Sentimental fictions: Pollyanna (1961) and Summer Magic (1963)


Sandwiched rather incongruously between the two British films I have discussed was Mills’s first Disney feature, Pollyanna, released in 1960. Unlike both Tiger Bay and Whistle Down the Wind, which are arguably films for adults, Pollyanna is clearly a children’s film, or at least one intended as ‘family entertainment’: there is hardly anything in this film that would not be understood by most children of cinema-going age. The director, David Swift, had previously worked on Disney’s animation and TV productions, and this was his first feature film; it enjoyed a relatively high budget of over $1 million. Walt Disney took a close personal interest in the project, and reportedly wept on frequent occasions while viewing the daily rushes; he refused Swift’s requests to cut the running time, which is just over two hours.

The film is set in the small town of Harrington in the early 1900s: the set closely resembles ‘Main Street USA’ at Disneyland. Pollyanna, a 12-year-old orphan, arrives to live with her wealthy and domineering Aunt Polly, who effectively controls the town. Pollyanna is a very cheerful, talkative and optimistic child. She tells the inhabitants of the town about the ‘glad game’ her father had taught her: you should always find something to be glad about, she says, no matter how bad things may seem. As she settles in, Pollyanna gradually transforms the entire community, including the hypochondriac Mrs. Snow, the grumpy recluse Mr. Pendergast, and the hellfire-and-brimstone preacher Reverend Ford – and ultimately even her Aunt Polly. When most of the townspeople want a run-down orphanage rebuilt, Aunt Polly opposes the idea, but they defy her by planning a bazaar to raise funds. Pollyanna subtly persuades Reverend Ford to support the idea, and this proves decisive: the bazaar is a great success. Although Aunt Polly refuses to allow Pollyanna to attend, her playmate Jimmy Bean helps her to escape from the house by climbing down a tree outside her bedroom window. However, when she returns, she slips and falls from the tree and is badly injured. With her legs paralysed, Pollyanna becomes severely depressed, jeopardizing her chance of recovery: it seems that the ‘glad game’ can no longer do the trick. However, when the townspeople learn of the accident, they arrive en masse at Aunt Polly’s house with gifts and good wishes. The film ends with Pollyanna leaving Harrington for an operation in Baltimore, which is hoped to secure her recovery.

If ever a film was open to the charge of ‘Disneyfication’, it would be Pollyanna – although I reserve a special place in my heart for Summer Magic, to be considered next. However, it should be noted that both films have their origins in a long tradition of ‘sentimental fiction’, particularly aimed at girls and women. While this tradition arguably extends back to the early days of the novel (for example, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela), it continued in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with enormously popular books like Little Women, What Katy Did, Anne of Green Gables and The Secret Garden (and their numerous adaptations for film and television).

The original source for Pollyanna was a novel by Eleanor Porter, published in 1913. The book sold more than a million copies, and was first adapted for film in 1919, significantly featuring an earlier child star, Mary Pickford. The success of Porter’s novel generated a sequel, Pollyanna Grows Up, and a series of at least fourteen subsequent Pollyanna books (collectively known as the ‘Glad Books’) by other writers. The book was adapted again for television by the BBC in the 1970s, and by the UK commercial network Carlton in 2003. More implausibly, it also generated a 51-episode anime series on Japanese TV, and two Disney musicals with largely African-American casts in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The central theme of these ‘sentimental novels’ is all about children’s agency. The child is seen to have the power to transform everybody around her – not only her extended family (as in Summer Magic), but also the wider community (as in Pollyanna). One of the closing shots of the film shows the citizens attaching a new sign to the train station as Pollyanna leaves for Baltimore: no longer called just ‘Harrington’, in reference to the control exercised by Aunt Polly’s family, it has also become ‘The Glad Town’. As Judy Rosenbaum puts it, Pollyanna is a kind of ‘junior fairy godmother’: she changes negatives into positives, encouraging all she meets to look on the brighter side of life, and thereby to transform themselves. She unfreezes those who are emotionally frozen or blocked, and humanizes those who are repressed and miserable, enabling them to fulfill the desires they cannot admit even to themselves. By the end of the film, a whole set of new partnerships is formed, both romantic (Aunt Polly and the doctor) and familial (Jimmy Bean is adopted by Mr. Prendergast, and Aunt Polly finally accepts Pollyanna as her daughter).

