Gwen's family is rich, but her parents ignore her and most of the servants push her around, so she is lonely and unhappy. Her father is concerned only with making money, and her mother cares only about her social position. But one day a servant's irresponsibility creates a crisis that causes everyone to rethink what is important to them.Written by
The "poor little rich girl" is so-called because of her wealth of material comforts and her poverty of in the happiness and affection she craves. Mother's social duties leave no time for tender good-night caresses. Father wages war among the bulls and bears of Wall street, an neglects his little daughter and his home. (Print Ad-Jeanette News, ((Jeanette, Penna.)) 5 June 1917)
This delightful film marked a turning point in the career of Mary Pickford, the first time in adulthood that she played a little girl. The illusion was enhanced with specially scaled sets and props that made Mary look smaller, and also by casting unusually tall actors as the "grown-ups," but it wouldn't have worked if Mary herself hadn't been such a gifted performer in her own right. She is remarkably convincing as 11 year-old Gwendolyn. It's notable that when Mary (who was 24 when this film was made) plays scenes opposite Maxine Elliott (who was 12 at the time), the illusion is not spoiled. The great success of The Poor Little Rich Girl at the box office ensured that Mary Pickford would be playing little girls well into her 30s, despite occasional attempts to demonstrate more versatility. Eventually she came to consider the role something of a curse, but in any event the film holds up nicely today: it's interesting, suspenseful, and funny, with odd touches of surrealism during the extended dream sequence that forms the climax.
Mary's Gwendolyn is certainly a sympathetic protagonist. The story paints a vivid picture of the girl's loneliness and her desperation to receive some attention from her high society parents, but she's no sad sack-- she's a spirited kid bursting with vitality, though she's surrounded by servants who devote themselves to stifling her energy. She's sheltered but no snob, and much of the havoc she creates comes when she invites some of the scruffier neighborhood kids inside to play. The comic high point is a mud fight that takes place in the green house of Gwendolyn's home. (Oddly enough, Mary Pickford revealed in later years that director Maurice Tourneur was opposed to the inclusion of this sequence and had to be persuaded to film it.) The mud fight is great fun, but for me the movie's real highlight comes when Gwendolyn, ill and delirious, has a bizarre dream that offers metaphors for her life and the people she's known. For instance, her mean-spirited governess, described earlier as a "snake in the grass," actually appears as such in the dream, while another character is shown to be "two-faced." I won't reveal any more of the imagery for anyone who might see this film, except to note that the dream sequence alone is worth the price of admission.
P.S. I happened to see The Poor Little Rich Girl at a recent screening at the Museum of the City of New York, where locally-made movies are occasionally shown. Viewers interested in New York City history may be interested to learn that this film includes location scenes of Mary taking a ride along Riverside Drive as well as some brief shots of Wall Street. My fellow New Yorkers got a big laugh at one point when Gwendolyn's father contemplates selling his mansion for $35,000!
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