Mary Pickford plays an orphan who is awarded a scholarship to college by a mysterious benefactor, whom she nicknames her Daddy Long Legs. Mary grows, learns and graduates and all the time, she sends letters to Daddy Long Legs detailing her progress, fears and dreams. Now just who could her Daddy be?
Bonus: I will also be reviewing the 1955 version of the tale starring Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron. Click here to skip to the talkie review.
Scholarships were different then…
Stories about secret benefactors have always been quite popular. They combine the best elements of mysteries and dramas. Daddy Long Legs is one of the most famous story in this sub-genre.
We meet our heroine as an infant. Wrapped in newspaper and dumped in the trash, she is rescued by a policeman who takes her to an orphanage. As a result of the orphanage matron’s naming system (given name from a headstone, surname from the phonebook), she is saddled with the name Jerusha Abbott.
Twelve years pass and the baby grows into a precocious pre-teen (Mary Pickford), nicknamed ‘Judy’ by her fellow inmates at the John Grier Orphanage. From organizing a hunger strike to protest the awful food to drawing satirical pictures of the orphanage trustees, Judy’s spunk and outspokenness have her in constant trouble with the matron, Mrs. Lippett (Milla Davenport).
It’s easy to see why Judy rebels. The orphans are worked hard, their diet consists of prunes and bread, and they live in fear of Mrs. Lippett’s severe punishments. After she is caught being particularly mischievous, Judy is told she is going to Hell and she is given a preview: her hand held against a hot stove.
The rich trustees who run the orphanage are of no help, they offer charity but no kindness. Hope comes in the form of Miss Pritchard (Percy Haswell), who “is human even though she is a trustee”. She understands Judy and wants to give her an opportunity for further education.
Years pass and there is a rich new trustee at the John Grier Orphanage. Miss Pritchard persuades him to sponsor the eighteen year old Judy in college. The trustee doesn’t care for children, especially girls, but he agrees to Miss Pritchard’s idea.
Judy receives the good news. She will attend college, all expenses paid, and in exchange she must write to her benefactor each month to keep him up to date with her progress. She will receive no reply. He wishes to remain anonymous so Judy will know him only as John Smith. Judy wants to thank her benefactor but he is already leaving the orphanage. All she can see of him is his shadow distorted on the wall. The outsized legs give Judy an idea, she will call him her Daddy Long Legs.
Judy does not really fit in with the wealthy girls at college. They are nice to her but she feels ashamed of her background and tries to hide it. The only person she confides in is Daddy Long Legs. She begins to think of him as a father and dreams of repaying his generosity.
But this is a love story and love stories need love interests so into Judy’s life come two suitors. One of her roommates has a wealthy uncle, Jarvis Pendleton (Mahlon Hamilton). Jarvis is old money but refreshingly down to earth and open-minded. However, there is an age gap of some twenty years. Judy’s other roommate has a brother named Jimmie McBride (Marshall Neilan, the director). Jimmie is a college boy, enthusiastic, irreverent and full of life.
Judy writes to Daddy Long Legs with exciting news: she has been invited to spend summer vacation with the McBrides. Judy then receives her first reply from Daddy Long Legs via his secretary. She is to break her plans with the McBrides and spend the summer at Lock-Willow farm.
Judy is disappointed but makes the best of it. Things look up considerably when Jarvis Pendleton shows up. The owner of the farm is his old nurse and he is visiting her. (By this time, we all should have our suspicions firmly entrenched about Mr. Pendleton. After all, neither we nor Judy have seen Daddy Long Legs and Jarvis does seem awfully well-informed about Judy’s plans.)
And so romance blooms. It is briefly interrupted by the arrival of Jimmie McBride (“I’ve just stopped by for the summer!”) but involvement in a hit-and-run accident quickly take him out of the picture once more. Jarvis is keenly aware of the age difference between himself and Judy. When she inadvertently reminds him of it, he leaves Lock-Willow farm.
