Ever since I first saw David Swift’s Pollyanna (1960) I have been under the spell of Miss Haley Mills; a supremely precocious child prodigy immaculately groomed by Walt Disney to have an enduring place in our collective childhood memories as the perfect little sugar plum darling we would all like to adopt in a heartbeat. Haley, the daughter of accomplished British actor, John Mills is undeniably a breath of fresh air in this Eleanor Porter-inspired drama; void of guile or saccharine and gushing charm. From the moment she disembarks the train in Harrington, the town named after her ancestral clan and presently presided over by her pert Aunt Polly, Haley’s blonde moppet just seems genuine and thoughtful and barely able to contain her zest for life under a preposterously ugly vintage frock that would have better to remain happily buried inside her late father’s missionary barrel. In a word, Haley Mills is delicious; like a cute freckle on the nose of life’s complexion or a tiny cinder in the apple of its eye. I’m paraphrasing lyrics to the occasion of William Wyler’s Funny Girl (1968), but they are equally as pertinent to Ms. Mills herein and her delicately astute handling of what could have so easily devolved into a cloying portrait, mired in waxworks treacle. But this Pollyanna Whittier endures because of Mills genteel sincerity; imbued with magnanimity well beyond her years and grafted like sage to a sapling.
The film’s ultimate success isn’t all Haley Mills, though she occupies a sizable chunk of exaltation in this review. Doing a movie ‘in period’ – the recreation of any other time out of our own – is an exercise in ambitious film-making. Over the years, many have tried. Few have succeeded. During Hollywood’s golden age, the studios have had their favorite moments in history to emulate; the Roman/Pagan period, the fictionalized old west and never-waning affinity for an idealized England before, during, and, after the Great War; a Latin America, with perpetually swarthy men and lusty senoritas. Arguably, however, Hollywood’s greatest romance of celluloid remained turn-of-the-‘last’-century Americana; a courtly élan of corseted manners and cinched mannerisms, when ladies in crinolines and garters did their high-stepping to a waltz while their menfolk took pride in their handle-bar moustaches and baller-brim hats. Ah me, the gaiety of the gay nineties!
1900 was perhaps a period unlike any other; the gentry cultured and still clinging to their quaint social graces and customs from the late 1890s, yet ever so cautiously advancing with an air of anticipation into the roar of the 20th century – an era soon to rock and transform their rural homespun iconography in unexpected and not altogether meaningful ways. This affinity for mid-western prudery was wildly popular with movie audiences throughout the mid-1940s, perhaps because it did more than rekindle its nostalgia; it also invoked high-minded morality that, with the outbreak of WWII, must have seemed as ancient a ghost flower as brilliantine and dime cigars. Indeed, Fox made a cottage industry out of musicals set in the afterglow of 1900, while MGM had one of its biggest moneymakers in Meet Me In St. Louis (1944); arguably the movies’ greatest example of wide-eyed optimism that turn-of-the-century America once so resplendently and unabashedly seemed to represent.
Two great joys exemplified this period: people-watching and reading. Of these, the latter proved a marvelous retreat from reality. Women primarily indulged in lurid melodramas steeped in great tear-jerking tragedy. One of the most popular books was Eleanor Porter’s Pollyanna, first published in 1913. Yet even by 1959, the year Walt Disney undertook to transform Porter’s prosaic novel into his memorable classic starring Hayley Mills, the term ‘Pollyanna’ had acquired a sickly pall; odd since Porter’s heroine is neither perfect nor indelible as a goody two-shoes; but a probing and inquisitive child who, through her own blind faith in humanity, manages to impact and soften the hearts, as well as the more rigid social mores of the adult world around her.
The project had great appeal for Walt, who had been a teenager during this time; also, for director, David Swift who, as a mid-westerner, was also fairly assured of his understanding of the material. Swift, who had worked at the studio as an in-betweener in the animation department at the tender age of fifteen before the war, had returned to Hollywood as a television director. Evidently, Walt liked what he saw, affording Swift the opportunity to direct his first major movie. At one million dollars, Pollyanna was an impressively mounted production; no less so in its hand-picked roster of exemplary character actors to bring the story to life. These included Jane Wyman, Donald Crisp, Adolphe Menjou, Agnes Moorhead and Karl Malden, as well as relative newcomers, Richard Egan and Nancy Olsen. Walt also found bits for his time-honored contract players, Kevin Corcoran and Reta Shaw. But the part of the pint-sized moppet, Pollyanna Whittier proved a real challenge to cast. Reportedly, Swift interviewed more than 300 children, disheartened by his seemingly fruitless Scarlet O’Hara-esque search for ‘the girl’ until he was informed by his wife of a young child featured in a little-seen British movie; Tiger Bay (1959).
