Pollyanna (1920)

“. . . Miss Pickford doesn’t grow up because she can make more people laugh and cry, can win her way into more hearts, and even protesting heads, as a rampant, resilient little girl”[1]


            I didn’t want to like this movie. At face value, this is a competent adaptation of a well-known children’s book that is sweet at the right age, but sours quickly as one gets older. At only an hour, it’s shorter than D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, but the pacing drags. I’ve never liked Pollyanna and I was prepared to say as much in this review. However, I’ve gained a better appreciation for the movie after doing some research about its star, Mary Pickford and the background about how and when the movie got made. But first, the story itself.

            Pollyanna is based off the book of the same name by Eleanor H. Porter. The premise is simple: despite a number of traumatic events, Pollyanna stays positive using The Glad Game and subsequently wins an entire town’s heart. Obviously, The Glad Game is meant to help children focus on the positive things in life, but it could be considered a coping mechanism for trauma. In the first ten minutes, Pollyanna’s father dies (her mother, presumably, is dead); she is taken from her poor, country home to a wealthy one in the city; and she loses the majority of her material possessions. Later in the movie she is run over by a car. With the exception of two scenes where she cries, Pollyanna stays buoyant by focusing on the positives.

            If you’re looking for depth in this movie, you will not find it. Unlike Intolerance, there is no overarching theme. The movie is very segmented, and follows the book closely in this format. New characters are introduced in every “chapter,” though they do not always stay. Because of this choppy structure, the pacing is slow and there’s nothing to drive the plot forward. The most intense moment is when Pollyanna literally flings a child out of the way of a car and gets run over. But the consequences, getting paralyzed and not being able to walk, are not as heart wrenching; we know she’ll be able to walk eventually. Why? Because she’s Glad.


So, what makes this movie essential?

            It’s not really the movie itself that’s essential, but the star and the movie studio behind it. Mary Pickford was known as “America’s Sweetheart,” and was also the highest-paid actress in Hollywood for several years. Yes, it seems beneath her to be playing a school girl (she was twenty-seven at the time), but there are couple reasons for that. Firstly, she had previous success playing similar roles in 1917 in A Little Princess and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Secondly, this was the first film released by United Artists.

            United Artists was created in 1919 by Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and D.W. Griffith so they could have more control over their pictures. Pollyanna, the first film produced by this company, gained $1.1 million at the box office. This marked a shift in movie making; no longer were actors, directors, producers, or any other member of the art form limited to the large, Big Five studios. United Artists is considered the first independent film studio, a genre of film that is still active today.

            While my research for this movie was brief, I really admire Pickford and what she did. She not only founded her own studio – multiple times – she helped found the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, and the Motion Picture Relief Fund. She did a lot of producing at United Artists, and helped define what actors could do when Hollywood was in its infancy. But today, she’s known for roles like Pollyanna. The reviewer of this movie in The New York Times writes, “When she stops being a child on the screen, she’ll probably just stop.”[2] It’s a shame to think that the original Queen of Hollywood is still, at best, only remembered as a child.

[1] Anonymous, “Pollyanna,” The New York Times Book of Movies, ed. Wallace Schroeder, New York, NY: Universe, 2019, p. 865.

[2] Book of Movies, 865.

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