At the same time, Pollyanna helps to precipitate a kind of democratic revolution, which empowers the citizens of the town and challenges the quasi-aristocratic position of her aunt. In the early scenes, we see the townspeople’s resentment against Aunt Polly’s charity, and their failure to fully stand up to her wealth and power. The bazaar represents self-help, as opposed to charity; yet here too, the people require Pollyanna to set them free. In particular, she enables the priest to liberate himself from Aunt Polly’s control, which has extended to defining the tone and content of his sermons: it is Pollyanna’s claim that ‘nobody can buy a church’ and then her mention of the ‘glad texts’ in the Bible that most incites him to change. While Aunt Polly takes on an almost villainous air, especially when she refuses to allow Pollyanna to attend the bazaar, she too is eventually transformed by the power of Pollyanna’s love: in the closing scenes, she becomes both a wife and a mother. This all happens at some personal cost to Pollyanna – in that she becomes an invalid – but the ending suggests that this will only be temporary. While far from radical, the politics of the film reflect a kind of democratic populism that is very prevalent in Disney (and indeed in mainstream Hollywood more broadly).

Pollyanna arrives in a world where adult authority is not to be questioned: in the opening scenes, she is persistently bossed about and told off for showing curiosity about her new environment. Yet as we have seen in other child-centred films, Pollyanna uses her growing knowledge, gained though eavesdropping and observing adults, in order to manipulate them. While she may lie or deceive, she does so for good reasons, and she has an ability to speak the truth (for example, by drawing attention to her aunt’s considerable wealth) that adults may wish to efface or conceal.

Pollyanna is significantly more ‘girlish’ than the characters in Mills’s British films, although she retains elements of the tomboy persona. She seems uncomfortable with her Aunt’s attempts to make her more ‘ladylike’, and prefers to run around with Jimmy Bean, getting her new dresses dirty in the process. As in her British films, Mills’s performance conveys a degree of unpolished spontaneity – she screws up her face and makes ungainly expressions – although in this context the act seems somewhat more contrived and cute.

Of course, there is a good deal of sentimentality in Pollyanna – although (as Rosenbaum suggests) it is debatable whether this is any more apparent than in the original novel, or the broader tradition from which it comes. The ending brings together all the characters, playing on all heart-strings at once; and it is certainly difficult (perhaps particularly for a British viewer) to stomach the sight of Hayley Mills at the bazaar, wrapped in the American flag singing ‘America the Beautiful’. Between the release of Porter’s original novel and Disney’s version almost fifty years later, the word ‘Pollyanna’ had come to represent a kind of saccharine sentimentality – which, once Pollyanna is paralysed, extends to mawkishness. Although the film makes some changes from the original novel – playing up Aunt Polly’s power in the town, and playing down Pollyanna’s talkativeness – it doesn’t by any means escape this charge.


Summer Magic

Released in 1963, Summer Magic was Disney’s second adaptation from ‘sentimental fiction’ to feature Hayley Mills in a leading role. The film is based on a novel by Kate Douglas Wiggin called Mother Carey’s Chickens, published in 1911. Directed by James Nielson, it also stars Dorothy Maguire and Burl Ives. It has a great many similarities with the earlier film, and I will deal with it more briefly here.

The film takes place in a similarly pastoral setting. Following the death of her husband and the resulting loss of income, Margaret Carey relocates her family from Boston to the small town of Beulah, Maine. Her oldest child, Nancy, has found a likely house for them to live in; and the local community, especially the caretaker and postmaster Osh Popham, are generally welcoming. Osh enables them to rent a house that he is managing on behalf of its owner, Mr. Hamilton, who is travelling overseas. Nancy’s orphaned cousin Julia comes to live with them, because of the financial difficulties of her adoptive parents, the Fergusons, to whom she constantly refers. Nancy dislikes Julia’s vain and snooty behaviour, and competes with her for the attentions of the handsome new teacher in the town, but she eventually comes to accept her, despite her flaws. Towards the end of the film, as the community enjoys a Halloween party, the mysterious Mr. Hamilton eventually appears. Unexpectedly, he turns out to be another handsome young man; and he becomes Nancy’s partner at the dance.