The child turned out to be Hayley Mills. After screening rushes from Tiger Bay, Walt concurred with Swift’s ecstatic overtures. They had found their Pollyanna. Haley was overjoyed; even more overwhelmed by the experience of arriving in America for the first time and being regally attended by cast and crew in Disney’s monumental undertaking. It’s enough to turn any girl’s head – even one as leveled and properly screwed on as Haley’s. After the first day’s shoot Hayley was pulled aside by her father and criticized for being “a great white cabbage” – in other words, ‘no good’; an admonishment that stuck and provided her with a renewed sense of direction and perspective that better informed the development of her character. Indeed, Walt would spend considerable time and money lovingly molding a career for Hayley Mills in his subsequent and memorable family classics; The Parent Trap (1961), The Moon-Spinners (1964) and That Darn Cat (1965). In viewing Pollyanna today, one is immediately struck by the unassuming tenderness Haley Mills brings to the part – an exceptional interpretation of Porter’s incessantly congenial heroine, reconstituted as a credible little girl.
Pollyanna is a meticulous recreation of vintage Americana. David Swift was born in 1919 - thus missing the turn of the last century by almost 20 years. But he had done a great deal of research in preparing the film, ably assisted by Disney alumni, Ward Kimball, who provided Swift with a vintage book, ‘Among the Folks in History’. Swift’s screenplay essentially borrows the best of Porter’s novel to follow eight individual narrative threads to their penultimate and interwoven climax. Used to working with single-camera setups at a very fast pace, Swift entrenched himself in recreating artist, Dale Hennessey’s storyboards on film. But his tenure in television practically ensured that the million dollar Pollyanna would come in on time and under budget. A good portion of the movie was shot in Santa Rosa, California, taking advantage of local ladies auxiliaries and vintage car clubs to add an air of authenticity and grandeur to the set pieces. In absence of vintage Victorian bric a brac, Swift also shot around existing structures, including the old bale mill and Mableton Mansion, augmented with an exceptional matte painting by Peter Ellenshaw. This matte extended the stately manor house by two floors. Swift also interjected a bit of froth into the 4th of July bazaar sequence, a bit of artistic license gleaned from his own fond memories of the Shrine picnics from his youth.
Employing town’s folk as extras, Swift was amazed when many came already dressed in period clothes – not costumes designed by Walter Plunkett - but bodices and bonnets lovingly preserved and taken out of mothballs especially for the occasion. Famed costume designer, Walter Plunkett did, in fact, create a gorgeous ensemble of vintage clothing for the principle cast. A cultured and compassionate man who positively adored this period, Plunkett’s designs are one of Pollyanna’s truly outstanding achievements. Another is Paul J. Smith’s ebullient score – capturing the effervescence, as well as the innocence of the time, while also interjecting such vintage melodies as ‘When You And I Were Young, Maggie’ and ‘I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen’. Two of Smith’s central themes were later transformed into ‘songs’ for the Pollyanna tie-in soundtrack album, much to Smith’s chagrin and with less than perfect lyrics supplied by David Swift. Swift also fabricated the engraved quotation in Pollyanna’s locket. The quote ‘Look for the good in man and you will surely find it’ is attributed in the film to Abraham Lincoln. Apparently Disney PR never bothered to check if it was genuine because immediately following the movie’s debut Swift was unnerved to discover hundreds of duplicate souvenir lockets with the same quotation being sold inside Disneyland’s various Main Street shops.
