Friday, August 10, 2012

Mary Pickford's Daddy-Long-Legs (1919)

I may have given the impression in my enthusiasm for Mary Pickford (e.g., here) that I think that every movie she ever made is a must-see classic. In fact, as with every great performer, her films tend to distill into four broad categories—the Great, the Good, the Bad and the Pleasantly Forgettable.

The Greats would include, for example, Stella Maris and Sparrows. Among the Bad are The Little American and most of her sound era work. And the Pleasantly Forgettable include, I suppose, such films as The Pride of the Clan and A Romance of the Redwoods.

Daddy-Long-Legs, the best known of her pictures from 1919 and one of the most highly-rated of her career, I would class as "Good"—and one that could have been Great, if the filmmakers had taken a bit more care in adapting Jean Webster's episodic novel.

For those who have seen Mary Pickford's work before, Daddy-Long-Legs will have a familiar feel to it. Pickford plays a foundling, Jerusha "Judy" Abbott, who grows up in a brutal orphanage, more labor camp than loving home, as oppressive as a prison. When we first meet Judy, she's a plucky twelve year old, just the sort of "tweener" Pickford made a career of, and just as you'd expect of a Pickford character, she's bonny and brave and full of well-meaning mischief, leading a revolt against a steady diet of prunes, getting drunk on apple jack and knocking the matron into a well.

Judy is also bright, kind-hearted and responsible, providing the younger children at the orphanage with the only maternal love they've ever known. In the main, her benefactors are cold and cruel, the sort who do their good deeds in public so that others might praise them, while in private meting out discipline—such as burning Judy's hand on a hot stove—that these days would earn them a felony charge.

But they're not all bad, and a wealthy trustee agrees to provide Judy with a college scholarship, providing that he remain anonymous. Judy sees only his tall, gangly shadow cast on a wall and dubs him "Dear Daddy-Long-Legs," writing to him as such in chatty letters from her new school.

That Daddy-Long-Legs might also be one of the eligible bachelors she meets while in school goes without saying.

Pickford was one of the true stars of the silent era, and when as here she was working within her range as an actress, nobody was better. She's utterly convincing as both a twelve year old and as a young woman, and it's her performance that carries the movie. "She was brilliantly expressive," wrote director-historian Peter Bogdanovich for Blogdanovich, "absolutely real, equally on the money at every second in comedy, drama and all points between. You want to see good modern movie acting, check out Mary Pickford in Daddy-Long-Legs."

The resulting film was one of the biggest hits of Pickford's career. As film historian Kevin Brownlow wrote, "Daddy-Long-Legs was the archetypal Mary Pickford film. It had all the elements an audience could hope for."

Is Daddy-Long-Legs the equal of Pickford's best films, The Poor Little Rich Girl, Stella Maris or Sparrows? No, I don't think so. The source novel by Jean Webster Daddy-Long-Legs may have been a hardy perennial—"beloved" according to one review I read (later versions of the story featured Janet Gaynor, Shirley Temple, Fred Astaire and even Japanese anime)—but the film plays bit like Dickens-Lite, Oliver Twist without Fagan, Great Expectations without Miss Haversham.

And while director Marshall Neilan and screenwriter Agnes Christine Johnson turned in some topnotch work in their careers (Stella Maris and Show People, respectively), neither gave their best effort here. Scenes drag a bit, characters are introduced and forgotten, and at times the action is described through intertitles rather than shown on screen—to me a cardinal sin for a silent movie and a sign that neither the director nor the writer completely solved the problem of reducing an epic, episodic tale into a digestible ninety-minute narrative.

Still, Pickford is at the top of her game, and despite its flaws, Daddy-Long-Legs is satisfying entertainment, and a must-see for any fan of this legendary actress.

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