy Disney loved the quote so much that he had lockets manufactured with the quote on them. When the screenwriter called him with the news that the quote was made up, the lockets had to be recalled. Still a good quote though. Pollyanna anyway says that her father looked through the Bible and found eight hundred ‘happy texts’. He decided that if God told mankind to be glad eight hundred times, they had best get on with it. This seems to resonate with Reverend Ford – and he openly promotes the bazaar in church. The reactions of everyone else are priceless.
Reverend Ford also apologises for not getting to know the people of Harrington Falls as much as he would have liked. And he resolves to make his sermons more positive – reading from one of the happy texts every week. He also threatens to go back to the fire and brimstone if the town aren’t at the bazaar. Cut to said bazaar in full swing, where everyone’s having lots of fun. The only thing that’s missing is the guest of honour. Jimmy Bean goes by the house and asks Aunt Polly if she’ll bring Pollyanna, which the woman refuses. Remember that. Jimmy then convinces Pollyanna to sneak out by climbing down the tree outside her window. It seems that Aunt Polly is literally the only person in town not there. Even Mrs Tarbell is being ordered to join in by her husband. I have to say, those with a sweet tooth are bound to get driven crazy by all the treats on display.
Mrs Snow has even attended too, not a mention of illnesses or fatalities. She gives Pollyanna the finished patchwork quilt to raffle off, and shocks everyone by being perfectly civil. Then when Pollyanna finds a fish pond stall where each child gets a surprise toy, Mrs Snow steps in. Remembering Pollyanna’s story, she makes sure that the little girl finally gets her doll. Once again, something that should feel schmaltzy ends up absolutely heart-warming. Additionally, during this sequence, there’s a band playing. The drummer is an elderly woman who is incredibly memorable. There are at least three posts on the film’s IMDB board about her.
The night is capped off by the village children – led by Pollyanna – singing the national anthem. Once the fun is over, Pollyanna now has to sneak back into the house. And remember that she lives in an attic. And that she’s got a doll to carry as well. What you’re expecting to be a Pink Panther type comedy skit as Pollyanna tries to hide from her aunt takes a sharp U-turn. Pollyanna goes to grab the doll off the roof – and falls to the ground!
The following scene is simple – Angelica sadly opening the curtains – but captures the tragedy of the situation perfectly. Aunt Polly gives the news that Pollyanna’s legs are paralyzed and she may never walk again. In the book, she’s crippled in a car accident. Not having read the book, I think the movie’s choice of accident was better. Pollyanna falls while climbing from a tree. She’s climbing back into her room because she snuck out to attend a fund-raising event. She was forbidden to go because it was challenging Aunt Polly’s wishes. Additionally, Aunt Polly was the one who gave her the attic room in the first place. And Aunt Polly was given the opportunity to take Pollyanna to the bazaar herself.
You see, it turns out that this is really Aunt Polly’s story – and not Pollyanna’s. The accident is the driving force that finally breaks down the barriers Polly has built up all these years. The final few minutes have her realising that she never showed her niece any kind of love, and that she could have lost her forever – “I couldn’t have been the least bit understanding? That child lies up there because of me!”
Aunt Polly says it would have been better if the girl had never come to Harrington Falls (because she’d never get in the accident) – but Reverend Ford quickly tells her that’s bull. Because look at the state of the town since Pollyanna arrived; people are happy. They recently joined together to raise money for a new orphanage. There’s no way that could have happened without her. Aunt Polly can’t respond to this, as Edmund wants to see her. It’s now that we see the girl for the first time since her accident.
Although Edmund says that they’ll take her to Baltimore to get an operation that’ll hopefully allow her to walk again, things aren’t looking good. The others try to play the Glad Game to cheer her up. But she’s finally been broken. She can’t find any reason to be glad anymore. Even when Aunt Polly tells her she loves her as if she were her own daughter. Edmund finds this the most dangerous behaviour of all. If she wants any chance of getting better, she has to have hope. And she’s going to get a good shot of it because…
The entire town has turned up at Aunt Polly’s house to see Pollyanna. They want to repay the same kindness the child showed to them. Literally everyone is there. The first person Pollyanna sees is actually none other than snobby old Mrs Tarbell. She smiles for the first time in the movie, wishing Pollyanna good luck. Nancy and George reveal that they’re now engaged – and they’ll wait for her to get better, as she’s to be their flower girl. Mr Pendergast has also adopted Jimmy Bean. Angelica the sourpuss even says goodbye and gives Pollyanna a kiss. It’s hard for me to not make this sound like the schmaltziest thing ever – but Disney has played their cards excellently here. The first two thirds of the movie are effectively building to this point. Literally every scene of the first part of the movie is in the service of this finale. Everything in the first two acts is given a pay-off here, and it’s expertly done. What could have been sentimental nonsense is a genuine tear jerker. Look no further than Reverend Ford’s line to the girl:
“We looked for the good in them – and we found it, didn’t we?”
