Marguerite Clark plays a plucky orphan who runs away from the institution in order to retain custody of the little boy she has raised since infancy. She ends up in the Cabbage Patch, a slum area that is home to the merry Wiggs family.
Death and Cabbages
When Marguerite Clark is mentioned at all these days, it is often in relation to Mary Pickford. Both women worked for Famous Players-Lasky/Paramount and Clark’s popularity was used to keep Pickford’s ambitions at bay. Both women were diminutive and youthful and were cast in similar roles.
The problem with all of this is that it frames Clark as a mere ripoff and does not take into account the fact that she was indeed enormously popular in her own right. In polls held in 1916 and 1917, she placed higher than big names like Douglas Fairbanks, Theda Bara, Pearl White and was really second only to Pickford. Now, these polls were not highly scientific but Clark’s career and the quality of her productions prove she was bringing in the cash and goodwill.
By 1919, Pickford had left for greener pastures and would release Daddy Long Legs, one of her signature hits, through First National. It’s a story of an orphan’s adventures in college and her eventual romance with one of two suitors. But three months before its release, Clark starred in an adaptation of Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch, which featured a similar theme of a gingham-clad orphan finding life and romance beyond the walls of the orphanage.
The film is based on the stage adaptation also entitled Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch by Anne Crawford Flexner, which was based on the novel of the same name and its sequel, Lovey Mary, by Alice Hegan Rice. Actually, there’s a lot more Lovey Mary in Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch than is generally acknowledged and I am pretty happy with that. The original is not terrible but, well, it’s one of those books in which a character sells his coat to pay the rent on page 27 and is dead from consumption by page 35.
And before we get the usual squeaking about “you can’t read old books with modern eyes” please allow me to bring Oscar Wilde into the conversation. Regarding The Old Curiosity Shop, Wilde wrote: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.” The fact is, sentimentality in popular narratives was intensely discussed at the time and is more than fair game now. NEXT.
The play combined incidents from both books and borrowed the heroine of Lovey Mary, who was named… Lovey Mary. The film, screenplay by Eve Unsell, took the addition of Mary, swept away most of the play’s other plot points and substituted a few of its own. It doesn’t really follow the play or the books but is a darn sight closer than the 1914 adaptation, apparently. (I have to rely on trade magazine synopses here as the earlier picture is missing and presumed lost.)
The book/play was adapted twice more in the 1930s (with W.C. Fields and ZaSu Pitts providing comedy relief) and 1940s and then just kind of fell by the wayside, its sentimentality and “happy poor” narrative out of fashion and not likely to return anytime soon.
So, with all this context under our belts, let’s dive into the film itself. I am going to be particularly focusing on how this film compares to Daddy Long Legs because this is the closest thing to an apples to apples comparison between Clark and Pickford that we are likely to get. (Most of Clark’s films are, you guessed it, missing and presumed lost.) I am going to focus especially on how Clark differed from Pickford and how the women found different ways to handle similar roles.
Orphanage settings were extremely popular for top actresses and in addition to Clark and Pickford, Colleen Moore and Marion Davies both donned gingham dresses and black stockings for film roles. And so, this picture opens in an institution. Lovey Mary (Marguerite Clark) is a teenager who helps care for the younger children while Maggie Duncan (Gladys Valerie) picks on them. Maggie sneaks out of the orphanage one night and returns two years later to drop off the son she has given birth to.
(Needless to say, this was before old Will Hayes showed up in California.)
Mary immediately takes to the child, who is named Tommy. More time passes and Maggie decides to return to reclaim her child. Unwilling to return him, Mary escapes from the orphanage.
(And if you were wondering if Mary should be aging out of the orphanage… shh! Don’t ask sensible questions!)
The orphanage matrons are looking for them but Dick Morgan (Jack MacLean) finds them first. His mother is a do-gooder visiting the poor residents of the Cabbage Patch and after he picks her up, Dick intends to return Mary and Tommy to the orphanage. She runs away with the kid again and takes refuge in the home of the Wiggs.
The family is presided over by Mrs. Wiggs (Mary Carr) and her oldest son Billy (Gareth Hughes). The younger children are named Asia, Australia and Europena. (Future star May McAvoy plays Australia.) You see, an impoverished woman who longs for education but lacks it and who names her children after continents because she is trying to class up the joint is an absolutely hilarious gag. Systemic, generational poverty is a gas, ain’t it? No access to proper education? Even funnier! Good thing they left out the whole “dying of consumption” thing!
Mrs. Wiggs and Billy agree to hide Mary and Tommy with the view of adopting them. However, local gossips drop a dime on the runaway duo and inform the sheriff that they are hiding out with the Wiggs family.
