By Ray Young
Little Lord Fauntleroy
Directed by Alfred E. Green and Jack Pickford. Produced by Mary Pickford. Screenplay by Bernard McConville, based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Cinematography by Charles Rosher. Starring Mary Pickford, Claude Gillingwater, Joseph Dowling, James Marcus, and Kate Price. Music by Nigel Holton. Originally released in 1921. B&W/tinted, 112 minutes.
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Milestone Film & Video
—or call them at (800) 603-1104
A fringe benefit of the DVD is the recent (albeit limited and under-funded) movement to restore silent movies. Along with the attention given to cleaner imagery and proper speed, the concern over newly recorded musical soundtracks has been an unexpected bonus. There have been a few killjoy reviewers who’ve knocked the repetition and lack of variety of some of these compositions, while disregarding the welcome push back to symphonic scoring. For Milestone Films’s new edition of Little Lord Fauntleroy
, Nigel Holton has written a beautiful piece of work that adds grandeur to an already opulent production. Covering most of the picture’s 112-minute running time, you could play the disc as background music in your home.
Holton’s score may be somewhat reminiscent of John Williams (minus the bombast), just as the movie’s a light, Spielberg-style epic of its time. There’s a buoyancy running throughout Little Lord Fauntleroy
that never loses sight of a calculated, underlying humility. Direction is credited to Alfred E. Green and Jack Pickford, but the latter was less an auteur than a matinee idol, and Green was a prolific journeyman hired mostly because he could stick to schedule and budget.
(Despite having over one hundred features to his credit, Green is generally overlooked by film reference books.) A likely scenario would be that Green was called in to watch over technicians and hardware while his employers worked to nurture the myth that was Mary Pickford (Jack’s sister).
By the time she made Little Lord Fauntleroy
, Mary was already among Hollywood’s first wave of superstars and wielded more power in Tinsel Town than either Julia Roberts or Oprah Winfrey do today, a situation that was only amplified by her marriage to Douglas Fairbanks. The sheer volume of her filmography is staggering—starring roles in nearly fifty features between 1915 and 1933, with appearances in over two hundred one- and two-reelers before that, plus production work that went on after she retired from acting in the mid-30’s. As one of the founding members (with Fairbanks, Chaplin and Griffith) of United Artists, she broke free from studio interference to cultivate an image (“America’s Sweetheart”) and make pictures on her own terms.
Since I’m not up on Fauntleroy lore, I’m in no position to compare Bernard McConville’s screenplay to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel. If it’s a fairly accurate translation, then the stereotype of a ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy’ being the hateful brat gagging everyone with his silver spoon is wildly inappropriate. Primarily known for her roles as the good girl with pluck, Mary portrays Fauntleroy as a late-nineteenth-century child superhero. (Other than a wig of tresses, she plays the boy without makeup and, between her soft face and feminine calves visible below short pants, we never mistake her for one.) After brawling with schoolyard bullies in her/his New York neighborhood, she/he visits an assortment of downtrodden adults (a shopkeeper, a bootblack, a maid, and the boy’s mother played by Mary in a dual role), assuring them of bright futures in greener pastures. Unexpectedly inheriting a royal title and relocating to England, the young Lord commences to break the icy demeanor of his elders, help the needy townspeople and take care of the folks back home.
Although it’s rife with moral and political allegory, Mary knew her audience well and opts to keep things simple and focused. The bourgeoisie of the period were easy targets for ridicule (America was thirty years shy of its post-WWII “middle class,” back when the proletariat remembered Marie Antoinette), even if multimillionaire Mary and her well heeled crew were chiding their own kind.
The lack of pretension imbues the picture (and most of Mary’s career) with a sense of wholesome honesty—rather than physical beauty—which the public found refreshingly attractive. All but missing from contemporary culture (having been snuffed out by the enforced cynicism of the 1960’s and 70’s), honesty and humility were once highly desirable character traits both on and off the screen. A part of Mary’s legacy went to Shirley Temple, Deanna Durbin, Doris Day and Julie Andrews, but with varying degrees of success. As the world’s temperament soured, so did its definitions. Jaded minds and callous hearts will find little to value in Little Lord Fauntleroy
, but the rest of us should welcome the experience of a light entertainment that’s substantial, honest, humorous and absorbing.