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The Secret Garden (1949) is based on Frances Hodgson Burnett's 1911 children's classic, set in Yorkshire, about a lonely orphan and her invalid cousin whose spirits are revived when they revive the neglected garden of the title. There was a silent film version of the story, and several later screen and television versions, but this was the only one featuring a major child star in the leading role of Mary Lennox.
Margaret O'Brien shot to stardom at MGM in Journey for Margaret (1942), at the tender age of five, brilliantly playing a traumatized British war orphan. Among her fans was Lionel Barrymore, who co-starred with O'Brien in Dr. Gillespie's Criminal Case (1943), and declared that she was the only actress other than his sister Ethel to move him to tears. O'Brien's best performance was as the youngest sister in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), which earned her a special Academy Award, and praise from critic and novelist James Agee, who called her "incredibly vivid and eloquent - almost as hypnotizing as Garbo."
By the late 1940s, however, the quality of O'Brien's films had declined, or she was miscast, as in the studio's all-star Little Women (1949), in which she played Beth. She was also getting older, and wasn't quite as adorable. However, she was perfectly cast as the melancholy orphan in The Secret Garden.
Her co-star, Dean Stockwell, was also excellent as the traumatized, temperamental cousin. Just a year older than O'Brien, Stockwell hadn't been acting as long as she had, but he'd also worked with some impressive co-stars, including Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra in his second film, Anchors Aweigh (1945). He'd played Myrna Loy and William Powell's son in Song of the Thin Man (1947), Gregory Peck's son in Gentleman's Agreement (1947), and the title character in the cult film, The Boy with Green Hair (1948). Yorkshire-born Brian Roper played Dickon, the neighbor boy who introduces Mary to the garden. (Roper would reprise the role in a 1952 British television miniseries of The Secret Garden.) A strong cast of mostly British character actors ably supported the young stars.
Producer-director Clarence Brown had directed two of MGM's best family films, National Velvet (1944) and The Yearling (1946). He only produced The Secret Garden, turning the directing chores over to Fred M. Wilcox, who also had experience with family films - he had directed Lassie Come Home(1943), and two Lassie sequels. Together, they created a richly atmospheric production for The Secret Garden, from the moody, spooky Victorian mansion where the family lives, to the scenes in the lush restored garden, which are the only portions of the movie filmed in color - much in the same way as the Oz sequences in The Wizard of Oz (1939) were in color, and the Kansas scenes in black and white. Strangely, even though Oz had set the precedent, some critics appeared confused by the use of color in The Secret Garden. And they felt, as did the Variety critic, that "the allegorical and psychological implications that have been carried over from Frances Hodgson Burnett's book are clearly for the grown-up trade. Not only that, but a good bit of the production is designed to create eerie terror that may discourage parents from letting moppets see the pic." In this era when even the youngest "moppets" take Harry Potter in stride, however, such criticism seems quaint, and The Secret Garden seems ahead of its time.
The Secret Garden turned out to be Margaret O'Brien's final MGM film. She made one film at Columbia in 1951 before retiring from the screen. A few years later, she made an unsuccessful comeback, and worked occasionally in summer stock and television. Dean Stockwell also retired from the screen several times, but made two very successful comebacks -- first as a young adult in such films as Compulsion (1959) and Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962), and in middle age, playing eccentric characters (Dr. Yueh in Dune (1984), Ben in Blue Velvet, 1986). He still works regularly in films and television.
Director: Fred M. Wilcox
Producer: Clarence Brown
Screenplay: Robert Ardrey, based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Cinematography: Ray June
Editor: Robert J. Kern
Costume Design: Walter Plunkett
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Urie McCleary
Music: Bronislau Kaper
Principal Cast: Margaret O'Brien (Mary Lennox), Herbert Marshall (Archibald Craven), Dean Stockwell (Colin Craven), Gladys Cooper (Mrs. Medlock), Elsa Lanchester (Martha), Brian Roper (Dickon), Reginald Owen (Ben Weatherstaff).
BW&C-92m. Closed captioning. Descriptive Video.
by Margarita Landazuri