In a way, it’s too bad the word Pollyanna is used pejoratively.
Google defines it this way:
We suppose too much cheer and optimism can be too much, especially when that person refuses to consider negative outcomes of a situation. Also, there are times we just don’t want to be told to Cheer Up and Look At The Bright Side.
But being cheerful can be a deliberate choice, and it can also be a defiant one, especially if those around you decide to be Miserable.
Pollyanna is the titular character of the 1913 children’s novel by American novelist Eleanor H. Porter. It was hugely successful, spawning 12 (twelve!) sequels, a Broadway play, and a board game.
The novel explores the life of an orphaned girl sent to live with her wealthy but austere aunt in New England. The unmarried, middle-aged Aunt Polly agrees to house and feed the girl because she’s a Stickler when it comes to Duty.
The folks in fictional Beldingsville quickly tire of Pollyanna because she’s always going on about how Glad she is. She’s glad about this and that, blah blah blah. She’s even made a game of it, called The Glad Game, which makes everyone roll their eyes: Enough already, Pollyanna.
But there’s a deeper, timeless message in the novel, which makes it a classic of children’s literature. It’s also been adapted to the screen several times, and today we’re examining the 1919 version, starring Mary Pickford, and the 1960 version, starring Hayley Mills.
The Pickford version of Pollyanna is a charming tale, adapted by screenwriter Frances Marion. It was Pickford’s first picture for United Artists, and it was a Box Office Hit, grossing $1.1 million US (approx. $14.5 million today).
Pickford’s Pollyanna has a twinge of cynicism. She’s optimistic, yet she makes it clear that being cheerful doesn’t always come naturally. And her version of The Glad Game is sometimes a little subversive.
For example, in one scene, Aunt Polly promises Pickford-as-Pollyanna an outing, and the girl is Over The Moon excited, to the point of being hyper. This annoys Aunt Polly, and she rescinds the offer.
Aunt Polly: “I’m tired of this ‘glad’ business, it’s nothing but ‘glad, Glad, GLAD’ from morning ’til night. Just for that you stay home.”
Pickford-as-Pollyanna: “Well, anyway, I’m glad I didn’t count on going.”
Pickford has a flippant defiance in this scene, as in: Who Cares, It Didn’t Matter To Me Anyway. This Pollyanna ain’t no Simpering Fool.
Nor is she anybody’s victim.
The 1960 Disney version, starring Hayley Mills as Pollyanna and Jane Wyman as Aunt Polly, is a more sober treatment of the story. Mills herself was a teenager – unlike Pickford, who was in her twenties – and she plays the role of Pollyanna with the earnestness of a child.
There’s no sly cheekiness in Mills’s Oscar-winning performance; she gives us a touching mix of world weariness and youthful naivety. We believe she’s Pollyanna.
Even so, the film was not a box office success when released. According to IMDb, Walt Disney attributed the disappointing sales to the film’s title. “I think the picture would have done better with a different title,” he said. “Girls and women went to it, but men tended to stay away because it sounded sweet and sticky.”
It’s too bad, because Mills breaks your heart. She portrays a girl who’s suffered an almost unfathomable loss at a young age, and must now navigate life as a stranger in a place where everyone wants her to Shut Up.
Her decision to be glad in times of stress is her defence against anxiety and fear. It’s the raft she clings to in rough water.
In this way, she becomes a study in tragedy.
Confession: We avoided seeing any version of Pollyanna for years because we felt it would be ridiculous and saccharine-y. Instead, we were delighted to be treated to two very different movies, starring two dissimilar but very talented actresses.
We hope you’ll get the chance to see at least one version of Pollyanna. She’s a stronger person than she’s given credit for, and we were, well, glad for that discovery.
This post is part of the 2021 Classic Literature on Film Blogathon, hosted by Silver Screen Classics.