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DVD SAVANT

Savant Review:

Pollyanna


Pollyanna
Disney Home Video
1960 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 134 min. / The Vault Disney Collection
Starring Hayley Mills, Jane Wyman, Richard Egan, Karl Malden, Nancy Olson, Adolphe Menjou, Donald Crisp, Agnes Moorehead, Kevin Corcoran, James Drury, Reta Shaw
Cinematography Russell Harlan
Art Direction Carroll Clark, Robert Clatworthy
Film Editor Frank Gross
Original Music Paul Smith
Written by David Swift, from the book by Eleanor H. Porter
Produced and Directed by David Swift

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

One of Walt Disney's very best live-action films, Pollyanna treats its treacly source story so simply and honestly that it avoids becoming oversentimental mush. Sentimental, you bet, but almost every tear is well-earned, mostly through the miracle of young Hayley Mills. It plays quite well now, needing few if any apologies.

Synopsis:

Newly-orphaned Pollyanna Whittier (Hayley Mills) comes to live with her Aunt Polly Herrington (Jane Wyman), a wealthy but severe woman whose influence over the locals has inhibited feelings of community spirit. Mayor Warren (Donald Crisp) can't get anyone to consider going against Aunt Polly's wishes, and even the Reverend Paul Ford (Karl Malden) has become a puppet of the woman, following her 'suggestions' for his sermons.

First befriending Polly's servant Nancy Furman (Nancy Olson), Pollyanna confronts negativity and bitterness with her disarming honesty and directness, bringing an antidote to the cynicism of those she meets. None of which plays well with Aunt Polly ...

Walt Disney's Pollyanna is really David Swift's Pollyanna: he wrote and directed it. Savant got to meet Mr. Swift in 1998. We had lunch three times at MGM, simply because I secured him a copy of his film How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. He had tried to approach the company directly, and was ignored. For several hours I had his attention and he told me all about working in television in the '50s, and creating his hit show Mr. Peepers (from which borrowed several actors for Pollyanna). Disney asked him to adapt Babes in Toyland in 1957 and David had to say no, because he couldn't find a satisfactory way to adapt the story. Nobody ever turned down Walt about anything, and Swift thought his Hollywood career was over before it had begun. Instead, Disney got back to him a year later, with a much better project.

This is exactly the kind of saccharine story that sends Savant up the walls, yet 99% of the time Pollyanna avoids pushing the wrong buttons. Swift's writing and direction are fine. It's a simple story well-told, with just enough studio polish to give it a nice look. Only at the very end, with the It's a Wonderful Life finale, do things get a bit stiff ... everyone Pollyanna has come in contact with announces a major miracle in their life. I was surprised to find now that the ending seems so positive. In 1960, the shock of what happens to Pollyanna was so wrenching, everything after that point seemed much more downbeat, and her train-ride exit not very hopeful at all. That's what being an impressionable 10 year-old will do for you.

I didn't see Pollyanna until after her third film, The Parent Trap. Like every other kid my age, I fell madly in love with Hayley Mills - my first movie star crush, I guess. She, of course, is the ingredient that makes the movie work, the magic that no studio, director, or script can replicate. In Tiger Bay, her only film previous, she was a much younger but incredibly versatile tot. The story is about escaped murderer Horst Bucholtz, but what we remember is the adorable, precocious little girl who disobeys her mother to chase after him. In one (now very un-p.c) scene, she picks up the criminal's gun and sneaks it into church, thinking the weapon is just a toy. Even her impish stubbornness is believable. Tiger Bay is a tight, suspenseful movie that needs re-introduction. It catapulted the careers of Mills, Buchholtz and director Lee J. Thompson into higher orbits.

All through the extras for the Pollyanna DVD, Hayley Mills reassigns credit for her work by praising the high-profile cast around her. If anything is true, she made them look good, with her natural reactions and clear-eyed sincerity. Stiff coot Adolph Menjou is a good example, and the equally inflexible Richard Egan also visibly loosens up when paired with her. Kid actors usually ruin scenes or steal them, but Hayley Mills just reflects the energy of the other actors right back at them ... while projecting a very self-effacing kind of sweetness. She simply is the movie. When later Disney films tried to reproduce her qualities, the result were frecklefaced children with toothy smiles that meant nothing...  1

Pollyanna is a key picture because it most perfectly encapsulizes Disney's (and America's) longing for a world more reassuring than the one in the newspapers. The only problems in the story are emotional ones that love and understanding can heal. It's really Utopian fiction for conservatives, finding values and meaning in a nostalgic world without poverty, race problems, or other complexities. Aunt Polly holds the town in her sway much like the Bette Davis villainness wants to in The Little Foxes, but there are no visible victims of her benign rule - no dispossessed factory workers without clean clothes to wear to a town bazaar. The fantasy has some very nice things to say about living with a positive attitude, things that very closely express Disney's own philosophies.

