Building Entertainment: The Films of the Walt Disney Studio. Pollyanna

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: Pollyanna

Year: 1960

Source materials : Based on the 1913 novel Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter.

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Budget:  $2.5 million

Box office: $3.75 million (US and Canadian rentals)

Plot: Pollyanna, a 12-year-old orphaned daughter of missionaries, arrives in the small town of Harrington to live with her rich and strict aunt, Polly Harrington, in the 1900s. Pollyanna is a very cheerful, talkative and radically optimistic youngster who focuses on the goodness of life and always finds something to be glad about, no matter the situation. In doing so, Pollyanna’s positive outlook on everything results in her making a wide variety of friends in the community, including the hypochondriac and grouchy Mrs. Snow and the acidic recluse Mr. Pendergast.

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Aunt Polly’s wealth controls most of the town. When the citizens want a derelict orphanage razed and rebuilt, Aunt Polly opposes the idea, arguing that her father donated the building to the town and, as such, it is an important landmark. The townspeople defy her by planning a carnival to raise funds for a new structure. Because of the control Aunt Polly asserts over every facet of the town, however, many people feel reluctant to show their support.

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A group of citizens led by Dr. Edmond Chilton, Aunt Polly’s ex-boyfriend, tries to persuade the town’s minister, Rev. Ford, to publicly declare his support for the bazaar by reminding him that “nobody owns a church.” Rev. Ford is reminded of the truth of that statement when Pollyanna delivers a note from Aunt Polly with recommendations to his sermon content.

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At church the following Sunday, having gained the gumption to defy Aunt Polly, Rev. Ford first reads one of the so-called “Glad Passages” of the Bible stating that a young member of the congregation pointed out how many such passages there are. He intends to read one a week from now on, and then declares his support for the bazaar and encourages all to attend. Aunt Polly becomes furious about their audacity, forbidding Pollyanna to participate.

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On the evening of the carnival, Pollyanna is locked in her attic bedroom by Aunt Polly, but is “rescued” by playmate and fellow orphan Jimmy Bean, who reminds her that she will lead “America the Beautiful” at the high point of the event. With Jimmy’s help, she slips away and has a wonderful time at the carnival, winning a doll.

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Upon returning home, she avoids Aunt Polly by climbing a tree to her attic bedroom. When trying to reach her bedroom window, she drops her new doll; Pollyanna then falls out of the tree, screaming and is knocked unconscious before being discovered by Aunt Polly and her maids. After realizing her legs are paralyzed and that she may not walk again, Pollyanna develops severe depression, jeopardizing her chance of recovery.

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Meanwhile, Aunt Polly feels extreme guilt when she realizes how her behavior has isolated her from the town and Pollyanna. While talking to Dr. Chilton, she admits that her niece needed love and it was something she never gave her. Dr. Chilton tells Aunt Polly that they can give Pollyanna the love together and help mend the isolation she put on the townsfolk.

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When the townspeople learn of Pollyanna’s accident, they arrive at Aunt Polly’s house with outpourings of love. Dr. Chilton carries the reluctant girl downstairs, where, one by one, the neighbors wish her health. Pollyanna’s spirit gradually returns to its usual hopefulness and love of life, and she also learns that Jimmy has been adopted by Mr. Pendergast. Pollyanna is embraced by her aunt before they leave Harrington with Dr. Chilton for an operation in Baltimore, which will correct her injury.

Background: In June 1959 Walt Disney announced he would make the film with Hayley Mills, Jane Wyman and Karl Malden, with David Swift to write and direct. Swift was best known at the time for his work in television. “It was the first time anyone would take a $2.5 million chance on me,” he said. “Trust Disney to do it.”

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Disney cast Mills after seeing her in Tiger Bay. He watched this because he wanted to see the most recent performance by John Mills, who was going to be in Swiss Family Robinson for Disney; Hayley was also in the film, and Disney ended up offering her the lead in Pollyanna. Her accent was explained by turning Pollyanna’s parents into missionaries from the British West Indies.

Swift said in working on the script, in order to work against the “saccharine” nature of the material, he would spent a few hours every day first working on a horror play called The Deadly. He would then work on Pollyanna. Swift said “in the book Pollyanna was so filled with happiness and light that I wanted to kick her. In the old days she came on like Betty Hutton. Now she is shy. We have an adult drag advice out of her.” Swift added, “instead of making her the ‘glad girl’ of the book we’ve simmered her cheerfulness down to merely emphasize the things-could-be-worse attitude.”

Changes from the Source Material: Swift decided to remove a key plot point of the book, where Pollyanna was hit by a car and had to learn how to walk. He called this “too coincidental. Too pat.” Harrington is located in Maryland as Baltimore is mentioned several times throughout the script. At the end of the film, Aunt Polly and Pollyanna take the train to Baltimore, probably headed to Johns Hopkins Hospital due to the delicacy of the operation needed.