Judy proceeds in her plan to repay Daddy Long Legs. She plans to become a writer. When her early attempts at romantic melodrama are rejected by publishers, she returns to the adage “Write what you know.” Judy begins to write about the lives of orphans.
Her books are published to great success. Judy is an independent woman. She mails Daddy Long Legs a check and asks him to come to her college graduation. There is no reply and no Daddy at the ceremony. Judy’s literary success assures her social success, she is invited to the Pendleton home for a party. Jarvis is there, so is Jimmie and Angelina Wyckoff (Fay Lemport), the daughter of an orphanage trustee who has tormented Judy since they were children.
Jarvis tells Judy that he stayed away because he fell in love with her. He knows he is much older but he can’t help it. He proposes. Under Angelina’s imperious smirk, Judy can only think of his splendid family home, his long line of ancestors compared to her orphanage upbringing. She turns him down and leaves the party with Jimmy.
So, which suitor will Judy choose? Or, perhaps, will she seek the advice of her Daddy Long Legs?
Team Neilan/Pickford were quite the pair for comedy. Judy’s early life in the orphanage is peppered with slapstick but as she matures, so does the picture’s humor.
Some of the jokes are somewhat dated. When she is leaving for college, a crowded train station makes Judy certain to miss her train. Then she sneezes loudly and the crowd flees in a panic. The modern viewer only gets the joke if they remember the Spanish Influenza of the time. However, as of this writing, a nationwide flu epidemic is causing a bit of uneasiness. So, perhaps the joke has gone from topical to dated and back to topical.
Director Neilan had a flair for whimsy. As the main female characters are introduced, each is compared to a flower or plant, from hothouse roses to cacti to stinkweeds. In another memorable scene, Judy slides down the banister and the friction catches her gingham bloomers on fire! Unfortunately, some scenes push whimsy past its limits. The cupids gathering to plan Judy’s love life are distractingly twee. All in all, though, Neilan’s humor and whimsical touches are welcome.
Mary Pickford was known for her child roles and justly so. She was adept at capturing childish mannerisms and her talent for slapstick melded perfectly with her youthful character. Twenty-seven in 1919, Pickford successfully ages her character from twelve to her early twenties.
The supporting cast is capable, especially the delightful performance of Marshall Neilan as Jimmie McBride. Mahlon Hamilton’s acting is good but several people I have shown the movie to have commented about how much older he looks than Mary Pickford. Hamilton admittedly looks older than his 39 years but the age difference is dealt with in an intelligent manner and it doesn’t distract from the enjoyment overall.
The concept of a guardian waiting for his ward to grow up so he can marry her is not a comfortable movie plot for modern viewers but it was seen as normal in the world of the silent film. President Grover Cleveland married his 21 year-old ward at the White House in 1886. Daddy Long Legs is adapted from the novel of the same name by Jean Webster. The book was possibly based on the Cleveland’s romance (the President proposed to his ward her by letter after she graduated from college).
Other than a brief prologue, the book consists entirely of Judy’s letters to Daddy Long Legs. The text-heavy format made silent film ideally suited for adapting the story. However, Daddy Long Legs never becomes bogged down with intertitles. The letter excerpts are intelligently chosen and never bring the narrative to a halt.
The novel opens with Judy being sent to college and reveals her unhappy childhood in pieces through her letters. In order to fill out the running time of a feature film, a little more plot was needed. In the film, Judy’s childhood unfolds chronologically and takes up fully half of the running time. It balances out the story and shows us the rags as well as the riches. One element eliminated from the transition from book to film: Jarvis is a socialist in the novel and Judy dabbles in the philosophy herself. Horrors! That had to go! The novel is fun reading and in the public domain. Check it out.
Daddy Long Legs is one of Mary Pickford’s very best vehicles and a personal favorite of mine. It showcases the best skills of both the star and the director.
Where can I see it?
Daddy Long Legs was released on DVD by Milestone.