Near the end, the real world finally makes a visit, with its potential for utter personal disaster. And yet Pollyanna's still interested in the happiness of her friends. She's more of a concept than a real child, but Hayley Mills brings the concept to life.

David Swift mentions several times in his commentary that Walt Disney wouldn't let him cut Pollyanna, saying its 134 rough-cut minutes played perfectly. Disney even added material and little touches, when Swift would have preferred to do some trimming to keep the focus on the storyline. The extras for this DVD suggest that Disney wanted to maintain the easygoing pace to better reflect the 1912 setting. But the real reason becomes clear when we're reminded that Pollyanna later played on Disney's Wonderful World of Color in three episodes ... even Walt had difficulty getting good programming for that Sunday night slot, and the idea of filling out three instalments with just one serialized show solved multiple problems for him.


Buena Vista's DVD of Pollyanna comes on two discs. The first has a sparkling anamorphic transfer of the film, accompanied by a commentary from director Swift and Hayley Mills. It begins as a disappointing praise-a-thon, but eventually moves into more interesting material. The nice manners and courtesy Swift showed me were no fluke, and Ms. Mills sounds just as adorable at 55 as she did at 8 or 13. Pollyanna is preceded by a Mickey Mouse cartoon, Nifty Nineties, which showcases The Mouse as if the disc needed more of a Disney presence.

The second disc contains two pretty good documentaries, and a host of interesting short subjects, linked by slick-but-dead menu animation. The main docu repeats some of the commentary info and is somewhat redundant to the film itself, but answers lots of questions and lets us see and hear costars Kevin Corcoran (little Jimmy Bean) and Nancy Olson. Olson look positively great and also impresses us with her openness - the first thing she says is that she hadn't been in a movie for five years before Pollyanna, the kind of admission actors never volunteer. The bright new 'find' of Sunset Boulevard was able to make a comeback via this Disney movie.

Re-Creating Pollyanna's America goes deep into the production design of the picture, with more interviews and behind-the-scenes home movies that are especially good - between takes, little Haley looks like a very serious little tyke. In both documentaries, experts constantly explain to us what the early Americana experience was and why Disney loved it so.

1912! is a cleverly assembled montage of movie clips contrasted with newsreels and cute film moments from early in the century. It's vaguely condescending, and makes lame fun of things like the fact that there were no video games back then. Maybe the critics are right, and only a few of us still read or care about times and places before 2002.

A Lost Treasure extra is the introduction to the 1963 broadcast that broke the show into three frustrating parts, and then partially spoiled it with promo pre-clips showing critical scenes - accompanied with dumb new songs. The spoiler first up, places Pollyanna on the ledge of her bedroom window.

Other extras more than compensate, however. Film restorer Scott MacQueen takes us on a carefully assembled tour of the process used to revive the look of Pollyanna. He explains details with clarity and a respect for his audience. When he says that the negative filmstock manufactured between 1957-1960 had particularly dire fading problems, I tend to believe him.

Deeper into disc two are galleries of pictures, art, and advertising, and several audio clips, including the entire contents of some children's records designed to capitalize on Pollyanna. For thoroughness, this can't be beaten.


I called up Mr. Swift once again in 1999, and he talked with me a bit about how things were going. At the time he was having fun with the remake of The Parent Trap. When he heard that my daughter was going to college in Rhode Island, he encouraged me to go see a museum about Norman Rockwell not far away in Massachusetts. His idea of great Fall fun, he said, was to go slowly through New England just enjoying the countryside. David Swift passed away suddenly on New Year's Eve of 2001, probably not long after recording the interviews for this DVD. The news slipped by with the holidays. I'm very grateful I got to know him the little bit that I did.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Pollyanna, The Vault Disney Collection rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Many, see above
Packaging: Double Keep case (no tin box, thank heavens)
Reviewed: May 6, 2002


Footnote:

1. It's the failing of everyone else's kiddie movies, too. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang had a pair of giggly, annoying brats who might have been adorable off camera. In the movie you want to hit them with a shovel - hard.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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