As in Pollyanna, the child operates here as a kind of magical agent. Nancy solves the problem of the family’s poverty by finding the house in Maine; she manages to integrate Julia within the family; and she constantly finds solutions to problems caused by the family’s lack of money. Where Pollyanna focuses on the wider community, the emphasis here is on the family: the absence of the father is made good by the discovery of the grandfatherly Osh, and the family is also able to accommodate a difficult relative. The other residents of the town are only distantly present; yet it is the recovery and health of the happy family that provide the means for it to integrate in the new community.

Summer Magic is significantly more sentimental than Pollyanna, if such were possible. Its vision of small-town America is quaint and artificial, although the back-projection doesn’t help. Nancy’s relentless positivity, and her persistent search for silver linings, quickly become wearing. Stock characters, such as the saintly, warm-hearted and avuncular Osh Popham, and the succession of handsome and bland young men – not to mention the loveable dog – are equally tiresome. This is a world with very little tension or conflict: problems and misunderstandings are quickly resolved, and difficulties are easily overcome. The only obstacles – most notably in the form of Nancy’s cousin and rival Julia – are quite quickly incorporated into the harmonious paradise of the family. Even the distant threat of Mr. Hamilton’s return – we discover that Osh has been concealing the Carey family’s occupation of his house – easily turns out well. As a result – and unlike Pollyanna – the film has little narrative drive. The sense of inertia (as well as the nausea quotient) is significantly reinforced by the songs: Burl Ives’s version of ‘The Ugly Bug Ball’ stands out, not least for Disney’s gratuitous recycling of footage from his 1950s nature documentaries. All in all, Summer Magic makes Pollyanna look like Reservoir Dogs.

The film’s messages about gender also border on the prehistoric. In the world of Beulah, boys will be boys, and girls must learn to be girls. One song in particular will undoubtedly be required viewing for feminists who land up in Hell: in ‘Femininity’, Nancy and Julia instruct Osh’s daughter Lolly Joy in her efforts to ‘catch a beau’, in the form of Nancy’s brother. Femininity, they tell us, is all about passivity, subordination and restraint: ‘let him do the talking – men adore good listeners’, and ‘laugh, but not loudly, should he choose to tell a joke’. Nancy is younger and less obviously feminine than Julia – she is talkative and not always glamorous. Yet although she is initially critical of Julia’s vain and flirtatious behaviour, she learns from her cousin’s success with the local teacher to ‘use her femininity’ to her advantage.

Heterosexual romance is certainly on the agenda for the young people here, in a way that it is not in Pollyanna, but sex certainly is not. Under Julia’s tutelage, Nancy appears to be making some kind of transition to womanhood by the end of the film – ‘I just have a different feeling,’ she says, ‘I didn’t feel like this a year ago’. Yet as she dances with Mr. Hamilton in the closing scene, she notably consents to keep her mouth shut.

As William McReynolds points out, Pollyanna’s ‘glad game’ is not only a feature of these two films, but a consistent strategy in Disney’s work more broadly. The films proclaim the benefits of looking on the bright side; they reassure us that goodness and virtue will always triumph. This kind of ‘positive thinking’ is not just an invention of modern pop psychology: it’s also apparent, for instance, in the work of the popular mid-century African-American poet Zora Neale Hurston, which Disney would certainly have read. This optimism is frequently embodied in the figure of the child, who has somehow escaped the corruption of adulthood. Like Pollyanna and Nancy Carey, Disney’s heroines are often underdogs, but they are determinedly optimistic: it’s no coincidence that he also adapted both Snow White and Cinderella. This positive thinking is only threatened by outsiders who have lost touch with their true feelings, and with true human values (such as Pollyanna’s aunt, or the Fergusons in Summer Magic): they may have more money than heart, yet they can eventually be saved by the power of the magical child. Only wholehearted villains cannot be redeemed – the queen in Snow White, Maleficent in Cinderella, Cruella de Vil in 101 Dalmatians – and their evil exists primarily in order to make the happy ending that much sweeter.

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