It’s now time to see Aunt Polly again. She smiles sincerely and embraces her niece, finally having come to love her in the way she should. The movie also implies that Polly and Edmund will at least make a try of things again. I like that it doesn’t have them outright hook up; it’s a hopeful ending but still leaves things open in a nice way. There’s also a really surprising difference from the book. There, the operation works and it’s confirmed that Pollyanna will walk again. The movie leaves it open, which is quite surprising for a Disney project. The end gives a rather healthy lesson that – even if Pollyanna isn’t able to walk again – the girl will still maintain her positive attitude and will be able to face whatever life has in store for her. She now has deep friendships with the townspeople, and she’s earned the love of her aunt. The movie officially ends with Pollyanna, Edmund and Aunt Polly on the train to Baltimore – seeing the following sign.
It’s rather unfortunate that the movie wasn’t a great hit at the time. Disney predicted that it would make at least $6 million at the Box Office – but it didn’t even make it halfway. Uncle Walt theorised that the title turned away male viewers, who were all too aware of the book’s saccharine reputation. Critics praised the film however, and it is something of a cult classic. It’s not uncommon to find plenty of new fans of it these days – this one included. I never grew up with the book or the film. I only heard about it when I was around eighteen. I had about the same attitude towards such a thing as the average cynical teenage boy. And yet, I found myself watching the film over and over. While it’s a nice, mellow easy-watching story, I still find it to be a masterpiece of storytelling. The only recent film I can think of trying to go for this kind of tone would be Bridge to Terabithia. And in my review of that, I noted that the sentiment could feel incredibly forced at times. That’s not the case in this picture. Pollyanna isn’t some saintly messiah; she’s an interesting girl with some good motivations. The townspeople likewise aren’t immediately in awe of her. Some of them realistically get annoyed by her attitude – and it’s not until they get to know her that they’re truly converted. The film keeps the swelling music and whimsical tone to a minimum, instead letting the story and the characters speak for themselves – only pulling out those tools when they’ve been sufficiently built-up and earned. The result is probably the only live-action Disney film that has the potential to rival Mary Poppins in masterpiece status. In a world that preaches how important and ‘mature’ cynicism is, it’s always welcome for me to watch a film that teaches the importance of positivity and kindness. And if you think about it, that’s a much harder lesson to teach accurately.
If you look for the grades in this movie, you’ll surely find them.
*Story? Well the story is really that there is no story – or at least you don’t think there is. The first two acts are actually subtle build-up for the big payoff in the third – making this a rather highbrow storytelling move by Disney. B
*Characters? As the story isn’t heavy on plot, it has to instead be character-driven. These characters don’t have big arcs or complex motivations – but this is actually one film where every single supporting character serves a purpose and a big role in the story. It almost feels like an ensemble cast from a TV series. And again they’re all developed somewhat and you get to know each of them across the film. A
*Performances? Hayley Mills isn’t perfect, but she’s still a great Pollyanna. I can’t picture anyone else as her. She’s gone onto more sophisticated roles, but this I think is her career defining one. Jane Wyman’s turn as Aunt Polly is subtle but pulled off very well. Out of the huge supporting cast, Agnes Moorhead (Mrs Snow) and Nancy Olson (Nancy) were probably the most fun. Jimmy Bean’s actor was the only one that annoyed me. A-
*Visuals? Bright, sunny and bold – just like Pollyanna herself. At some points I felt like I was watching the interior of a cream cake, but the look of the film is still quite good. Bonus points for having so many pastels without making the picture look too bland. B
*Special Effects? N/A
*Anything Else? This is a movie that knows exactly how to play the idealism card and manipulate the audience into buying its lessons. In that vein, it’s very similar to the huge hit that was Frozen. A
It’s time to stop playing the Glad Game and start on a shooting game in preparation for The Mummy next.