The main title sequence impeccably sets the tone for the film; opening on the naked backside of a small boy swinging out on a rope into a gulch where other boys are already skinny-dipping. The camera pans upward to a wooden trestle. A vintage steam locomotive passes. In reality, the gulch had to be flooded daily and the train, imported expressly for the shoot. Afterward a picture postcard main title sequence ensues, some of it shot on location, the rest cobbled together from freestanding outdoor sets on the old Universal backlot, seen in countless movies and TV shows before and since (everything from Stanley Kramer’s Inherit the Wind to episodes of Murder She Wrote). We follow the orphan, Jimmie Bean (Kevin Corcoran) as he rambunctiously chases after a metal hoop with a wooden paddle through the various country byways, startling a flock of sheep, apparently just as frightened of him as he was of them (one falls to the ground in camera while attempting to get out of Corcoran’s way). Jimmie is chided by the Station Master (Charles Seel) for getting too close to an oncoming train. Now, we are introduced to gangly Pollyanna Whittier (Hayley Mills), disembarking from the platform; the orphaned daughter of missionaries, brought to the small town of Harrington by a wealthy aunt, Polly (Jane Wyman).
Having come from the beleaguered West Indies, Pollyanna is spellbound by the vintage opulence that now surrounds her. She is also ill-equipped to face the middle-brow prudery of the locals. Nevertheless, Pollyanna is collected by her aunt’s social secretary, Nancy Furman (Nancy Olsen) who attempts to gently ward off romantic advances from her beau, George Dodds (James Drury). Nancy is also rather appalled at her first sight of Dr. Edmund Chilton (Richard Egan), brought back to Harrington by the town’s mayor, Karl Warren (Donald Crisp) to take charge of the deplorable town orphanage. Edmund was Aunt Polly’s romantic suitor in another life. It could have gone well for them, but instead Edmund left town leaving Polly humiliated and heart sore. In the meantime, Pollyanna meets her first resident of Harrington; the rather pert and stuffy Mrs. Amelia Tarbell (Anne Seymour) who informs the girl that her first order of business should be silent gratitude for having been rescued from the orphanage by her aunt.
Arriving at Aunt Polly’s palatial Victorian estate, Pollyanna inadvertently says the wrong things in front of Reverend Paul Ford (Karl Malden), whom Polly is instructing on how to conduct Sunday service; chiefly by suggesting that her aunt must be very glad she is so very rich. The perpetually scowled upstairs maid, Angelica (Mary Grace Canfield) shows Pollyanna to her room; a modest and cluttered dormer far removed from the rest of the household. Despite being relegated to the attic, Pollyanna remains effervescent and cheerful. She also takes a bird’s eye notice of Nancy and George locked in a rather passionate embrace. Later that evening, Pollyanna attempts to ingratiate herself to her aunt. But Polly is aloof and distant, conducting the household as though it were a regimented convent.
The Harrington wealth controls the town, something many of its residents quietly resent, though no one is particularly willing to stand up to Aunt Polly for fear her monies will be withdrawn from circulation and thus ruin the town’s prospects for the future. Mayor Warren organizes a meeting in Polly’s parlor to address concerns about the derelict orphanage. Polly opposes any new construction, leading Dr. Chilton to side with the residents who plan to stage a lavish 4th of July bazaar to raise the necessary funds themselves. If only Reverend Ford would join their cause, Edmund is certain the town could break free from their dependence on the Harrington legacy. In the meantime, Pollyanna befriends Jimmie Bean. He introduces her to the simple pleasures of meandering down by the lake, but also warns of the vial Mr. Pendergast (Adolphe Menjou); a hermit who keeps children as prisoners locked in his basement…so the rumor goes. When Pollyanna and Jimmie venture toward the seemingly abandoned ruins of Pendergast’s home, the old man makes his presence known.
Jimmie is terrified. But Pollyanna stands her ground and challenges Pendergast as a miserable – but harmless – coot. Pendergast is intrigued by Pollyanna’s audacity, moreover impressed with her joy over observing the refracted natural light filtering through glass prisms from his chandelier. These create rainbow effects throughout the living room. They also give Pendergast an idea on how to capitalize on the effect at the bazaar. Pollyanna also challenges the curmudgeonly Mrs. Snow (Agnes Moorehead), an aged hypochondriac whose daughter, Mildred (Jenny Egan) is Nancy’s best friend, but is being deprived her own opportunities to enjoy life because she is constantly attending her bed-ridden mother. Pollyanna urges Mrs. Snow to reexamine her self-imposed illness, eventually convincing her to abandon such paranoia and venture back into the springtime of her middle-age life.
