Mary Pickford returns to child roles as the princess of the title, a sweet young heiress whose sunny disposition is threatened when she loses her family and is forced to work as a maid. ZaSu Pitts nearly walks off with the picture as Pickford’s slavey pal.
This is my contribution to the You Gotta Have Friends Blogathon, hosted by Moon in Gemini. Be sure to read the other posts!
The princess in the attic
1917 was a year of extreme ups and downs for Mary Pickford. Famous Players-Lasky’s plan to cast her in international parts was not paying off at the box office as expected, she had driven director Maurice Tourneur crazy on the set of The Poor Little Rich Girl and worried that she had ruined the film. Worried about Pickford possibly slipping at the box office, Lasky assigned her to work with Cecil B. DeMille, who was also in the doghouse after his mega-epic Joan the Woman managed to just break even. The fit was less than ideal artistically, though it proved to be rather profitable. (And that’s not even starting on Pickford’s dissolving marriage to the abusive Owen Moore!)
Things quickly turned around for Pickford. The Poor Little Rich Girl was a surprise smash hit and the public clamored to see her in more child roles. While Pickford is most closely associated with her little girl roles today, they actually represent a small percentage of her body of work. Pickford had occasionally played children when starting out at Biograph (she debuted in 1909) but her work since then had been various adult parts, from Cinderella to Nell Gwynn.
However, the public wanted a little girl and a little girl they would have! After The Poor Little Rich Girl (and two DeMille-directed pictures that are best left out of the discussion) came Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. The next logical step was to adapt another popular piece of juvenile fiction.
Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel The Secret Garden was one of my favorite books as a child. Unlike other famous little girls of classic literature, the heroine is sour and spoiled and throws tantrums and no one really likes her. Her healing through gardening is both interesting and realistic, an enormous relief from the twee antics of certain Annes, Rebeccas and Pollyannas. As a precocious, imaginative and volatile child myself at the time, I appreciated reading about a child who acted like a child and not a junior edition of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
With A Little Princess (1905), Burnett went for a more formulaic approach. Little Sara Crewe (played by Pickford in the film) is taken from India by her doting father (Norman Kerry, actually Pickford’s junior by two years) and sent to a London boarding school. Sara is treated like a princess but has not been spoiled by this. She befriends the other students and a servant girl named Becky (ZaSu Pitts). Then tragedy strikes. Sara’s father has died and his last act was to invest in a worthless diamond mine. Penniless, Sara is forced to work alongside Becky and live in a freezing attic. Of course, things can’t end on such a dreary note and Gustav von Seyffertitz plays the fairy godfather.
Screenwriter Frances Marion kept the basic bones of the story but also added an elaborate Ali Baba fantasy sequence meant to illustrate Sara’s powerful and infectious imagination. While this must have seemed like a good idea on paper, the sequence goes on far too long, a full seventeen minutes. And the version of the film I saw ran a mere sixty-one minutes! So basically, about fifteen minutes into the film, the narrative comes to a screeching halt for a full quarter of the picture.
We are told the entire tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, soup to nuts, and while I am very much in favor of Mary Pickford stabbing the baddie, the introduction of a whole new cast and story mid-movie is jarring. Theodore Roberts is his usual fun, scenery-chewing self as the doomed Cassim but I’m not sure if I needed to see him decapitated. (Does Sara have some issues we should be made aware of?)
I suspect these scenes were included so that Pickford could please her audience with a child role while also enjoying what was essentially a two-reel Arabian Nights fantasy. Sometimes, having your cake and eating it too backfires.
I cannot emphasize enough how tedious the Ali Baba stuff becomes. Director Marshall Neilan ain’t no Maurice Tourneur and the sets look… thin and plain, not the sort of opulent Maxfield Parrish-like cinematography that Tourneur could do with his eyes closed. A kind of horror swept over me when I realized they meant to show the whole thing. I wanted more Becky! While including a fantasy sequence is a good idea to showcase Sara’s imagination, a more effective use of time would have been to show snippets of assorted tales told by our heroine interspersed with her day-to-day friendships with her school friends. Or, even better, take that Ali Baba reel and instead focus on the relationship between Sara and Becky.
