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Little Lord Fauntleroy, Frances Hodgson Burnett's sentimental Victorian novel about an American boy whose life changes when learns he's the heir to a British title and fortune, was published in 1886. It was a huge success, and popularized long curls and velvet suits with lace collars for young boys. The book had been filmed twice, in 1914 and in 1921, the latter starring Mary Pickford in the dual role of the boy Ceddie, and his mother, Dearest.
When producer David O. Selznick decided to leave MGM to form his independent production company in 1935, he bought the rights to the novel from Pickford, surprising many in Hollywood with his choice of such old-fashioned material for Selznick International's debut film. Playwright and screenwriter Ben Hecht sent Selznick a telegram, saying "the trouble with you, David, is that you did all your reading before you were twelve." There was method to Selznick's madness; he did have a fondness for Victorian literature, but he had also had a big hit at MGM with David Copperfield (1935).
Hoping to replicate that film's success, Selznick borrowed Freddie Bartholomew, the child star of Copperfield, from MGM to play Ceddie in Little Lord Fauntleroy (1936). It was a wise choice. Bartholomew's sincerity made what could have been the character's cloying goodness seem genuine and appealing. Even before production began, Selznick's publicity team took on the "sissy" stereotype of character, asking the public through newspaper polls whether Ceddie should wear the shoulder-length curls. Apparently, the answer was no. Bartholomew has short hair in the film, and does not wear lace collars. Also helping cut the treacle was young Mickey Rooney, on loan from MGM, in a supporting role as Ceddie's Brooklyn pal, a shoeshine boy. MGM would exploit the unlikely chemistry between the two boys in three subsequent films, The Devil Is a Sissy (1936), Captains Courageous (1937), and Lord Jeff (1938). By the time they appeared together in A Yank at Eton (1942), Rooney's stardom had eclipsed Bartholomew's.
Playing Ceddie's mother in Little Lord Fauntleroy was one of the first actresses signed to a contract with Selznick International, Dolores Costello. The serenely lovely Costello had been a star of the silent screen when she appeared with John Barrymore in The Sea Beast (1926). The two fell in love and married two years later, and Costello soon retired from the screen to raise their two children. However, Barrymore's alcoholism destroyed the marriage, and they divorced in 1935. Little Lord Fauntleroy marked her return to the screen after her divorce. She was billed as "Dolores Costello Barrymore."
To direct the film, Selznick's agent brother Myron suggested one of his clients, John Cromwell, who was just finishing up a contract at RKO, where he had directed a well-received adaptation of Of Human Bondage (1934), starring Bette Davis and Leslie Howard. Selznick had also worked at RKO, and Cromwell liked and admired him. He also liked Selznick's approach to Little Lord Fauntleroy. "It appeared to me that the story was so old-fashioned and dated that it could be dangerous material," Cromwell later recalled. "[Selznick] tried to translate what was good in the original story into something acceptable for modern audiences."
Selznick, Cromwell and their cast succeeded in attracting modern audiences. Little Lord Fauntleroy opened in April of 1936 at Radio City Music Hall, to such enthusiastic reviews and large crowds that police had to be called in for crowd control. In his biography of Selznick, film historian David Thomson writes that Little Lord Fauntleroy is "a shameless monster of sentimentality....It might turn your stomach--if you weren't having such a good time. Little Lord Fauntleroy is an unblushing fantasy, made with skill and cunning. That the film was such a hit shows that David Selznick was not the only American who dreamed of being carried back to olde England and the nobility." With Little Lord Fauntleroy, Selznick proved the doubters wrong, and started off his new company with the kind of success that gave it instant credibility.
Producer: David O. Selznick
Director: John Cromwell
Screenplay: Hugh Walpole; Frances Hodgson Burnett (novel)Cinematography: Charles Rosher
Art Direction: Sturges Carne
Music: Max Steiner
Film Editing: Hal C. Kern
Cast: Freddie Bartholomew (Cedric 'Ceddie' Erroll), Dolores Costello Barrymore ('Dearest' Erroll), C. Aubrey Smith (Earl of Dorincourt), Guy Kibbee (Mr. Silas Hobbs), Henry Stephenson (Havisham), Mickey Rooney (Dick Tipton), Constance Collier (Lady Constanzia Lorridale), E.E. Clive(Sir Harry Lorridale), Una O'Connor (Mary), Jackie Searl (Tom Tipton).
by Margarita Landazuri