Next Pollyanna confronts Reverend Ford during his practice run of another hellfire and brimstone sermon. She reveals to him the inscription on the locket given by her late father; that a man of God must look for the goodness in mankind if he is to discover it. The simplicity of this notion humbles Ford, who realizes how he has been manipulated by Polly Harrington to espouse her own edicts, using the church’s pulpit as her soap box. ‘Nobody owns a church,’ Ford nobly insists. As the date for the fundraiser nears, Polly forbids her niece to attend. But Pollyanna has promised to come and sing ‘America the Beautiful’ as part of the festivities. Jimmie climbs the towering tree outside Pollyanna’s attic window and encourages her to follow him to ground level. Defying her aunt’s wishes, Pollyanna attends the bazaar and is a sensation no less, returning hours later with a doll won in a gaming venue. Unfortunately, the doll slips from Pollyanna’s grasp as she shimmies up the tree. In reaching for it, Pollyanna loses her footing and plunges to the ground, damaging her spine in the fall.
Attended by Dr. Chilton, the prognosis is grave. Pollyanna may never walk again. The news is devastating to Pollyanna who, for the first time, loses her ability to see anything positive from her predicament. The crippling of her emotional outlook brings the whole of Harrington to Aunt Polly’s front door; each with their pledge of hope, faith and resolve in the little girl’s ability to get well. Dr. Chilton alerts Pollyanna of a new surgery that may restore her health, carrying her against her wishes downstairs where everyone has gathered to offer their sincere wishes for her wellness. Realizing how much she has meant to these townsfolk, but moreover just how much each and every one of them means to her, Pollyanna vows a full recovery. In the final moments, Aunt Polly accompanies her niece on a train bound for the hospital, the car pulling away from the station, revealing a new placard attached to the town’s name, identifying Harrington as ‘the glad town’.
At its core, Pollyanna is sentimental tripe, majestically carried off with such gravitas and showmanship one can easily forgive its more obvious tugging at our heartstrings. The cast is superb. Moreover, they are authentic. It is this quality that shines through and rises above the treacle. Hayley Mills deserves most of the credit here. She’s perfectly cast and joyously revealing in unexpected ways that make Pollyanna Whittier real rather than a doe-eyed tot from a prosaic novel. Much later, Mills would recall the enormity and meticulous art direction of the sets recreated on the back lot, also inside sound stages at the Disney Studios, particularly Aunt Polly’s Victorian manor that Mills delighted in exploring between takes.
Despite the immensity of its craftsmanship and charm, Pollyanna was not the mega-hit Walt Disney had hoped. Glowing critical accolades aside, the movie did only modest business at the box office – respectably profitable, though hardly a box office dynamo. It’s a shame, really, because Pollyanna represents something of the beginning of the end in Disney’s glamorous foray into live action features. Although Walt would continue to make movies apart from his animation empire – most notably, Mary Poppins (1964), the studio gradually began to dilute its commitment on these subsequent projects (particularly after the financial debacle of The Happiest Millionaire 1967 – a movie that, like Pollyanna, was sumptuously mounted with an all-star cast). Haley Mills would score again, in The Parent Trap (1961) but gradually her popularity too began to wane, especially as she grew into adulthood.
Viewed today, Pollyanna retains its air of infectious optimism despite changing tastes and times. The film was always ‘in period’, hence it hasn’t dated all that much in the last 50 plus years. Today, the moniker ‘family film’ gets bandied about; frequently ascribed to movies that really only appeal to the very young but can easily put their parents to sleep. Pollyanna is the exception. It treats both the young and the young in heart with great respect and affection. As such, it remains a treasure trove of beloved bygone memories like a living catalog of snapshots taken by Currier and Ives and lovingly preserved in an upstairs’ steamer trunk, waiting to be rediscovered. Hollywood in general, and the Disney Studios in particular, don’t make movies like this anymore and this is a shame. Pollyanna is sentimental. But its sweetness remains a confection lighter and more affecting than most any ‘family’ film made over the last forty years. Is Pollyanna a great film? Let us be so bold as to suggest it aspires to greatness and achieves a level of understanding that continues to faintly flicker as warmth in our collective hearts.