That friendship is the heart and soul of the picture. While the Sara of Burnett’s novel was unambiguously wonderful and was worshipped by good guys and detested by bad guys, the film is more nuanced. While Becky loves Sara and appreciates her stories and her company, she does sometimes get annoyed with her friend’s whimsical antics, at one point asking Sara if she had been dropped on her head as a baby. (I wanted to ask the same thing all through Anne of Green Gables!)
Mary Pickford and ZaSu Pitts have an easy chemistry and manage to inhabit their child roles without descending into too much cutesiness. They laugh together, cry together, go hungry together, have minor disagreements and get annoyed but their friendship always bounces back. Friendships between women in Hollywood features tend to be based on cattiness or clichéd girly late nights with ice cream and chick flicks. With Becky and Sara, the friendship is deeper because it involves two well-written characters skillfully acted. These girls have shared good times and bad and they just plain like one another.
Pickford’s little girl shtick had, by this time, been perfected. By costuming the star in short skirts and casting tall co-stars, Pickford’s production team was able to take advantage of her petite stature in order to create the illusion of youth. Pickford’s skill at physical comedy did the rest of the work as she skipped, capered, and twirled around the sets.
ZaSu Pitts, in her early twenties at the time, proves to be Pickford’s equal. Becky is a downtrodden slavey and Pitts always had a note of melancholy about her even in her funniest comedic roles; it really is a case of perfect casting. In fact, I would have been quite content to enjoy an entire film of Pitts and Pickford goofing around.
(Spoilers ahoy!) The film ends with von Seyffertitz revealing himself to be Captain Crewe’s business partner, Carrisford. The diamond mines were actually a smashing success and Carrisford has been looking for Sara but had no idea where she was sent to school and assumed she was in Paris or Moscow, which I find a bit odd. You’re telling me that in all the months that Crewe was off diamond-hunting with Carrisford, he never mentioned that he left his kid in London? That he didn’t leave a will naming a guardian for her? Crewe seems to have been a bit dim.
(More spoilers) Subsequent versions of A Little Princess—both the 1939 Shirley Temple vehicle and the 1995 CGI-infected adaptation—cop out and resurrect Sara’s father. This picture is one Hollywood adaptation with the guts to keep Captain Crewe dead even though Norman Kerry is uncharacteristically charming in the role and it would have been a temptation to bring him back from the dead. Sure, having Crewe’s business partner move next door to his daughter is a silly coincidence that hearkens back to Victorian literature and it seems a bit odd that not a single clue as to Sara’s whereabouts was found among his papers. Still, resurrecting Crewe is just plain Iowa corny. Given the choice, I’ll take coincidence over corn.
(Even more spoilers) I do appreciate one change Marion made from the novel: in the book, Sara is saved by the deus ex Carrisford and taken to live with him. She asks for Becky to come along—as her maid. I mean, I know it’s a step up for Becky but something about making her a servant just stuck in my craw. In the film, it is implied that Becky is co-adopted with Sara and the picture ends with the girls giggling together on a sofa and Sara startling Becky with a jack-in-the-box. The scene fades out with laughter all around and no one is anyone else’s servant.
A Little Princess has its flaws, mostly due to the creaky source material and the self-indulgent Ali Baba sequence. However, any scene with Pickford and Pitts works perfectly and justifies the film’s existence. The sweet, realistic friendship between the girls is a pleasure to watch and the actresses play their parts to perfection. It’s not a perfect film but ZaSu Pitts fans will definitely want to check it out if only to prove that her famous performance in Greed was not a fluke.
Where can I see it?
A Little Princess is available on DVD as an extra on the release of the Frances Marion documentary, Without Lying Down. It features a very good piano score from Jon Mirsalis.