Meanwhile, we learn that Maggie’s lover and the father of Tommy is… Dick Morgan. And what’s more, he has steadfastly refused to marry her or acknowledge his son. Oh well, nothing a few tragedies can’t fix…
This picture’s main plot is not particularly compelling. While it is understandable that Mary would bond to Tommy, the film doesn’t establish enough of a threat to justify her motivation for running away with him. It wouldn’t have had to have been a real threat, just establishing that Mary imagined danger would have been enough. This is a child caring for a child, after all. Further, the revelation of Maggie’s past undermines the alleged peril. Viewers of 1919 would have been well aware of the difficulties faced by a single mother and her leaving the child at the orphanage would have been seen as reasonable and responsible. And in any case, the fact that Dick is a cad is the real source of trouble for everyone.
(Spoiler) Later in the film, after she has regained custody of Tommy, Maggie conveniently falls off a horse and Mary tells Dick’s mother the truth. She makes her son marry his dying lover—no skin off his nose since she won’t be long for this world—and takes in Tommy. So, the guy who actually caused all the trouble is essentially let off with a slap on the wrist, free to roam about impregnating orphaned teenagers. Yay? You know a picture’s in trouble when D.W. Griffith has a more mature view of who exactly is responsible in such a scenario.
The picture also shorts us on the growing romance between Billy and Mary. It’s obvious that he likes her but we go from “Hi, how are you?” to “Be my best girl” at a rather breakneck speed and I would have liked to see leisurely strolls or a peck on the cheek here and there. Gareth Hughes does what he can but there’s just not that much to work with.
One element that does work is the comedy relief courtesy of Vivia Ogden as Miss Hazy, another resident of the Cabbage Patch, and her mail-order groom Hiram Stubbins (Edison veteran Robert Milash). I found the whole thing to be hilarious and, let’s face it, who can deny that this title card is one of the best ever?
In fact, Vivia Ogden was called upon to reprise her role in the 1926 adaptation of Lovey Mary, which starred Bessie Love and Billy Haines. (Six reels out of seven survive in MGM’s archives but it’s unlikely to ever see the light of day other than at film festivals. Incomplete pictures are the hardest of all to release.)
But now we have to address the main topic at hand: how does Clark compare with Pickford and how does Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch compare to Daddy Long Legs? I said before that this conversation sometimes inadvertently makes Clark out to be a mere copycat but I think it’s an important one to have. So, before we get started, a reminder: Clark was popular and talented in her own right. However, since the comparisons are inevitable, let this comparison be one that comes from a place of knowledge and experience.
First of all, director Hugh Ford is no Marshall Neilan and while the hoary plot of Daddy Long Legs was modernized and freshened by the humor and whimsy that were Neilan’s signatures, Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch never reaches such heights. There’s a brief fantasy sequence at the beginning of the picture that shows Mary imagining herself as a benevolent monarch but other than that, we stay on solid ground and rely on Miss Hazy to provide most of the comedy.
Clark does mug a bit with the humor but soon finds her balance with her character and delivers a refreshingly understated turn in what could have completely collapsed into hokum. One of the successful stage stars to make the jump to the movies, Clark understood how to play to the camera and how the smallest gestures could get her point across.
I really regret that there were so few scenes with Gareth Hughes because he and Clark have a nice bit of chemistry and their romance, what there is of it, comes off as sweet and sincere. Alas, most of Clark’s emotional scenes are with Tommy and there’s nothing really wrong with the young actor playing him, it’s just that Clark has nothing to play against.
All this being said, Clark’s performance compares favorably with Pickford’s in Daddy Long Legs and she brings enough of her unique personality to the table to kill the idea she was merely second place. Clark has an interesting vibe as a performer, both down to earth and slightly ethereal. It’s easy to see why she did so well with fairy tales (she was a great Snow White) and why she was so very appealing to moviegoers in the 1910s.
Being a female Dorian Gray couldn’t last forever. Clark was thirty-six when Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch was released, around the same age as Mary Pickford when she released her last child role film, Sparrows. Pickford later wrote that her signature Little Girl character made her and it could also kill her and she wanted to quit while she was ahead. It’s likely that Clark felt the same way because she retired from motion pictures after making one film in 1921.
Clark’s legacy is difficult to sort out due to the utter shortage of surviving films, so please take this conclusion with a grain of salt but here goes… Marguerite Clark was not the natural comedian that Mary Pickford was but she had clear screen charisma and she was better at carrying off whimsical, fairy tale roles. As for orphan stuff, Clark was Pickford’s equal in ability to disappear into a child role and while the plot of Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch doesn’t give her too much heavy lifting, she nails the emotional scenes that she does have.
Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch isn’t a masterpiece but it is a good showcase for Clark and a fine example of the popular orphan drama genre.