Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Pollyanna
By 1960, the original members of the Disney Repertory Players had all left the studio. Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten had grown up and moved on, albeit to very different ends. Fess Parker had hung up his coonskin cap and, in a few years, would be putting on…well, a different coonskin cap for another studio. Richard Todd, who was still getting top billing in the UK, was about to lose out on the role of a lifetime to another former Disney star, Sean Connery.
At the same time, Disney was assembling a new team of contract stars. James MacArthur and Janet Munro were the go-to young adults. Fred MacMurray had already starred in one feature and would soon sign on as a recurring father figure. Kid stars were recruited from TV, mostly The Mickey Mouse Club. Tommy Kirk, Kevin Corcoran, Annette Funicello and Tim Considine had all become popular favorites. But of all Disney’s recurring stars of the 1960s, perhaps none would become more synonymous with the studio than Hayley Mills. When she made her Disney debut in 1960’s Pollyanna, all the pieces clicked into place.
The novel Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter was first published in 1913. It was an immediate bestseller, producing a string of sequels (only one of which was written by Porter), Broadway adaptations (including one starring James MacArthur’s mother, Helen Hayes) and even The Glad Game, a popular board game from Parker Brothers.
In 1920, Mary Pickford, America’s Sweetheart, produced and starred in a film adaptation that was also a big hit. She was 27 years old at the time playing a 12-year-old. Mary Pickford had a weird career.
Because of the character’s consistent popularity over the years, the news that Walt Disney would be spearheading a remake was greeted as a kind of inevitability. Pollyanna was already known as a tearjerker of the highest magnitude. The word itself had become part of the vernacular, describing an excessively cheerful or optimistic person. This was exactly the kind of nostalgic, sentimental hogwash Walt had become known for. Anticipation was not high.
Nevertheless, Walt took the project extremely seriously. Perhaps due to the popularity of the Pickford version, Walt assembled one of the most distinguished casts he’d yet worked with. Jane Wyman, Karl Malden and Donald Crisp were all Oscar winners. Nancy Olson, Agnes Moorehead and Adolph Menjou were prior nominees. These were not the usual Disney actors.
At first, this lineup of heavy-hitters intimidated first-time feature director David Swift. Swift had started his career at Disney in the 30s, working his way up from office boy to assistant to animator on such features as Fantasia and The Reluctant Dragon. He left the studio to serve in the Air Force during World War II. When he returned home, he became a TV writer, creating the Wally Cox comedy Mister Peepers and honing his directing skills on anthology shows like Playhouse 90 and Climax! Walt approached his old employee about writing the screenplay for Pollyanna. Swift’s detailed treatment impressed him enough to offer him the directing gig as well.
Of course, the whole project would have been pointless if they couldn’t find the right girl to play Pollyanna. After an exhaustive talent search led nowhere, Walt was ready to call the whole thing off. But while in London, Walt’s wife, Lillian, and producer Bill Anderson’s wife, Virginia, decided to go to the movies. The picture they went to see, the 1959 crime drama Tiger Bay, starred distinguished stage-and-screen actor John Mills and, in her film debut, his daughter, Hayley. Lillian and Virginia thought Hayley Mills would be perfect as Pollyanna, so they dragged their husbands to the cinema. Although they didn’t know it yet, by the end of that screening a new Disney star had been born. (Two of them, actually. John Mills will be appearing in this column himself before too long.)
Within its opening minutes, Pollyanna announces itself as a spiritual successor to such rose-colored glimpses into the past as So Dear To My Heart. Opening on a shot of a boy’s bare butt as he swings into the local swimmin’ hole for some innocent skinny-dipping, the movie immediately hearkens back to a time when skinny-dipping was actually considered innocent. From there, we follow young orphan Jimmy Bean (Disney regular Kevin Corcoran) as he navigates the streets of Harrington with his hoop and stick. The only thing missing is sepia tone to confirm that we’re back in the Good Ole Days.
When the orphaned Pollyanna arrives to live with her wealthy Aunt Polly (Wyman), Harrington seems like a picture-perfect little town but resentment and hostility simmers everywhere just beneath the surface. Polly opposes the town’s demands, led by Mayor Warren (Crisp), to raze the dilapidated old orphanage on the grounds that her father donated the landmark to the community. Reverend Ford (Malden) has allowed Polly to dictate the tenor of his weekly sermons, alternately boring and frightening his congregation with fire-and-brimstone ranting. Polly’s maid, Nancy (Olson), is in love with George Dodds (James Drury, recently seen shooting poor Mr. Stubbs in Toby Tyler) but has to sneak around to see him.
Pollyanna’s arrival coincides with the return of Polly’s old paramour, Dr. Edmond Chilton (Richard Egan). Chilton entertained hopes of rekindling his old romance but having found Polly changed considerably, he sides with the townsfolk in organizing a bazaar to raise money for a new orphanage.
