The story takes place before WWI, when a newly-orphaned girl is shipped from her home in India to her rich uncle’s estate in England. She’s a rude, ill-tempered child, but her uncle has his own Issues; he’s an anti-social widower unable to come to terms with his wife’s death a decade earlier.
As the girl tries to Make the Best of Things, she discovers two surprises hidden on the estate: (1) A secret, derelict garden, and (2) her cousin, a boy with poor health and a fierce temper. (The temperament seems to run in the family.)
This is great material for a movie, and Hollywood has adapted the novel to the screen at least five times, with the earliest version in 1919. After all, it’s a story about heartbreaking loss, and how one might sort through grief to make a different life.
Naturally, a garden is the perfect metaphor. This garden, when first discovered, is overgrown and in disrepair. The girl, together with her cousin and a new friend, decides to tend the garden and help it produce new life.
The only film version of The Secret Garden we’ve seen is the one released in 1949, starring Margaret O’Brien, Herbert Marshall, and a young Dean Stockwell. It’s become a favourite, and it was one of the last films reviewed by a classic movie blogger we admired very much: Patricia Nolan-Hall, a.k.a. Caftan Woman.
Paddy passed away two months ago, and it is a huge loss for the classic film community. There was no bigger champion of classic film bloggers; she took the time to read and comment on dozens of blogs each week, in addition to writing her own lively, witty reviews.
When she reviewed the 1949 version of The Secret Garden, Paddy made special note of producer Clarence Brown’s films. “I find in the best of Clarence Brown’s work,” she wrote, “a particular empathy for the outsider especially as represented by the lonely, isolated world of children.”
She had that kind of insight, and she was tremendously encouraging. On a personal note, it took us (yours truly) a long time to find our footing as a film blogger, but Paddy was a terrific cheerleader. She called us out when we needed it, but she also bolstered our confidence and was never patronizing.
Paddy was like a gardener to many in the classic film community. She planted seeds and watered, she propped up sagging plants, and she added extra nutrients to the soil.
We, all of us, flourished under her care.
The Secret Garden is a well-crafted movie. Twelve year-old O’Brien stars as Mary, and she carries the film effortlessly. Marshall, the reclusive uncle, gives a powerful performance as a man cratered by pain. And Stockwell is both annoying and charming as a bed-ridden boy who’s also something of a con artist.
The cinematography feels fresh. For example, watch the scene where O’Brien meets Marshall for the first time. She never appears on screen; her lines are delivered off camera. We see only Marshall, and, as he studies the girl, he exudes disappointment, then resignation.
“You’ll be alone,” he says bluntly. “You’ll find my being away no great loss to you. I’m not amusing. I keep to myself. I have my books. I drink.”
As for Stockwell’s character, Paddy wrote, “Mary has finally met someone who matches her, fault for fault. These cousins are holy terrors who must raise themselves out of the depths of their despair. In an outburst for the ages, Mary breaks Colin down: ‘I was worse the day I was born than you are this minute!'”
We hope you get the chance to see the 1949 version of The Secret Garden. We also hope you’ll treat yourself by visiting Paddy’s wonderful blog HERE.
Our deepest condolences to Paddy’s family.
This post is part of THE CAFTAN WOMAN Blogathon, Honoring Patricia Nolan-Hall, hosted by Another Old Movie Blog and Lady Eve’s Reel Life.
The Secret Garden: starring Margaret O’Brien, Herbert Marshall, Dean Stockwell. Directed by Fred M. Wilcox. Written by Robert Ardrey. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1949, B&W, 92 mins.