How perfectly lovely to see David Swift’s masterpiece resurrected on Disney Blu-ray, even if it is as an exclusive via their ‘movie club’ instead of a mass marketed general release. Some may recall, Pollyanna was advertised almost a year and a half ago as a November 2012 hi-def release, along with the virtually charm free, Babes in Toyland. While ‘Babes’ did arrive on schedule, Pollyanna virtually disappeared from all trade ads shortly thereafter, leaving fans disheartened. After all, there wasn’t much ‘glad’ to be had in Disney’s now defunct Vault Disney DVD release from 2000; a sorely mangled affair, but especially curious, since restoration expert, Scott McQueen had supervised an extremely arduous restoration of Pollyanna’s badly faded Eastman color negative. Alas, the image harvest presented on DVD belied McQueen’s efforts; the image marginally to grossly soft and occasionally even out of focus; Peter Ellenshaw’s sumptuous matte work sticking out like the proverbial sore thumb, and, with colors that were fairly anemic. Flesh tones were particularly regrettable, registering pasty pink. Virtually all of the dense green foliage of those once regal exteriors looked ruddy brown. Worse; there was considerable dirt and scratches still imbedded in the transfer, as well as a barrage of digital anomalies that really betrayed Russell Harlan’s gorgeous cinematography. Yuck!
I was left scratching my head, as I am certain was Mr. McQueen. This was a decidedly awful effort (if the word ‘effort’ can even be ascribed). With the 2012 mislaid Blu-ray announcement about Pollyanna’s big reissue it seemed the film would remain one of Disney’s most treasured catalog titles trapped in studio-sanctioned purgatory. Mercifully, nothing could be further from the truth. Prepare to be dazzled by Pollyanna on Blu-ray. Here, at long last we are afforded the opportunity to bask in the richness of Carroll Clark and Robert Clatworthy’s meticulous production design; a veritable feast for the eyes.
Are there issues with this hi-def remaster? The short answer is ‘yes’ but most are forgivable. Flesh tones remain a concern; having veered from piggy pink on the DVD to a more earthy orange on this Blu-ray. All in all, this is an improvement. One can believe the ‘look’ of flesh as indigenous to a vintage sepia postcard. While the DVD favored a queer bluish tint to the interiors, this Blu-ray offers a panacea of eye-popping and mostly vibrant colors. The grass and trees are green again and Pollyanna’s once bilious greenish-blue eyes have been brought into check as that smashing set of sapphire orbs they always were.
Age-related artifacts are still present but nowhere near to the degree as previously mentioned. In fact, there are only one or two very brief instances where they marginally distract. Contrast, in spots, seems just a tad boosted; again, not to aggressive levels. The image is tighter, crisper and void of the digitally-related artifacts previously noted on the DVD. Fine detail on the Blu-ray is solidly represented throughout – no edge effects or clumpiness that plagued the DVD. Better still, Peter Ellenshaw’s matte paintings seamlessly blend into the live-action artifice once more. This is a magnificent visual presentation and one surely not to disappoint. So indulge and enjoy. Equally, prepare to bask in this beautiful new 5.1 DTS audio remix, exceptional in its overall clarity, particularly where Paul Smith’s romanticized score is concerned. It hasn’t sounded this robust in years.
Extras are the real disappointment herein. Virtually all of the padding that accompanied the defunct ‘Vault Disney’ DVD has been dropped for this Blu-ray reissue. So, NO charming audio commentary from Hayley Mills and David Swift; NO featurettes dedicated to the making of the movie and Scott McQueen’s restoration efforts. No musical jukebox with rarities. No short subjects to replicate the opening night debut of ‘going to the movies’. Nothing! Nada! Zippo! Gone! I could crucify Disney Inc. for these glaring omissions. But actually, I am so readily pleased with the quality of this 1080p transfer, I’ll simply hold my tongue, hang on to my old 2-disc DVD for the extras, while smiling at the resplendent visuals represented on this new Blu-ray. From a pure presentation perspective, Pollyanna on Blu-ray comes very highly recommended! Buy with confidence. Treasure it forever. Dirty little secret: you don’t have to be a Disney Club member to gain access to this exclusive. Independent sellers on Amazon.com are awaiting your order now!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)