Ladies and gentlemen, in this corner we have Mary Pickford’s charming version of the Dear-Diary rags-to-riches tale, Daddy Long Legs, and in that corner we have the 1955 dance extravaganza on the same theme starring Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron. Which May-December ode to true love and college scholarships will be named champion? Let the fight begin.
The Talkie Challenger: Daddy Long Legs (and, need I add, longer still in the tooth)
Jervis (not Jarvis) is a rich man going through what seems to be a midlife crisis. Loud jazz records, random bouts of drumming and a general case of wanderlust. Scratch the “seems to be”. This guy is one step away from buying a corvette and getting hair plugs!
In the book, Jarvis was the black sheep of his wealthy family. The 1919 film did away with his socialist politics but kept his philanthropic endeavors. Jervis, as played by Astaire, takes things a few leaps further. His character is a man-boy jazz fanatic with no particularly interest in philanthropy.
That is, until he spots Julie Andre (Leslie Caron), a teenage French orphan. Taken with her liveliness, Jervis arranges for her to come to America and attend college. He asks her to write to him about her progress but then forgets all about her. Jervis’s secretary, Miss Pritchard (an underused Thelma Ritter) reads the letters and finally convinces him to read them too. Jervis is once again under Julie’s spell and rushes off to meet his protégée. She’s of the age of consent now! Whee!
And the winner is…
Dance pictures are like musicals, you either accept their reality or you don’t. I have to admit that the idea of random people bursting spontaneously into song and dance has never been particularly appealing to me. (And, yes, I am aware that as a fan of silent films, I have no room to talk. Hee heeeee.) With that in mind, I won’t base my critique on the dance sequences in Daddy Long Legs 1955. They were far too long for my taste but they’ll probably delight fans of the dance film genre.
That said, what remains is a rather creepy May (more likely April or even March) December romance between a 56-year old Fred Astaire and a 24-year old Leslie Caron, whose character is 18 at the beginning of the film. And actually, the age difference is the least disconcerting element of the whole thing. After all, age must be a factor in any version of this particular story. 32 years is a pretty huge age gap (though 20 to 25 year gaps have never been unusual in films) but it is more the way Jervis pursues his leading lady that makes the whole thing troublesome.
In both Jean Webster’s novel and Mary Pickford’s adaptation, Jarvis had never seen or met Judy when he offered to sponsor her. His interest grew with the sprightly letters that he received from her and he investigated further.
In the 1955 film, Jervis develops a strong interest in the teenage Julie and initially tries to adopt her before settling on sponsorship as a more socially acceptable way to get her to America. His change from father to lover is based on her reaching the age of consent and the pleasing way she fills a Dior dress rather than any meeting of the minds.
The versions further diverge in the treatment of Judy/Julie’s youthful love interest, Jimmie/Jimmy McBride. In the Pickford version, he is a nice fellow but too immature for an old soul like Judy. She breaks their relationship off because he is too young for her. Jarvis is jealous of Jimmie but beyond interfering with a planned vacation, he lets Judy handle her own romances.
In the Astaire version, Jervis has Jimmy shipped off to South America to make room for his own advances on Julie. Julie breaks up with Jimmy off-camera after a fun-filled evening with Jervis sweeping her off her feet, literally and metaphorically. Poor Jimmy never got to two dimensions, let alone three, and he never really had a chance to compete for Julie affection.
Then there is the orphanage. The Astaire version turns it from a nasty urban institution into a quaint French playground. So, instead of being grateful to Daddy for saving her from a life of drudgery working in the orphanage, Julie’s gratitude seems to be based on how many trinkets and toys he buys her. And while Judy works hard at college to become a writer, Julie seems to be majoring in modern dance and housewifery. In short, what exactly is the point in buying her an education when an apprenticeship in a dance troupe would have done just as well?
While Astaire or Caron fans will probably find much to love in their version of Daddy Long Legs, the Pickford version remains truer to the spirit of the novel and is a generally more satisfying film. It’s Mary at her most charming and a great opportunity to see why she is truly America’s Sweetheart.
Availability: Daddy Long Legs (1955) has been released on DVD.