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Fridays With Mary Pickford: The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917)

After buckling swash with Errol Flynn last month I figured it was high time to return to this series’ true intentions: spotlighting actors whose work I’ve seen nothing of With that we return to the silent era, honoring the silent actress: Mary Pickford. Knee-deep in her success when she starred as the titular “poor little rich girl,” Pickford’s little girl with the curls stars in a morality tale of love transcending material possessions that, while incredibly representative of the silent era, is still a fun and creative story with Pickford at her best (presumably).

Gwendolyn (Pickford) is ten, going on eleven, but has no one to love her. Her parents are wrapped up in their own lives and the servants are completely apathetic to Gwendolyn’s plight. Will the poor little rich girl ever find love?

Pickford’s reputation precedes her; the diminutive actress represented all that was pure and innocent about the world as well as cinema’s infancy, playing children into her 30s. (She was 25 when she played Gwendolyn.) With her big sausage curls and a glint in her eye, you’re able to buy that Pickford’s a child, even with knowledge that she’s an adult.

Pickford’s child companions are actually children – 13-year-old Maxine Elliott Hicks plays Susie May – and though you can tell Pickford’s older she sells the performance enough, making this a prime example of how an actor can sell you on a fact you know to be untrue (unlike Joan Fontaine in The Constant Nymph).

Pickford persona propelled to the world is on display as Gwendolyn. A precursor to Shirley Temple with her constant optimism, there’s also a scrappy edge to her Gwendolyn not unlike Temple’s antithesis, Jane Withers. Much Poor Little Rich Girl’s fun comes from watching Pickford hold her own against people out to hurt her, or at least put a frown on her face. She’ll bite, kick, and scream if she has to, but never in a way that’s spiteful or unlikeable.

Written by long-time Pickford scenarist Frances Marion, the script shows how the other half lives….unfulfilled. Like the screwball comedies of the 1930s, The Poor Little Girl definitely plays up how sad being poor is. The term itself commonly comes with an air of sarcasm, but Pickford’s audience is meant to hear the sadness in it, and, boy, does Marion make this sad.

The intertitles are practically dripping with melodramatic sadness, never letting go of the fact that this girl is indeed poor, little and rich. Gwendolyn’s home has “everything – except the love she longed for” leaving the girl like Little Orphan Annie, asking “why do my tomorrows never come?”

Everything is painted with broad strokes of black and white, as is common with silent films – all the adults have permanent frowney face, and Gwendolyn’s father is all business while her mother is a social butterfly. Actually, the film puts most of the blame on Gwendolyn’s mother, whose social climbing is obviously a perversion against motherhood.

Inspired by L. Frank Baum, the denouement comes through the time-tested technique (I kid) of drugging a child to go out and party! The horrific servants, borderline sociopaths, give Gwendolyn too much sleeping draught, causing her to fall into a deep slumber transporting her Wynken, Blynken, and Nod-style to the tongue-tied Garden of Lonely Children in the Tell-Tale Forest. As Dorothy did before her, Gwendolyn meets a series of helpers, similar to those in reality, and tries to escape a wicked witch or, in this case, Death itself! Things get pretty dour in a way you’d expect of silent films, but it’s all shot well with a series of effective ghost effects despite the primitive means of the time.

I wouldn’t call this first foray into Pickford’s work successful. Unlike Harold Lloyd or Colleen Moore, there’s a staid quality to The Poor Little Rich Girl. It’s remarkably overwrought but that’s more to it being a film for children than anything else. This is a solid encapsulation of Pickford’s growing persona, the effects are fun, and the story has a timeless charm that can still capture attention in spite of the melodramatic foundation.

Ronnie Rating:

Kristen Lopez View All

A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.

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