Monday, March 5, 2018

Walt Disney's Pollyanna

Hayley Mills as Pollyanna.
Impeccably produced and exceedingly well cast, Pollyanna ranks as Walt Disney's finest live-action children's film. Set in 1913, it tells the story of 12-old-year Pollyanna Whittier, an eternally-optimistic orphan who comes to live with her stern aunt in the picturesque small town of Harrington.

Pollyanna's Aunt Polly is a wealthy spinster who pretty much runs the town (which was named after her family). Polly even provides notes and Bible quotations to the local minister, whose fiery sermons leave the local residents with sour stomachs every Sunday. The town is in need of some cheer and that's what young Pollyanna provides. She finds something to be thankful for even in the bleakest situations. When folks complain that the Sunday sermon ruins their fried chicken dinner, Pollyanna quickly notes that they can be glad it's six days until the next Sunday!

Agnes Moorehead as Mrs. Snow.
She also looks for the best in people, a trait that eventually endears her to an elderly recluse (Adolphe Menjou), a cantankerous hypochondriac (Agnes Moorehead), and even the minister (Karl Malden) who has lost his congregation. Pollyanna's "gladness" spreads throughout Harrington and results in the townsfolk defying Aunt Polly by holding a bazaar to raise money for a new orphanage. Polly appears to be the lone hold-out, but a climatic tragedy changes her outlook on life as well.

Based on Eleanor H. Porter's 1913 novel, Pollyanna could have been a sticky-sweet maudlin mess. Instead, it's a bright, energetic film that seems much shorter than than its 134-minute running time. Over 360 young actresses were considered for the title role before British newcomer Hayley Mills was chosen. Walt Disney's wife Lilly was partly responsible for Mills' casting, having seen Hayley in her film debut Tiger Bay (1959).

Jane Wyman as Aunt Polly.
Disney surrounded Mills with an exceptional cast, pairing her with Jane Wyman and some of Hollywood's best supporting performers (e.g., Malden, Menjou, Moorehead, and Donald Crisp). He then added promising newcomer James Drury (The Virginian), the always reliable Nancy Olson, and another Disney child star, Kevin Corcoran (who had earlier appeared in Old Yeller). As if that's not enough, TV fans can rejoice in the presence of familiar faces such as Edward Platt (Get Smart), Reta Shaw (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir), and Mary Grace Canfield (Green Acres).

The central performance, though, is what holds Pollyanna together and Hayley Mills shoulders the responsibility with ease. I'm hard-pressed to think of another child star who seemed as natural on the screen. Mills' acting earned her a BAFTA nomination (the "British Oscar") and she was awarded a special Academy Award in 1961 for "most outstanding juvenile performance."

Hayley Mills and Karl Malden.
Her best scene in Pollyanna is also my favorite in the film: Pollyanna encounters Reverend Ford (Malden) in a field where he is practicing one of his stern sermons.  She recounts how her father, a missionary, struggled to reach his congregation until he focused on finding the good in people. It's a simple point made with childhood innocence, but it strikes home with the minister. It's a lovely scene and reminded me once again that Karl Malden was one of the great actors of his generation.

I was surprised to read recently that Pollyanna was not a boxoffice success. Walt Disney blamed the film's title, which he thought may not have appealed to boys. That may be true, but Pollyanna is truly a film for all ages. In fact, I didn't realize just how good it was until I watched it as an adult.  I have seen Pollyanna many times over the years now and it never fails to entertain and deliver its message of good cheer and faith in one another.


  1. I loved reading your review and agree with every word. That scene between Mills and Malden is perfection. Two great performances from two always reliable actors.

  2. Thank you for this. Pollyanna has always been one of my guilty pleasures. Now, if anybody seems likely to sneer, I can direct them to your comments.
    Hayley Mills was a wonderful natural child actress. My favourite performance of hers is Kathy in 'Whistle Down the Wind'. Sadly, like so many who succeed as child actors, her adult career has never lived up to the early promise.

  3. WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND is an enchanting, one of the finest on the challenges of childhood. As you know, it was written by Hayley's mother. Andrew Lloyd Webber adapted it into a stage musical, which never reached Broadway--I'd love to see it.

  4. Just interviewed Hayley and she's utterly delightful:

    Can watch Pollyanna over and over, it just leaves you with a good feeling, especially when she manages to turn the adults around - like grumpy Adolf Menjou, in his last film role. Pity about the title though, it does sound sugary. What would have been a better title?

  5. I can remember as a kid initially being unenthused about a movie a friend recommended to me called The Princess Bride, so there may be something to the idea that a movie with the title Pollyanna caused some boys to shun it at the box office.

    I've seen The Parent Trap, Hayley Mills' other big Disney feature, more times than I can recall, but Pollyanna is one of those movies where I'm not sure if I've ever seen it in its entirety; I often used to seem to catch it on the Disney Channel after it had already started, but it never failed to draw me in. I keep telling myself I should rewatch it one of these days, so having just coincidentally reactivated my Netlix DVD plan, I moved it to the top of my queue.

    Although I'm not at all a religious person, I can definitely appreciate the scene between Pollyanna and Karl Malden's minister (despite being a godless heathen, I also happen to really enjoy Miss Mills in The Trouble With Angels).

    1. I'm a big fan of THE PARENT TRAP, too--though the premise is actually bizarre. What parents would separate two twins after birth and never let them meet?

  6. My first crush as a kid, and after reading this I'm crushed all over again.

  7. What?! Agnes Moorehead and Adolphe Menjou are in this?! I had shied away from this version for various reasons, but knowing Moorehead and Menjou are in the cast changes everything.

  8. I absolutely delight in seeing “Pollyanna” on repeat viewings! Her glad game is a simple but lovely way to look at things. It was awesome seeing her delight at being given a room in the attic, receiving store bought clothes, making rainbow makers, and even singing “America” at the fundraiser. I also have always wanted a slice of those enormous cakes Reta Shaw made. It makes me glad just thinking about it!

  9. I avoided this like the plague as a boy but my wife introduced me to it a few years ago and I was surprisingly taken by the film. Definitely one of Walt's best live action efforts. On a side note, you can visit Santa Rosa and see the "Pollyana" and "Shadow Of A Doubt" houses literally across the street from each other.