Pollyanna (1960)

Posted by on Jan 2, 2012 in No Boys Allowed | 0 comments


Disclaimer: The first thing you see is a swimmer’s bare butt and, later on, an adult offers to buy a juvenile a beer. No wonder the reverend responds with fire and brimstone.

From the moment Pollyanna steps off the train and into a town divided by class, the members of the proletariat greet her with stink-eye stares and members of the bourgeoisie incessantly bark orders. “Be grateful.” “Don’t touch anything.” “Never be late for dinner.” “Don’t spill your milk.” “Walk like a lady.” “Stand erect and proper.” As we see it from her eyes, everyone in town is an angry mess, from the wrathful reverend to the cantankerous shut-ins. But as the optimistic orphan makes her rounds, her cheerfulness begins to rub off on people thanks to The Glad Game, rainbow makers, and God’s will.

Pollyanna, based on Eleanor H. Pollyanna2Porter’s novel, has seen loads of adaptations over the years, beginning with Mary Pickford’s version in 1920 and running through the 90s with made-for-TV adaptations (including one made in Japan). But Disney’s live-action release, written and directed by David Swift (The Parent Trap) and starring Hayley Mills, is by far the most enjoyable and, despite a lengthy running time and leaning toward the melodramatic, has a contagious and overwhelming sense of gladness.

Though the film never explicitly states what happened, Pollyanna (Mills) arrives in the small town an orphan and her wealthy Aunt Polly (Jane Wyman) has agreed to take care of her. After driving through the town of two-bedroom ranches, Pollyanna arrives at Aunt Polly’s enormous mansion. When she meets her aunt, and someone suggests a family resemblance, Pollyanna says her mother always thought, “I look like you.” But the cold-hearted Polly takes this as an insult, sneering at the girl’s raggedy dress.

The town was named after Pollyanna’s grandfather (Polly’s father), “and everyone in this town looks to us to set a good example,” Polly instructs her. “In how we conduct ourselves, in our duties and manners, in what we think, and even what we say. So we must always try to be good examples to everyone in everything we do. Just remember our family position and conduct yourself properly and modestly.”

Pollyanna tries to adapt to Pollyanna3the upper class lifestyle by enjoying her store-bought clothes and mimicking her aunt’s table manners during dinner, but it clearly doesn’t suit her. She spends the vast majority of her time socializing with the townspeople and servants (Nancy Olson, Reta Shaw, and Mary Grace Canfield). Despite being thrown into a stuffy attic room (like a damsel in a tower) and the death of her parents, we rarely see Pollyanna without a smile on her face. And no matter what misfortunes come her way, she only seems to speak about being glad.

“Glad this. Glad that. What are you, glad about everything?” a maid says. “What’s the matter with you?”

Pollyanna then goes on to explain The Glad Game, which rivals Always Look on the Bright Side of Life in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and instantly cures the insufferable Mrs. Snow (Agnes Moorehead) and Mr. Pendergast (Adolphe Menjou).

Aunt Polly has a great deal of influence in the town. This includes inspiring the Reverend (Karl Malden) to take advantage of his towering presence over the congregation while he speaks of God laying waste to mountains and striking fear into their hearts as he shakes the chandeliers. Though she doesn’t have political power over the mayor (Donald Crisp), it doesn’t much matter when she has power over popular opinion. With the introduction of her former flame Dr. Chilton (Richard Egan), we have a feeling that this woman’s totalitarian attitude comes from years of being love-deprived. When the town proletariat begins a resistance to Polly’s rule, Pollyanna leads the way.

The ending may turn melodramatic,  even suggesting God sent Pollyanna to the town, but it somehow works as we’ve grown to love the little optimist. At least part of the reason is Mills, who plays the title character with impeccable believability. She acts hesitantly, yet somehow confidently, as a curious young girl with a knack for awkward faux pas and an undying sense of cheerfulness. Deservedly, Mills won a special “juvenile” Oscar and BAFTA nominated her for best British actress. Meanwhile, as a rare representation of a woman in power, Wyman plays a stale character that is as hard to believe when she’s bitchy as it is when she’s glad.

Writer/director Swift reportedly wanted to cut the movie down by 20 minutes (it runs 134 minutes). But during production Walt Disney watched the film’s progress regularly. Though it ran longer than most of the studio’s releases, Disney refused to let Swift cut it down as he fell in love with Pollyanna.

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