Like everyone else in town except Aunt Polly, Chilton is immediately charmed by Pollyanna and her sunny outlook on life. Pollyanna touches Reverend Ford’s heart by sharing a locket given to her by her father inscribed with a quote from Abraham Lincoln: “When you look for the bad in mankind, expecting to find it, you surely will.” (Lincoln never said that, by the way. The Disney marketing department had to stop selling keepsake replica lockets after Swift told them he’d made it up himself.) She even wins over the town’s most feared residents: hypochondriac shut-in Mrs. Snow (Moorehead) and old recluse Mr. Pendergast (Menjou).
Pollyanna sneaks out of her aunt’s house to enjoy the bazaar, which is a rousing success. But as she’s trying to sneak back in, she slips and falls from a tree, breaking her back and, worst of all, her spirit. Dr. Chilton tells Polly that her niece will never walk again without love…and a major operation but mostly love. Aunt Polly learns the error of her ways and the entire town gathers at the house to see Pollyanna off to the hospital and show her how important she’s become to everyone in the extremely short time she’s been in town.
On paper, this all sounds insufferably corny. But under Swift’s capable direction, Pollyanna manages to walk a tightrope between sweet and saccharine. It’s a subtle distinction but an important one. Nobody is more surprised by this than me. I had managed to avoid exposure to Pollyanna before watching it for this column. This wasn’t difficult. It simply didn’t look as though it would hold any appeal for me whatsoever. But even a cynic like me can appreciate good schmaltz when it’s put together well and the ingredients here all work.
The cast is certainly the biggest factor in the film’s success. These are all old pros but there’s no sense that anyone is slumming it by appearing in a children’s film. Everything is played with absolute sincerity with no winking at the camera. Jane Wyman could easily have tilted her performance into Wicked Stepmother territory but she remains grounded and believable. Her imperiousness comes across as a natural defense mechanism against a world that doesn’t look favorably upon strong, independent women. When she finally softens her heart a little, you don’t get the idea that her personality is now radically different. It’s just deepened a bit.
Agnes Moorehead and Adolphe Menjou, on the other hand, do undergo radical personality shifts thanks to Pollyanna. Old Mr. Pendergast even agrees to adopt Jimmy Bean, even though they didn’t seem all that close. But if you’re going to include such broadly drawn characters, it’s smart to get actors like Moorehead and Menjou who can commit to them and have fun.
This would turn out to be Adolphe Menjou’s last film before his death in 1963. Moorehead would remain busy for the next decade and a half, including her iconic run on the sitcom Bewitched, but this would be her only appearance in a Disney feature. In 1971, she’d appear in The Strange Monster Of Strawberry Cove, a two-parter for The Wonderful World Of Disney, but TV releases fall outside the purview of this column.
Karl Malden was a Very Serious Actor, known for his work with Marlon Brando, Elia Kazan and Tennessee Williams. He’d won an Oscar for A Streetcar Named Desire and had been nominated for On The Waterfront. If anyone was going to look down their not insubstantial nose at a Disney picture, it was him. But Malden goes all in. He has a lot of fun ranting about God’s wrath but his most effective moment on the pulpit comes after he’s met with Pollyanna and decides to focus on “happy texts”. As he realizes that he was wrong, we see him struggling with shame and self-doubt. It’s a tender moment that helps elevate the material.
Of course, Hayley Mills is the golden thread that keeps the movie together and she’s delightful. Like Bobby Driscoll before her, she won the Academy Juvenile Award for her performance, the last time that honorary trophy was given out. The movie wouldn’t be the same without her guileless presence. She and Disney were made for each other. We’ll see a lot more of her in this column. We’ll also have return visits from Jane Wyman, Karl Malden, Nancy Olson, Donald Crisp and, of course, the inescapable Kevin Corcoran.
Walt had given Pollyanna a relatively lavish budget by his live-action standards and was expecting it to be a blockbuster. It wasn’t. It earned a tidy profit, which is certainly more than could be said for some of the studio’s other recent releases. But Walt was disappointed. The picture connected with girls and women but Walt felt more boys would have gone to see it if it’d had a different title.
The Disney studio wasn’t quite through with Eleanor Porter’s creation. In 1982, the Walt Disney anthology series aired The Adventures Of Pollyanna, a pilot for a potential series starring a young Patsy Kensit as the Glad Girl and Shirley Jones as Aunt Polly. They’d have better luck a few years later with Polly, a musical remake directed by Debbie Allen.
The mostly Black cast included Keshia Knight Pulliam, Phylicia Rashad, Dorian Harewood, Brock Peters, Celeste Holm, Ken Page (the future voice of Oogie Boogie in The Nightmare Before Christmas) and, in her final role, Butterfly McQueen. Polly was a ratings smash and a sequel, Polly Comin’ Home!, followed the very next year. The Polly movies have a fanbase, especially in the African-American community, so I’m surprised Disney hasn’t done more with them.
It’s easy to roll your eyes at a movie as earnest and sweet as Pollyanna, especially in this day and age. It almost requires an act of will to switch off your inner cynic and allow yourself to be won over by something this innocent. Honestly, I’m not sure I was able to completely do that myself. But if nothing else, I can appreciate the skill behind the movie and understand why its fans love it.
VERDICT: Disney Plus…I know, I’m surprised myself.