Cast: Disney said the cast was the most important in the studio’s history, including names such as Wyman, Malden, and Egan. “The cast scared me,” said Swift. “Veterans of scores of movies, some of them. I was afraid they’d say ‘TV man, go home’. But they didn’t. It was a happy set; everybody worked his head off for me.”

We have already profiled Hayley Mills as Pollyanna Whittier, Kevin Corcoran as Jimmy Bean, Reta Shaw as Tillie Lagerlof, Nancy Olson as Nancy Furman, and Gage Clarke as Mr. Murg.

Jane Wyman as Polly Harrington. She was the winner of the Academy Award for Best Actress for the 1948 film Johnny Belinda. Her other roles included Public Wedding, Brother Rat, Brother Rat and a Baby, Bad Men of Missouri, Stage Fright, So Big, Magnificent Obsession and All That Heaven Allows. She was a three-time winner of a Golden Globe Award. She achieved continuing success in the television soap opera Falcon Crest, in which Wyman played the lead role of villainous matriarch Angela Channing. Richard Egan as Dr. Edmond Chilton. After beginning his career in 1949, he subsequently won a Golden Globe Award for his performances in the films The Glory Brigade  and The Kid from Left Field. He went on to star in many films such as Underwater!, Seven Cities of Gold, The Revolt of Mamie Stover, Love Me Tender, A Summer Place, Esther and the King, and The 300 Spartans.

Karl Malden as Reverend Ford. He is known for A Streetcar Named Desire,  for which he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, On the Waterfront, One-Eyed Jacks, Baby Doll, The Hanging Tree, How the West Was Won, Gypsy, and Patton. Agnes Moorehead as Mrs. Snow. She is best known for her role as Endora on the television series Bewitched, but she also had notable roles in films, including Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Dark Passage, All That Heaven Allows, Show Boat, and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte. She won an Emmy award for The Wild, Wild West.

Adolphe Menjou as Mr. Pendergast. He appeared in such films as A Woman of Paris, Paths of Glory, The Marriage Circle, The Sheik, Morocco  and A Star Is Born. He was nominated for an Academy Award for The Front Page in 1931. James Drury as George Dodds. He best known for playing the title role in  The Virginian, He appeared in Love Me Tender and Bernardine.

Leora Dana as Mrs. Ford. After appearing in the 1957 western 3:10 to Yuma she had supporting roles in Kings Go Forth and Some Came Running. Her other film credits included A Gathering of Eagles, The Group, The Boston Strangler, Change of Habit, Tora! Tora! Tora!, Wild Rovers, Shoot the Moon, Baby It’s You, and Amityville 3-D. Mary Grace Canfield as Angelica. She was best known for her recurring role on Green Acres as Ralph Monroe, She guest starred on  The Eleventh Hour and Bewitched. Canfield and actress Lucille Wall shared the role of Lucille March on General Hospital. Canfield appeared in such feature films as  The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Donald Crisp as Mayor Karl Warren. He appeared in The Little Minister, A Woman Rebels,  Mutiny on the Bounty, That Certain Woman  Jezebel, Wuthering Heights, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, The Sea Hawk, and The Valley of Decision. Edward Platt as Ben Tarbell. He is best known for his portrayal of “The Chief” in Get Smart. He appeared in Rebel Without a Cause,  Perry Mason, 77 Sunset Strip, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, The Rifleman, Rawhide,  The Outer Limits, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Bat Masterson, Bewitched, Love, American Style and The Odd Couple.

Critical Reception: Jerry Griswold of San Diego State University wrote in the New York Times of October 25, 1987: “An attempt was made to resuscitate Pollyanna in 1960 when Walt Disney released a movie based on the book. Time, Newsweek and other major reviewers agreed that such an enterprise promised to be a disaster – a tearjerker of a story presented by the master of schmaltz; what surprised the critics (their opinions were unanimous) was that it was his best live-action film ever. But few had reckoned the curse of the book’s by-then-saccharine reputation. When the movie failed to bring in half of the $6 million that was expected, Disney opined: ‘I think the picture would have done better with a different title. Girls and women went to it, but men tended to stay away because it sounded sweet and sticky'”.

Legacy: Hayley Mills won the 1960 Academy Juvenile Award for her performance, and also received a BAFTA nomination for Best Actress. The film generated a trickle of juvenile merchandise including a Dell comic book, a paper-doll collection, an LP recording, an illustrated Little Golden Book, and a 30″ Uneeda character doll in a red and white gingham dress, pantaloons, and boots.

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My take: First of all what a great cast. Both Mills and Corcoran are the rare examples of child actors who can actually act. Malden is particularly funny as the Reverend and all the adult actor exhibit the charm that they are know for. I liked this a lot more than I thought I would. I feel like the ending, much like It’s a Wonderful Life, is earned by the attention that is given to the citizens of Harrington.

Available on Disney +?: Yes

Next Week: The Sign of Zorro