June 15, 2017
Poor Little Rich Girl, The – US, 1917
Maurice Tourneur’s The Poor Little Rich Girl is about a sweet young girl named Gwendolyn (Mary Pickford) whose parents neglect her. Her father is too busy making money – or trying to at least - to give his daughter much more than a passing thought, and her mother seems to believe that her social life comes before her child. In fact, this character is so thoughtless that at one point in the film, she celebrates Gwendolyn’s eleventh birthday, but “forgets” to invite Gwendolyn. In another memorable moment, we see Gwendolyn sitting anxiously waiting for her mother to arrive. Her mother, it seems, promised her “a minute” of her day, and she keeps her word - literally.
In their extreme carelessness, Gwendolyn’s parents leave the job of parenting to the servants, and they could not be any different from those that graced the pages of Little Orphan Annie or danced to Annie’s arrival in either of the comic’s film adaptations. Rather, all but one of them go through their days with nary a smile or laugh, and frowns greet Gwendolyn practically every time she looks in their direction. Perhaps most disturbing is the amount of shaking they do. Their idea of discipline is to place restrictions on every aspect of Gwendolyn’s life, and when she goes against their tyranny, to shake, scare, and shame her. It is a child’s nightmare.
In a more honest movie, Gwendolyn would suffer from depression and have a number of angry outbursts, perhaps designed to get the attention of her intentionally oblivious parents. However, in The Poor Little Rich Girl, Gwendolyn remains relatively chipper and upbeat in circumstances that would overwhelm many of the most well adjusted children. Gwendolyn often rubs her mistreatment off, smiles infectiously, and finds a way to turn negatives into positives. A few times she even finds a way to play with some of the neighborhood children, even though it is strictly forbidden. It is a fairy tale version of a horrendous scenario, and, filmed today, I have no doubt that The Poor Little Rich Girl would look remarkably different.
And yet, the film is still immensely watchable, and the credit for that should go to Pickford. Known at the height of her fame as America’s Sweetheart, Pickford is widely considered to be the first female international superstar, and all of her talents are on display here. She has a natural sweetness that draws audiences in and reassures them that there is goodness and decency in the world. Pickford’s Gwendolyn is not rebellious or conceited, she doesn’t lash out at the adults who lash out at her, and her motivation is something that everyone can relate to. After all, what human being can’t relate to a film that presents children as just wanting a better relationship with their parents? Gwendolyn does not challenge the family hierarchy – she reinforces it, and even when the film turns slightly dark towards the end, it does so in a way that will invite children’s awe and wonderment, not frighten or startle them.
The Poor Little Rich Girl is a product of its time, a safe, unchallenging look at childhood that takes no chances and presents no obstacles to viewers. And as such, it has likely lost some of what once made it so beloved. After all, ours is a culture that has embraced slightly darker versions of reality. Personally, I found the film immensely watchable, yet was surprised to learn that it was selected to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1991. Not pleasantly surprised, mind you. It’s more like looking at a list of the best films of all time and seeing one on it that makes you do a double take. You know, the kind that makes you immediately think of all of the other films by a director or starring a legendary performer that they could have chosen. You understand the sentiment, yet question the selection. The Poor Little Rich Girl is one of those films, good, but I’m pretty sure that Pickford made much better ones. (on DVD and part of Milestone’s Mary Pickford Rags and Riches Collection)